Talking Politics

Anti-abortion extremists are in the heart of government

There are very few things which Andrew Lansley does well, so it should come as no surprise that reasoning and sincerity can be added to his list of failures

The health secretary, fresh from breaking several NHS eggs and failing to make an omelette, decided to distract the media with a meaty abortion story last month. Out of nowhere he demanded the supposedly-independent Care Quality Commission (CQC) drop what it was doing and carry out spot checks on abortion clinics.

Six hundred routine inspections of hospitals and care homes had to be cancelled. The interruption to its scheduled activities cost it £1 million and the equivalent of 1,100 working days.

Sinister motives lurked behind this PR campaign. Before the CQC could reveal its findings, the Department of Health was on the phone to the BBC and the Telegraph bragging about a major investigation into abortion.

A handful of private and NHS clinics had been found to have been breaking the law by allowing doctors to pre-sign consent forms on abortion. No fault was found with independent providers BPAS or Marie Stopes but the Department of Health press release focused on them anyway. Nadine Dorries - who surfs on the waves Lansley creates with a much more explicit anti-abortion message - quickly took to the airwaves demanding the resignation of BPAS chief executive Ann Furedi.

Government statements gave the game away. The Department of Health and the Care Quality Commission would work to "examine compliance" with the 1967 Act "in order to inform the planned revision of the Procedures for the Approval of Independent Abortion Providers".

On the say he failed to appear in the Commons to launch a health policy on alcohol (a task handed to the home secretary) Lansley was able to give a statement to the press. "I am shocked and appalled to learn that some clinics — which look after women in what are often difficult circumstances — may be allowing doctors to pre-sign abortion certificates," he said.

BPAS responded: "Mr Lansley says he is shocked and appalled by the practices he has uncovered. BPAS is shocked and appalled that Mr Lansley has found it necessary to inform journalists of alleged breaches of the abortion law before he has informed those responsible for providing the services that have been investigated, and before the investigation is concluded."

This is a fait accompli, being stage-managed to create a narrative.

The CQC inspected 329 service providers. It found some pre-signing of forms, but "significantly lower" than the over-50 figure cited by the media. Journalists had associated the figure for total breaches — some of them very minor — with the most serious breaches.

The report then justifies Lansley's investigations of reproductive health clinics, the next stage in this cynical process. For him, it's just the latest effort. While in opposition he voted to reduce the time limit on abortion to 22 weeks.

Dorries operates from the backbenches. She issued a well-publicised amendment last year demanding independent counselling for women attending independent abortion providers - itself a grotesque act of disrespect to women during a uniquely vulnerable moment in their life. The Department of Health agreed to act on her proposals, despite her making a bizarre, frantic speech to the Commons and roundly losing the vote.

Make no mistake: abortion rights are under attack. Extremist Tory backbenchers and sympathetic ministers are pushing to debate in way we haven't seen since the aftermath of the 1967 Act.

For supporters of women's rights, the best defence is offence.

In the aftermath of the 'report', Dorries tweeted: "Time to bring '67 Abortion Act to parliament to be debated and redrafted to deal with number of illegal abortions which take place every day."

She does not go far enough. The Abortion Act does not need redrafting. It should be replaced with a new Act, which enshrines in law a women's right to have an abortion.

Under the 1967 Act, two registered medical practitioners must sign off that the continuation of the pregnancy would "injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman". It is one of the ironies of British history that when the law was passed its conservative opponents were actually correct. They said this was not a gradualist change, that it would open the flood gates to what would be, for all intents and purposes, the legalisation of abortion. They were entirely right.

We have lived in a status quo which the pro-choice lobby tolerated so as not to rock the boat. The driving political pressure was towards limiting abortion — cutting down the time limit or enforcing new counselling on women from suspect groups. Women's rights groups have ended up defending a system which is manifestly unacceptable. Abortion should not be legal to protect a woman's mental health. It should be legal because a woman — not the state and certainly not deranged religious crusaders - owns her body.

The fact doctors were pre-signing consent forms does not show the law needs to be rigorously enforced. It shows that on the ground people are finding ways around an archaic piece of legislation.

All that should be required for abortions is a standard informed consent form of the type used for any medical or surgical procedure. Trained nurses should be able to prescribe the medical abortion pill in a doctor's surgery. Women should be able to take the second pill at home. Most importantly, the law should enshrine the right to an abortion in its own right, as its own moral good — not as a harm prevention measure.

Pro-choice campaigners have been on the back foot for too long, desperately trying to stop their opponents getting one in the back of the net. Defence only lasts you so long when all the momentum is coming from the opposite direction. It's time to be pro-active and drive the agenda back the other way. It's time to campaign for a woman's right to choose.

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