Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Crisis pregnancy centres and anti-abortion tactics: an interview with Life's education officer

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This is a guest post by New Humanist contributor James Gray
New research published today by the charity Education for Choice reveals that a number of crisis pregnancy centres (CPCs) run by anti-abortion groups provide factually inaccurate information to women. One of the largest providers of this kind of counselling is Life, whose appointment to a new sexual health forum was seen by many as clear evidence that David Cameron was opening up government to the agendas of hardline faith-based groups.

I visited Life's central London office recently as part of my research for a forthcoming New Humanist article on the Big Society. As a believer in unrestricted access to abortion, I found the conversation with Life's education and research officer Niall Gooch quite revealing.

Life has cultivated a moderate image, strategically distancing itself from more outwardly militant pro-life pressure groups: the word “abortion” is not even mentioned on the home page of its slick website. I started by asking why this was. “It's been a deliberate decision to make ourselves stand out by not just being the guys in the corner wagging a finger,” Gooch explained, “but getting out there and saying, actually, if a woman's in crisis pregnancy she doesn't need someone having a go at her.”

Beneath the exterior of a modern social care charity, however, lie views every bit as uncompromising as the most aggressive pro-lifers such as the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (who Life seem keen to distance themselves from). Gooch seemed uneasy when I reminded him of a Life teachers pack (PDF) that informs children: “abortion following rape often only ends up masking the crime and more often than not leaves the woman even more vulnerable.”

I asked Gooch if he understood that most Britons would regard this as an extreme position to advocate, especially in the classroom.“Yes, I think that it's an unusual view,” he said. “A lot of what we say is quite challenging, not something that's very popular, but it's only one hour out of their whole school career in a society which completely disagrees with us.”

If this is what Life does in the classroom, what about the counselling room? Are pro-choicers really expected to believe that Life's counselling is “non-directional”? “Our counsellors aren't interested in persuading women not to have abortions,” Gooch maintained, “they don't use images or videos or unpleasant arguments to persuade them.” Education for Choice's research very strongly suggests otherwise. Their undercover researcher, who visited a Life counsellor at the office where I met Gooch, was given a leaflet on vacuum aspiration abortion which said "the unborn child is sucked down the tube" and that "the woman should wear some protection. She has to dispose of the corpse."

I pointed out that if a woman came to Life considering an abortion and then decided not to, that must surely be considered a success. “I think to be honest our counsellors would be glad if people don't go on to have an abortion,” he conceded, “but I don't think that means that in the counselling setting, as professional therapists, they try and influence women.”

Life likes to tout its membership of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (BACP) as evidence of its impartiality, so I contacted them directly to verify exactly what membership entails. They explained that Life is an organisational member and as such agrees to abide by BACP's code of ethics. However, BACP doesn't vet organisational members before approving them and will only investigate complaints reactively. They also stressed that counselling is not an advice service - counsellors are under no obligation to give information to clients (although they could do) but are there to help them explore emotional problems.

The box of tissues in the counselling room where I met Gooch was a poignant reminder that many women who turn to CPCs are extremely vulnerable, often rejected by their families or partners. Counsellors may be the only people who treat them kindly and listen with sympathy. But that's precisely why it's so important they are properly regulated.

In light of Education for Choice's research I believe that BACP should immediately suspend Life's membership and launch a full investigation into it and any other CPCs on its books. I wrote to Laurie Clarke, BACP's CEO, this morning to urge him to do so. I hope others will join me.
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