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HomeNewsCaroline Farrow: What really lies behind the Marie Stopes abortion suspension?

Caroline Farrow: What really lies behind the Marie Stopes abortion suspension?


Marie Stopes, which is for many women, a trusted brand name synonymous with safe women’s reproductive care, has been forced to suspend a number of abortion procedures following a surprise inspection from its regulators, the Care Quality Commission (CQC). 

This news has massive implications, not that one would realise it from the reaction of the mainstream media, not least because it exposes as a myth the pro-choice mantra that abortion needs to be legal in order to be safe. 

The CQC have said that the 250 women who had been booked in for an abortion at Marie Stopes this week will be sent elsewhere in order to protect them from ‘potential harm’. If that’s not damning then I don’t know what is. If this was happening in any other area of health care, where 98 per cent of clients were directly referred from and paid for by the NHS, the media would rightly be demanding answers. According to Marie Stopes’s most recent accounts from 2014, their UK income amounted to £37 million, the majority of which came from the provision of 70,000 abortions. All that money – and yet the safety of all those thousands of women can not be guaranteed. 

Naturally enough, Marie Stopes and their unofficial propaganda arm, The Guardian,  have sought to downplay what has happened, as being a simple matter of red tape. It is, it says, ‘working with the CQC to ensure that all of our processes comply with their guidelines on training and governance.’ It has, it says, ‘taken some of our services off line’. 

One might be tempted to think that this is all a big misunderstanding. It’s just a matter of ticking a few boxes on the right pieces of paper and nothing to get hot under the collar about. Indeed the spokesman from Marie Stopes seemed to be rather indignant about the matter, saying that the organisation was slightly surprised by the timing and tone of the announcement. ‘This was about governance and protocols and there was nothing that endangered the safety of the clients’, he said. 

Except that governance and protocols in medicine have everything to do with the safety of patients. Checklists and best practice exist for a reason. To ensure that patients are offered the highest standard of care. Clearly something is very, very amiss at these clinics, otherwise the CQC would not have taken such a drastic step. 

Governance, as it is understood in a corporate sense, is concerned with the way in which an organisation is controlled and directed. It includes how an charitable organisation such as Marie Stopes achieves its objectives, how it complies with legal requirements and how it is accountable to those with an interest or stake in the charity. The CQC has not issued any further detail, but this could potentially mean that there are leadership problems, which could well impact upon daily operations and compromise patient safety. We wouldn’t accept hospitals not complying with industry standard clinical guidelines, so why should abortion clinics be treated any differently? Why should clinics providing surgical and medical abortion services be exempt from the same regulatory structure and medical scrutiny as any other healthcare provider?

As for training issues – are Marie Stopes really implying that it doesn’t matter whether or not all of their staff have received the relevant training, which will enable them to perform their role to the highest possible standard? If that’s the attitude then it’s not surprising that the CQC has had to step in. 

However there’s more. What Marie Stopes omits to tell the public on its website is that It’s not just supposedly irrelevant issues of governance and training that the CQC has highlighted, but ‘immediate issues of consent.’ Which could mean any number of things, from patients being coerced into a procedure, to crucial information being withheld from them. All abortion services have been withdrawn from the under 18s and other groups identified as being particularly vulnerable, thanks to safeguarding concerns. So we can’t be sure that under 18s can be free from harm or exploitation in one of the UK’s leading abortion clinics? Where is the statement from the NSPCC and other public organisations who lobby for child protection? What do organisations such as Brook Young People who lobby for abortion to be promoted as a valid and healthy choice in schools, have to say on the matter?

And if all of that wasn’t hair-raising enough, Marie Stopes has also suspended every single surgical procedure that may involve general anaesthetic or conscious sedation because the CQC could not be sure that staff had adequate levels of training and competence to administer sedatives and general anaesthetic. Their Norwich clinic has had to stop performing all surgical abortions and officials say that they will not give approval for further clinics to perform abortion services until they are satisfied that their concerns have been fully met. 

Ouch! And all of this in a clinic which likes to boast that it has ‘safe abortion’ as one of its key objectives on its official accounts and which claims it has been delivering safe abortion in the UK for over 40 years.

It doesn’t matter, as The Guardian is so keen to point out, that women undergoing a surgical abortion after 12 weeks are in a minority. Surely women’s safety should be of paramount concern here? One woman not being adminstered anaesthetic safely, or who suffers, is one woman too many. 

As someone who has been on the Marie Stopes abortion conveyor belt, I can’t say that I am too surprised by the news of their shoddy care, especially when it comes to the issue of informed consent, and I don’t suppose the family of Aisha Chithira is too stunned either. 

What should come as a massive, though welcome surprise, is that finally, the UK authorities appear to be taking action when clinics appear to be in breach of the law. One might have thought that feminists ought to welcome any moves that put the safety of female patients as being of paramount concern, but instead they are too busy hand-wringing over what this might mean for the pro-choice cause as a whole. 

But fear not. Those heroes at BPAS, Marie Stopes’s main competitor, have stepped into the breach, saying that they will be working around the clock to provide the services instead. ‘It will be  difficult but we will find a way to do it’, says their head of advocacy and campaigns. So many more lives to terminate and so little time in which to do it, but we will find a way. Some of these will be late term and ‘far more distressing to the women and those trying to help her’ (can’t think why that might be) but don’t worry, we will roll up our sleeves and do it while making a lot of extra cash into the bargain! 

Given that the authorities steadfastly chose to ignore blatant law-breaking in terms of both sex-selective abortions and the pre-signing of abortion forms by doctors who had never even met the patients concerned, you can guarantee that whatever was uncovered at Marie Stopes will have been extremely grave to have precipitated such a strong intervention and one that the authorities were very keen to bury. The statement was deliberately released at close of business on Friday evening at the end of the week’s news cycle, to be hidden by the headlines of the Olympics. 

So let’s get this straight. Almost 50 years after the 1967 Abortion Act was passed on the justification of female safety, you may still no better off having an abortion in the reassuring surroundings of a professional legally-sanctioned abortion clinic, than you would have been on the kitchen table of Vera Drake. 


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Caroline Farrow
Caroline Farrow
Columnist for the Catholic Universe

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