The Anti-Abortion Appropriation of Consent

By far the biggest response that this blog has had came when I had a bit of a rant about Nadine Dorries a couple of weeks ago.  I’m back on her case today; she’s the gift that keeps on giving.

This video* provides footage of her speech to the Commons on Tuesday night; there’s a transcript available here.  It’s a fascinating insight into the way that the anti-abortion lobby (I refuse to call them pro-life) has appropriated the language of choice, and tries to present itself as the true defenders of women.

Dorries’ speech has two distinct parts.  The gist of the first is that the law should guarantee that women give informed consent prior to having an abortion.  On the face of it, that seems eminently sensible.  But there’s a couple of things that don’t quite stack up.

At 4:29, Dorries states that women have no right whatsoever to any information upon which to make the decision to have an abortion.  But that’s just silly.  A woman has the right to as much or as little information as she wants – as is the case with all interventions.  What makes abortion slightly different from most other interventions, though, is that it’s elective.  Whereas with most interventions, the medic is saying that this is what’s wrong, this is likely to be the best treatment, and this is what it involves, the role is reversed in relation to abortion.  The woman is not seeking suggestions about how to proceed; she’s decided that already.  What counts as the kind of information necessary alters in the light of that: there doesn’t need to be a list of whatever the terminal equivalent of treatment options is offered.  This point, as we’ll see, is important.

The statement at 9:10 that continues this theme is worth repeating in full:

It is a woman’s right to choose, and women should have the right to be given every shred of information that we have and every alternative option. If a woman wants to continue with her pregnancy and deliver her baby for adoption, she should have the right to choose to do so.

This statement makes it look as though women don’t have the right to information already.  But, of course, they do.  So if this statement is worth making – if, that is, we’re talking about something that’s missing from the current legislation – it would appear that we have to be talking about something other than is provided for by current laws and good pracice.  My hunch is that talking about “every shred” of information about all the alternatives gives the game away: she’s heading in the direction of the Oklahoman proposals (which I mentioned here and here)  to make women look at scans of the foetus.  After all, that’s information that, by some lights, might be relevant to the decision; and if a woman can’t really be said to have given full consent without all of the information…  well, join the dots yourself.  Dorries’ statement seems to smuggle in quite a lot.

Something similar applies in respect of giving information about abortion.  If the woman in question wanted to continue the pregnancy and give up the baby for adoption, she wouldn’t be asking for an abortion.  The “right to information” about it is either purely formal, or an indication that it ought positively to be mentioned.  If it’s the former, Dorries’ statement is mere verbiage.  If the latter, it begins to look as though she’s opening the way for the woman in question to be “persuaded” not to abort.  The case for believing this is strengthened by what comes a little later.

At 8:30, she compares UK and German practices, stating with approval that, in Germany, women are given a cooling-off period before the procedure.  I don’t know how the German system works – but one potential worry about this is that it’s rather paternalistic, especially if it can’t be relinquished.  If a woman has decided that she wants an abortion, to be told after signing the consent that she must now wait (for how long is unclear) could well amount to her being told that she ought to go and rethink.  A cooling-off period may be something that offers support – but it may also be something that coerces the withdrawal of consent.  And if it’s explicitly designed as a cooling-off period, it’d be hard to escape the implication that the decision to abort is thought of as being de facto unreliable – which there’s no reason to suppose.

At 8:48, it’s noted with approval that women seeking abortions in Germany are given information about adoption.  This too is worrying – it looks like it’s an opportunity to guilt-trip the woman into continuing with the pregnancy.  (OK – it would be better if there were fewer abortions; and it might even be better if more women chose to go for the adoption route over aborting.  But that’s not something that the clinic should be doing.  If the woman’s decided she wants to abort, that’s where the buck stops.)

So what Dorries wants is statutory “informed condent with a cooling off period” (11:00).  Like I said, that’s superficially a good idea – but only superficially.  I suspect that it’s an anti-abortion trojan horse.

The other main dimension of the speech is to make claims about the work of a small group called Forsaken.  This organisation is a little bit cagey about itself – its “about us” page tells precious little about them – but they do talk a fair bit about “post abotion syndrome”, the malaise that would affect women (and their partners – which speaks to the near brain-dead comment raised by Daniel Kawczynski (Con: Shrewsbury and Atcham) at 8:00) if only it wasn’t fictional.  As I mentioned before, Dadlez and Andrews did a magnificent hatchet-job on this particular crock in a recent paper in Bioethics.  Nevertheless, Dorries does make great play of this non-syndrome throughout her speech (see also 6:10, 6:30 and 11:30).

There’s a couple of other clangers.  Dorries helpfully points out at 12:00 that there’s a bit of a taboo about abortion, and that you’ll never see it on TV.  Quite what that insight adds, I don’t know.  Towards the end of the speech (at 12:40, although prefigured at 3:40), the point is raised that pre-abortion councelling is only funded if the abortion goes ahead, which gives the implication that there’s pressure to go ahead.  Except… well, a woman who’s not intending to have an aborion won’t need pre-abortion councelling, will she?  She asks us to imagine the procedure that ensues, clearly hinting that clinics put pressure on women to abort.  But even if the funding system is a bit strange – and it might well be: I don’t know – it doesn’t follow that there’s any pressure put on women.  And for Dorries to leave that suspicion hanging – especially after having dropped plenty of hints that she’d like more pressure put on women not to abort… well, that’s a bit underhand, isn’t it?

And yet all this nonsense is spouted in the name of protecting women.  What utter tosh.

(Props to Tim Ireland for the links)

UPDATE: Unity comments on some other aspects of Dorries’ speech here.

*Sorry: I can’t get it to embed here.

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