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Impartial advice on abortion? Yeah, right


THREE days after a couple of billion Christians worldwide celebrate the official birthday of their Saviour comes the Feast of the Holy Innocents, commemorating the young children killed by Herod as he tried unsuccessfully to eliminate the baby he thought of as his future rival. This is an appropriate time to reflect on the modern killing of the unborn, which in 2019 in England and Wales was conducted on a scale unprecedented since it was legalised in 1967. The total was 209,519.

It is difficult to be objective on this issue. There are so many conflicting ethical and religious viewpoints, complicated by a tendency to choose a start date for human life that suits the conclusion one wishes to reach. That said, it is odd that the number of terminations should be so high when childbirth is so safe, no family however large in our country is threatened by starvation and the social prejudice against unmarried mothers has virtually vanished.

Who to turn to for advice? Is that advice likely to be impartial, or influenced by money?

In 2011, as Parliament considered Conservative MP Nadine Dorries’s proposed amendments to the Abortion Act, the Guardian’s Polly Curtis attempted a ‘reality check’. I don’t especially wish to criticise Curtis’s journalism per se, but her article is still one of the first to appear in a Google search on the matter, so it’s a good starting point.

Curtis reported pensions campaigner Frank Field’s view: ‘It is a general principle that advice and services should be separate. I have no evidence of that [biased advice]. But we had no evidence of mis-selling of pensions until people investigated.’

Boldly (in my opinion, which is moderately sceptical of ‘fact-checkers’, self-appointed independent judges and their like), Curtis offered a ‘Verdict’: ‘The private abortion services are charities that reinvest their profits into their services. There is no evidence that they are motivated to encourage women to have abortions because they will financially benefit.’

Bias has more possible motives and forms than the merely financial. It’s been over twenty years since Sir William Macpherson accused the Metropolitan Police of ‘institutional racism’ and lately people have been exploring the notion of ‘unconscious bias’, something already spawning an industry for corporate consultancy.

Taking the latter first, Sartre remarked to someone who sought his guidance that the enquirer had in a manner already decided what he wished to hear, in making his choice of adviser – he could have gone to a priest if he’d wanted a different view. Similarly, when a woman who is pregnant approaches the British Pregnancy Advice Service (BPAS), she may be at least part way towards a decision to abort, even before she’s crossed the office’s threshold.

As to the institution itself, would anyone who felt strongly that abortion was morally wrong try to join BPAS? Even if they did, could the organisation, knowing their opinion, sensibly accept them as an employee, whose viewpoint would be slanted and potentially subversive of the charity’s work?

Now let’s return to the money. Does running as a charity mean that financial considerations are irrelevant? One needs to drill a bit deeper. It may not be set up to make a profit, but it certainly provides lots of paid work for advisers, medical staff etc, and some at the top are very well-remunerated – BPAS’s 2019 accounts show that ten senior people earned over £100,000 per year, excluding pension contributions. (see p.27)

Years ago I noted a shop in Birmingham’s Bull Ring styling itself the ‘Solid Fuel Advisory Service’; I hardly think its advice to customers was going to be ‘get a gas fire, mate.’ BPAS’s raison d’être is advice on contraception, abortion, vasectomy and sterilisation, plus some related mental health support; so its standard line is unlikely to be ‘have the kid, and the more the merrier!’

It may not be possible to have utterly impartial abortion advice (or even seek it with a completely open mind); but perhaps separating advice from ‘sales’ would help. I think Frank Field (his unseating was such a loss to Parliament, and us) was right.

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Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk
Rolf Norfolk is a former teacher and retired independent financial adviser.

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