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Life defends its ‘non-directive’ counselling

Life's website

The charity Life has robustly defended the ethics underpinning its services following criticism of its non-directive counselling from a leading Catholic figure, Dr Joseph Shaw.

The ethical scrutiny, which has prompted widespread controversy among Catholics, began following a debate on the BBC Radio 4 Sunday programme, during which Ann Scanlan of Life described the charity’s counselling services as “non-directive”, prompting questions about Life’s avowed pro-life ethos.

In a blog post Dr Shaw wrote: “The hope of the organisation that using non-directive counselling will win the organisation acceptance by, and influence in, government, and even funding, is not entirely without foundation. But non-directive counselling is very controversial in Catholic ethics, and I have seen no serious defence of Life’s stance.”

The practice of non-directive counselling means that women are not directed towards a specific action, prompting concern from some Catholics about the financial donations to Life from the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales.

Joanne Hill, Life spokeswoman, said: “Life speaks out constantly about the moral wrongs of abortion. Hundreds of thousands of schoolchildren have heard our pro-life message, as well as the millions who listen to us on the radio and television.

“With 40 years’ experience of crisis pregnancy counselling, Life knows the vulnerability, distress and pressures women experience when faced with a crisis pregnancy. As such, Life has adopted a person-centred, non-directive approach to crisis pregnancy counselling. The role of the counsellor is to help a woman explore her personal circumstances and feelings, the options open to her, and her feelings toward those different options. Life enables women to do this.”

She added: “Some women, however, do choose to have abortions following counselling. We do not and could not refer for abortions. In such situations, Life directs the woman back to her GP.”

The bishops’ conference defended its financial support for Life in a statement. It said: “Life upholds the utmost respect for human life from fertilisation until natural death and is opposed to abortion in all circumstances. Life has also established Zoe’s Place hospices for babies and young children which fulfil a profound human need in society.”

Life is a non-denominational charity founded in 1970. It has recently been invited to advise the Government on sexual health, an invitation regarded as a significant political coup for the pro-life movement.

Jim Dobbin, the Labour MP and chairman of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, has appealed to every “genuine pro-life person” to “unequivocally” support Life’s services.

Phyllis Bowman of Right to Life said: “Those of us involved in the day-to-day battle for the unborn child cannot afford to be moralistically self-indulgent. Pro-life workers prefer to be instructed by Our Lord who told us to be ‘as subtle as serpents and as gentle as doves’. This could well be the working motto for Life.”

Leading Catholic academic Dr David Jones of the Anscombe Bioethics Centre said that non-directive counselling could be morally defensible under Catholic ethics.

He said: “Thomas Aquinas teaches that while correcting someone can be an act of charity it is not always an act of charity if it is not likely to help in practice. Sometimes it is more helpful not to say anything but to help people come to see something for themselves.

“It is also an important piece of Catholic doctrine that all human beings have access within themselves to the ethical principles of the Natural Law. This may be obscured by sin, ignorance and bad habits, but even a stubborn heart can be touched by the Holy Spirit.”

He said that non-directive counselling should be distinguished from “value-free” information-giving.

He continued: “There is a certainly a role for directive parents, teachers, preachers, and judges. Nevertheless, from a Catholic perspective, there could also be a role for a non-directive counsellor, if this means someone who aims to help people to come to see these things for themselves. Catholic counselling should always be value-driven but may express these values also by giving someone space to reflect on what their heart tells them.”

Lay Catholics who comprise a significant proportion of Life’s clientele have also emphasised the unique range of services Life provides, including fertility treatment in line with Catholic teaching.