UK Politics

MPs reject call to change abortion advice

MPs have rejected a bid to change the law on abortion counselling.

Tory MP Nadine Dorries wanted to stop abortion providers giving NHS-funded counselling to women.

She said it was about offering women more choice but was accused of trying to "import American sensationalism" to the abortion debate.

MPs rejected her call to offer women the "option" of independent counselling by 368 votes to 118, but there will be a consultation on improving services.

MPs did not have to follow party lines as abortion is considered an issue of conscience.

Labour MP Frank Field - who had backed Ms Dorries' original amendment - withdrew his support at the end of the debate after the government said it would consult on improving abortion counselling for women.

'Would not work'

Ms Dorries had proposed changing the statutory duties the NHS must provide to include "independent information, advice and counselling services for women requesting termination of pregnancy" - and had said private abortion providers should not be considered "independent".

But that was not put to the vote - instead it was on another of her amendments, proposing instead to offer women "the option of receiving independent" counselling and advice, that MPs voted.

Health Minister Anne Milton had urged Ms Dorries to withdraw her amendments.

She said the government was "supportive of the spirit of these amendments" but that putting it in primary legislation was unnecessary and would "deprive Parliament of the opportunity to consider the detail of how this service would develop and evolve."

The Health and Social Care Bill, which MPs are debating, gives local government new public health functions, she said, including on abortion services and the government intended to ensure that "a part of what they commission is a choice of independent counselling".

She said defining "independent" was not simple and the government wanted to think through all the financial and legal implications first.

"We want counselling to be provided by appropriately qualified people who offer non judgmental therapeutic support and who act according to their professional judgement, without undue interference or regard to outside interests," she said.

Ms Dorries told the BBC later that she had "got what we wanted" as the government had now agreed to consult about abortion advice.

She said she had only pushed the issue to the vote because many MPs backing her had wanted to publicly declare their stance on the issue and the "spirit" of her amendment would be taken forward by the government.

Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith, Defence Secretary Liam Fox and Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Patterson were among the ministers to vote for Ms Dorries' amendment.

David Cameron was not present in the Commons chamber for the debate.

His office said last week that while the prime minister was sympathetic to the view that women should be offered more advice, he would not support the amendment because of concerns it would prevent organisations like Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service from offering counselling.

Ms Dorries, a former nurse who has campaigned to reduce the legal time limit for abortions, has blamed Deputy PM Nick Clegg for the prime minister's stance, saying he was initially "very encouraging" - but claimed he had been put in an "impossible position" by his Lib Dem coalition partners.

'Not compulsory'

During the debate Ms Dorries said she did not want it to look as though she was "knocking abortion providers" and insisted she was "pro-choice".

"I do not want to restrict access to abortion ... I do not want to return to the days of 'Vera Drake' back street abortions."

But she said "better care" should be taken of young girls and women seeking abortion - and said the counselling outlined in her amendments was "not compulsory".

But shadow public health minister Diane Abbott said the amendment suggested those involved in abortion counselling were "wilfully" ignoring advice and guidelines - and were "merely in this for the money".

She said there was no evidence behind the amendments and those backing them were "obliged to smear tens of thousands of doctors and nurses to make any kind of case".

She claimed Ms Dorries' bid was "an attempt to import American sensationalism, confrontation and politicisation into these issues in a way that will be of no benefit to ordinary women".

While Ms Dorries had support from some Conservative colleagues and DUP MPs - fellow Conservatives Dr Sarah Wollaston and Louise Mensch challenged her.

Women seeking an abortion need the consent of two doctors, either through an NHS clinic or GP surgery, or at a private provider affiliated to the NHS, such as Marie Stopes or BPAS. Staff have a duty to provide impartial and objective counselling.

Pro-choice campaigners say the independent bodies described in Ms Dorries' amendment could include faith-based groups morally opposed to abortion.

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