The heat is rising around the news that a few MPs – including Nadine Dorries and Frank Field – have tabled an amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill calling for compulsory counselling for women contemplating an abortion. They say the counselling offered by organisations such as BPAS and Marie Stopes is not good enough, because such organisations are paid by the NHS to carry out terminations and thus have a commercial interest in encouraging women to go ahead with the procedure. (According to the Mail they carried out 100,000 abortions last year, funded mostly by the NHS and were paid £60 million for doing so).
One could get into all sorts of arguments here, including why MPs are calling for counselling just for abortions, as opposed to any other form of elective procedure. The answer to that, of course, is that abortion is political in a way that other medical procedures aren’t, and it’s not really about a woman’s health, be it mental or physical, it’s about people believing that abortions are wrong and wanting to stop them. The Mail headline, referring to ‘abortion toll’, makes that clear.
I may blog about those arguments in more detail at some point, but for the moment let me just point out a few things about the parliamentary process on this… The Health and Social Care Bill is due to come back to the Commons for Report Stage and Third Reading on Tuesday and Wednesday the week Parliament returns, i.e. the 6th and 7th of September. You can follow its progress here, on the parliament website.
The Bill has of course been hugely controversial, and various parts of it were recommitted after the Government realised the extent of the opposition. And there will, no doubt, be a sizeable number of amendments tabled at report stage. It is then up to the Speaker, with advice from the clerks and some discussion with the whips, to decide which amendments will be called for debate, and whether some amendments will be ‘grouped’ for debate, and in what order they will be taken. We won’t get round to discussing all the amendments, and if we don’t get to those on abortion, Parliament won’t be voting on them (but see below…..)
I think it’s highly likely that the Speaker will give priority to those amendments which actually relate to the subject matter of this Bill, i.e. NHS reorganisation, and those on abortion will be in a separate grouping towards the end of the list. It will be interesting to see how the anti-abortionists respond if Bercow doesn’t give their amendments top billing… Nadine Dorries has fallen out with the Speaker before on the abortion issue, when as a humble backbencher he tabled amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, prompting her to blog about “the pursuit of gynaecological bloodsports”.
HOWEVER….. the Guardian is reporting that there is Government support for the amendments. And if the Government decide to table their own amendments, things change a little. It doesn’t make it certain that we would get to debate the topic, but the Government – and only the Government – is entitled to move its amendments to the vote, even if they haven’t been debated. So they could still just move formally at the end of the day, and there will be a vote. If it was simply a backbench amendment they wouldn’t be able to do so. (I’m always a bit tentative when blogging about parliamentary procedure, as it’s often a mystery to all but the longest serving whips, but I think I’ve got that right!)
The Guardian report also suggests though that the Government doesn’t think legislation is needed… So you may see amendments being withdrawn on a Government promise to ‘fix it’ some other way. Through NHS guidelines? I’m really not sure.
PS Tomorrow’s Guardian has an update on this, billing it as a triumph for the Christian right ‘grabbing the moral agenda’… This could be the tip of the iceberg.