This is the transcript of my talk that I gave at the Brighton Pro Choice meeting on 30 January 2011. It covers some of my previous blog posts so sorry for repetition, but this is hopefully a good update of the current campaign. Some of the below I need to add references to my sources, so I’ll update this post soon with those.
I’m going to talk about Tory MP Nadine Dorries’ attacks on womens’ rights and some of the campaigning we’ve been doing against these attacks.
On Friday 20 January, I organised a demonstration against Tory MP Nadine Dorries’ Sex Education (required content) private members’ Bill with the help of Laura, Holly and others.
Dorries’ Bill was proposing that girls aged 13-16 (specifically) be given “information and advice on the benefits of abstinence from sexual activity” as part of their sex education. Let’s quickly outline the glaring problems with this proposal:
- Making abstinence education ‘just for girls’ positions women as the gatekeepers of sex. It positions men as having no responsibility for decision making about sex, or for understanding consent. It also supports an idea of women having no desire, and mens’ desire being uncontrollable.
- Existing Sex and Relationships Education in the UK is not statutory. That means that some schools, in particular academies, Free Schools and religious schools, are highly likely to not teach comprehensive Sex and Relationships Education, because they disagree with the apparently ‘unsavoury’ content. Therefore, if this bill had passed, these schools could have ended up teaching only abstinence, and the biology of reproduction in science classes. I.e. not the useful bits of SRE.
- Abstinence education on its own doesn’t work. It’s been proven not to reduce STIs or pregnancy. A review of American sex-abstinence programs involving over 15,000 people by Oxford University found that they do not stop risky sexual behavior, or help in the prevention of unwanted pregnancy.
- The bill is heteronormative, assuming that the only sex likely to happen is between a male and a female.
- Comprehensive Sex and Relationships Education already advises on the option of abstaining from sexual activity as part of decision making about sex.
- Moreover, Dorries’ view that teenagers should be taught to “just say no” to a partner who insists on sexual relations blames victims for sexual violence, suggesting that young people do not say no currently. In fact we know from research not only that young people do refuse sex but more significantly that their partners often choose not to hear this. Instead, we should be teaching teenagers the need to ensure active consent.
A few days after the first reading of her abstinence education bill, Dorries went on the Vanessa Show and claimed that “if more children were taught to ‘just say no’ there would be less sexual abuse.” This is blatant victim blaming.
The Bill passed its first reading on May 2011 with 67 votes to 61. All 6 of Dorries’ co-presenters of the Bill are active in the socially conservative, Christian-dominated, anti-choice, All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, and outside of parliament the Bill is supported by the unrepresentative pressure group Christian Concern For Our Nation, and by the fundamentalist organisation Christian Voice.
Although the Bill had little chance of passing its second reading due to scheduling, opposition was rallied in order to raise awareness of the need for statutory, evidence based, comprehensive SRE.
Over 100 people turned up to protest against the Bill, and over 2,000 have joined a campaign on Facebook at http://facebook.com/stopdorries. As well as The Socialist Party and Youth Fight for Jobs and Education, the opposition was supported by the British Humanist Association, Abortion Rights UK, Education for Choice, the National Secular Society, Feminist Fightback, Queers Against the Cuts, Slut Means Speak Up, and others.
During the demo on the 20th January, it was reported that the Bill had suddenly been withdrawn from the parliamentary order paper (schedule), effectively killing it dead. Although we saw this as a partial victory, Dorries is threatening her intentions might become part of another bill she puts through, so whilst we celebrate the success in defeating this Bill, we’re keeping an eye on Dorries and her Tory Government, as we know we haven’t heard the last of their attacks on womens’ rights, education and sexual liberation.
In running this campaign, the more I read about Dorries, the more I learnt about her multiple attacks on womens’ rights:
- 2006 – trying repeatedly to reduce the time limit on abortions, from 24 to 20 weeks
- 2006 – trying to make counselling a compulsory pre-requisite to abortion – she called it “counselling about the medical risk of, and about matters relating to, termination and carrying a pregnancy to term as a condition of informed consent to termination” – in America this equivalent law has meant states forcing women to view images of aborted foetuses before being allowed to have an abortion.
- 2011 – trying to make counselling for women seeking abortion provided not by experienced abortion providers such as BPAS (which is NHS funded), but by what she considers to be ‘independent’ groups – i.e. religious anti-choice organisations.
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.
“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.”
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.
MPs did not have to follow party lines as abortion is considered an issue of conscience.
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.”
Since then, Anne Milton, has been working with DoH civil servants behind the scenes on plans to dramatically alter the system. Draft proposals will set out three options.
- One is exactly as had been laid out in Dorries’ amendment.
- A second option is for a system of “voluntary registration”. This would would mean any organisation offering counselling to women with a crisis pregnancy would have to meet minimum standards, and only use appropriately-trained counsellors.The consultation group has been debating whether organisations running such services should be required to declare any ethical stance – such as holding pro-life beliefs. If that demand is made, some pro-life campaigners are likely to argue that abortion clinics would have to declare a financial interest in carrying out terminations.
- A third option, to retain the current services, acknowledges that it would mean a “postcode lottery” remained in the standard of care.
A Department of Health consultation is likely to begin in February 2012, so we need to be ready to make sure we’re heard in that.
Dorries’ proposals, and the actions of her party, have nothing to do with helping women. The conservatives are responsible for pushing through cuts which disproportionately affect women:
- As women represent 65 per cent of the public sector workforce, they will bear the brunt of the estimated 400,000 public sector job losses over the next four years.
- On average women working in the public sector earn almost 40 per cent more per hour than female employees in the private sector. So even if replacement jobs were available in the private sector (which they’re not), it would represent a pay cut.
- Cuts to welfare will affect women twice as much as men because on average one fifth of womens’ income comes from welfare, whilst for men it is one tenth.
- £280 million of funding for a ten-year Teenage Pregnancy Strategy has been scrapped.
- While one in five women is likely to suffer rape or sexual attack during their lifetime, Government cuts to domestic violence and rape crisis services are averaging at over 40%.
- Legal aid cuts will make women in violent relationships particularly vulnerable.
- Lone parents, 90 per cent of whom are female, will be hit hardest by the spending cuts, losing 18.5 per cent of their net household income.