Dorries Through the Looking Glass

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all.’

Lewis Carroll, ‘Through the Looking Glass’, Chapter 6.

I know the Ministry is increasingly coming to look like ‘Dorrieswatch’ but bear with me here, there are one or two things that still need bottoming out properly before I move to other, more interesting issues.

Okay, so where are we? Ah, yes, we’re back to the veracity (or otherwise) of Nadine Dorries’ claim to be ‘neither pro-life or pro-choice’, which is rapidly getting to be a bit of zombie argument. It doesn’t matter how much documentary evidence you throw at it, the argument still keeps right on coming, leaving you with no option but to go for the head-shot.

So, let’s begin by getting the politics out of way first and explain why Dorries and her buddies in the anti-abortion movement are desperate to create the [false] perception that she’s neither ‘pro-life’ or pro-choice.

The simple answer is that the anti-abortion movement in the UK understands perfectly well that they haven’t got a whelk in a supernova’s chance of persuading the majority of the British public to buy into the idea of a total or near total ban on abortion. That particular horse bolted a long time ago and for many years the polling figures on abortion have been pretty consistent in showing overall public support for abortion rights at 60% and above, with only 9-10% support for outright prohibition.The anti-abortion movement’s moral arguments on abortion have proven, over the last years, to be wholly ineffective in shifting public opinion in their direction.

By way of a response to this situation, our own anti-abortion movement has in recent years been borrowing their tactics from their US counterparts and has sought to chip away at the edges of public support for abortion rights by relying on a combination of scaremongering, push-polling and the promotion of junk science, e.g. claims linking abortion to breast cancer or to an increase risk of mental health problems, none of which stand up to close scrutiny. However, unlike their US counterparts, our own native anti-abortion movement cannot rely on the religiosity of either the general public or Members of Parliament to push their agenda forward and secure changes in abortion law. There simply isn’t the appetite for theocracy in Britain that one finds in some parts of the United States and this translates, in practice, into a general distrust of politicians, where they are seen to actively pushing a religious agenda on particular social issues.

In September 2005, when the Alive and Kicking Campaign was launched by a coalition of eight Christian anti-abortion organisations that included the Lawyers’ Christian Fellowship (and Andrea Minichiello Williams), what the campaign desperately needed in order to make any real headway was what is known in security circles as a ‘cleanskin‘; a Member of Parliament who could work on their behalf but, crucially, one that was not already known to public for their religious affiliations and outright opposition to abortion rights.

Enter Nadine Dorries, the-then newly elected Member of Parliament for the constituency of Mid Bedfordshire.

With Dorries in play, the anti-abortion movement were now in a position to run with another idea they’d picked up from the United States, a wedge strategy.

For the uninitiated, the term ‘wedge strategy’ is most closely associated with the US-based creationist organisation, the Discovery Institute, which promotes the so-called theory of ‘Intelligent Design (aka ‘creationism in a cheap tuxedo’), although in practical terms it borrows heavily from campaign tactics developedt by, amongst others, the US tobacco lobby.

Wedge strategies aim to engineer a shift in public opinion by selling the public the idea that the public/political debate on a particular issue is overwhelming dominated by two diametrically opposed and irreconcilable positions, which we’ll call ‘Position A’ and ‘Position B’, both of which represent extreme viewpoints, e.g. creationism and evolution. Having sold this idea to the public, the group behind the wedge strategy then presents its own position ‘Position C’ as being a moderate position that falls more or less in between the two supposedly extreme views that have previously dominated the debate, e.g. ‘Intelligent Design’. what a wedge strategy offers the public is a false compromise because, as in variably the case in wedge strategies, one of the two initial positions is nothing like as ‘extreme’ as the group running the strategy pretends while their own ‘compromise’ position turns out to be much close to, if not indistinguishable from, the other ‘extreme’ position, which is where they’ve really been trying to get to all along.

If that all sounds a little complicated then, hopefully, this illustration will make this idea a little easier to digest:

Relating this directly to the abortion debate in the UK, Position A is the extreme anti-abortion position which seeks a total or near-total ban on all abortions, while Position B represents a pro-choice position which more or less supportive current abortion law, under which abortion is legal up to 24 weeks gestation other than in relatively rare cases of serious foetal abnormality or where continuation of a pregnancy to term would put a woman’s life at risk. I say ‘more or less’ supportive here in the sense that the mainstream pro-choice position also supports the introduction of a number of liberalising measures that would make it easier for women to obtain an abortion in the early stages of their pregnancy (i.e. before 12-13 weeks gestation) when the risk of complications arising out of the procedure is at its lowest.

Position C is, therefore, the false compromise offered by the group behind the wedge strategy, i.e. Dorries’ claim that she is ‘neither pro-life or pro-choice’, a position that is promoted in the hope that the public will come to believe that the overall balance of the debate looks very much like the top see-saw when, in reality, its the see-saw at the bottom that illustrate the real position; one in which the ‘compromise position’ (Position C) is more or less indistinguishable from the extreme anti-abortion view (Position A) while the pro-choice position (Position B) is much closer to the middle ground relative to a hypothetical Position D (not shown) which represents a genuinely extreme pro-choice view (abortion should be legal up to birth in all circumstances) which commands little or no public support outside radical feminist circles.

As should be obvious, wedge strategies are based entirely on propoganda, disinformation and the deliberate psychological manipulation of the general public and public opinion. As such, they can be effective only if the public remains blissfully unaware of the fact that they are being manipulated hence the need, in this case, for a public spokesperson (Dorries) who could not immediately be identified as being either motivated solely by her religious beliefs or closely connected with any known anti-abortion campaign groups.

This also, naturally enough, explains why Dorries’ and her anti-abortion supporters, such as Dr Peter Saunders, find it necessary to go to pretty tortuous lengths to maintain the fiction that she is ‘neither pro-life or pro-choice’, despite the ever accumulating weight of evidence to the contrary, leaving us with yet another raft of unconvincing arguments to dismantle, such as:

Dorries ran foul of the pro-life movement some years ago when she proposed a ten minute rule bill that attempted to introduce better counselling for crisis pregnancies on the one hand whilst creating a fast-track to abortion, for those who wanted it, on the other. As a result she attracted the wrath of both sides and prominent pro-life members of parliament joined forces with pro-choice members against her. [Peter Saunders]

Saunders’ argument is fairly typical of the kind of deliberate misrepresentations, misdirections and general dishonesty one encounters when trying to pin down and evidence Dorries’ real position on abortion. His claim that Dorries’s ten minute rule bill would have created a ‘fast-track to abortion’ is simply unsustainable if one takes the time to consult Hansard and review the transcript (provided by Abortion Rights) of her attempt to introduce the bill:

Mrs. Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con)

: I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to reduce the time limit for legal termination of pregnancy from 24 to 21 weeks; to introduce a cooling off period after the first point of contact with a medical practitioner about a termination; to require the provision of 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; to enable the time period from the end of the cooling off period to the date of termination to be reduced; and for connected purposes.

In pitching her bill, it’s true that Dorries refers to a reduction in the time period from the end of her proposed ‘cooling off’ period to the date of termination but, in practice, her proposals would had have precisely the opposite effect on women seeking a termination:

With the introduction of a cooling-off period, whenever a woman says to herself “If only”, she would in future be able to reassure herself that she was helped, that she had thought long and hard and that she was given all the knowledge and advice that she needed. She will take comfort from the fact that a decision was not rushed or panicked, but well thought through. That does not happen now. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service website advertises that from the point of seeing a doctor, abortion will be performed in five days. That is abortion on demand…

…The third part of my Bill is designed to ensure that after the 10-day cooling-off period, when the woman decides to proceed with the termination, those 10 days are not added to the waiting period.

So, as Dorries herself points out, under existing abortion laws there is, for women who approach the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, a five-day wait between the initial counselling appointment and the actual procedure, this being nothing more than the standard lead-time between booking and undergoing the procedure. Dorries’ ‘cooling off’ period would have doubled this delay to 10 days while still allowing women to book-in their termination in advance, i.e. during the counselling appointment that marked the beginning of the ‘cooling-off’ period, rather than forcing them to wait until the cooling-off period had expired before booking the actual procedure. That’s Dorries’ ‘fast-track’, an additional five delay over an above existing BPAS practice or, to put it much more accurately, a steaming pile of bullshit.

As for Saunders claim that ‘ prominent pro-life members of parliament joined forces with pro-choice members against her’, a quick look at the division lists indicates that the only prominent pro-life MP to vote against Dorries’ bill was Jim Dobbin, a Roman Catholic who chairs the Parliamentary All Party Pro-life Group. Dobbin, if one looks up his voting record, would happily vote against anything that hadn’t received the personal approval of the Pope and is, therefore, anything but a reliable guide to the views of an anti-abortion movement, most of which has signed up to a gradualist approach to restricting abortion which includes the use of Dorries’ as the focal point of their wedge strategy. Several prominent anti-abortion MPs (e.g. Ann Widdecombe, Edward Leigh) were absent when the division was called, while others, including David Burrowes, Desmond Swayne, Andrew Selous, Gary Streeter, Alan Beith & Tim Farron, all of whom have taken on interns from CARE (Christian Action Research & Education – another founder member of the Alive and Kicking Campaign) voted with Dorries.

In a similar vein, Saunders adds:

Whilst having voted for a lowering of the upper limit to twelve weeks in 2008 (and being one of only 60 or so MPs who did so), she does not oppose very early abortion, and whilst backing a lowering of the upper limit for able-bodied babies, she does not back a similar lowering for babies who are disabled. These positions lose her considerable support from pro-life lobby groups.

To accept Saunders’ argument here one has to buy into the idea that Dorries has been open, honest and transparent in publicly expressing her views on abortion and in her dealings with the public on this issue – yeah, right.

In 2008, Dorries fronted a relatively high-profile campaign for a reduction in the upper limit to 20 weeks during which it emerged, in a Channel 4 documentary, that she was working behind the scenes with Saunders’ buddy, Andrea Minichiello Williams (ex-Lawyer Christian Fellowship, currently heading up Christian Concern and a director of the Christian Legal Centre). Her campaign website was also the work of one of Minichiello Williams’ operations (Christian Concern), a detail that Dorries chose not to mention at the time and, of course, having run a very public campaign for a 20 week upper limit, she actually voted for a 12 week limit, although not before she’d expressed a preference for a 9 week limit in comments at the Spectator.

As for her position on late-term abortions in cases of serious foetal abnormality, its perfectly true that Dorries has not publicly come against such abortions. She did, however put forward two disability related amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, in conjunction with Frank Field; one to exclude a small number of specific disabilities from those for which a late-term could be carried out and another to increase the number of doctors required to sign-off on a late-term abortion to three. Dorries also voted in favour of a disability-related compulsory information/counselling amendment and narrowly avoided tipping her hand on the general question of late term abortions only because the amendment that did seek to prohibit such abortions on the ground of foetal disability was dropped without being put to the vote.

Dorries’s reliance on the ‘shot by both sides’ argument is also in evidence at her own blog, where she cites criticism of her current amendments by Anthony Ozimic, the communications director of SPUC (Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child). Any wedge strategy worth its salt requires a few useful idiots who can relied upon to take an extreme line and attack anyone who falls short of their own exacting standards, even if they are working towards the same fundamental agenda. For the Discovery Institute and other proponents of ‘Intelligent Design’ there was no great shortage of useful idiots. The US is awash with young earth creationists who can be safely relied upon to publicly damn anyone who dares to suggest that the universe is anything more than 6,000 years old. In the UK, SPUC has reliably served much the same function in the ongoing abortion debate, which neatly explains why it was never a part of the Alive and Kicking coalition of anti-abortion organisations.

Ultimately, Dorries’ claim that she isn’t ‘pro-life’ rests on an extremely narrow definition of the term ‘pro-life’; i.e. opposition to abortion in any but the most extreme situations, if not in any circumstances, based on the belief that life begin at the moment of conception. This is, of course, the official doctrinal position of the Roman Catholic Church, although not one that has always found favour with its leading lights – Aquinas took the view that life begins with the ‘quickening’ (approx. 9 weeks gestation) the earliest point at which foetal movements in the womb could be felt by a pregnant woman, taking this to be the point at which the foetus acquired a human soul. It is also the view taken by some evangelical protestants and a more or less ubiquitous position in charismatic and other fundamentalist churches.

This is not, however, a universally held position within either Christianity or, indeed, the anti-abortion movement.Many Christians who equally consider themselves to be anti-abortion shy away from taking the view that life, and therefore ensoulment, occurs at the point of conception in order to bypass a somewhat awkward theological conundrum which arises from the fact that a significant percentage of conceptions either fail to result in a pregnancy at all – because the fertilised egg fails to implant – or spontaneously abort sufficiently early in the pregnancy as to leave women unaware of the fact that they were, in fact, pregnant. Although reliable data is difficult to come by, prospective studies suggest that anything up to 25% of pregnancies spontaneously abort in the first four weeks after conception (i.e. up to 6 weeks gestation), a fact which many Christian find difficult to reconcile with the belief that ensoulment occurs at the point of conception. God, as they see things, simply would not be anything like so wasteful of human souls.

A concise and useful outline of the range of different views on the beginnings of life that can be found amongst both religious believers and non-believers can be found in this spread from a GCSE-level RE textbook.

This argument is particular relevant given Dorries’ latest attempt to establish her ‘not pro-life’ credentials:

Last week Frank and I, to the horror of the pro-life movement, laid down an EDM to campaign for the morning after pill to be free. If the scope of the bill had allowed it, we would have laid it down as an amendment to the bill. If the rising rate of teenage pregnancy isn’t a concern to any government, it is to us. I am not quite sure what about that measure is  ‘hardline anti-abortion’.

And we’re back playing games with definitions, yet again, only this time I pass on the invitation to get into a debate over time limits because this is, to a considerable extent, something of side issue.

Notwithstanding Dorries’ apparent willingness to sacrifice a few blastocytes to the cause, the most revealing clue as to her real views on abortion, as opposed to those she feigns for the purpose of rooking the general public, is to be found in the same comment in which she disclosed an apparent preference for a 9 week upper limit:

I do not stand at zero weeks. I believe life begins and ends with the first and last heartbeat, which is around 9 – 12 weeks.

As usual, Dorries’ understanding of human biology leaves much to be desired – the first heartbeat occurs during the fifth week of gestation, a mere 22-28 days after conception – leaving us will two possible options for interpreting her comment. The charitable view would be that she genuinely believes that life begins with the first heartbeat but badly mistaken as to when this actually occurs. The less charitable alternative would be that she’s picked up the 9 week limit from another source – at the time Saunders’ produced his AAK presentation, a 9 week limit would notionally have delivered the 100,000 reduction in the annual number of abortions targeted by the campaign as its key short-term objective – and that she’s simply trying to some sort of justification for her position out of her arse.

Either way, Dorries comment on the beginning of life places her firmly within the anti-abortion camp, not because of the upper time limit she goes on to propose but simply because she couches her argument for that limit in terms of her apparent beliefs on the timing of the beginning of life of life.

This is a argument one simply wouldn’t see deployed by anyone who is genuinely pro-choice because it absolutely no relevance whatsoever to the main arguments in favour of abortion rights, which are typically couched in terms of women’s right to bodily autonomy and self-determination, questions of viability and in the correct application of JS Mill’s least harm principle to a situation in which the rights of both parties (i.e. the established rights of the woman and the notional rights of the foetus) are in conflict in such as way as to be incommensurable. If pushed to respond to a direct question about one’s views on the beginnings of life, most people who are pro-choice would take the view that biological life begins at conception but that this is of little or no consequence until the foetus either becomes viable (i.e. capable of surviving outside the womb) or begins to acquire the basic neurological structures necessary for the development of sentience and/or consciousness, both of which suggest an upper limit of around 24 weeks gestation.

Only within the anti-abortion movement, which is dominated by religionists, is any store placed on beliefs about the beginning of life as a limitation on the moral permissibility of abortion.

Dorries’ apparent support for free access to the morning after pill may be consistent with the view of the extreme moral and theological outlook of the ‘every sperm is sacred’ sector of the anti-abortion lobby, but it is anything but inconsistent with both the broad sweep of anti-abortion opinion amongst those who take a slightly different theological view on the beginnings of life or with the use of a wedge strategy as a means of pursuing the long-term goal of a total ban on abortion.

Although there remains the slight possibility that Dorries is no more than a willing, if somewhat unwitting stooge there can be little doubt that the agenda she’s pursuing is deeply rooted in that adopted by the Alive and Kicking campaign for all that the effort that she, and others associated with that campaign, have put into trying to suggest otherwise.