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Philippa Taylor: Why are we spending millions to promote abortion abroad?


For the past five years, the charity Marie Stopes International (MSI) has been given £163 million in UK taxpayers’ money to spend on abortions in developing countries. This money also went on helping to liberalise laws on abortion. No other country gives as much money to MSI than our own Department for International Development (DFID).

MSI is one of the main providers of abortion in England, but most of its business is to provide contraceptives and abortions in developing countries in order, it claims, to reduce the number of ‘unsafe abortions’ in developing countries and to reduce maternal mortality rates. In 2016, it said it had ‘averted 7.6 million unintended pregnancies’. (i.e. carried out 7.6 million abortions).

Not only is this flawed reasoning for increased abortion provision, we have to ask if MSI can be trusted to carry out ‘safe abortions’ across the globe.

MSI abortions in the UK

It is hard to find out facts and figures. Data collection is very poor on abortion follow-up in the UK. Even the RCOG acknowledges that there is ‘a lack of standardisation in reporting which hampers collection of accurate data.’ Private abortion providers do not record NHS numbers so health events cannot be linked to a prior abortion. In other words, many complications are missed off records and not collected by Government statistics, so we have no accurate figure of how many complications post-abortion there are nationally.

Bearing that in mind, unannounced inspections of MSI clinics give us an indication of some of the outcomes of abortion. A highly critical Care Quality Commission (CQC) inspection report published in December 2016 found major safety flaws at MSI clinics, with more than 2,600 serious incidents reported in 2015. Now MSI has again hit the headlines here (and here) with news that it carried out nearly 400 botched abortions in just one month, earlier this year.

The latest report found:

373 abortion failures in one month

12 emergency transfers from MSI clinics to NHS hospitals in a two-month period

One recorded case where consent was given after the abortion had taken place

Employment of an unregistered nurse

Significant concerns with staff training, procedures, oversight of care, leadership and evaluation of equipment quality

One can only guess at what is happening in clinics where there have been no unannounced inspections.

This is happening in UK clinics, under relatively strict health and safety rules and regulations. Yet the irony of claiming to reduce unsafe abortions in developing countries while carrying out hundreds of unsafe abortions in the UK is probably lost on the provider of a significant proportion of MSI’s income, DFID.

DFID funding for 6 million abortions a year abroad

In a written answer to Parliament, Alistair Burt MP, Minister of State for International Development, says: ‘By helping the world’s poorest women access modern contraception, we will prevent an estimated 6 million unintended pregnancies and 3 million abortions on average each year.’

But even that is not enough.

Priti Patel, the Secretary of State for International Development, recently pledged an extra £225 million a year for family planning ‘aid’ for the next five years, including on ‘safe abortions’, up to a total of £1.1 billion. Much of this money goes directly to MSI. How is it spent?

MSI abortions globally

Between 2011 and 2016, DFID gave nearly £100 million to one specific project called Prevention of Maternal Death from Unwanted Pregnancy (PMDUP), run by MSI and close partners. This money went to 14 countries across African and Asia, with three of the four targets being to:

Train over 12,000 health care workers in comprehensive abortion care

Provide nearly 5,500 more service delivery sites

Support locally led changes to the regulatory and/or policy environments for abortion services at national level and across the Africa region

A review of the project outcomes in 2015 reported that they had prevented 1.9 million ‘unintended pregnancies’ (read ‘abortions’), while in 2014 they prevented 1.4 million in these 14 countries.

Not only that, they also targeted and measured the number of ‘disability life years saved’ (their words, their metrics). In 2015, this was 1.5 million and 2014 it was 1.2 million in 14 countries.

I find all these shocking statistics.

We are talking about millions of lives lost and mothers harmed, using our money. I also find the language of ‘disability life years saved’ (a term I have not seen used elsewhere) incredibly offensive, and the numbers very sad.

Then there are the MSI targets to liberalise abortion laws in Africa and Asia, again, funded by us. MSI ‘encourages’ countries to make policy changes (which, of course, gives them more ‘business’ and helps achieve higher target numbers of abortions). As a consequence of this campaigning, eleven countries reduced restrictions on access to abortion or increased their own funding for abortions, and five regional declarations ‘adopted progressive language’ across the African region.

Here are a few quotes from one annual PMDUP report illustrating how UK taxpayers’ money is used to push deliberately for legal changes on abortion in Africa and Asia:

MSI is ‘…proactive in all countries seeking Government money for reproductive health services.’

Advocacy for legal reform continued in Malawi…’

‘It is appropriate that PMDUP are proactive in all countries seeking options for government financing of reproductive health services.’

MSI report success in ‘…directly influencing decisions by policy makers to allow expansion of services.’

Will this reduce illegal abortions and maternal mortality?

Again, facts and figures are hard to ascertain. Illegal abortions undoubtedly take place in developing countries but I suspect that the actual numbers are significantly below WHO estimates. A useful catalogue of known abortion statistics online is that of William Johnston, who challenges official figures here because of incomplete reporting.

As for maternal mortality, I explored this here in more detail. Research in Mexico, where abortion legislation varies from state to state (and thus provides a unique scenario to test its effects), found that:

Permissive state abortion laws do not reduce maternal mortality and morbidity

States with restrictive abortion laws have lower maternal mortality and morbidity rates

While the research showed a clear correlation between restrictive laws and lower maternal mortality, the authors did not claim this was necessarily a cause. Instead, they said lower maternal mortality was best explained by literacy, maternal health care, obstetric care, sanitation and clean water.

However, we cannot ignore the effect of abortion legislation, as the example of Chile shows. Strikingly, after abortion became illegal in 1989 in Chile, deaths related to abortion continued to decrease. A tighter law reduced deaths.

The best way to transition towards low maternal mortality rates in developing countries is to address other factors – maternal healthcare, trained birth attendants, water, sanitation and women’s literacy etc. As Nigerian Obianuju Ekeocha says: ‘My lifeline out of poverty was education.

It is not through a lucrative, unsafe, abortion trade, whose leading beneficiaries are paid more than Government ministers from a shrinking health budget, operating under the protection of a bestowed charitable status, funded by us.

(Image: DFID)

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Philippa Taylor
Philippa Taylor
Philippa Taylor is Head of Public Policy at the Christian Medical Fellowship @PhilippaTaylor_

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