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.

Jun 13, 2011

No seriously, where *are* the women?

In this week’s Guardian books podcast, Sarah Crown asked Orange Prize winner Téa Obreht whether it felt “limiting not to be competing with men”. Because, you know, the competition wouldn’t have been as fierce among “just” women. Cause they’re like, worse writers, innit. Just ask VS Naipaul. No, to really prove one’s chops, one should strive to compete against men, without all this “positive discrimination” stuff.

Well, you know, it turns out that the majority of books reviewed in newspapers and magazines are written by men. And the vast majority of the reviewers are – you guessed it – men. But this men-writing-about-how-jolly-good-men-are business is not as “positive discrimination”. Nope, that little private club is all just handy dandy and above board. It’s only when women seek to circumnavigate the cosy unofficial “cultural femicide”, as Bidisha calls it, that we saunter into an ethical problem, or even just one of professional credibility.

It reminded me of Richard Dawkins writing in The Ancestor’s Tale (boring book, pretty pictures) about how spurious and wicked racism is. Really, brays Dawkins, any simpleton can see that discriminating on the grounds of race is evil; but surely we do not need to compound the harm by taking any steps to rectify it that are as radical as the original discrimination! By all means, condemn racism, object to it, look down you white-dude scientific nose at it, but whatever you do, don’t actually do anything about it, or God, sorry, Dawkins, knows where we’d end up!

To which I say: meh. Meh to the idea that I’m so stupid that I’ll accept Hilary Lawson’s feeble excuses for running a cultural festival with 26% female representation. Meh to Start the Week with Andrew Marr, who still only ever have one woman on their panel each week. Meh to the notion that women being excluded from competing against men in sports events is "proof" that they would fail if they tried. Meh to those who think I can’t do the maths and arrive at a number bigger than what it currently is – in the arts, on the radio, in academia, in government – when I know that more women graduate from university, more women write and publish books, more women work in the various arts & culture institutions; there seem to be more women everywhere these days, in fact, except at the top.

And, well, y’know what? That’s just bee oh are ay en gee boring at this stage. Enough with pretending that  old white men like Dawkins and Roth have anything left to say about the world that a thousand old white men haven’t said already. I am just not that into them anymore. This isn’t even really political, but a genuine lack of interest in the same old points of view, endlessly rehashed. Unlike Dawkins though, I do want something done about it, and fast (before I expire of ennui, frankly). So I’m going to the “Where Are The Women?” follow up event and planning meeting tonight, to talk to smart women about what we can do to improve the scenery in our cultural landscape. Be afraid, old white dudes; be very afraid. :)

Oh and hey, Sarah Crown? That was a really, really stupid question. Really.