London ~ Wednesday May 25 2011, page 1
Anti-abortion group drafted in as sexual health adviser to government
Coalition appoints pro-abstinence charity Life to key sexual health forum, while omitting British Pregnancy Advisory Service By Ben Quinn
Abortion has often divided opinions in the UK. (Martin Argles for the Guardian)
A group which is opposed to abortion in all circumstances and favours an abstinence-based approach to sex education has been appointed to advise the government on sexual health.
The Life organisation has been invited to join a new sexual health forum set up to replace the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV.
Stuart Cowie, Life's head of education, said: "We are delighted to be invited into the group, representing views that have not always been around on similar tables in the past."
In contrast, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) has been omitted from the forum despite its long-term position on the previous advisory group and 40-year track record in providing pregnancy counselling nationwide.
"We are disappointed and troubled to learn that having initially been invited to the sexual health forum we have been disinvited, particularly now we understand that Life have been offered a seat at the table," said Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS. "We find it puzzling that the Department of Health would want a group that is opposed to abortion and provides no sexual health services on its sexual health forum."
Cowie said Life would seek to build "common ground" with other members of the panel. "If we can be involved with other people in reducing [the number of abortions], then that fits with our charitable objectives and I don't think is unpalatable to anyone else, regardless of their position on when life begins."
However, Life's support for greater emphasis on abstinence when it comes to sexual education is likely to be one of a number of areas where it will be on a collision course with other members of forum. For example, Life has been critical of literature about contraception distributed by the sexual health charity, Brook. They will sit alongside each other at the forum. Life claimed that teenagers were not being told that condoms only gave partial protection against some STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and little or no protection against others.
Brook's national director, Simon Blake, said its literature was based on clinical evidence, and linked the provision of such information to underlying figures from abortion statistics released on Tuesday which showed a reduction in teenage conceptions despite an overall rise in the number of abortions. The under-18 abortion rate has reduced from 17.6 per 1,000 women in 2009 to 16.5 per 1,000 women in 2010.
Blake said: "Having made such massive progress, what we have to do is sustain that … and not go back to a time when the young had really poor sexual and relationship education and see a rise in teenage pregnancy rates and sexually transmitted infections as a result."
The new committee has held one meeting but Life was not represented. The invitation to the group by Anne Milton, the public health minister, appears to have caught some forum members by surprise.
It could yet open up another area of disagreement within the coalition. The former Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, warned that the organisation's presence could prevent the panel functioning properly. "When you have an organisation campaigning against the law and against current policy on sexual health, which is pro-contraception and about ensuring that abortion is a choice, then the risk is that you prevent the panel being given access to confidential information," he said.
"It can prevent the advisory panel having frank and open discussions because you have a group there that is committed to opposing current policy."
A Department of Health spokesperson said: "To provide balance, it is important that a wide range of interests and views are represented on the forum.
"Marie Stopes International and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service have similar interests. We offered them shared membership but they declined, and after careful consideration we concluded that it was not feasible to invite both organisations."
BPAS asserts that the department withdrew the offer of 'shared membership'.
The forum consists of representatives of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV; the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists; the Association of Directors of Public Health; the British HIV Association; the Terrence Higgins Trust; Brook; the Family Planning Association; the Sex Education Forum and National Children's Bureau; Marie Stopes International; and Life.
The department said the criteria applied in terms of appointments to the group was that the core membership would be drawn from national level organisations with a remit covering sexual health across England. They also had to be able to demonstrate clear evidence of impact in improving sexual health and must have a sufficient infrastructure to be able to field deputies at a senior level in the organisation.
Life also became a founding member last week of a new Sex and Relationships Council, which was launched in parliament with the endorsement of the education secretary, Michael Gove.
The council, which includes the Christian-run pro-abstinence group the Silver Ring Thing, says it aims to bring the voice of what it describes as "value-based, parent centred" sex and relationship education (SRE) providers to policy discussions on the future of SRE in schools.
A total of 189,574 abortions were performed in 2010 – a 0.3% increase on the previous year, the figures released on Tuesday show.
Marie Stopes described the rise as small but warned that the figures sent a warning for the government's family planning strategy.
"There are three key areas that need to be focused on: education, access and choice," it said, calling for the delivery of "comprehensive and standardised sex and relationship education in all schools".
In its response to the figures, the Family Planning Association said: "Clearly there needs to be a much better relationship and tighter integration between local contraceptive and abortion services. Despite the advances, women still live in a postcode lottery. Where you live dictates how quickly you'll get an abortion. This is unacceptable."
Life, which provides its own pregnancy counselling services and describes itself as non-denominational, reacted to the figures by suggesting that a "cooling off" period before abortions could play a role in reducing the number being performed.
Some secular organisations have been growing increasingly worried that Tory ministers are opening up government to the agendas of faith-based and pro-life groups.
Some of the same groups have already been preparing to capitalise on the government's big society agenda, which would potentially allow them to replace secular groups in terms of providing services.
In Richmond, south-west London, the Catholic Children's Society has taken over the £89,000 contract to provide advice to schoolchildren on matters including contraception and pregnancies. Another Christian-run charity, Care Confidential, is involved in providing crisis pregnancy advice under the auspices of Newham PCT in east London. Care's education arm, Evaluate, was one of the founding members, alongside Life, of the Sex and Relationships Council.
Meanwhile in parliament, the battle lines on abortion are set to be drawn again after cross-party amendments to the health and social care bill were put forward by anti-abortion MPs in a bid to tighten the rules on terminations.
The first amendment, put forward by Nadine Dorries and Frank Field, would establish a new precondition for any women having an abortion to receive advice and counselling from an organisation that does not itself carry out terminations.
London ~ Thursday May 26 2011
Say it again: it's our right to choose
By Laurie Penny
Do you believe that a woman who finds herself pregnant against her will should be forced to carry that pregnancy to term? If you find the notion inhumane, you're not alone. Seventy-six per cent of British adults are pro-choice, but that majority consensus is failing to make its voice heard as a barely-elected government allows anti-abortion lobbyists to cram their agenda through parliament.
This week, an anti-choice charity, LIFE, which is opposed to abortion even in cases of rape and incest, has been warmly invited to join a new government advisory group on sexual health. The Department of Health has said LIFE's inclusion on the panel will "provide balance" and ensure that "a wide range of interests and views are represented". No such balance has been sought in the formation of the government's new Sex and Relationships Education Council, launched in Parliament last week by Michael Gove. Every one of the nine "sex and relationship education providers" represented on the council is a faith group endorsing either enforced abstinence, anti-abortion education, or both.
Feminists are right to identify these moves as part of a sustained parliamentary attack on women's sexual and reproductive rights, an attack driven by fundamentalist Christian lobbyists and their tame MPs. Just a few weeks ago, pro-life politicians tabled an amendment that would force women seeking abortion to have counselling first. If passed, the notion that women are psychologically incapable of making decisions about pregnancy would be written into law, despite there being no scientific basis for the myth that abortion causes mental breakdown.
The lobbying process is slow and sinister: those who wish to punish women and girls for having sex and prevent them from making adult choices about their own bodies inveigle their way on to committees and surround tame politicians with their own people: in the UK, pro-life lobbyists fund-raise to provide sympathetic MPs with interns from their organisations. They fight to the make the process of obtaining termination services more and more difficult – in some American states, this sort of mission creep has been so successful that safe medical abortion, while still technically legal, is effectively impossible to access.
These attacks are often dressed up in the language of compassion, cloaked in hand-wringing arguments that women's sexual and reproductive choices need to be confiscated for their own protection. A 10-minute rule Bill that would encourage "abstinence-based" sex education for girls only is billed as "protecting" girls from a dangerous world of "sexualisation". The Bill was tabled by Nadine Dorries MP, who was shown in a 2008 Dispatches documentary nodding and smiling as the spokesperson for a Christian fundamentalist organisation drafted anti-abortion amendments on her behalf.
Abortion rights groups have declared themselves outraged and sexual health charities have expressed their "disappointment", but if we are to protect women's right to sexual and reproductive healthcare in this country, outrage and disappointment will not be enough. Here are the simple arguments that everyone seems shy to make: women are entirely capable of making important decisions about their own bodies. Their right to do so trumps all religious superstitions about the spiritual status of the human foetus; anyone who believes otherwise is perfectly free to decide against abortion should they personally fall pregnant. Finally and most important, it is morally unacceptable to force any person to endure the toil of pregnancy and the pain of labour against their will when we have the medical technology to offer alternatives.
The anti-abortion lobby is an influential and unscrupulous minority, high on a heady cocktail of sexism and superstition. If we are to prevent that lobby from ramming home its agenda, British liberals need to grow a collective backbone. We must stop equivocating, and start making a powerful, ethical case for every woman's right to choose.
Laurie Penny's has just been published by Zero Books
London ~ Thursday May 26 2011, page 12
Labour opposes voice for anti-abortion group on sexual health forum
Yvette Cooper says appointment of Life organisation to panel raises question over ministers' continuing support for abortion By Ben Quinn
The Labour party has said that the appointment of a campaigning anti-abortion group to a new government advisory panel on sexual health raises concerns about whether abortion will continue to have support from ministers in future.
The Life organisation, which is opposed to abortion in all circumstances and favours an abstinence-based approach to sex education, has been invited to join the sexual health forum, the Guardian revealed on Wednesday.
The forum has been set up to replace the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV, which was abolished last year by Anne Milton, the public health minister.
Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary and shadow minister for women and equalities, said on Wednesday: "Many women will be alarmed to hear that an organisation that campaigns against abortion in all circumstances is now advising the government.
"Abortion is legal in this country but the appointment of this group raises a concern about whether that will continue to be supported by ministers in future."
She added: "We know that women don't take decisions about pregnancy and abortion lightly. They will want reassurances from ministers that the appointment of this group does not signal a backwards step in independent advice, proper health support for women and safe access to abortion."
There has also been criticism of the government's decision to omit the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) from the new forum, despite its long-term membership of the previous advisory group.
The Department of Health has justified its decision on the basis that it was important that the forum represented "a wide range of interests".
However, news of the invitation to Life and omission of the BPAS has caused anger. Education for Choice, a pro-choice charity that provides education and training resources, used Twitter on Wednesday to "urge all those with interest in young people's health to write to public health minster Anne Milton to express disapproval".
Lisa Hallgarten, director of Education for Choice, said that sexual health professionals had played a key role advising the government in improving sexual health services in recent years.
Women have particularly benefited from developments including greater investment in contraception and improvements to abortion access, she said.
"It is hard to see how an organisation dedicated to opposing provision of abortion would support these kinds of advances and our main concern would be that Life might seek to obstruct further advances in contraceptive and abortion access or even turn the clock back on some of them," she added.
But the move was welcomed today by the Conservative MP and pro-life campaigner Nadine Dorries, who won backing from MPs this month for a motion proposing that teenage girls must be given lessons in how to say no to sex.
"The news that the government has ejected BPAS from the new sexual health forum and replaced them with the charity Life is pleasing, as it was the right thing to do," she wrote on her blog.
MPs voted 67 to 61, a majority of six, to let Dorries bring forward her bill, which would provide classes in abstinence for girls aged 13 to 16. It will receive its second reading in January, though it is unlikely to become law without government support.
She added: "Journalists who have contacted me have asked the question 'do you agree that this decision was taken quickly, as a result of the success of your 10-minute rule bill calling for abstinence to be included in sex education teaching' and 'do you think the government have been caught off guard by the amount of public support for your bill'? I have no idea, what I do know though is that it is a very good step in the right direction."
The MP has also tabled amendments to the to the health and social care bill to tighten the rules on terminations.
The new sexual health forum also includes representatives from the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV, the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health, the Association of Directors of Public Health and the British HIV Association.
Also on the panel are the Terrence Higgins Trust, sexual health charity Brook, the Family Planning Association, the Sex Education Forum and National Children's Bureau.