Jun 29, 2011

Tell the DoH not to change abortion rules without a vote

As some of you may have heard, back in March Nadine Dorries MP and Frank Field MP proposed an amendment to the Helath Bill that will ban sexual health charities that also provide abortion, like BPAS and Marie Stopes International, from offering counselling to their patients, presumably on the grounds that they have a "conflict of interest" of some sort (this despite the fact that they are both not for profit organisations).

Whether because the Bill itself seems to have been kicked into the long grass, or because they think getting the amendment past the Lords is unlikely, Dorries and Field have been trying to get the DoH to make the desired changes to the law without actually changing the law - i.e. without a vote in Parliament. Yesterday, the DoH have announced that they are considering doing just that.

I've written a letter to Anne Milton, Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Public Health, to ask her to urgently clarify and - more importantly - justify such a presumption about the abortion providers and the decision to circumvent Parliament in changing the rules governing their services. 

I'd really encourage you to write to her too, to disprove Nadine Dories's disingenuous claims on her blog that this amendment has "huge public support". Whehter you are passionately pro-choice or not, we all have a vested interest in making sure that the DoH can't meddle in our medical choices without so much as a democratic by-your-leave. Feel free to reuse or edit my letter, or simply let me know and I will add your name as a signatory to the bottom of it.

Here is the letter itself:

Anne Milton MP
House of Commons

Dear Ms Milton,
I read with concern about plans by the Department of Health to make changes to the rules for provision of counselling to abortion patients, without seeking the approval of Parliament on this sensitive issue.
As you are doubtless aware, counselling is already available from the NHS, as well as charities such as BPAS and Marie Stopes. Such counselling is confidential, unbiased, medically informed and focused on the wellbeing of the woman. It is, moreover, independent – of government interference, religious and political lobbying, or the fickle mood swings of the media.
It is therefore unclear what the DoH spokesperson means when they say, as was reported by the Associated Press yesterday, that “The Department of Health wants women who are thinking about having an abortion to be able to have independent counselling”. 
I urge you to clarify at the very nearest opportunity what is meant by the term “independent” in this context.
1.      If it is the case that the DoH considers there to be a conflict of interest between the provision of a medical service and counselling related to the medical condition that leads to is, it is incumbent upon it to provide evidence for such a belief.
a.      It is also strongly in the public interest that other such conflicts of interest are examined; e.g. cancer counselling within the NHS, Health Visitor’s advice on children’s health to parents etc.
2.      If a presumption is growing within the DoH that the NHS – or any body providing a medical service, including for-profit firms/hospitals commissioned by the NHS currently or in future – cannot be seen as an honest broker in provision of mental support and counselling to its patients, this is a grave concern of the utmost urgency for public confidence in both the NHS and the DoH.
3.      If, however, these proposed change, whatever they may be, are restricted only to the provision of abortion, impacting on the health and wellbeing of women, then special pleading is necessary to explain to the public
a.      why not-for-profit organisations offering abortion are deemed less disinterested than other healthcare providers
b.      why women considering abortion are seen as more vulnerable than medical patients considering other procedures.
4.      Furthermore, it is incumbent upon the DoH to publish, with all possible alacrity, the guidelines for licensing pre-abortion counselling services to any organisations other than the likes of BPAS and Marie Stopes. The public, once alerted to concerns in this area, will be anxious to know
a.      how such counselling services will be commissioned and licensed in future;
b.      what medical knowledge and expertise in the field of sexual health and effective contraception commissioned bodies will be required to demonstrate;
c.      how such providers will be regulated and quality controlled;
d.      what safeguards will be put in place against admitting, under the umbrella of counselling, organisations whose aims are only to prevent women from accessing abortion, rather than making the most psychologically and physically appropriate choices for their own and their families’ wellbeing.
I look forward to a clarifying statement released in the nearest possible future, copied to the press offices of BPAS, Marie Stopes, The Fawcett Society and the Terrence Higgins Trust, and openly circulated in the mainstream media.


  1. I've also submitted a request to the DoH asking them to answer a number of questions about the plans, and requesting that they treat the enquiry as a freedom of information request. Some, for example on the matter of safeguards, cover similar ground to yours.

    My experience of trying to get reasonable answers from the department in question is not very positive - but I will share anything worthwhile that comes out of it.

  2. Thank you - I will also post updates on anything I hear back.

  3. I'll sign it. You can also sign it under the name of my alter-ego "Alex Salmond, MSP"

  4. LOL, I think I might just leave him off for the moment. But thank you.

  5. Sign me up! xx

  6. I'd love to sign this, if you haven't sent it off yet? I can send my address too, if that's useful?

    Elena Findley-de Regt

  7. But of course! I'm only putting people's city/town on, not full address. Thanks, Elena. :)

  8. Please add me to the list

    Olivia Short / Skelmersdale, Lancs

  9. I'll sign it too, thanks for writing. It would be good to promote this on facebook or a fb group.

    Claire Lockie

  10. Lila: thank you, I have.

    Claire: thank you too! Would you mind sharing your town/city with me, just to add credibility to the letter?

    Re: FB group, I've publicized this on a few that I'm a member of, but setting one up is more time and trouble than I can spare right now. However if you want to set one up, feel free to use the title of this post as a name, I license it willingly. :) Or just, you know, post it on your FB and send all your friends over.

  11. Please sign me up if you haven't already sent this - Miriam Miller, London.

  12. Thank you Miriam - I hope to have 50 names by tomorrow, and send it out by the late post. Got 36 including yourself, so not doing at all badly! :)

  13. Please sign my name too - Adrian Ogden, Reading.

  14. Done - thanks Adrian. Also, hello! *waves*

  15. Please sign my name under this brilliantly written letter, thank you. Am looking forward to her response.

    Alessandra Berti, Bristol

  16. Thanks Alessandra. :) It occurrs to me that with so many people supporting this, I should really change the "I" in the letter to "we"!

  17. I agree 'we' is good! But fair play for writing the letter, it is succinctly yet eloquently written. Add me

    Katie Richards, Bristol

  18. Please sign me up too - Can Sönmez, Bristol.

  19. Great letter - sign me up and will spread the word. Is there a cutoff date?Elizabeth Head

  20. Thanks Elizabeth, yours was the last name to be added. :)

  21. Hi Marina - I said up at the top of the thread that I'd share any response I got back from the DoH and it follows below. As well as submitting this I also sent an adapted copy of your excellent letter to Anne Milton (on the grounds that individualising it a bit often makes these things more effective) - however, nothing but a deafening silence there.

    - - - - -

    The Department of Health is aware of Frank Field's and Nadine Dorries' concerns and Anne Milton recently met with them to discuss this issue.

    The Department is drawing up proposals to enable all women who are seeking an abortion to be offered access to independent counselling. The Department would want the counselling to be provided by appropriately qualified individuals. Independent counselling will focus on enabling a woman to make a decision that would benefit her overall health and wellbeing.

    Independent counselling will be for those women who choose to have it and will not be mandatory. Full proposals are still being worked up within the Department of Health and it is therefore unable to provide detailed answers while this process takes place.

  22. Thanks - I've seen a few responses from the DoH now (and had one myself - will blog it shortly), but zip, nada, zilch from Milton.

    In general the tone of the responses is encouraging. The thing that worries me though is this:

    " Independent counselling will focus on enabling a woman to make a decision that would benefit her overall health and wellbeing."

    That dangerously conflates counselling and advice. Counsellors should categorically NOT be helping women reach any decisions; counselling is for when a woman has reached a decision, or is struggling to reach a decision, and is in need of emotional support. The idea that counsellors will be "helping" women to decide whether to proceed with a termination or not is a really disquieting blurring of responsibilities. If you have the energy, it's be great to go back to the DoH and make this point. I'm planning to, anyway.

    Thanks again, Mx.