Abortion providers alarmed over counselling plans

Government plans for women to receive compulsory counselling ‘independently’ will delay treatments, charities say

Charities which provide abortions could be stripped of their ability to also counsel women, under plans being considered by the government.

Measures which would mean women must be referred to an “independent” organisation for counselling were being considered, said the Department of Health (DoH).

The announcement has sparked alarm among abortion providers who warned the change would delay women accessing the treatment they needed and insisted there was no evidence that the current system was not working.

Charities including the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) and Marie Stopes offer the compulsory counselling women must undertake before they make a decision on termination.

Pro-choice advocates expressed alarm at the announcement, which came after two anti-abortion MPs called for amendments to the health and social care bill that would strip abortion providers of their counselling role. There are concerns that faith-based groups with strong anti-abortion positions could step in and win contracts to provide the counselling in place of the charities.

Conservative MP Nadine Dorries and Labour MP Frank Field propose that counselling would have to be provided either by a statutory body or a private organisation that does not itself provide abortions.

The DoH statement appears to hold out the possibility that the MPs’ proposals could become a reality without the need for a vote in parliament.

A spokesman said: “The Department of Health wants women who are thinking about having an abortion to be able to have independent counselling. However, we do not believe it is necessary to set out this requirement in primary legislation as the necessary legal mechanisms already exist to enable this.

“We are inviting interested parties to meet with the public health minister, Anne Milton, and Department of Health officials to discuss the matter.”

The development comes after the Guardian revealed last month that the government had drafted in an anti-abortion organisation, Life, to sit on a new sexual health forum. At the same time, BPAS was omitted from the forum, which will have a role in helping to draft sexual health strategy.

Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS, said: “We are extremely concerned to learn that the Department of Health is reviewing care pathways for women considering abortion and looking into a ban on counselling by abortion providers.

“This appears to be in response to calls from the MPs Nadine Dorries and Frank Field for women with unplanned pregnancies to be ‘independently’ counselled, a move they hope will reduce the number of abortions.

“In recent years, delays for women in need of abortion care have been reduced significantly and last year nearly 80% of procedures took place within the first 10 weeks of pregnancy.”

“Pregnancy Advisory Bureaux (PABx) run by charities like BPAS that offer abortion are already licensed and regulated by the Secretary of State, and must conform to a core set of principles regarding the information and counselling.”

Tracey McNeill, vice president and director UK and west Europe for Marie Stopes, said: “We should be focusing on how abortion counselling is delivered and not by who. What is essential is that we ensure women get comprehensive and unbiased information. As a service provider, our advice line ‘OneCall’ speaks with 500,000 people a year who repeatedly tell us how valuable it has been to talk to our impartial and non-judgemental counsellors.”

Diane Abbott, the shadow minister for public health, accused the government of planning to undertake “sweeping changes” without a proper debate and proper scrutiny in parliament.

“I am deeply concerned that nobody has voted for this. I think the way the government is going about these changes, behind closed doors and without discussion with women and in parliament is showing arrogant disregard for millions of women and families across the country,” she said.

“If the government wants to change this, the public must be given a say, and parliament must be given a vote.”

Dorries used her blog to welcome the ministry’s statement, which she described as a direct response to the amendment laid down by her and Field.

She said: “Legislation is required to prevent abortion providers establishing subsidiary counselling organisations in order to circumnavigate the new requirement.

“The statement sets out the objective to remove the financial vested interests of the abortion provider and the provision of counselling. The statement also states that primary legislation is not necessary to achieve this outcome. If this is the case, why hasn’t this happened before now?

“My intention is for vulnerable women to have access to the best possible care as quickly as possible. For counselling to be optional, independent and to present no delay whatsoever to the abortion process.”