Sunday, 24 July 2011

R.I.P Amy Winehouse

I think we are all feeling sad today.

Ben bought me Frank when it came out because 'you like jazz'. It was a great album, but i think when Back to Black came out it was a completely different kettle of fish. I think a lot of women (and men i imagine) listened to those lyrics and just knew what she meant. When i was having my bad times, and you heard the words in Back to Black, I know i'm no good, love is a losing game - those words were telling the stories of the sadness we feel, the mistakes we made. They were real, they were honest and they connected.

 She didn't refuse to give. Every line, every word she sang with passion and with meaning, every feeling and emotion was projected into her words and her voice. There was no holding back.

I remember a few years ago, magazines published a picture of her going home, no shoes on, feet bleeding and she was crying. And i remember thinking 'it's like they are waiting for her to die. that's all that will satisfy them.'

She was an amazing talent. She sang with truth and meaning.

There's nothing i can say really, and there's no point me saying anything else. I just wanted to share that i thought she was great, and i am sorry that she has died.

As Pop Justice says, all we really want is to watch the videos and hear the songs.

Clare's Law isn't good enough

Last week saw politicians from across the political spectrum discuss the possibility of introducing Clare’s Law – named in memory of Clare Wood who was murdered in 2009 by a man she met online. The proposed law would allow people to contact the police to check whether their new or potential partner has a history of intimate partner violence. The hope is that this knowledge would be used to get out of the relationship before the violence starts. The proposal has support from Hazel Blears and is being considered by Theresa May, and last week Michael Brown of the Greater Manchester Police (where Clare was killed) spoke on Women’s Hour in support. However feminists and anti violence campaigners are not so keen to embrace the proposed change wholeheartedly, and see some serious problems in adopting Clare’s Law.

Because the majority of victims and survivors of intimate partner violence are women, and the vast majority of perpetrators are men, I will follow how other news and blogging outlets have covered this story and refer to this law in relation to women. This is not intended to silence or deny the problems of intimate partner violence across genders, or to suggest that Clare’s Law only applies to straight, cis men and women.

One clear problem with Clare’s Law is that most incidences of intimate partner violence aren’t reported to the police; in fact it is believed that only 23% of victims go to the police. Therefore it is likely that a lot of perpetrators of violence are not going to be on the police list when women phone up to check. This could have an effect of leading women into a false sense of security – particularly in light of what we know about how domestic violence often works. The violence can start with the perpetrator isolating his partner, building up slowly – if a woman has been reassured that her partner doesn’t have a violent history, this could have serious implications.

A further problem is the impact this law could have on victim-blaming, something that is already rife when we consider the public’s reaction to intimate partner violence. What happens if a woman was informed that her partner has a history of violence, but decides to stay because he excuses it, makes promises, tells her it was all a lie or a misunderstanding, or that he’s changed. If he then goes on to be violent towards her, will she be blamed? Already, cases of domestic abuse are surrounded by conversations around ‘why did she stay when she knew what he was like’, ‘why did she stay so long’, and domestic violence murders are reported as ‘crimes of passion’ or ‘man kills nagging wife’. Women are so often blamed for the violence committed against them, and there are many concerns about how this law could encourage these pernicious victim-blaming myths.

Something has to be done about tackling domestic violence. Two women a week are murdered by their partner or ex partner, and 1 in 4 women will experience domestic violence – a figure that goes up to 1 in 3 when talking about teen girls. 2,000 women a week are raped and the majority of these women will know their rapist. However I really question as to whether Clare’s Law is the answer or even part of the answer to this horrific crime. And this is because the emphasis is on the woman to avoid or prevent violence happening to her, not on preventing violence by focusing on the perpetrator.

So many anti-violence campaigns seek to police women’s behaviour, from anti rape campaigns at Christmas warning women to ‘let your hair down, not your guard’, to the proposed Clare’s Law which puts the responsibility on women to find out if their partner is violent, and then expecting them to leave. I believe instead that in order to prevent violence against women and girls, we need to focus on those who commit violence. This means more education around respect and consent. It means education around healthy and happy relationships. It means holding the perpetrators to account and eradicating myths that blame the victim. It means justice for victims and survivors and proper punishment for perpetrators. And it means more care taken by the police and the CPS to protect women and prevent violence happening.

Take Clare Wood’s case as an example. By the time she was murdered, she had reported her partner’s violence to the police many times. The Police Complaints Commission’s report on how Manchester police handled the case was critical of the way the police handled Clare Wood’s reports that her partner had been violent and threatened to kill her. She is not alone. Chrissie Chambers and her daughter were murdered earlier this year by her violent ex-partner. She had reported to the police that he had sent her 100 threatening text messages days before she was killed. Despite a restraining order being in place, he was still able to access the house and kill her and her 2-year old.

Why were these women not protected more? Why were their cries for help not taken more seriously? Why do men who murder their wives only get 18 months in prison, as happened in the case of Jonathan Wicks who beat and hit his wife over the head.

It is worth mentioning that this year the coalition’s cuts have resulted and will continue to result in massive cuts in the domestic violence sector. Women’s Aid predicted in April that 60% of refuge services will no longer receive council funding, reducing refuge places from 400 to 160. 70,000 women and children will be left without the support they need to escape a life of violence. So it is hard not to feel cynical that Clare’s Law is being proposed at a point where women who need refuge, who need help to escape violence, are struggling to access the assistance they so desperately need.

The responsibility to end violence against women does not lie with women being told to avoid violence. It isn’t a natural hazard that we can take precautions to prevent. The responsibility to end violence against women and girls lies with the perpetrator. They are the ones who need to stop being violent. They are the ones who can prevent violence. Let’s see more education, let’s see justice for victims, let’s see improvements in the ways the police handle reports of intimate partner violence, and let’s see an end to victim blaming. There is no single solution to the terrifying epidemic of violence against women and girls. But there are things we can do. And I don’t believe that it starts and ends with Clare’s Law.

If you are affected by the issues in this post you can call:

Women’s Aid: 0808 2000 247

Saturday, 16 July 2011

Consent, statutory rape and the daily mail

Daily Mail, justice and child protection fail

*trigger warning*
If you are upset or affected by any of the issues in the blog, I have put Child Line’s number at the bottom, as well as links to finding your local rape crisis. Links to all quotes and sources are at the end of the post.

Back in March, I blogged about a case of gang rape of two 12 year old girls ( The Daily Mail headline quoted the men’s defence lawyer that the girls were ‘Lolitas’ and indulged in some victim blaming that was so grotesque even some Daily Mail readers were shocked, although that didn’t prevent others from referring to the girls as ‘slutty’ who should be punished as they were to blame, not the ‘lads’.

Anyway, this ugly story reared its head again this week, as a judge in the court of appeal released the men from prison and gave them a suspended sentence. Why? Because according to Judge Moses, the girls ‘wanted to have sex’ and were ‘more sexually experienced than the men’.

There are plenty of reasons why this case is problematic and it is difficult to know where to start. So let’s start with my (admittedly not academically informed) grasp of the law and what we mean by consent.

Statutory rape laws exist because legally it was decided that there had to be a cut off point that recognised that young people and children cannot meaningfully consent to penetrative sex and other sexual activity when they are still children. In the UK, the cut-off point is 13. At the age of 12, the law reasons, a child is not able to meaningfully consent to sex, because they are too young, they are immature, they are physically and emotionally a child still. By physically, I mean as well that some 12 year olds have not yet entered puberty. Statutory rape is not a 15 year old girl consensually having sex with her 16 year old boyfriend, as Ken Clarke erroneously claimed. It is the cut off point where we say children are too young to meaningfully consent to sex.

Meaningful consent means that when you consent to sex, you are doing so because you want to have sex. Because you are in love maybe. Or because you fancy that guy or girl at the other end of the bar so much you are weak at the knees and need to be in bed with them right now! Or because you don’t even like someone that much but that chemical reaction is racing round your body and for reasons you don’t understand, you know it has to end in sex. There are loads of times and reasons why we want to have consensual sex, those are just three examples. The key thing is that meaningful consent is not consenting because you feel you have to, or because your partner is pressuring you, or because your friends are egging you on, or because you don’t have the words to say no.

Here’s some context. We are currently experiencing a worrying lack of knowledge about consent in the UK, particularly for young men and women. A recent radio phone-in show featured a young woman, who had been gang raped by her boyfriend’s friends, asking the talk show host whether it was in fact rape. She didn’t know, because she believed her boyfriend, and his friends, forcing her to ‘have sex’ she didn’t want to have, was ok, that it was ‘love’. I’ve spoken to women working in Rape Crisis centres who tell me that girls come in, having been raped, but believing that having to ‘have sex’ you don’t want to have, or have been forced to have, is just what you have to do for boys to like you, or for your boyfriend to love you. The rate of intimate partner violence is now higher in teen relationships than it is in adult relationships (1 in 3 girls experience IPV, NSPCC, Bristol University) and 16-19 year old girls are now the most at risk group of experiencing IPV (Home office). A survey that came out last year found that 46% of young men think that if a woman changes her mind during penetrative sex and he carries on, then it isn’t rape; nearly half thought that if the woman was too drunk to know what was going on then it wasn’t rape, and an astonishing 23% thought that even if a woman said no, it wasn’t rape (

What this snapshot of information shows us is that young people today are often very confused about what meaningful consent is.

Which brings me back to this week’s judgement.

Simply put, it doesn’t matter if the 12-year old girls said they wanted to have sex, or were sexually experienced (although this matters for a different reason). The law is clear on this. A 12 year old girl is legally unable to give meaningful consent to penetrative sex and other sexual activity.

This is not to deny that young people have a sexuality and have sexual feelings. Of course they do and it is important to state this so as not to get my feminist position confused with a right wing ‘childhood innocence’ position (as illustrated by the Bailey Review) that denies young people’s very natural sexuality and sexual curiousity. However, there does have to be a cut-off point when we talk about meaningful consent and 13 years old seems a perfectly sensible one, for all the reasons mentioned above regarding physical and emotional maturity. After all, when you’re 12 you may think you know it all, but you don’t.

Judge Moses’ ruling that the girls wanted to have sex should not matter when it comes to recognising that these girls were victims of rape because statutory rape laws mean that legally they cannot give consent.

The Judge went on to say:

‘if you have casual sex with someone you don't know, you run the risk of having sex with someone who is underage.'

As far as I am concerned, this simply isn’t good enough. Part of the reason we have statutory rape law is because there is a responsibility we have as adults to make sure the person we are having sex with is actually an adult. I know it sounds obvious, but apparently it is worth making this clear. I also find it incredibly difficult to believe that a 12-year old girl could really look so adult that a grown man, who I am assuming has had sex with an adult woman, would not stop and question whether the girl was really as old as she says she is.

When we look at previous and current reporting of this case, I believe we can see that meaningful consent was not really given. The girls texted the men saying they wanted to meet up to have sex. Of course, saying you want to have sex in a text is not the same to consenting to it once you are in the situation. Let’s please remember that a person can withdraw consent at any point (during intercourse included) and if the person s/he having sex with does not stop, then it is rape. A girl can say in a text that she wants to have sex, and then not actually want to go through with it once it all starts happening and becomes real. The Mail reported in March:

‘The other girl was more reluctant and was raped by just one player’


‘She said one of the males kept asking her for sex. She was initially reluctant but eventually gave in to his persistence’

I dealt with why this reporting is problematic in March so won’t go over old ground here, but I strongly feel that verbal coercion and pressure to have sex cannot result in meaningfully consensual sex, as we understand consent. The fact that one of the girls became upset when engaged in a sex act with one of the men also clearly demonstrates this (I should point out that the Mail reports that the man stopped when it was clear she was upset).

The whole tone of this case, from the initial Daily Mail article where commenters expressed sympathy for the ‘lads’, and where the girls were accused of being ’Lolitas’; to the Judge’s words and the decision to release the men from jail, has been one that paints the girls as the baddies, and the men as poor, deceived, remorseful ‘lads’. Is it so hard to understand that the girls are the victims here? Not the men, the adult men, but the children who were gang raped. Take the headline of the latter Mail article:
‘Judge frees six footballers accused of raping two 12-year-old girls in a park’
That isn’t what happened! The men weren’t accused of raping the girls, they were charged, found guilty and convicted of gang rape. By framing it as an accusation, the Mail are able to imply that the men weren’t really guilty, it was just an accusation and it’s the girl’s fault anyway. This is sickening.

One of the judge’s most problematic statements was of course his decision to reduce the sentence because the girl ‘was more sexually experienced than the men’.

There are multiple reasons why this is seriously fucked up, but I will deal with only two of them here.

Number one: a woman’s sexual history has no bearing on a rape case. It doesn’t matter if a girl or woman has slept with a hundred and twenty-six men, and 98 women, rape is rape. A girl’s or woman’s sexual history has absolutely zero bearing on the case. Of course, this may seem obvious, but a 2005 Amnesty International survey on UK attitudes into rape found that 8% (1 in 12) of people believe that if a woman has had multiple sexual partners, then she is partly to blame if she is raped. It’s our old friend, the angel/whore dichotomy and the myth of the perfect victim. The Judge is engaging in classic victim-blaming behaviour. He is implying that she is ‘not an innocent girl’ (as was famously said about the child Polanski raped) and therefore has to take responsibility. He is saying that she was more sexually experienced than the men, implying that she was therefore in control of the situation. I find it terrifying that in 2011 a Judge could do this. A woman’s sexual history is no longer considered to be admissible evidence in a rape case and the defence are not allowed to bring it up in court, precisely because it doesn’t matter. So how has this been allowed to happen here?

Number two: if a 12 year old girl is more ‘sexually experienced’ than a group of 18-21 year old men, then the question we should be asking is not whether she is therefore to blame, but why does a child have so much sexual experience? Because this would suggest that she has already been a victim of statutory rape, or of sexual abuse or assault. Again, I don’t want to deny that young people have sexual feelings that they may want to explore, or sexual curiousity. But there are some serious unanswered questions here. And it is simply not good enough for the Judge to say that she was sexually experienced, without questioning this, and then go on to use this as a reason to excuse the men’s actions.

It feels to me that this is the second case this week that has tried to re-write what we mean when we talk about consent. The first was Assange’s appeal hearing, where the defence lawyer said:

‘AA felt that Assange wanted to insert his penis into her vagina directly, which she did not want since he was not wearing a condom … She did not articulate this. Instead she therefore tried to turn her hips and squeeze her legs together in order to avoid a penetration … AA tried several times to reach for a condom, which Assange had stopped her from doing by holding her arms and bending her legs open and trying to penetrate her with his penis without using a condom. AA says that she felt about to cry since she was held down and could not reach a condom and felt this could end badly.’

The defence also tried to explain how, despite being asleep, and therefore unable to consent, AA actually did consent to sex with Assange:

‘They fell asleep and she woke up by his penetrating her. She immediately asked if he was wearing anything. He answered: "You." She said: "You better not have HIV." He said: "Of course not." She may have been upset, but she clearly consented to its [the sexual encounter's] continuation and that is a central consideration.’

The lawyer for Sweden’s response was:

“they did not freely consent without coercion" but agreed to sex because of physical force, or consented "already having been trapped into a position where they had no choice, and they submitted to Mr Assange's attentions".”

Consent, meaningful consent, doesn’t exist if you don’t have a free choice. It is meaningless if you are coerced verbally, or physically, or pressured into sex that you don’t want to have but don’t feel you have the words to say no, or are penetrated when you are asleep or unconscious. Statutory rape means that you cannot consent if you the law considers you to be emotionally and physically a child. And yet, Assange’s defence, and Judge Moses, are throwing this truth away. They are claiming that consent can be given in your sleep, that physical force doesn’t matter, that a child can meaningfully consent to group sex because she is already sexually experienced and had lied about her age. What does this mean? What does this mean for how we talk about rape, how we understand consent?

I’ll finish with this point. Judge Moses called for the change of sentence in part for all I’ve mentioned above, but in part because ‘the men and their families had suffered as a result of their jail terms when it had been their own 'frank confessions' that landed them in court.’ He also cites that they believed the girls to be older.

There’s a lesson here. Anyone out there who rapes a child, but who then can find a way that makes it look like the child was to blame has nothing to worry about. Just admit it frankly, show a bit of remorse and easy. You’ll be out of jail in less than a year.


Isytosy to Mail article re men’s release:

Isytosy to Mail article re men’s conviction:

Guardian links to Assange appeal hearing:

Childline: 0800 1111
Bristol Rape Crisis:

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Media reporting on rape, the daily mail and Strauss-Kahn

This post originally appeared on the Fresh Outlook

There is a pervasive rape myth that influences a lot of the ways newspapers and mainstream media outlets continue to talk about rape. Feminists call this the myth of the ‘perfect victim’. It is a myth because of course a perfect victim does not exist. But what this myth does is create a false divide between victims and survivors of rape who the media consider ‘innocent’, and victims and survivors who the media paint as blameworthy, or guilty of ‘causing’ the rape. This happens in many ways. A recent news report in the Daily Mail blamed a 12-year old girl for being gang raped, reporting the defence statement that claimed she was a ‘Lolita’ who had accepted alcohol from the men who then raped her and her friend, as well as calling her a liar because she led them to believe she was older than she was. These children were painted as ‘bad’ victims because they were out at night, drinking alcohol, and were ‘dressed provocatively’. Comments on the news stories painted the perpetrators of the rape as the victims of these girls, as they had been ‘led on’ and ‘tricked’ by girls who were dressed ‘sluttily’.

The myth of the perfect victim means that much of the reporting around violence against women and girls falls into two distinct categories. Firstly, when rape is reported in the news (rarely) then it will generally be a story about stranger rape. Despite the fact that stranger rape is far, far less common than rape by a partner, friend or colleague, it makes up the bulk of news reported rape cases. More often than not, the victim or survivor will be white, middle class, sober, and attacked in the day or early evening. Two – the rape will be reported as a ‘cry-rape’ case. This is when the case has not progressed, or the accused hasn’t been found guilty for whatever reason. In this case, the media assume that the woman lied about the rape, even if the defendant has not gone on to accuse or charge the women with false accusation. Despite the false accusation rate being between 3-5%, whilst 100,000 UK women are raped each year, the media paints a picture that all non-convicted rape cases are ‘cry rape’ stories, which is simply not true. A quick search of the term ‘cry rape’ on the Daily Mail website reveals 166 stories, including coverage of the recent Dominique Strauss-Kahn case.

The recent reporting around the Dominique Strauss-Kahn case shows how pervasive the myth of the perfect victim is. Here we have a very powerful, very respected political leader. He has a history of sexual harassment and since his arrest more women have come forward with claims of sexual assault. He is accused of sexual assault by a poor, black woman from an immigrant community who cleans his hotel room. He is arrested for sexual assault. But if you read some papers, this isn’t the story at all. This is a ‘sex scandal’. This is British and US women being ‘uptight’ whilst the French have a more ‘relaxed’ attitude to sex. And finally, this is an unreliable woman, who, *gasp*, may have worked in prostitution, lying about sexual assault, victimising a powerful man, for financial gain.

Firstly, sexual assault is not a ‘sex scandal’. It is a crime. He didn’t get caught having an affair. He was accused of sexual assault. Secondly, British and US women are not ‘uptight’ about sexual assault, and French women are not ‘relaxed’ about sexual assault. If a crime has been committed, if he did assault a woman, then the news story isn’t about national stereotypes around sex, but about violence against women. Thirdly, and this is where the myth of the perfect victim crops up again, poor, black women from immigrant communities who know some dodgy characters do get raped and sexually assaulted too. None of these things make her an unreliable witness. Her class, her nationality, her immigration status, the fact that she has gone through FGM, the fact she didn’t tell immigration officials that she had gone through FGM; none of this is relevant to the case. What is relevant is the DNA evidence, which clearly shows that something did happen and needs to be investigated. 

The New York post is now being sued by representatives of the woman regarding stories in their paper claiming she had worked in prostitution, something which she says is not true. The paper seems to believe that a history of working in prostitution discredits you as a witness in a sexual assault case. They seem to believe that it means she couldn’t have been sexually assaulted. Dominique Strauss-Kahn is released on bail, and suddenly the woman is in the metaphorical dock, as her history is raked over to ‘prove’ that she was lying.

Due process says innocent before proven guilty. This is the cornerstone of justice. But innocent before proven guilty does not translate to ‘woman must be lying’. It means that each party is believed and allowed a voice and legal representation. And yet so often when it comes to cases around violence against women, there is a presumption that the woman is making it up. Rape myths live in juries’ heads, in lawyers’ heads, in CPS officers’ heads, in police officers’ heads and they are perpetuated by the media over and over again.

Sadly, tragically, all women still know that if they accuse a man of rape of sexual assault, or rape, they are taking a risk. They are taking a risk that they won’t be believed. They are taking a risk that their past will be raked over, that the actions they took before, during and after the alleged assault will be twisted to discredit them. We know that if we drank alcohol, took drugs, were out on our own at night, had had consensual sex previously with the accused, had known the accused, had dressed ‘provocatively’ then we could be discredited. We women know that if we go to the police we might not be believed. If the police believe us, then the case may still fall apart. We know that if the accused rapist is not found guilty, then we will be accused of lying. Great leaps have been made to improve justice for rape victims and survivors in the last 50 years. But still, most rapes go unreported, still most rapists walk free. And when we see the treatment of a woman who accuses a man of sexual assault in perhaps the biggest international news story in the world, is it any wonder that most sexual assaults remain unreported, and the UK conviction rate remains at 6.5%.

This post has been picked up by Liberal Conspiracy here:


The men who were sentenced for raping a 12 year old girl have been released. Apparently the girl was more "sexually experienced than the men" and "wanted sex".

The fact that a child cannot meaningfully consent to sex doesn't seem to matter to our judges in this case. Excuse me whilst i cry.

Sunday, 10 July 2011

Female genital cutting is an issue for all women

As I am sure many of you are aware, there is often a silence surrounding the issue of female genital mutilation.

So much of this silence comes from the belief that FGM is something unique to African and Muslim communities, and that ‘cultural sensitivity’ dictates that women and men outside the FGM practising community must not speak about it.

But we need to start breaking this silence, and we need to start seeing where there are links between the issues around FGM, and the wider, encompassing issues that exist around controlling women’s sexuality, women’s bodies, as well as the cultural idealisation of women’s sexuality. This isn’t a cultural problem just for African women. It is part of a much wider issue about the way we think about women’s bodies and violence against women.

When we listen to the women and the men in the film The Cutting Tradition, we hear attitudes towards women’s bodies and sexuality that we are all familiar with. We hear that women’s labia and clitorises are ugly, that they dangle down, that they are not “neat”. This is used to explain why girls are cut by the FGM practising communities in the film, and we see this very same language being used towards young girls, girls as young as sixteen, who are seeking labiaplasty. They have their labia cut and trimmed to achieve “neatness”. This procedure happens in order for the woman to fit a narrow and male defined version of sexy, learned from porn movies. Ironically, if it wasn’t so upsetting, in the quest to achieve this narrow definition of sexiness, the surgery often causes a loss of sexual feeling. Labiaplasty is now so mainstream, that celebrity doctors go on TV on Channel 4’s Embarrassing Bodies and help young girls achieve the ‘designer vagina’ they have seen in porn movies. Girls are learning that their genitals are ugly from an early age, and are hearing a message that they need
correcting in order to fit the idealised version of femininity sold to us. The setting may be different, but the language, and the source, is the same.

Because just as with FGM, this all stems from a hatred and disgust of women’s bodies and sexuality, and a desire to try and make them fit into a dominant cultural view of what is correct. And although FGM, and labiaplasty are ostensibly done by women or chosen by women, they are ultimately done in order to please men, either by creating the ‘perfect vagina’ of porn, or by readying the girl for marriage.

Female genital mutilation, from the operations done on wayward or historical girls in Victorian England, to the cutting tradition across the range of cultures we have seen in the film today, to labiaplasty happening in expensive doctor surgeries across the world, all of it is almost always rooted in the same source – a desire to control women’s sexuality and a disgust over women’s genitals and sexuality.

FGM does not standalone. FGM is not a cultural issue. It is not something that we cannot or should not talk about. Lets start seeing FGM as part of a pattern of gender based violence that oppresses all women. Because when we do that, we can start to tackle the very roots of the problem, and end this human rights violation.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

Hands off my uterus!

This piece originally appeared on the Fresh Outlook:

The last few months have seen numerous attacks on a woman’s right to choose, both here and in the USA. In preparation for the pro-choice demo on London this Saturday, here are a few thoughts on what’s been happening to our right to bodily autonomy on both sides of the pond.

Women were given the legal right to abortion in 1967 if they lived in England, Scotland or Wales. Abortion has never been legalised in Northern Ireland, and abortion on demand has never been granted to women in Great Britain. A woman needs to get the signatures of two doctors if she wishes to have an abortion, and the doctors have to confirm that continuing with the pregnancy will cause harm to the woman’s mental or physical health. A doctor can refuse to give information about abortion. In 2007, a bill was presented to reduce the upper-time limit (currently 24 weeks) for the procedure. Although it failed to pass, all but one member of the Tory front bench at the time voted in favour of reducing the time limit.

Abortion has always been a thornier issue in the USA, where abortion providers often find their lives at risk, and some have been murdered, by anti-choice activists. One of George Bush’s first acts as President was to re-introduce a gagging order that prevented international aid being given to hospitals or healthcare providers that offered abortion. One of Barack Obama’s first acts was to reverse this gag; however, his presidency has not been free from abortion related controversy. One recent proposed change to USA law included banning abortion unless the pregnancy was a result of a “violent rape”, something that obviously angered feminists. Many conservative states have proposed law changes to ban abortion completely, and this month Kansas - unsuccessfully - tried to shut down abortion providers in the state. A further attack on women’s bodily autonomy has led to cases where women who have miscarried are facing murder charges and life sentences for ‘killing’ their unborn child.

Back to the UK, where Nadine Dorries and Frank Field have proposed a change to current regulations around abortion. They want to force women seeking an abortion to have counselling from what they call “independent counsellors”. By independent, they mean services that do not actually provide abortions, ruling out the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Marie Stopes International and the NHS. This is in spite of the fact that all of these services already offer unbiased, fair and informative counselling. This change gives anti-choice groups an opportunity to ‘fill this gap’ with counselling that could actively discourage a woman from having an abortion, rather than offering unbiased advice. The Department of Health have given signals that they are considering implementing this change, without it going through a parliamentary vote first.

Basically, what this means, is that a woman’s right to choose could be restricted, without parliament being given the opportunity to vote for it.

If a woman wants counselling before deciding to have an abortion then she has the right to unbiased advice. The accusation that Ms Dorries and Mr Field make, that abortion providers have an ‘interest’ (i.e. financial) in the woman having an abortion, so therefore would encourage her to have one, is ludicrous.

Furthermore, forcing a woman to go through a course of counselling before deciding whether or not to have an abortion, particularly counselling from a potentially anti-choice organisation, is not an option. No-one should be forced to have counselling for starters, but this perpetuates the myth that an abortion is something shaming for a woman, and that she needs help. It suggests that women aren’t able to make this decision themselves, even when they don’t want or need counselling. It also pushes back the date where a woman can have her abortion, leading to it having to happen later in the woman’s pregnancy.

Ms Dorries often reports that women who have an abortion suffer “post abortion trauma syndrome”. This is not backed up by scientific evidence. Of course some women do experience emotional pain, trauma and depression after an abortion. But a lot of women don’t, and the idea that they should feel shame, that it should be kept secret, and that they should behave and react in a certain way underpins a lot of anti-abortion rhetoric and proposals.

In ‘How to be a Woman’, Caitlin Moran talks frankly about her decision to have an abortion. Like many other women, she knows that this is the right decision for her. The operation itself is painful and unpleasant. But fundamentally, the freedom to make the choice, to have bodily autonomy, allowed her to make the decision that was right for her and her family. In ‘The Equality Illusion’ we hear women talk about the relief they felt at making the decision to have a termination. Columnist Zoe Williams has written extensively about the culture of shame and apology that surrounds abortion, which contradicts the way many women actually feel about the procedure. Hearing these stories emphasises how much we need to end this culture of shame around something that affects so many women in the UK.

Abortion is not a decision any woman makes lightly. Whilst some women feel relief and freedom, other women do feel unhappy and depressed. Some women need to have counselling beforehand, and afterwards. Some women don’t. But all women need to have the right to choose to end a pregnancy. All women need to have the right to bodily autonomy. All women need to have the right to choose. Eroding this right, be it by blocking the NHS, Marie Stopes and the BPAS offering counselling, or reducing the upper-time limit, or maintaining a rhetoric of shame and secrecy about abortion, is simply not acceptable.

The Department of Health cannot and must not let this change be implemented without a debate in parliament.