Conspiracy or Confusion? Abortion Politics in Britain

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WHEN THE CONSERVATIVE-LIBERAL DEMOCRAT COALITION GOVERNMENT took power in May 2010, abortion providers and prochoice advocates in Britain were not unduly concerned. Abortion is not a "party political" issue in Britain: amendments to the abortion law are made according to a free vote to allow Members of Parliament (MPs) to vote according to their personal views rather than the "party line," and opinion polls suggest that Conservative voters are just as supportive of women's ability to have an abortion when they need one as are Labour voters. Nevertheless, the last two years have proven that abortion access, although alive and well in Britain, is not an immutable fact.

A poll conducted in 2011 by the market research company Ipsos MORI for the UK nonprofit abortion provider British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), backed up the idea that abortion views cannot be predicted by party identification. The poll found that those who intended to vote Conservative were slightly more likely to agree with the statement "A woman should not have to continue with her pregnancy if she wants an abortion" and the least likely to disagree (59 percent and 16 percent respectively). This is in comparison to those who intended to vote Labour (58 percent agreed, 20 percent disagreed), while of Liberal Democrat voters, only 47% agreed with the statement.

Among politicians, there are similar variations of opinion. For example, in July 2012 Amber Rudd, the Conservative MP for Hastings who describes herself as "unequivocally prochoice," announced that she was setting up a cross-party inquiry into unwanted pregnancy. Referring to Nadine Dorries, the Conservative MP for mid-Bedfordshire who recently made some high-profile attempts to limit women's access to abortion, Rudd noted that "people think Nadine Dorries is the voice of the government because her voice is heard." Rudd went on to say that if the outcome of the new inquiry "is to change people's perception and make it clear that we are prowoman and prochoice then that is a fantastic by product."

In Britain today, women's need for abortion remains both publicly and

politically accepted. It is important to emphasize this context because events of the past two years have often made it appear as though abortion access is under serious threat. Abortion providers have faced a barrage of attacks on their businesses and reputations, and those working in the field have had to expend a great deal of time and energy fighting slurs and defending their practices. In other words, abortion provision has been simultaneously accepted by the mainstream and viciously attacked by senior figures in and around government. How do we explain this?

CONSPIRACY OR CONFUSION?

Perhaps the clearest indicator that something strange and unpredictable has happened to the British abortion debate has been the influence of Nadine Dorries on recent debates. Dottles, no stranger to the abortion issue, had previously conducted zealous campaigns to bring the "time limit"' for abortion down from 24 weeks' gestation to 20 weeks. In 2011 she, along with the Labour MP Frank Field, tabled an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill--a significant bill that brought about a major reorganization of the entire National Health Service--calling for abortion providers to be stripped of their ability to provide "information and counseling" to women seeking an abortion. Dorries and Field argued that a "conflict of interest" occurred when independent abortion providers (primarily, charities such as bpas and Marie Stopes International) provided information and advice. They argued that these organizations "profit" from providing abortions and thus have a "vested interest" in encouraging women to end their pregnancies rather than keep the baby or allow the child to be adopted.

Abortion providers fought back against these allegations. The Dorries-Field amendment was eventually exposed as a tactic designed to restrict women's access to abortion, and when the House of Commons came to vote, the amendment failed spectacularly--118 votes to 368. …