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‘The churches have been pathetic’

Nadine Dorries appears on the BBC Two programme Daily Politics

How unfortunate: in December I arranged an interview with the MP Nadine Dorries, admiring her bravery in talking about abortion and its impact on women. And less than a week before the interview is scheduled she’s front-page news, the Mail having reported that the Tory MP has started a relationship with a family friend. That means her guard will be up and I will be forced to ask her about her private life. A straightforward and high-minded interview will now be awkward.

But then, on the very morning of the interview, it is announced that the British Pregnancy Advisory Service is taking the Government to court to allow women access to “DIY abortions”. Despite the media interest in her private life, Dorries is all over the television and radio debating the subject almost single-handedly.

The proposals, she says, “send out a message that abortion is a form of contraception, rather than the ending of a life, or a potential life, depending on your view”.

She says it will lead to “very young girls going home with a couple of tablets alone in their bedroom, to experience pain in a way they have never experienced”.

She adds: “They will have no professional help or assistance at hand, and they will not know when the pain is too great and the bleeding is too much, or whether they should seek further help and advice. I don’t think we want to see young girls frightened and alone without the right advice.”

A colourful and high-profile figure, much reviled in certain quarters, Dorries has attracted an unsurprising amount of attention since her election in 2005. Previously a successful businesswoman who sold her childcare business to BUPA, she hails from working-class Anfield in Liverpool and her parents benefited from Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme. Her family liked to talk politics.

“In Liverpool the conversation was either football, religion or politics,” she explains. “It’s hard to grow up in Liverpool and not be political.”

Dorries, the MP for Mid Bedfordshire, belongs to the socially conservative wing of the Tory party and belongs to the Cornerstone Group, nicknamed the “Tory Taliban” by opponents. She “entirely” subscribes to the Broken Britain theory and says that the work Iain Duncan Smith is doing is “nothing short of amazing” and his research is “what’s driving our most progressive policies”.

While she says the state “does almost everything badly” compared to local communities, she does fear that some of the cuts will harm just the people the Government wants to help “because of the position this country was left in financially”.

So how did Broken Britain come about?

“The problem is the churches have withdrawn,” she replies. “Where I grew up the priest was king. We were scared of priests – the same with the vicars. The Church played a very important role. The Church set boundaries. So did schools, doctors, district nurses. But the Church withdrew, the state became anonymous and society went into freefall. One of the things about the Big Society is to try to put those boundaries back.

“But the Church has to step up to the plate. Although they get involved in charitable works they tend to be on the state-funded fringes and I’m not talking about that type of role. I’m talking about a micro level. I’m talking about priests working with communities and admitting to a level of authority they used to.

“Charity has been eroded, it’s just become another arm of the state. The Catholic Church has had a huge beating and it has to recover from that. Maybe the Big Society and the opportunities it presents to the Catholic Church may be part of the healing process for the Church.”

Leaving Merseyside alongside her husband Paul, from whom she split six years ago, Dorries trained as a nurse, which left at least one lasting mark on her: witnessing abortions.

“It’s something that has stuck with me my whole life,” she says. “I can still smell the sluice stream. I can still hear the sluice machine while I stood by the bed, watching this child die in the bedpan.”

That unborn baby was 24 weeks old, although Dorries witnessed a number of other abortions.

“That did not leave me, that moment,” she says. “I remember the shock as a young nurse, thinking this is what nursing was about.”

She argues that one of the reasons that abortion providers are pushing for home abortions is that doctors are refusing to carry out late-term medical abortions. In 2008 she campaigned to reduce the abortion time limit to 20 weeks and she believes that public opinion is moving against abortion.

“People say to me: ‘Your abortion campaign failed’, but it was a massive success because the liberalisers withdrew all the amendments in the face of mine, because they wanted to focus all their energies on defeating me. We were left with the status quo. Had I not done what I’d done the High Court case wouldn’t be taking place today. It would be much more accessible.”

She argues that late-term abortions should be put on television “because it’s so graphic and so horrendous”. But it would never be allowed because it would change the debate.

“I went to witness one and what I saw was a baby in a uterus flinching away from the cannula as it was being inserted,” she recalls. “It was totally horrific.”

She partly attributes the changing public opinion to the number of women who have had abortions and regret it, and who often feel they were not given all the facts. This is the theory behind her “women’s right to know” campaign, which has attracted such hostility.

“Women don’t know that they have a 30 per cent chance of experiencing mental health problems after having an abortion,” she says. “They don’t know there are links with various other medical conditions. They are given no advice.

“If you want to continue with the pregnancy and give the baby up for adoption you are not given support or help. They are just spoken to and channelled straight in to an abortion clinic where they have their abortion in a factory-like manner, then [they are] ejected into the street, given no follow-up, no support, no kindly words of help or advice and only provided with any degree of counselling after the abortion if they’ve already signed and agreed to continue [with the abortion]. The way abortion takes place in this country is an abuse of women.

“Women go in and come out slightly confused, thinking: ‘Could I have done something different?’ And they are left to carry the guilt themselves.”

Those unfamiliar with the world of blogs and social networking site Twitter will not fully appreciate how much hatred Dorries attracts over this issue, the majority of which seems to come from men, who devote an almost demented amount of time tapping at keyboards explaining why they hate this woman. “What have I done to justify this level of vitriol?” Dorries asks. “What’s it about? The only controversial issue I’ve ever taken up is abortion, and that’s the only hook to hang it on.”
Yet she is not even “against” abortion as such, in that she does not wish to re-criminalise it.
“I’m neither pro-choice nor pro-life,” she says. “I take the middle ground, and I find it hard to understand why anyone – especially feminists – could disagree with what I say if they are really concerned with women and their health issues.” Both sides of the argument, she says, are “ghettoised” on the issue.

One of the problems, I suggest, is that perhaps the pro-life movement is seen as exclusively religious, although there is no reason why it should be. In fact, she says, she doesn’t even get that much support from the churches.

“I need religious support,” she says. “It is our core support. I need the churches being more involved, and the churches have been pathetic, pathetic, during the abortion debate in their support for what I was trying to do.

“The Church of England was the worst and the only person in the Catholic Church who made any comment was Cardinal O’Brien. Everybody was silent because the churches were weak and cowardly in their position.

“I was even told by one envoy from the Church [of England] that Psalm 139 was ‘just poetry’. Weeks later they timidly came out and squeaked their words of support, which were no use to me at this point. The churches have really angered me during this debate.”

She describes herself as being a “bit low” following the press treatment of her private life, the expenses scandal (which she describes as “unbearable”) and the story in that morning’s Mirror alleging that she is being investigated for her expenses.

“It’s a ridiculous story, and its been planned to put out on the day I’ll be on breakfast TV on abortion,” she says. “All it is is nasty, Left-wing politicking.

“I can’t believe that journalists by and large can be happy people because I don’t think its possible to write in such a vitriolic and hateful way and be happy, and for good things to happen to you.”(She’s right about the unhappy part. And we’re not even paid that well, I want to point out.)

So, she wonders, what’s the point of it all? Why would anyone want to deal with that sort of thing on a daily basis?

“Do I just move away from the net, move away from Twitter?” she asks. She finds the social networking site, used by many MPs as a way of communicating with the public, addictive but hateful, especially the use of the @ button which allows people to write abusive public messages to anyone they like.

“I think: why do I want this bit of evil? Somebody’s words are a little bit of evil in your life.”