The changes in the rules will be the biggest shake-up in a generation.
The Department of Health in Britain is to announce plans for a new system of independent counseling for women before they finally commit to terminating a pregnancy. The move is designed to give women more “breathing space”.
Pro-life campaigners suggest the change could result in up to 60,000 fewer abortions each year in Britain. Last year, 202,400 were carried out.
The plan would introduce a mandatory obligation on abortion clinics to offer women access to independent counselling, to be run on separate premises by a group which does not itself carry out abortions.
Critics of abortion clinics claim that the counselling they offer is biased because they are run as businesses — a claim denied by the clinics.
But abortion charities said they feared the proposals would prolong the period before an abortion took place, and that the motive was simply to reduce the number of terminations and was not in the best interests of women.
The proposed change comes ahead of a Commons vote, due to take place next week, on amendments to a public health Bill put forward by Nadine Dorries, a backbench Conservative MP.
The amendments would prevent private organisations which carry out terminations — such as Marie Stopes and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas) — from offering pre-abortion counselling. Women would instead be offered free access to independent counsellors.
The vote would be the first on the laws around abortion since the Coalition took power. A previous attempt to change the law — to reduce the time limit for abortions from 24 to 20 weeks — was defeated in a free vote in 2008. Ministers appear keen to avoid another such vote. They believe that announcing the consultation on independent counselling will prevent it going ahead.
The plan does not mean pre-abortion counselling will be mandatory — something which is vehemently opposed by pro-choice groups and which has been a flashpoint in parts of the United States.
A spokesman for the Department of Health said: “We are currently developing proposals to introduce independent counselling for women seeking abortion. These proposals are focused on improving women’s health and wellbeing. Final decisions on who should provide this counselling have not yet been made.”
Proposals under discussion would involve withdrawing payments made by the taxpayer to abortion clinics for counselling women.
Mrs Dorries, a former nurse, claims abortion providers are not independent because they have a vested interest in conducting abortions. Last year, Marie Stopes and Bpas carried out about 100,000 terminations and were paid about £60 million to do so, mostly through the NHS.
Mrs Dorries said she had hoped that her proposed amendments to the health Bill would prompt the Government into taking the kind of action which it has now done.
Frank Field, a Labour MP, said: “I’m anxious that taxpayers’ money is used so that people can have a choice — we are paying for independent counselling and that’s what should be provided.”
Ann Furedi, the chief executive of Bpas, said if her organisation was prevented from advising women about terminations it could be impossible to gain informed consent, as the independent counselling was not compulsory.