Tuesday, 7 June 2011

How should we respond to Nadine Dorries and the anti-choice agenda?

Dear reader, our blog has moved to a new address.

Do come on over (and change your bookmarks accordingly): rationalist.org.uk

I attended a meeting last night, organised by Jess McCabe of The F Word and Sunny Hundal of Liberal Conspiracy, on how to respond to the renewed efforts of the anti-choice lobby, highlighted by the efforts of the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries on abortion and sex education, and the government's inclusion of the anti-choice group Life on its new advisory forum on sexual health. There's lots to think about in light of the meeting, so I thought I'd share some of what was said and invite you to share your thoughts and ideas in the comments.

First, we heard from Diane Abbott, the Labour MP and Shadow Minister for Public Health, who began by saying that, in campaigning on these issues since the 1990s, she has learned that the "price of the right to choose is eternal vigilance" – just when you think the argument has been won, the anti-choice lobby always comes back. Her second point was that we should not be fooled into thinking that those who oppose abortion do so in the interests of the unborn child – the people who would vote to restrict abortion rights are often the same people who would happily cut welfare for children once they have been born. Abbott also pointed out that Nadine Dorries isn't entirely stupid. She is approaching the issue via a genuine problem – the high rate of teenage pregnancy – but attacking choice is not the answer. Those who want to lower teenage pregnancy should focus on improving education and social conditions, rather than pursuing an abstinence-based approach that gas a proven record of failure. It is shocking that a group like Life, which pushes an anti-scientific approach for ideological reasons, should have been invited by the government to sit on a sexual health forum that should be scientific. Abbott also noted that the new intake of Conservative MPs is quite right-wing on these issues – "these are not people you want voting on women's reproductive rights" – and ended with a call for people to stand up for the right to choose. The anti-choice agenda, she said, is not about the rights of the unborn child or the sexualisation of children – it is an attack on women and the advances made in the last century. For the sake of women who have no voice, those that do need to find theirs.

Next up was Darinka Aleksic, campaign co-ordinator at Abortion Rights, who noted that there has been a sea change since the general election last year. Instead of a major attack on choice, such as the attempt to lower the time limit for abortion in 2008, we are seeing small measures designed to reframe the debate. Dorries is presenting it as a "pro-woman" agenda, tying the abortion debate in with the question of the sexualisation of children. It is important, said Aleksic, for those who are pro-choice to take back control of the agenda and remind people that the majority of people in the UK support the right to choose.

We then heard from Lisa Hallgarten of Education for Choice, who began by pointing out that pro-choice campaigners need to think carefully about the terminology they use, ensuring they do not allow the debate to be framed by the anti-abortion lobby. The term "anti-choice" should be used, not "pro-life", and we should not accept the notion that "every abortion is a tragedy". Abortion has been a huge boon to public health, and it is important, not just for the women accessing it, but also for communities and society as a whole. Dorries' tactic, said Hallgarten, is to throw as much mud as she can in the hope that some of it will stick. Everything she says is based on a false premise. For example, she has proposed amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill that would require women seeking abortion to access "independent information, advice and couselling services", under the entirely false premise that women do not already have access to counselling. In terms of her abstinence bill, it is not true that children how told to go out and have sex, and the hypocrisy is that the people who support such measures are the same people who have cut funding for good sex education. Hallgarten ended by pointing out that the pro-choice movement should argue from an evidence base – evidence-based practice unites everybody, and sexual health policy should not be based on the whims of ideologues. It should be about what works, and that is why arguments for choice should be based on evidence.

There followed an open discussion on how to proceed with responding to the anti-choice lobby, in which the 40-50 people present offered their ideas. Many were in favour of backing a pro-choice rally that is taking place in London on 9 July, and there was discussion of how to mount a stronger response in the media – the pro-choice message is prevalent in the liberal broadsheets, but how can it get a better hearing in the tabloids? One of the best points made, in my opinion, concerned the need to seize the initiative from Dorries and the anti-choice lobby. Those in favour of abortion rights need to press the fact that the status quo isn't good enough – women in Northern Ireland don't have access to abortion, there is a postcode lottery in the rest of Britain, and the two doctors rule is an unnecessary obstacle for women seeking abortion. There was discussion of the shock-tactics used by anti-choice groups such as Life and the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children in schools (the Guardian reported on this a couple of years ago) and the need to highlight and oppose this, protecting children from being exposed to lies disguised as sex education. It was also noted that we should not fall in to the trap of thinking the anti-choice lobby represent the religious perspective – most religious believers in the UK support access to contraception and many support choice.

So, while there were no firm conclusions from the meeting, there was plenty to consider and there are clearly lots of ways in which those who are pro-choice can take back the initiative and answer Nadine Dorries and the wider anti-choice lobby.

The purpose of the meeting was to share ideas, so let's get a discussion going in the comments below. How should we respond to Nadine Dorries and the anti-choice agenda?
blog comments powered by Disqus