'I am doing this to empower women'
Friday 2nd September 2011
Nadine Dorries spent her summer trying to change the rules on abortion counselling. Was it worth it, Alice Thomson asks her
The foetus was still alive in the bed pan, it was gasping for breath, I could see its little face and its sex," says Nadine Dorries. "As an 18-year-old trainee nurse, I was absolutely horrified. I had been told to get rid of it in the sluice machine but I ran to the matron to say it was breathing."
The matron was furious. "She wheeled around in her chair and stormed into the sluice room, looked at the bedpan and told me it was now dead. She almost pushed me against the wall, and said: 'You'd better toughen up, young lady.' But this felt more like a murder than a medical procedure."
Oh Nadine, do you have to be so graphic? The Tory MP for Mid Bedfordshire has spent the past seven years in Parliament fighting about abortion. She has her views on MPs' expenses, all-women shortlists, schools, John Bercow and even high heels, but it's her stance on abortion that has caused her to become vilified. She's been called Britain's Sarah Palin, a fantasist, mendacious, grubby and dangerous by the pro-abortionists.
She has twice tried to reduce the time limit for abortion and next week MPs will vote on her amendment to provide independent counselling for women seeking an abortion that won't include the big service providers.
When I meet Dorries, now 54, she looks exhausted. She has just moved into her new home on the edge of a cul-de-sac in Harlington and everything is in turmoil. Her leg is swollen and bruised from a recent accident, her face is as crumpled as her shirt, she can't find her iron, the dog is chewing the furniture and she has been working all summer while her colleagues have been texting her from Barbados. But she is convinced that she is on the verge of a breakthrough.
I have always thought that Britain was rather civilised when it came to the issue of abortion, unlike America. It is one of those increasingly rare issues that is still considered private. We don't picket clinics, or try to maim those who carry out terminations. Few of us base our vote on the issue; we are more concerned about the economy, health and crime.
So why can't Dorries relax and shut up? Having spent an afternoon with her, I still think that this doll-like blonde's amendment is flawed, but I admire her tenacity. Her views veer from rational and practical to passionate and emotive; she is not always logical and her facts are sometimes wrong, her reasoning intuitive rather than intellectual. But nor is she out to destroy a woman's chance of terminating an unwanted pregnancy before 20 weeks. I believe her when she says that she just wants to ensure that women have a real choice in pregnancy.
The reason she keeps going, she says, is the letters she receives from women who have been traumatised by their abortions. "It's this whole wham, bam, in, out, you're aborted with no chance to draw breath. They can't talk about it in the playground but their devastating sense of loss makes me weep."
The former nurse used to prep women having terminations.
"I can remember terrified young girls, older women with children, bullying husbands, women on their third abortion, all of them seemed dazed and upset."
She has even watched a late abortion for her research a few years ago, and launches into another graphic account — too graphic, frankly, to reproduce here. Yet here is one of her inconsistencies. If women are offered independent counselling, it could mean more late abortions as they will have to delay the procedure to seek a therapist. At the moment the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) manages to perform 75 per cent of its abortions before ten weeks, up from 40 per cent in 2000 — that seems like progress. "Some people need a bit more time, space, a person to listen to, it could help them later," Dorries says.
So let's say I am an 18-year-old girl who has unexpectedly become pregnant just as I am about to go to college, what advice would the independent counsellor be expected to give? "They won't be able to advise or direct. They will just facilitate the woman to go through all the options and talk things through. If she decides to go ahead and abort, she will do so empowered, knowing that she explored every opportunity; that she wasn't influenced or in a panic, that she has reached a calm and informed decision.
The problem is that abortion in this country is now so fast, so effective, so rapid, that it is too efficient for its own good and has lost all empathy. In pilots where women are offered independent counselling, 50 per cent of those who ask for it don't then opt for an abortion."
But deciding to bring a baby into the world is a huge commitment — should we really be encouraging women to have a baby if they are unsure that they can yet face the responsibility? "Adoption is the big issue we never mention," she replies. "Only two babies were adopted last year. [The figure is actually 70.] It's the final taboo. You can take no comfort from abortion because it is terminal but you can take comfort from an adoption because you can turn a horrible mistake into something life-enhancing for other people."
Has Dorries any idea what it might be like to hand over a baby after birth? Surely that is more traumatising than an abortion? "I don't know how agonising it would be to give away your baby," she replies politely, "but I know many adopted children who have lived wonderful lives; they are often high achievers."
She doesn't believe that there is any such thing as a guilt-free abortion. "Many women are fine until they are in their fifties, when it hits them. I don't want to be over-emotional, but I think that most people who have had an abortion will think about it at some time — I don't think they necessarily remember due dates, but they usually think of who they could have had in their lives. A lot of the pro-abortionists who have had abortions can't stop talking about it, maybe it's cathartic. It's like a healing process."
But what about cost? Tasteless as it sounds, this counselling is going to cost the Treasury cash. "If the number of abortions falls, that should save money so it shouldn't cost more."
The biggest sticking point, however, has been who should provide the counselling. "There are 80,000 counsellors in this country. This is not about religious zealots. I was brought up in the Church of England but I rarely go to church. God has no place in a counselling room with a woman in a crisis pregnancy, but neither does anyone paid to carry out an abortion. The counselling room should be a zone free from anyone who has an agenda."
Yet Marie Stopes and the BPAS, the two biggest agencies, are charities: they don't make any money out of convincing women to have an abortion.
Just opening up the issue risks taking us down the US route. But in Dorries's world, it is the Left stirring things up. "If the Left carry on campaigning in the way they are, they will turn us into another America," she warns. "If they carry on trying to defend the indefensible, they will cause huge unhappiness. This amendment only offers women counselling; it isn't compulsory, it is just for those with doubts, so why are they opposing it? Because they worry it will mean fewer abortions and that would horrify them."
Dorries, on the other hand, thinks that almost 200,000 abortions a year in Britain is too many. "The political climate has encouraged it. We have a law saying you can't have an abortion for social reasons, yet 98 per cent of abortions happen because of that. So the law has been an ass in this area. There has also been a lack of moral framework. Years ago, teachers, parents, the Church had a role. When I grew up in Liverpool there was an invisible moral framework that as teenagers you bounced off.
"Teenagers are now in freefall, it's quite scary for them, there are few boundaries, no reason not to have sex. The welfare state encourages them to make mistakes — if they get pregnant, they often don't realise that they could lose their place in education, the workplace, their partners will leave them, they could enter old age in poverty and alone."
Then shouldn't they have an abortion? "It's better to teach them not to have unprotected sex. That's why I wanted them to learn about abstinence in schools, to help these girls to have a future."
If one of her three daughters had become pregnant in her teens, Dorries says that she would have looked after the baby for her. "Mums used to do that — they offered to help to bring up a child. Now family breakdown, social breakdown, societal breakdown, the broken society, lack of moral framework, our selfishness, stops us all helping each other out."
She says that she would never judge a woman for getting pregnant by mistake. "It could happen so easily to most of us. I just want to know that a woman isn't having an abortion because her friends want her to, or her partner, or mum, dad or teacher suggests it. I can understand why anyone goes for an abortion but I want them to have a choice and not to think that it is the only solution and it is easy. I am like this one-woman band."
What about men: where do they fit into her campaign? She split up with her husband five years ago, and says that she always thought pregnancy was a woman's issue. "Men shouldn't be allowed in the counselling room, the final choice must always be the woman's."
She describes herself as a feminist, "although not like some. I am the mother of three girls and I am very aware of the inequality for women in life, I admire Harriet Harman for what she has achieved for women. I am also doing this for women, to empower them."
A lot of people disagree in the most violent terms. "The abuse has been dreadful, really horrific, too disgusting to print. People want to strangle me until my eyes pop out and burn me. They throw eggs through our windows. My daughter works in our office and she reads the letters first. She is leaving now, the toll has been so huge on her. My other daughter had to put up with snide comments from teachers."
The Labour MP Frank Field has seconded her amendment. "He doesn't get death threats. He gets nothing because he is from the Left and a man."
At the beginning of this week, she thought she might have pulled off the greatest abortion shake-up since 1967 when David Cameron appeared to be behind her. "The Prime Minister had coffee with me. He wanted the word 'strongly' independent included; he had the same worries as me that the amendment would be taken over by religious groups or pro-abortion groups, that it had to be neutral," she says. "David is supportive. He is the one driving it at No 10, it will happen."
Yesterday, though, the Prime Minister made it clear that he will not support her amendment. His spokesman explained: "We have real sympathy for Nadine's proposals but you can't exclude the big providers from the counselling process or you will throw the whole system into disarray, which will be much more damaging for women in the end."
It's hard to believe the effort has been worth it. "I can't let myself think like that," Dorries says. "I can't stop now. I will keep fighting for this and lowering the abortion limit to 20 weeks. I have to keep going because no one else does. People feel embarrassed, horrified, that it's too emotive or distasteful, but we have to have a grown-up conversation about the issue. Many ordinary people agree with me, my constituents have been incredibly supportive. People have listened and heard: it's like a race and I am determined to power through to the end."
Sadly for her, most ordinary women simply don't agree.
Sep 2, 2011
Below is the full text of the interview in the Times that has Nadine Dorries lashing out at Alice Thomson. We're releasing it into the public domain so Nadine's (textbook) response might be seen in its proper context: