The Shameful Secret of Crisis Pregnancy Centres

Sometimes a story breaks in the UK that doesn’t get a fraction of the coverage it deserves.  This, to me is one of those stories.

Whatever your view on abortion, there is no doubt that the vast majority of women who seek them are vulnerable, in need of unbiased medical advice and, often, emotional support.  England, Wales and Scotland have a strong tradition of pro-choice support; abortion has been legal in these countries since the Abortion Act 1967 was passed.  Abortion in England, Wales and Scotland is legal up until the 24th week of pregnancy, and in cases of substantial risk to the mother’s life or foetal abnormalities, there is no time limit. Whilst there will always be stories of women here who felt judged, or made to feel guilt by choosing to terminate their pregnancy,  I maintain that it is a privilege to live in a country where women can take advantage of this support and of this choice.

The story that didn’t get told enough is as follows.  A recent undercover Daily Telegraph investigation unearthed 38 abortion advice centres across the UK have deliberately misled vulnerable women considering a termination, by providing misleading information on mental and physical health outcomes of abortion.

In the most grotesque example, a counsellor at the Central London Women’s Clinic told and undercover reporter that after abortion, there is an increased propensity to sexually abuse children.

Here is a transcript of what the counsellor, Annabel, told the undercover reporter (taken from The Telegraph investigation):

“There’s also an increased statistical likelihood of child abuse,” she said as she scanned a paper that listed possible consequences.

She explained further: “So when you have a child, you have natural maternal instincts towards the child and there are also natural barriers that surround the child that you don’t cross.”

“I would be more likely to abuse the child?” asked the woman.

“There is a statistical increase. I mean, I’m not saying it’s many people, obviously it’s still a very low percentage, but it just seems like there’s a correlation between the two,” replied the counsellor.

“Oh right. What kind of child abuse, like sexual abuse?” the woman asked.

“Yeah… it’s not many people but it seems like there is a correlation,” Annabel said. “I think it’s just because it can really confuse relationships with children.”

This counsellor also divulged that women who had terminations were 25% less likely to be able to carry a future pregnancy to full term, an increased risk of breast cancer and the “possibility of sterility”.  This is of course, far from medical fact or anywhere near aligned with advice from the Royal College of Obstetricians.

I still can’t read that transcript without wanting to drag this women (and the other counsellors like her) before the national media and compel them to explain themselves, force them to tell of the number of women they have deliberately misled, women who trusted them and came seeking help and an unbiased view and above all, the facts.

If you can face watching the video of the counsellor  divulging this misinformation under the guise of truth, you can watch it here.

One big tranche of the problem is that these centres run with little to no accountability.  Crisis Pregnancy Centres (CPCs) are a group of over 100 unregulated outlets across the UK that promote themselves as confidential advisory services for women trying to deal with an unplanned or unwanted pregnancy.  CPCs purport to offer counselling on pregnancy choices, free pregnancy testing and other services.

Most British women have never heard of them, and confusingly these centres often look like the official organisations properly trained and regulated to give out advice about abortions – such as Marie Stopes or the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS).

Some are run by umbrella organisations, such as CareConfidential, which has more than 100 centres across the UK, and LIFE – a ‘pro-life’ charity that provides support to “anyone facing a crisis pregnancy”.  Some are run by religious bodies.  Others claim to be completely independent.

They are privately run, operate independently of the NHS and are unregulated by any official body. As such, they are not legally obligated to give women medically accurate information.  Were these Centres making clear  that they are entirely independent of Government, that they are unregulated and often run by religious organisations, then whilst not acceptable, their practise could claim to be above board.   However, they are doing no such thing.  A number of CPCs have established links with the NHS (Care Confidential is actually signposted to by the NHS Choices website) and some claim to be receiving referrals from local GPs and hospitals. According to Brook , a national sexual health charity, at least four Care Confidential affiliated CPCs are located in GP practices or hospitals.

Take any given woman trying to make the decision to terminate a pregnancy.  All will deal with it in their own way.  None will deal with it lightly.  Add someone who is posing as a trained advisor in an “advice centre” seemingly affiliated with the NHS, throw in emotional manipulation, deception and medical fallacy, and you have a story about which the UK should be ashamed, appalled and up in arms.

But we aren’t. There was so little coverage. Why?  The Guardian and the Daily Mail ran stories on this in 2011 but they didn’t gain any traction.  The Daily Telegraph is the only paper to have really covered the story through its 2014 investigation – therehasbeen limited other coverage from smaller news outlets.  Where is the outrage?  Why isn’t the media all over this injustice?

There was an astonishing lack of accountability called for in Parliament on this issue.  The chair of the Health Select Committee has called on the Health Minister to act swiftly in investigating unregulated abortion counselling services in the UK.  He told The Telegraph “most people in this country will regard it as unacceptable for pregnant women to seek advice from somewhere, which says it offers advice, and receive people’s prejudiced opinions instead”.  

I’d say that’s understating it.

Is the lack of real, tangible interest because this is a women’s issue?  Unlikely – social media crawls with issues pertinent to women.  Is it because the subject matter isn’t incendiary enough?  Unlikely, the pro choice debate still divides people.

Perhaps we aren’t as progressive in the pro-choice debate in the UK as we’d like to think.  Whatever the reason, our lack of action is something to be ashamed about.

Categories: Health, Written By Anna
17 interesting thoughts on this

17 Comments

  1. Fee
    Posted February 24, 2014 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    This is horrifying. I am stunned that this is happening – I hadn’t come across this report but will be reading it now.

    I am strongly pro-choice and believe that crucially, anyone counseling women considering termination should be pro-choice without prejudice. Being pro-choice (to me) doesn’t mean pushing terminations on women and neither does it mean only believing in termination in specific circumstances.

    Because certain things are legal here in the UK, I think we consider ourselves progressive but clearly from the above that isn’t the case to the extent it should be. Thanks for sharing this.

  2. Posted February 24, 2014 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    I remember finding out about this kind of thing when at school and genuinely thought this would have been stopped by now. It is appalling that it is allowed to happen. This sorry of experience could seriously mess up the mental health of vulnerable women. It is just not acceptable.

    What can we do? How can we mobilise to get this the attention it warrants?

  3. Posted February 24, 2014 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    I’m really surprised at this. I’m definitely guilty of thinking the anti choice “pro life” police is a US issue.

    Px

    • Posted February 24, 2014 at 9:04 am | Permalink

      Me too. I almost wrote that in this post and then realised of course it’s not just the US that has this problem. I think I believed (hoped) that the UK holds itself up to a higher moral standard than other countries on this issue. Which is, of course, bollocks.

      • Posted February 24, 2014 at 12:35 pm | Permalink

        I can’t quite believe there isn’t a regulatory body or a law or SOMETHING that these people should have to answer to. Can anyone with a dubious ethical standing set up a “support” centre that indoctrinates? It seems so dark ages that my brain won’t compute that it’s actually happening. Maybe this is why there has been such an underwhelming response to reports so far….??

        Px

  4. Posted February 24, 2014 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    I couldn’t believe it when I first read about this. Thanks for sharing it here A, it’s definitely something that needs as much debate and coverage as possible. Those poor women who have had to be subjected to that manipulation.

  5. Posted February 24, 2014 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    It’s amazing that these places aren’t properly regulated. I was aware of religious organisations that offered counselling, but had no idea some of these would be in partnership with NHS practices. Maybe it’s impossible to give impartial advice, these counsellors are only human after all, but providing misinformation – especially such horrific stuff as that – is totally unethical. Something needs to be done.

  6. Posted February 24, 2014 at 11:36 am | Permalink

    This is truly horrific. I’m relieved to say that I have never personally referred a woman to a Crisis Pregnancy centre (we use Marie Stopes) but they do indeed look like a properly run and regulated centre and I can’t believe that this has been allowed to continue. HOW can they be allowed to operate, completely unregulated, regarding such a serious issue??

    Thank you Anna for this wonderful piece. Insightful and informative, as you always are.

  7. Posted February 24, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

    There are two thoughts that occur to me here.
    Firstly – I feel like I should point out that there isn’t currently any regulatory body for any counselling professionals in the UK, regardless of the area they specialise in. There are membership bodies, which people are welcome to join, but theoretically anyone can set themselves up as a counsellor, deal with incredibly vulnerable people, and give them any sort of information they want. Really scary stuff. It’s the same with a lot of other professions, but that’s not really the point of this piece. (http://www.parliament.uk/edm/2013-14/431)

    Secondly – I wonder how much of the disparity of service is due to contracting and funding of services. If counselling is contracted out, it is likely to go to people who can deliver service for the lowest cost. In order to keep costs down, you’re not likely to employ staff with huge numbers of qualifications or provide huge amounts of ongoing training. If services are renting spaces in NHS buildings, then they’re allowed to do that because they can pay for the room – gaining some sort of credibility by association.
    With regards to funding – unfortunately these services are expensive to run and provide to a high quality standard. Funding is very, very limited – from council, NHS or other forms – and when a pregnancy advisory service is up against a (potentially) less controversial service, it becomes even more limited. I would think that this would mean that organisations wanting to provide these types of service would therefore be running them with funding from a particuar source, often related to a particular viewpoint or agenda (you could argue this isn’t dissimilar to the ways in which homelessness services are often heavily funded by churches or other faith organisations).

    I don’t know what the answer is and I suspect that is why it has stayed under the carpet somewhat – if there was an easy answer then it would be easy to implement. I personally am heavily in favour of regulations for all forms of counsellors in the same way that dieticians are (see here http://www.bda.uk.com/Dietitian_Nutritionist.html) which would certainly mean that vulnerable people are protected – but with regards to abortion or perhaps marriage therapy – I just don’t know how easy it would be to regulate against an individual’s agenda.

    As a side note – one of my family members used to work in a GP practice. Two of the three GPs there wouldn’t have referred anyone wanting an abortion because it was against their own principles or faith, so you would have had to wait for an appointment with the third GP to get referred. Bonkers.

    • Posted February 24, 2014 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      sorry – didn’t mean for this to be so epic!

    • Katielase
      Posted February 24, 2014 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      Completely agree with Gwen that ALL counsellors should be made to register or be regulated in some way, because actually, although in this post the circumstance is a ‘women’s issue’, it actually ranges far further than that, and the only way to address this specific issue to to address the wider circumstances that have allowed it to exist.

      The problem is that this isn’t easy to do, I think most people would agree broadly with the point of view that vulnerable people need and deserve impartial advice and support, but agreement isn’t enough to actually effect change. In the past, statutory regulation has been considered and abandoned: http://www.hpc-uk.org/aboutregistration/aspirantgroups/psychotherapistscounsellors/, but this isn’t something we should give up on fighting for.

      The HCPC have launched a campaign called Be Sure which aims to enable people to check whether the care professional they are dealing with (including psychologists) is registered. Spreading awareness of things like this might help empower women, and all people actually, to question/check out who they are dealing with (this isn’t necessarily enough but it’s a start): http://www.hcpc-uk.org/landing/?id=4

      KL x

  8. Posted February 24, 2014 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    Gwen -with regards to your last comment -but if the GPs own personal views are pro-life, rather than pro-choice, isn’t it much better that they don’t get involved but leave it to the GP who’s more impartial?? Because otherwise there’s a high chance they’d end up imposing their own views much like the ‘counsellors’ Anna mentioned in this post.

    I am pro-choice myself, but during my training it was strongly emphasised to us that we had a duty of care to all women requesting a termination. We don’t have to sign the paperwork ourselves if we don’t want to but we do have a duty to provide clear, accurate, impartial advice OR direct the woman to someone who will. Which sounds about right to me.

    • Posted February 24, 2014 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      I see what you mean. The problem arose in the practice I referred to because it meant trying to get a second appointment could take a week if not longer, which could potentially limit someone’s options and cause them more distress. To be honest, I also think that by saying to someone “I don’t feel comfortable refferring you so you’ll have to speak to someone else who is” then you’re already imposing your views on someone else by implying that they’re going to be doing something you don’t agree with.
      It’s tricky – I don’t really know if anyone can be truly impartial about such an emotive, personal and complicated subject. I’m honest, as someone who is in favour of choice, I really struggle to see the view point of someone who isn’t!

  9. Caroline
    Posted February 24, 2014 at 3:28 pm | Permalink

    I had to take some time out before commenting on this post as to be honest it upset me greatly.
    I can’t imagine how this sort of thing can happen.
    Having experienced a termination for a medical reason when my baby was diagnosed with anencephaly I cannot begin to think how I would have felt if I had come into contact with anyone who was anything other than supportive. It would have broken me. And to think these people claim to be professionals.
    A termination for any reason brings with it so much guilt, confusion and suffering. And regardless of your circumstances the best possibly counselling should be available.
    I have been lucky, no one has judged me on the decision I made last year and when your harshest judge is yourself you don’t need it from others.

  10. Rach M
    Posted February 25, 2014 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    I read the Eva Wiseman piece at the weekend and was horrified by this. Thanks for writing this Anna. I has always assumed anyone seeking ‘professional’ advice about abortion would get it – and that it would be impartial. I’d always thought we were well placed here, thinking that still today in the 21st century my Irish cousins would not have the access to abortion that I’d have, with it still being illegal there. We can’t ever afford to be complacent about it, when there are such insidious attempts to discourage and judge vulnerable women.

  11. Posted April 15, 2014 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

    Hi Anna,

    I work for the project within Brook which wrote this report, and I’ve just seen your blogpost. Thanks for writing this, we agree that this is something people should be shouting from the rooftops about! Education For Choice have been monitoring these centres for years now, and this report was a chance to pull together all the evidence. We are still following up with the NHS and other bodies, so please do follow us on Twitter @edforchoice and Facebook https://www.facebook.com/edforchoice to be kept updated on the issue.

    Best wishes,
    Laura Hurley

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Hello! We're Clare, Aisling and Anna and welcome to a corner of the world where smart, flawed, real women talk about the bigger picture; about their experiences, stories and opinions on all aspects of being a woman today, from marriage to feminism to pretty, too.

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