Marge Berer: Another anti-abortion missionary

Punch-drunk on power after his success at sticking up two fingers to the entire health profession at the passage of the Health & Social Care bill in Parliament last week, Andrew Lansley has apparently found a new mission—to harass doctors and clinics who provide abortions, both in the private sector which he otherwise seems to love so much, and in the NHS, whose death knell he has just sounded.

His first target was abortion counselling. Despite parliament’s outright rejection of an attempt by Nadine Dorries MP to change abortion counselling regulations, the Department of Health went fishing for evidence of wrongdoing by non-NHS abortion clinics. It has sought (ironically) to problematise counselling by independent service providers as being linked to profit. After a great deal of fuss and bother, and no evidence of wrongdoing emerging, a consultation on the future of abortion counselling was announced. We await the questions with bated breath, now that the next phase of what is beginning to look like a longer-term campaign against abortion providers has begun to emerge.

The next media splurge, thanks to the Daily Telegraph, centred around several extremely short, ambiguous video clips, purporting to show two young doctors authorising illegal abortions on grounds of sex selection. These were obtained clandestinely and in violation of a number of key aspects of the Ethical Code of Practice of the Press Complaints Commission, violations that one might have expected a Secretary of State for Health to be appalled and shocked about. He was not. Instead, he seemed to be waiting and ready to use the “full force of the law” (his words) against anyone found violating the Abortion Act.

The lack of understanding of the terms of the 1967 Abortion Act that emerged from this—of what was and was not an illegal abortion under the Act—was breathtaking. And please note in case you missed my last blog, that so-called sex selective abortion as such is neither legal nor illegal under the Act. Yet the GMC moved with unseemly speed to suspend three of the accused doctors, pending investigation as to whether in fact they had committed any crime. [I understood that three doctors had been suspended, but I have since been informed by the GMC that only one doctor has been suspended and two have conditons placed on them.]

Then, on Thursday morning, there was an unannounced raid by the Care Quality Commission on over 250 abortion clinics, again seeking evidence of so-called criminal activity, this time in relation to the forms that doctors are required to fill in authorising every abortion they approve. What these officials seem to have been looking for this time was poor paperwork: evidence of any forms that were signed in advance of consultations, or that had missing or incomplete information on the legal grounds for abortion as per the Abortion Act. Has the CQC really not got anything more serious to worry about? One wonders how much this raid cost the taxpayer, from a Health Secretary whose government claims we have no money for essential NHS and social welfare services.

To top it off, it seems he just happened to have a press statement ready, which was published on Friday on the front page of, you guessed it, the Daily Telegraph, about the evidence collected during these raids. How the CQC managed to collate, analyse, and double-check the evidence from 250 clinics in less than a day is a mystery that may never be solved. However, in the Telegraph, it said: “more than 250 private and NHS clinics were visited and more than 50 were ‘not in compliance’ with the law or regulations. Doctors were regularly falsifying consent forms and patients were not receiving acceptable levels of advice and counselling in many clinics, the Care Quality Commission (CQC) discovered… The main problem identified by the CQC was that doctors were ‘pre-signing’ consent forms…” Oh my goodness. Does that mean they were agreeing to abortion on demand? Not shown, if you ask me, not in the least. Here was his real point: maybe the Abortion Act is not fit for purpose. I smell a full-scale anti-abortion campaign coming on.

Marge Berer is the editor, Reproductive Health Matters.