Tue, Jun 29, 2010

Women report feeling traumatised after anti-abortion groups use misleading advertising to convince them to use their services, writes CAROL RYAN

THE HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme is advising women to avoid “unreliable” counselling services, after it received 67 complaints over a nine-month period about certain agencies which tried to influence women’s decisions about their pregnancies.

Several women who approached these agencies for advice on their options reported feeling distressed by the counselling techniques used. State-funded pregnancy counselling services are concerned about the issue, and have called on the Government to step in and regulate their activities.

Pregnancy counselling services in Ireland generally state their ethos to help women select an appropriate service. One of the criticisms levelled against unreliable agencies by the Irish Family Planning Association (IFPA) among others, is that their advertising is misleading, implying that they will provide information about abortion services abroad when this is not the case.

An IFPA report claims that so-called “rogue” agencies use pro-choice language and advertise in a manner designed to attract women who may be considering abortion, when in reality they have an anti-abortion ethos.

The report describes how the services, listed under “family planning” in the Golden Pages , offer to discuss “all options” and refer to UK cities in their advertisements. The IFPA claims the ads are misleading, “inducing in the reader the false expectation that they will provide information on abortion services”.

The counselling methods used by these agencies have also come in for strong criticism. The Well Woman Clinic regularly encounters women who have visited them and found the experience upsetting.

“From what we hear, women are subjected to the most extraordinary tactics,” says Alison Begas, chief executive of the Well Woman Centre.

“We have heard stories of counselling sessions lasting three to four hours, the use of lurid US-produced videos and disturbing images.

“None of these tactics has any place in responsible pregnancy counselling. The problem is that most women don’t know where to go for advice until they actually need it.”

She adds that silence surrounding the issue of abortion leaves women vulnerable to “spurious” medical information, and women who have a bad experience with a rogue agency are less likely to seek the good quality service they need to make an informed decision.

Sarah (not her real name) became pregnant at 19 and made an appointment with a pregnancy counselling agency in Dublin with a view to discussing a termination.

“Our contraception failed. Myself and my boyfriend were both in college and it was fairly obvious to us that we didn’t want a child. We went to the Golden Pages , looked at family planning. We made a phone call to this place saying we wanted to talk about having an abortion, going to England.

“I think the ad made some reference to English clinics, it definitely gave the impression they gave out abortion information . . . I don’t think I would have had the guts to say it if the ad wasn’t like that.

“They said, ‘Yes, come in, that is what we do and we will give you all the information you need’. There was no hint of religion or anything. We went in together with our minds made up, and the place was horrible, really grotty.

“They separated us pretty much immediately after the test. What I remember is coming out after two or three hours in there and us both looking at each other and saying, ‘Okay, we can’t do that now, it’s not an option anymore’.

“They talked about how an abortion would ruin our relationship, that we would break up, and that really got to us.

“They said I would not be able to have children again; my family would think I was awful; that I’d never want to have sex again; they actually managed to change our mind about this huge thing.

“They said my risk of breast cancer would go up two or three times, and called several times afterwards to ask what decision I made. I think they cause a lot of confusion and pain in the long run. They have to be closed down. I mean, it is such a huge thing to have to go through.”

The medical information given to women about the side effects and potential complications of abortion is controversial.

Sinéad Ahern, spokeswoman for Choice Ireland, posed as a pregnant client to find out what kind of information these agencies were giving.

She was told that if she had an abortion she would “most certainly need a hysterectomy, cervical cancer, most women end up with infections and infertility. . . that I’d become promiscuous, or frigid”.

Women have been told that abortion can lead to depression, drug addiction, alcoholism and an increased risk of abusing any future children they might have. The agencies also claim that abortion doubles the risk of developing breast cancer.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the World Health Organisation have both stated that abortion is not associated with any increased risk of breast cancer.

The Abbey Women’s Centre, a pregnancy counselling service advertised in the Golden Pages, has been named by Choice Ireland as a suspected rogue agency.

Patrick Jameson, spokesman for the service, objects to criticisms of its counselling techniques and the “rogue” label.

He says the service is important, adding: “We are here to protect women from abortion profiteering.”

When asked about the use of abortion imagery and videos during counselling sessions, he said they are used “to show women the truth about abortion, women should not be denied the truth about what happens. It is natural that they find it upsetting.”

He said that many State-funded services are in fact “rogue” as they “deny women the truth, the real medical information about abortion and not offering women realistic help to have the baby”.

The Department of Health currently has no plans to consider a regulatory licensing system for this area but says the approach adopted by the HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme “is, among other things, to further raise the public profile of State-funded crisis pregnancy services”.

The HSE Crisis Pregnancy Programme advises women to visit the Positive Options website (positive options.ie) for a list of free, State-funded crisis pregnancy services available countrywide. It recommends that women visit a non-directive crisis pregnancy service, and to find out as much as possible about the service before making an appointment.

The Abortion Information Act 1995 establishes a right to information about abortion services abroad, but details must be given in the context of a face-to-face counselling session, and only in conjunction with comprehensive information about both parenting and adoption options.

© 2010 The Irish Times