Wednesday, 7 September 2011

A short story about what "independent counselling" could mean

A true story:
At the end of July, we heard from a woman who only discovered that she was pregnant at 20 weeks. After trying to raise money for flights and travel in every way possible, she found out about ASN. A few phone calls and days later, we were able to arrange for a reduction in the cost of the procedure, a grant, and a host for two nights in London. Unfortunately, when she was scanned at the clinic, she was ONE DAY past the legal limit. Our hearts break for this woman – who, if she’d had the financial means to travel and book immediately, would not now have to continue an unwanted pregnancy.
But Nadine Dorries' mandatory "independent" counselling wouldn't hurt, right? Wouldn't add to the delays at all? Wouldn't lead to more women having to go for surgical abortion rather than medical, or push them over the 15 week limit? Well, thank the stars that Dorries isn't also campaigning for a reduction in the time limit to 20 weeks, or one might suspect that this self-proclaimed "pro-choice" MP was trying to use every trick she can muster to eat away at the edges of the abortion settlement; a few weeks less time here, a few weeks extra waiting there, and presto! a few thousand women are forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy everywhere.

This is shit, this is unutterably shit, for everyone in the UK, but it is honestly terrifying for women in Ireland and Northern Ireland. For them, time is already too short: along with obstructive doctors, crisis pregnancy centre workers, secrecy, childcare/time off work/coming up with an excuse to go to England for a couple of days, they also have to find THE MONEY, and the longer it takes to get it together, the more they need to find. You need money for the procedure itself (£350 to £1500), money for last-minute plane fares, money for a bus to the airport and money for the tube to the clinic and money for somewhere to stay the night before your early morning appointment.

A could-be-true-soon story:
So, imagine you find out you're pregnant early enough to be eligible for a medical abortion. You're living on benefits, say, and you've been struggling to provide for the two children you already have since your husband got made redundant. You both agree that you're not able to care for another child right now and decide on terminating the pregnancy. Of course, it'd be a lot more convenient if you could just get the bus into town and go to a clinic there, but that's illegal, and the only 'clinic' is run by way-too-keen fundamentalists who will scare, lie, and shame you into keeping the baby. It's okay though - it's not talked about, but you've heard whispers from a friend of her sister's journey 'across the water', so you do a bit of research on the internet at the library, make a couple of calls, and you've got your appointment at Bpas in Streatham.

You're lucky. Compared to many other women who make this journey, you are lucky as hell: you've got the last of your husband's redundancy payment, and you get a fairly good deal on a Ryanair flight, maxing out the credit card you applied for in happier days to pay for it. Your husband can take care of the kids while you're away, and you don't even have to lie to him about where you're going. Your passport's up to date and you don't need a visa. Even the weather's co-operating - no volcanic ash-cloud or heavy snow to stop your plane taking off.

So far, so good: you get up in the middle of the night to get to the airport, travel into London as dawn is breaking on a train full of bleary-eyed commuters, somehow manage to navigate the ridiculously complicated combination of buses, tubes and trains to arrive at the clinic. You have your consultation with a trained counsellor who explains what the procedure will entail, makes sure you're comfortable with your decision, and lets you know that you can change your mind at any time. If everything goes to plan, you should be able to take one pill this morning, return a few hours later for the second, and after a lie-down in the recovery room you'll be able to catch your flight back this evening. It's a huge relief: you've only talked about this in whispers after the kids are in bed, and now you're in a space where you're free to talk for as long as you want about your fears - will abortion give you cancer? What if you want to have kids in the future? Are you going to Hell for this? - and receive reassuring, unbiased support. You talk about what contraception you're going to use in the future - you weren't aware that the antibiotics you were taking for an infected wisdom tooth would stop the pill working. You laugh a little at the idea of making the same mistake again; after all the hassle it's taken to get here, you're going to make sure your cervix is more heavily guarded than Fort Knox.

For all your worries, you're happy with your decision. It's the only thing that's right for you and your family right now.

Haha, not so fast! You might be alright with your decision - the doctors might be alright with your decision - but are any of you really qualified to make this decision? The doctors work for Bpas: Bpas gets money from the government for performing abortions. Alright, they're a charity, but still, they must have some kind of profit motive to abort as many babies as possible, despite being a non-profit organisation. Yeah, this all sounds like bollocks, but it's the law: Bpas aren't legally allowed to perform your procedure until you've sat through a mandatory counselling session with someone from an "independent" body.

The "independent" body which has the NHS contract in this area is run by Life - an anti-abortion campaigning organisation. The idea that they are somehow less biased than the caring professionals you've met at Bpas seems ridiculous - they're the same people harrassing women outside the NIFPA offices in Belfast - but there you go. It's not like you've got a choice in the matter. You wait while the receptionist gives Life a call, asking when they can fit you in.

Funnily enough, it turns out that this completely impartial and independent body doesn't have a vested interest in making this process as quick and easy as possible: they don't have any appointments today, and the only one they can offer you tomorrow is late in the afternoon. You'll miss your flight back, and you're going to have to find the money for a B&B for at least two more nights. You call your husband in tears, explaining the ridiculous situation through your frustrated sobs. All you want to do is get this over and get home. He tells you not to worry, that you'll figure it out somehow; he'll try to come up with a story to tell his mother so he can borrow a little money without her asking too many awkward questions.

So you wait. You stay the night in a grotty guesthouse, you eat as little as possible because your money's draining away much more quickly than you'd hoped, and you wait. You've nothing to do until your appointment, late in the afternoon, at the crisis pregnancy centre.

When you finally get there, you're instantly on edge: the atmosphere is very different to Bpas. There are pictures of smiling babies everywhere, a suspiciously Madonna-esque mother and child on the wall opposite you. The woman who talks to you claims to offer "non-directive counselling", but she works for an organisation which explicitly believes that life begins at conception: and oh boy, does it show. She doesn't tell you what to do. She just asks questions. "Wouldn't you rather have your baby? You know, he has tiny fingernails by now. I know things are tough financially, but surely love is the most important thing?" You know she's wrong - you know you've made up your mind - but it still hurts. Maybe she passes you some leaflets about the link between abortion and breast cancer (didn't the Bpas counsellor say this wasn't true? It looks really convincing, though); maybe she warns you about "post-abortive syndrome".

She lets you go after an hour or so, looking sorrowful when you say you haven't changed your mind. You blink in the late afternoon sunlight, reeling: "Away and pray yourself to death, you old hag", you mutter, but you still feel like you've been blindsided. What was the point of that? You knew what you wanted to do - your husband agreed, your doctors agreed, why this totally unnecessary step before you can get this medical procedure that's supposed to be legal over here? And now it's another day before you can get back to Bpas, have another talk with the actual counsellor to get over all the horrible guilt and fear this interview has churned up.

Surprise! This pointless delay? Has taken you over the nine-week limit, and you're no longer eligible for a medical abortion! Luckily, Bpas can fit you in today, but you're going to have to stay yet another fucking night - you'll be physically able to leave, but you can't get a plane ticket at this short notice. The surgical procedure - under local anaesthetic - also costs a lot more, so there's another anxious phone call to your husband, and another mad scramble for cash back home.

Miraculously, you manage to scrape the money together. You have your procedure, you get home, several days later than planned and several hundred pounds out of pocket. But, finally, it's over.


This dystopic short story was brought to you by I AM REALLY PISSED OFF ABOUT THIS. Also by WAHEY ASN can make this a bit easier, by giving funds, information and non-judgemental support to women seeking abortion, but guess what? We have but £400 left this month, which will pay for precisely ONE abortion before 14 weeks.

So, if you can, I am literally begging you to make your MP aware of how Dorries' amendment to the Health & Social Care Bill will affect Irish and Northern Irish women before they vote. And if you have any money whatsoever to spare, ASN is a mega-awesome cause.


  1. Call me daft for not having read the amendment with a fine toothy comb, but I thought it was to make it compulsory to *offer* "independent" counseling but not compulsory to accept or have it?

  2. Nah, you're right, I'm just being a big dramatic WHAT IF type.