Diane leads Labour during House of Commons abortion debate

07 Sep 2011
Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): The decision to seek an abortion may be the most serious and difficult that many women face in their lives, and I think it deserves some seriousness and calm in this debate.

For nearly five decades, this House has been in agreement that abortion and matters related to it should be above mere party and partisan politics. For nearly five decades, there has been a settled pro-choice majority in this House and in the country, and for nearly five decades the House has believed that when Members of all parties have religious or ethical objections to abortion, their right to vote against it should be absolutely respected. However, this amendment is not about that. It is a shoddy, ill-conceived attempt to promote non-facts to make a non-case.

Several hon. Members rose —

Ms Abbott: I am afraid that we are an hour into an hour-and-a-half debate, and I am anxious to allow time for other Members to speak.

The case that the amendment is intended to make is that tens of thousands of women every year are either not getting counselling that they request, or are getting counselling that is so poor that only new legislation can remedy the situation. I might say, after many years in the House, that in matters of this kind, if legislation is the answer we have almost certainly asked the wrong question.

The amendment is the opposite of evidence-based policy making. We know that the British Medical Association advises its members:

“A decision to terminate a pregnancy is never an easy one. In making these decisions, patients and doctors should ensure that the decision is supported by appropriate information and counselling about the options and implications.”

We know that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists guidance on abortion states:

“Women should be given counselling according to their need—including post-abortion if she needs it. All women should be offered standalone counselling. The counselling should include: implications counselling (aims to enable the person concerned to understand the…course of action…); support counselling (aims to give emotional support in times of particular stress) and therapeutic counselling (aims to help people with the consequences of their decision and to help them resolve problems which may arise as a result)”.

We know that Department of Health regulations state:

“Counselling must be offered to women who request or appear to need help in deciding on the management of the pregnancy or who are having difficulty in coping emotionally”.

We also know that all the clinics that have been discussed in the debate are inspected and regulated.

Yet the proposers of the amendment are asking us to believe, on the basis of purely anecdotal evidence, that tens of thousands of doctors, nurses and charity workers involved in the 190,000 abortions a year are wilfully ignoring both the law and the guidance of the British Medical Association and the Royal Colleges. They go further than that, arguing that tens of thousands of doctors, nurses and charity workers are merely in it for the money. They imply that those men and women are involved in some sort of grotesque piecework. It is almost as though they were paid per abortion. The

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proposers of the amendment, I might add, also seem to be arguing that thousands of women do not actually know what they are doing. It tells us something about the validity of their claims that they are obliged to smear tens of thousands of doctors and nurses to make any kind of case. No wonder that a journalist for

The Sunday Times

—no friend of the liberal left, but one who happens to have served as a lay member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists—last weekend described the amendments as a “senseless and sinister bid” to cut abortions.

Mr Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): I agree with my hon. Friend. Any evidence that we have heard has been anecdotal—we have heard of a 16-year-old’s journey and of e-mails that hon. Members have seen but that I have not. However, my hon. Friend makes a real point. The conclusion of the consultation might be that a termination takes place, but this is the only procedure in this country that requires the informed consent of two doctors. Government Members besmirch doctors by saying that such things happen daily, but that is not true. From my nine years on the General Medical Council, I recognise that we have good ethical guidelines for doctors. Nothing is done without the informed consent of two medical practitioners.

Ms Abbott: My right hon. Friend makes an excellent point.

Several hon. Members rose —

Ms Abbott: I would be more willing to give way were we not so far advanced in a debate that will last for only an hour and a half. I was not aware that so many Back Benchers wanted to contribute, because they have not hitherto tried to intervene.

Some colleagues have expressed their surprise that yet again we are discussing women’s reproductive rights in this House, but they should not be surprised. Abortion has never stood on its own as a technical issue; it is part of a century-long debate about women’s sexuality, womens’s rights and women’s freedoms. Sadly, for some people that is apparently still contested ground in 2011. Some even argue that the proposals are best seen as part of a wider push on the socially conservative agenda that has been so successful for right-wing politicians in America. Thankfully, in this country, that agenda has come up against a determination to keep such issues above party politics, the absence of a Fox News pumping out socially conservative propaganda 24 hours a day and British common sense.

I could say many things on the lack of an evidence base behind the amendments, but let me say this: women—both individual women and women in general—have been called in aid in this debate, and indeed they face very real problems in this society, here in 2011. They face spiralling unemployment as a direct consequence of the coalition’s policies and the sexualisation of our culture, which affects younger and younger female children—[ Interruption. ] I hope that hon. Members listen to this, because it is a point that many mothers and fathers will understand. Too many young women in communities up and down the country think that the only road to fame and fortune is to pump their bottom and their breasts full of silicone and tout themselves as

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some sort of media celebrity. Another issue is the number of very young women who have been badly parented, who have children too young and who, with all their good intentions, parent their own children badly in turn. Even in an era of financial constraint, those are the issues that this House should be addressing.

Nobody is saying that arrangements in relation to counselling cannot be improved. I believe that the hon. Member for Cambridge (Dr Huppert) has tabled a good amendment to that effect, which some of us hope finds favour in another place. However, the Bill and the amendment are not appropriate for a full and careful debate on abortion. The amendments deal with matters that are amply covered by existing law and regulations.

Mark Pritchard rose—

Dr Daniel Poulter (Central Suffolk and North Ipswich) (Con) rose—

Ms Abbott: I shall give way to the hon. Member for Central Suffolk and North Ipswich (Dr Poulter).

Dr Poulter: The hon. Lady is making an excellent speech and has outlined the fact that there is adequate provision for counselling in the status quo. Doctors, nurses and other medical professionals who must deal with such situations every day have adequate measures in place, as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has outlined. They do not look only at the medical consultation, but at the whole patient, as we have heard. If that means that counselling is required, they will ensure that their patient gets it. Does she agree that this is not the place for the amendment, which serves no purpose, and that we need to get on and debate the Bill?

Ms Abbott: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, who is, of course, a practising doctor who knows a great deal more about these matters than many of us in the House.

As hon. Members have heard, the amendments deal with matters that are amply covered by existing law and regulations that are well known to doctors and nurses. They deal with matters that must, at the end of the day, be between a woman and a doctor. I deprecate the extent to which amendment 1 is an attempt to import American sensationalism, confrontation and politicisation into these issues in a way that will be of no benefit to ordinary women.

There is no evidence base for the amendments, and on the basis of all the recent polls there is no substantive support for amendments of this nature. Legislation addressing the issues raised by Government Members is already in place. This House should have more respect for the medical profession and for the vulnerable women who put themselves forward for abortion in one of the most difficult periods in their lives, rather than support an amendment of this nature, which is spurious and baseless. I urge the House emphatically to reject the amendment.

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