Abortion counselling ban in UK could affect Irish women


PLANS TO ban British abortion clinics from giving counselling – which were blocked last year but which have now resurfaced – could cause major problems for Irish women, an agency has warned.

Last September the Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition blocked a House of Commons attempt by Conservative MP Nadine Dorries that would have barred bodies such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and Marie Stopes International from providing counselling to women. Instead, they would have had to send the women for independent counselling.

The amendment was blocked following a furious row between pro-choice and anti-abortion campaigners and senior Conservatives and Liberal Democrats ministers, since the latter were, and remain, strongly opposed to such a change.

Now, however, it has emerged that the British department of health has nearly finished a consultation paper that includes the referral ban as one of three identified options.

Last night Mara Clarke, director of the Abortion Support Network, a volunteer-run organisation that provides financial assistance and accommodation to Irish women who travel to Britain for abortions, rejected the suggestion that staff in clinics such as Marie Stopes pressure women to have terminations. Independent counselling would “only add to the numerous obstacles” facing Irish women, since many of them already have to meet the costs of the abortion, travel and childcare while they are away, she said.

Restrictions were “most likely to adversely impact poorer women, single mothers and other more vulnerable women who are less able to travel over to England for extended periods of time and cover the costs of childcare, multiple appointments and additional overnight stays”, she said.

The paper is to be published later year and the public will be invited to comment on it, the Department of Health in London said last evening.

Besides an outright counselling ban, or leaving the rules as they are, the paper also suggests the option of a voluntary register that would require crisis pregnancy bodies of any kind to ensure their counsellors meet minimum standards.

Meanwhile, strains have grown within a small cross-party group of MPs in the House of Commons which has met privately on the proposals for months, because of disagreements over whether agencies should be required to reveal their ethical attitude to abortion clearly to women when they give advice.

In turn, pro-choice MPs have argued that abortion clinics, which are paid by the National Health Service if the woman qualifies for such treatment, should have to declare their financial interest in carrying out abortions.

Meanwhile, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority has ruled that private clinics providing abortion should be allowed to advertise on TV and radio, despite the unhappiness of the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt. Not-for-profit organisations such as Marie Stopes are already allowed to advertise, but Marie Stopes has been the only one to do so. Two years ago, one of its adverts attracted 4,500 complaints.

However, Dr Dan Boucher of Christian charity Care said: “The idea that abortions should be freely advertised on TV along with toothpaste and breakfast cereal says something very sad about the way in which the values of our consumer culture, of acquiring and disposing, are penetrating our way of life generally, even our approach to life itself.”