Problems with faith-based crisis pregnancy centres exposed

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Yesterday the Guardian published the results of a survey of ten faith-based and anti-choice crisis pregnancy centres (CPCs), which has been carried out by Education for Choice in the wake of the government's decision to consider offering counselling roles outside of the NHS to organisations such as Life and Care Confidential. Such a move would be at the expense of impartial services such as those run by Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).

What Education for Choice discovered in the course of its research is, quite frankly, horrendous. The inclusion of Life on the government's new Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV has been hailed as a victory by the anti-choice camp, and has also been welcomed by those who feel that all viewpoints should be given a say on the matter. The problem here is that instead of providing "impartial" advice and truly wishing to help women, it's clear that this is far from what's happening at many CPCs.

"A survey of 10 centres operated by Christian and anti-abortion organisations found evidence in most of them of poor practice and factually incorrect advice, while the quality of counselling differs widely. Advice ranged from scaremongering – linking abortion with breast cancer, for example – to actions apparently designed to steer women away from abortion, such as showing them baby clothes..."

For a start, the fact that organisations like Life are strictly anti-choice should not ever mean that they are free to offer misinformation and manipulative actions as a response to women who may be vulnerable, making a difficult choice, unsure about the facts or looking for support. Faith-based groups have got history with this - think of the way many of the groups involved with abstinence education in the USA built education programs for teens around informing them that any sexual activity would give them cancer, make them infertile and leave them unable to find a partner to marry. There needs to be a commitment to offering correct information which values facts over religious agenda and there is simply no excuse for some of this "information" being given out to people:

"At a Life centre in Covent Garden, London, the undercover researcher was given a leaflet entitled Abortions – How they're Done, which said incorrectly that 85% of abortions are carried out using vacuum aspiration. It stated that 'the unborn child is sucked down the tube' and that 'the woman should wear some protection. She has to dispose of the corpse.'"

What was also clear from Education for Choice's investigations is that many CPC counsellors appear to be lacking the training and information needed to appropriately respond to clients (although staff at two centres were reported to have given good and helpful advice):

"When asked whom to talk to about arranging an abortion, the counsellor stated that the organisation was pro-life and could not recommend any service. She claimed not to know the names of abortion providers."

A counsellor at one centre under the direction of Life "repeatedly suggested the client should wait two to three weeks before making her decision on abortion". I don't need to spell out the impact this could have in terms of taking women further into a pregnancy and closer to the upper limits of legality.

One counsellor at a centre overseen by Care Confidential - which, according to its website, offers "unbiased counselling" - "did not know the legal time limit for abortion, claimed that there were no statistics on the number of women who have terminations and had little idea about local services". The undercover researcher was also given an "abortion recovery" manual which stated:

"If we are to walk this journey with a woman then we need to clearly see which boundaries she has crossed … immorality, coveting, lying, as well as taking innocent life."

I have no doubt that some women do feel upset and ashamed after having made the choice to have an abortion and that in these circumstances they should have full support available to them - and yes, faith-based support if they feel comfortable with this. But each case is different and it simply isn't right to treat all women as sufferers of this fictional "post-abortion syndrome". I believe that even those who believe abortion is always the wrong decision to make need to be educating women responsibly. It's appropriate for them to outline their agenda as an organisation but never to use this as a front for lying and refusing to help people. It's not, in my opinion, appropriate to distribute materials defined by faith-based jargon and principles to those who might have no experience of that particular religion and no affiliation with it, while offering no additional information.

It is especially inappropriate when you consider the endorsement of such organisations by politicians such as Nadine Dorries as "balanced, impartial, accountable and caring", while BPAS et al are denounced as having a "vested interest".

As a Christian it concerns me that these reports are increasingly aligning faith-based services in the UK with manipulation and misinformation. There needs to be a responsibility to speak the truth and not hide behind the label of "impartiality" while providing counselling which is anything but. I have no desire to attack groups for holding pro-life views, but research like this makes it hard for me to accept much of what they're doing. I'm sure it's possible to espouse a "pro-life" message without resorting to distorting medical facts and statistics. CPCs need to be clear about where they stand, but also that they are willing to help women and tell the truth. Promoting guilt and shame isn't the answer and it has potentially damaging consequences for women who are dealing with additional issues such as mental health problems, pregnancy resulting from rape, or domestic violence.

A spokesperson for Care Confidential has apologised for the services researched by Education for Choice and says that a "full review of quality control, training and support" will be carried out, including rewriting training manuals to reflect diversity of faith in society. I hope that with rising public awareness of what CPCs do, they will commit to training counsellors to give advice tailored to their clients' needs and make a move away from such obvious misinformation.

Read the executive summary of Education for Choice's report here.

Photo via benuski's Flickr.


Anonymous said...

This is hideous. It's really embarassing to have Dorries and organisations like this as the only public face for those who support a culture of life. The best I can possibly hope for is that the counsellor's exposed happened to be extraordinarily misinformed themselves, although I suspect it's a more wdespread issue with people a) being unable to see women facing a crisis pregnancy as individuals worthy of being treated with dignity and b) an (entirely unchristian) consequentialist attitude that justifies lies for the "greater good". Knowing that 75% percent of women choose abortion because of a lack financial and emotional resources, the rate of abortion in this country could be reduced dramatically if pro life convictions could be channelled into providing practical support.


Anonymous said...

I hope this doesn't sound inflammatory, but I'd be really interested in hearing about why you support abortion from a Christian perspective.


Hannah Mudge said...

Hi Kathleen,

Your first comment ties in a lot with this piece which has appeared in the Guardian today. If they channeled their pro-life views into practical support this would be so much more beneficial than them spouting misinformation and refusing to help women.

I support the legality of abortion because i think it should be safe and easy to access. The problems surrounding unwanted pregnancy are so wide-ranging and link to so many other issues, like poverty, lack of access to birth control, rape, mental health, sexual abuse etc and we know that limiting availability of abortion does not stop women from having them, either illegally with the help of others or attempting an abortion themselves (half of worldwide abortions are 'unsafe' or illegal). I would not want to see a return to the days when it was illegal or severely restricted, with more deaths, horrific injury, infection and stigma surrounding pregnancy which has occurred in certain situations.

I think the issue of reproductive rights isn't just about abortion though, and that those wanting to reduce the abortion rate need to concentrate on education, access to birth control, more support for girls and women who are vulnerable etc. I think that no matter what you believe about the exact point at which life begins, this is really vital. I find that lots of Christian commentary on the abortion debate is too simplistic ('if you have sex, you should have to deal with the consequences') and that there is a lot of focus on shame, pressurizing pregnant women to put their babies up for adoption etc, which many woman feel unable to do. I think there is also a lot of privilege and that many need to remember that not all women have supportive families, a loving relationship, a good job, a nice life, etc etc).


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