Abortion law changes defeated in UK parliament

A bid to slow down the abortion process has suffered a crushing rejection from British MPs. Even modest changes to the law provoke a fiery and passionate response.

After a heated debate, politicians have rejected proposed changes to the UK's rules on abortion, which would have prevented abortion providers from also offering counselling for women with unwanted pregnancies.

The aim of the proposal from Conservative MP Nadine Dorries was to change the way women are offered advice when considering abortion.

At the moment, argues Dorries, there is too little independent counselling available for women facing what might be the hardest and most painful decision of their lives. She believes that women and girls facing the trauma of unwanted pregnancy are often rushed into abortion. She says that with better counselling on offer, the number of abortions per year in Britain might go down.

Most controversially, she believes that charities which carry out abortions are offering biased counselling and advice. These charities, she says, have a financial interest in carrying out abortions, for which they are paid by the NHS. The more abortions charities perform, the more income they receive.

This accusation is bitterly disputed. For one thing, charities are forbidden from making profit, so have little incentive to raise incomes. For another, there is no evidence that advice from abortion charities is biased – the proposed changes would have taken away their ability to give advice based on a completely unsubstantiated accusation.

At no point did Dorries challenge the fundamental legality of abortion. Her proposals were very limited: to ban abortion charities from giving counselling and to make sure counselling would be offered to anyone seeking an abortion. At the moment, counselling is only offered to those who ask for it.

But these 'modest proposals', as supporters called them, provoked a passionate response. Dorries was accused of 'sexism', and of trying to damage women's rights. She received a flood of hostile letters, and even death threats, from the public. In the end, MPs voted against Dorries by 368 votes to 118.

Clashing principles

Why did things get so heated? Because the dry technical details of counselling rules conceal a fundamental difference of principle. At root, Dorries and her allies believe abortion is too easy, too fast and too frequent. They want to encourage more thought and deliberation in the hope that some who seek abortion may be persuaded to change their minds.

That is precisely what Dorries' opponents fear. They warn that vulnerable young women could be bullied into going through with unwanted pregnancies by counselling groups with a hidden anti-abortion or religious agenda. The decision to terminate a pregnancy, they say, belongs to the woman alone, and should be respected, not questioned.

You Decide

  1. Should women be encouraged – or even compelled – to accept counselling before getting an abortion?
  2. Why do you think abortion provokes such strong feelings? What are the fundamental principles that guide people's opinions on this issue?

Activities

  1. The UK has an unusually high rate of teenage pregnancy. Write three different, short 'life stories' for a pregnant young woman after she decides to take three different options: having her baby and keeping it, having her baby and giving it up for adoption, or having an abortion.
  2. The heart of this week's debate has been the question of who should be allowed to give abortion advice. Who would you entrust with the task if you were an MP? Would you exclude, for example, religious groups? Abortion providers? Non-accredited counsellors? Explain your reasons.

Some People Say...

“No one should make such big decisions on their own.”

What do you think?

Q & A

When did abortion become legal in the UK?
In 1967. Before then, women with unwanted pregnancies often visited illegal backstreet abortionists. Unregulated procedures often caused injuries, infertility or death.
That's terrible!
It was a big factor behind changing the law. Abortions were going to continue whether legally or not. At least if abortions were legal fewer women would die in the process – that was the logic.
And what are the rules now?
Before the 24th week of pregnancy, women in the UK can get an abortion if there is a risk to their physical or mental health from carrying the baby to full term. Even after the 24th week, abortions can be carried out if necessary to avoid serious permanent injury to the mother.

Word Watch

Financial interest
An 'interest' in this context means 'a stake' in something. An 'interested party' is someone who stands to gain or lose from a transaction. 'Disinterested', which is often used to mean 'bored', really means 'not an interested party'.
Modest proposals
The original 'modest proposal' was a satirical pamphlet by the humourist Jonathan Swift. He proposed, sarcastically, that Ireland could solve its twin problems of famine and overpopulation by eating babies. His aim was to expose the cruelty of Ireland's English overlords.
Religious agenda
Opposition to abortion is often, but not always, associated with religious feeling. Many religions teach that all abortion is wrong.

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