Posted on 14th February 2014

Abortion is an emotive subject, regardless of political persuasion. It is one of the few issues that genuinely has the ability to polarise opinion, with neither side likely to be persuaded to the other’s point of view.

Fortunately this country has not yet gone down the American route with abortion being played out as a party political issue. Generally, MPs are given a free vote on topics surrounding the issue with party leaders recognising that the whip could be difficult to enforce on an area dominated by personal views.

Recently, concern has grown that women attending at certain abortion clinics have been given incorrect advice and, in effect, counselling to persuade them to keep the unborn foetus.

In 2011 amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill (now an Act dated 2012) were proposed that would strip non-statutory abortion providers from offering counselling. The proposals were that:

 “A local authority must make available to women requesting termination of pregnancy from any clinical commissioning group the option of receiving independent information, advice and counselling. In this paragraph, information, advice and counselling are independent where they are provided by either a private body that does not itself refer, provide or have any financial interest in providing for the termination of pregnancies, or a statutory body.”

The purpose was to encourage women seeking an abortion to receive advice independent of the abortion provider. This provision was defeated.

Is it time to revisit the issue and try to pass such a law? In my opinion, yes.

Those against any form of counselling point to the political agenda behind clinics that advocate counselling.

At present, any clinic offering abortion services does not have to provide any form of counselling. Under the Abortion Act 1967 two doctors have to agree that the abortion is in the woman’s best interests and that continuing with the pregnancy would put the woman at a greater risk than termination. A termination may only be carried out during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy, but in rare situations may be carried out after this date if:

  • it is necessary to save the woman’s life,
  • prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the woman,
  • or if there is substantial risk that if the child were born he or she would have physical or mental abnormalities so as to be seriously handicapped.

A doctor can decline to certify a woman for an abortion if they have a moral objection to it, but they must then recommend a doctor who would be willing to help.

Most abortions are funded by the NHS, but you may have to pay for an abortion at a private clinic. Some women prefer this option as it means they do not have to be referred by their local GP. Private clinics offer counselling, but they are not under any duty to make a person attend; they must simply comply with the statutory requirements of ensuring two doctors agree with the termination. Where counselling is offered, there is no statutory framework in place ensuring the advice is neutral.

The Telegraph recently carried out an undercover investigation into this issue. They reported that counsellors at two Crisis Pregnancy Centres (independent clinics which provide advice to women considering termination) gave advice that abortion could lead to serious damage to a woman’s health, which included an increased risk of breast cancer. The Telegraph also reported the findings of research carried out by the sexual health charity Brook, which stated that a further 36 Crisis Pregnancy Centres provided “misleading information or attempted to emotionally manipulate” women.

Those against counselling of this kind fear that encouraging a woman to go through with a pregnancy she does not want, even if giving the baby up for adoption, can lead to long term mental and physical repercussions.

Those in favour of counselling suggest that women considering an abortion ought to be given all of the options; they should be told about adoption, as well as the potential physical and mental side effects of termination to ensure that the decision they make is an informed one.

A centre offering termination advice ought to be carefully regulated. Ultimately, abortion has to be an individual’s choice, but that choice should be an informed one.

In my opinion, full regulation would require all abortion providers to be neutral in terms of the pro-life/pro-choice debate. Any clinic purporting to offer any form of termination service should be required by law to act only in the interest of the patient and not advocate one choice over another. The providers could offer a termination service, but this would be funded by the NHS, thus removing the encouragement of profit.

A woman should, by law, be informed of all of her options, from termination to adoption, and the pros and cons of both (including the medical and mental side effects) to ensure that she makes an informed choice. If termination providers were agenda negative this could be offered by them, rather than having an independent third party offer the service. Counselling ought to be available, but only to assist a woman after she has made a decision and then to assist her with the repercussions of that decision. Moreover there ought to be regular reviews from a body such as the Care Quality Commission to ensure that no woman is being advised to act in one particular way.

Only with full regulation can we ensure that a woman genuinely is free to choose.

Written by Michelle Heeley, Barrister at No5 Chambers. This article was written for Halsbury’s Law Exchange, a legal think tank hosted by Lexis Nexis.

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