The muddled and murky Mensch amendment
But Louise Mensch goes a step further. Not only should GlaxoSmithKline and Pfizer be barred from counselling, but so also should all faith groups. We must leave MMR and erectile dysfunction at this point, for we are dealing with abortion. Mrs Mensch believes not only that women must be protected from the manifestly conflicted counselling services of BPAS and Marie Stopes International; they must also be shielded from faith groups who seek to spread their own ‘ideology’. This, to Mrs Mensch, is as aborrent as blatant profiteering.
Her ‘more palatable’ solution is that women should be offered counselling by independent organisations ‘who are neither abortion providers nor faith groups’ (although there would be the opportunity for a patient to choose to be counselled by either if they wished).
She has conducted an ad hoc opinion poll, and professes to have received ‘considerable support for (her amendment) from her Twitter followers’.
This is odd, because His Grace was party to that conversation and didn’t see her responding to anything amounting to ‘considerable support’. But he did ask a few pointed questions, some of which went unanswered:
Louise Mensch: Here's what I'd like to see, which isn't on offer next week: GP referrals to neutral, non-faith, non abortion provider counseling.At this point Mrs Mensch ceased the dialogue with His Grace. One may see from her Twitter feed that she responded later to John Prescott that ‘women deserve option of neutral, non abortion provider, non faith based or ideological counselling, offered by NHS’. That is her essential position.
...the NHS should provide neutral ones who aren't faith-based and aren't abortion providers either.
... at the moment, only abortion providers can offer the advice and that's biased and wrong. Neutrality is needed inc not faith grps
His Grace: It is astonishing that a Tory MP advocates the eradication of Christians from counselling because they are not 'neutral'
Louise Mensch: offer facts on abortion, on raising baby, on support available to mothers, without bias.
...The gist would be that women should be offered counseling on the NHS from non abortion providers, non faith based or ideological groups.
...In my view, women deserve the option of totally neutral counseling from those without either a religious, ideological or financial interest.
... And the NHS seems the best organisation to provide it. But looking in to detail, wording and possibility. Wld not prevent Stopes or Life....offering counseling if patients chose them, but the neutral option should be there for women.
His Grace: But what of Christian NHS employees? Are you barring them from providing counselling or insisting they transgress conscience?
Louise Mensch: counselling would have to include abortion advice (how, when, medical) so many Xtns might opt out...as they do from performing abortions & can't be compelled to.
His Grace: Christians have no problem with stating facts (how/when/medical) but counselling isn't the 'neutral' dispensing of information
Louise Mensch: I have no problem with women choosing a Christian counsellor or Marie Stopes either but the non vested interest option shld exist
His Grace: You appear to be oblivious to the fact that Christians increasingly have fewer opt-outs: they are being disciplined or sacked
Louise Mensch: don't advocate that at all. I advocate a first option of neutral counselling with women free to choose other orgs if they prefer
...they won the court case recently didn't they. Freedom of conscience v. important.
His Grace: They won? They didn't win at all. The cases are now in Strasbourg and the tax-payer funded EHRC is opposing them.
There are a number of issues here. But firstly His Grace would like to say he finds it quite alarming that a Conservative MP is oblivious to the way Christians in the public sector are being treated when they exercise their conscience. It is bemusing that Mrs Mensch believes these court cases are being won by believers. What makes Mrs Mensch think that Christian doctors and nurses would be granted the same exemptions from counselling as they have from performing abortions, when Christian counsellors are already losing their jobs for manifesting discrimination in accordance with their beliefs?
If, as she avers, faith groups should be barred from abortion counselling because they are not ‘neutral’, by what virtue may they counsel on anything? By what virtue may they teach? By what virtue may they aspire to any public office, where they may spread their insidious ‘ideology’? If they may not offer abortion counselling, how can they offer marriage guidance counselling or bereavement counselling when they hold strong beliefs on such matters which may compromise ‘neutrality’?
If Christians may not counsel in the matter of abortion, by what right or liberty or form of toleration should they legislate upon the matter?
Louise Mensch professes the primacy of freedom of conscience, but what she advocates amounts to the eradication of faith groups from public life, which is completely antithetical to the whole concept of the ‘Big Society’. She appears to have no awareness at all of the implications of her amendment, not least because (as His Grace has pointed out many times) Parliament has never defined ‘religion’ or ‘faith’. How can one ban ‘faith groups’ from abortion counselling if one has not defined ‘faith’? Since the courts have over recent years determined that environmentalism is a religion, and so is a animal rights activism, it is difficult to determine which groups would not be barred by Mrs Mensch’s amendment, for all ideological worldviews may ultimately be seen to constitute a 'faith'. Ah, surely it would be those faiths which result in a moral imperative which guides or determines a religio-philosophical belief on the issue of abortion, His Grace hears you say. But if that were the case, ‘faith groups’ must exclude Hindus, Sikhs and Buddhists, for while the principle of ahimsa or non-violence or non-harm may guide their actions, the belief in samsara – reincarnation – determines that abortion by no means constitutes the terminal act it respresents to monotheists.
So, unless Mrs Mensch is planning to exclude Green Party members and hunt saboteurs from offering abortion counselling services, she must limit her prohibition to monotheists. And, since not a lot has been heard from either Muslims or Jews on the matter, we are talking – as well she knows – about Christians. And since the Church of England takes a via media pragmatism on the issue and is Established, it would be a little unjust (not to say potentially unconstitutional) to bar the Queen’s own church from providing a counselling service to her own subjects. Which means Louise Mensch’s amendment is aimed – as well we knew all along – at Roman Catholics and Evangelicals (ie those Christians who, in the words of Barry Sheerman MP, are ‘serious about their faith’). Indeed, we may arrive at Louise Mensch’s precise view by paraphrasing Barry Sheerman:
“It seems to me that faith-based abortion counselling could work all right as long as people are not that serious about their faith. But as soon as there is a more doctrinaire attitude questions have to be asked. It does become worrying when you get a new push from more fundamentalist bishops. This is taxpayers' money after all.”The Mensch amendment is not only ill-conceived and badly thought through; it is fundamentally un-conservative, intolerant, illiberal, and incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, Article 9 of which provides a right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion. This includes the freedom to manifest a religion or belief in worship, teaching, practice and observance, subject to certain restrictions that are ‘in accordance with law’ and ‘necessary in a democratic society’.
Mrs Mensch is proposing that inter alia Christians may not counsel on the matter of abortion because this is ‘necessary in a democratic society’. She thereby disregards the Established Church and the constitutional position of the Monarch and her bishops. She sets aside that the majority of the country professes some adherence - however residual - to the Christian faith. And she appears to be oblivious to the fact that the whole fabric of society is constructed upon Christian precepts.
The question of abortion is profoundly divisive: it is a moral issue. But there is no such thing as ‘neutrality’ in morality: human beings may not conveniently be detached from their gender, beliefs, lifestyle or culture. Counselling is not the mere impartation of information: we have computers for that. Counselling involves empathy and the outcome is clarity and guidance. Why should people of faith be specifically barred from providing enlightenment? Why, if it is deemed necessary and expedient for women to have ‘the right to choose’, may they not have the right to choose whence they receive the information by which they may arrive at that choice?