The Dorries/Field Amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill

Posted on September 7, 2011

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The amendment tabled by MPs Nadine Dorries and Frank Field to the Health and Social Care Bill has provoked much media controversy. It would hardly be an exaggeration to suggest that this one amendment, among the hundreds proposed, has come altogether to dominate coverage.

To a casual reader of the amendment as tabled it is hard to see how anyone could object. It requires local NHS bodies to provide, ‘independent information, advice and counselling services for women requesting  termination of pregnancy’, where ‘independent’ is taken to mean that these should come from some ‘private body that does not itself provide  for the termination of pregnancies; or a statutory body’.

Anyone who follows Parliamentary business will be aware that Nadine Dorries has previously submitted amendments designed to lower the number of weeks at which abortion is permitted, and that she has also tabled an amendment designed to promote abstinence as part of sexual education within schools. Ms. Dorries has not denied that her desire is to see in due course a fall in the number of abortions carried out. In a House of Commons debate on 2 November 2010 she declared: ‘It is time that we introduced a statutory process of informed consent and a cooling-off period. The European evidence shows that that could provide us with a considerable reduction in the number of abortions, and everyone would surely welcome that.’

What then is the basis of objections raised to the Dorries/Field amendment? Is it that a reduction in numbers of abortions is not actually welcomed?

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), in response to an earlier call for ‘cooling-off’ periods before abortion may be undertaken, asserted that, ‘The creation of a mandatory delay to treatment or “cooling off period” would only serve to delay women accessing treatment’. Critics of the Dorries/Field amendment, such as Zoe Williams of The Guardian, regard accessing advice from an organisation distinct from the abortion provider as a disruption of the abortion process. BPAS holds that a ‘cooling-off’ period would only serve to delay an abortion at a time when a woman is under great stress.

It is, of course, important to recognise the stress suffered by many women in difficult circumstances, but it ought not to be missed that BPAS seemingly regards abortion as all-but-inevitable. It is, in fact, more important not to act with haste while under stress, for panic may undermine a full comprehension of all the issues.

To seek a delay, either through a ‘cooling-off’ period or required advice from a body distinct from the abortion provider, should result in decisions being taken without rashness or panic. As those arguing both for and against the Dorries/Field amendment acknowledge, a reduction of the number of abortions undertaken will almost certainly result if the amendment passes. Women, when given time and opportunity to reflect, are much less likely to go ahead with abortion. Objectors to the amendment seem to be happy with the status quo, with the annual number of abortions in the region of 200,000 since 2006, and with 34% of all abortions in the UK last year being for women who had previously had one or more.

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