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20 MPs took staff from anti-abortion group seeking to replicate US backlash

Exclusive: Pro-choice and secular groups warn that scheme is part of strategy to “undo” progress on women’s rights

Adam Bychawski
1 July 2022, 1.30pm

March For Life, an annual rally organised by the UK's anti-abortion movement.

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Sipa USA / Alamy Stock Photo

A UK anti-abortion group that wants to replicate America’s backlash against reproductive rights has placed more than a dozen interns in MPs’ offices since 2010, openDemocracy can reveal.

Christian Action, Research, and Education (CARE) has provided free researchers to 20 MPs as part of its Leadership Programme, which offers 11-month placements in Westminster – and all-access Commons passes – to recent university graduates.

Of those, 13 continued to take the interns despite revelations about the charity’s position on LGBTQ+ rights in 2012. It emerged that CARE had sponsored a conference about homosexuality that promoted gay ‘conversion therapy’ and included sessions on “mentoring the sexually broken”.

The group has said its internship scheme puts participants in “real positions of responsibility”, and boasts that former interns have gone on to become cabinet ministers and senior civil servants. Tory MP Stephen Crabb, an alumni of the scheme, credits it with giving him “a grounding of the Commons, politically”.

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Stephen Evans, chief executive of the National Secular Society, warned that politicians were being “used” by the charity to push an ultra-conservative agenda. 

“Politicians must not allow themselves to be used by religious hardliners who want to undo all the progress we’ve made on the rights of women, LGBTQ+ people and minority communities in this country,” he said.

Last week, CARE said it welcomed the US Supreme Court ruling that ended the constitutional right to abortion granted by an earlier landmark court decision known as Roe v Wade. Seven US states have already banned abortion in the wake of the court’s ruling with at least ten more planning to follow suit soon. 

Asked by openDemocracy whether CARE would like to replicate the decades-long campaign by the US anti-abortion movement, which has claimed the court’s decision as a victory, in the UK, its media adviser Justin Doherty said: “Absolutely.”

Kerry Abel, chair of Abortion Rights UK, told openDemocracy: “By working with MPs and offering free interns, the organisation is actively trying to change our law on abortion in an ideological way that ignores evidence-based health advice and access needs for women.”

She added: “These organisations should not have an undue hold on our democracy and a full independent investigation should be held as to who is trying to court our elected representatives.”

CARE, which has existed since 1983, has repeatedly lobbied for restrictions to abortion rights in the UK. Most recently, the group boasted that it “rallied several parliamentarians” to oppose a proposal to give women permanent access to telemedicine for early abortion care, which passed with a slim majority in March.

It also claims it “worked closely” with members of Northern Ireland’s legislative assembly to organise a non-binding vote against a 2019 law passed in Westminster that decriminalised abortion in line with the rest of the UK. The Democratic Unionist Party, which is strongly anti-abortion, has prevented the assembly from complying with the legislation, leaving women without access to services since the vote.

Of the 20 MPs who employed interns from the group since 2010, 13 are still sitting. They include four Tory MPs, seven Labour MPs, Scottish National Party MP Lisa Cameron and former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron. 

Some MPs distanced themselves from CARE after news broke that it had sponsored the controversial conference promoting conversion therapy. Labour’s David Lammy, Liz Kendall, Catherine McKinnel and Sharon Hodgson all said they cut ties with the group after the conference revelations in 2012, and data seen by openDemocracy shows they took no further CARE interns after that year.

Farron also said he would no longer take part in the placement scheme and described the views expressed at the conference as “grossly offensive, homophobic and wrong”.

But the majority continued to offer placements to CARE interns, including six Tory MPs and five Labour MPs. Among them are sitting Tory MPs Gary Streeter and Caroline Ansell, both of whom have consistently voted against liberalising abortion. 

The Labour MPs still sitting include former shadow minister Jon Cruddas, who took an intern in 2017, and Janet Daby, who accepted an assistant in 2021 just months after she apologised and resigned from her position as shadow women and equalities minister for saying registrars have the right to object to gay marriage

All but one of the 13 MPs to have taken CARE placements since 2012 failed to respond to requests for comment about the work the interns had done, whether they had access to constituents and casework, and why they had continued to accept donations in kind from CARE despite the revelations in 2012.

Labour’s Barry Sheerman, the only MP who replied, told openDemocracy: “I have never been lobbied on any issue by any intern provided by CARE, nor have any attempted to do so. CARE interns have not worked as caseworkers.” He added that he had consistently voted in favour of LGBTQ+ and abortion rights.

CARE told openDemocracy it did not support or advocate anti-LGBTQ+ ‘conversion therapy’ but insisted the government’s proposed ban of the practice should not “restrict orthodox Christian teaching on repentance (that is, a turning from those thoughts and behaviours which the Bible identifies as wrong) as a necessary step for those who freely choose to identify themselves as Christians”.

The organisation has also been criticised for lobbying against LGBTQ+ rights in the past. It was one of a number of evangelical groups that campaigned against the repeal of Section 28, a series of laws that prohibited the “promotion of homosexuality” by local authority staff – including schoolteachers, who were effectively barred from delivering inclusive sex education – in 2003.

In 2015, CARE for Europe, the group’s European branch, was part of a coalition that campaigned for the European Union to reverse its recognition of gay marriage and define a family exclusively as a heterosexual married couple and their descendants.

The other backers of the unsuccessful Mum, Dads & Kids petition included the co-founder of Polish ultra-conservative Catholic group Ordo Iuris, which played an influential role in the government’s complete ban on abortion in 2020. 

Another member of the group’s committee was Roger Kiska, a senior legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom International, who has poured millions of dollars into campaigns against the rights of women and LGBTQ people across the globe.

A CARE spokesperson said: “The Leadership Programme is a highly respected educational work experience programme for young people interested in politics. Graduates are prohibited from lobbying on behalf of CARE whilst on placement.

“CARE has always said that, in any pregnancy, the lives of both mother and baby are of equal value. This means we support compassionate initiatives to get alongside anyone who experiences a crisis pregnancy.

“We recognise that same-sex marriage is now legal across the UK.”

The full list of MPs who have taken a research assistant from CARE since 2010 (these were the seats they held at the time the interns were taken, but some have since been replaced):

Andrew Selous, Conservative MP for South West Bedfordshire (took one intern, 2010-11)

Barry Sheerman, Labour MP for Huddersfield (took two interns, 2014-15 and 2019-20)

Caroline Ansell, Conservative MP for Eastbourne (took one intern, 2016-2017)

Caroline Spelman, former Conservative MP for Meriden (took two interns, 2013-14 and 2017-18) 

Catherine McKinnell, Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne North (took one intern, 2011-12)

David Burrowes, former Conservative MP for Enfield Southgate (took two interns, 2011-12, 2016-17)

David Lammy, Labour MP for Tottenham (took one intern, 2010-11)

Fiona Mactaggart, former Labour MP for Slough (took one intern, 2016-17)

Gary Streeter, Conservative MP for South West Devon (took four interns between 2012-19)

Gavin Shuker , former Labour MP for Luton South (took one intern, 2013-14)

Janet Daby, Labour MP for Lewisham East (took one intern, 2021-22)

Jeremy Lefroy, former Conservative MP for Stafford (took two interns, 2014-15 and 2017-18)

John Glen, Conservative MP for Salisbury (took two interns, 2011-12 and 2014-15)

Jon Cruddas, Labour MP for Dagenham and Rainham (took one intern, 2017-18)

Lisa Cameron, Scottish National Party MP for East Kilbride, Strathaven and Lesmahagow (took one intern, 2020-21)

Liz Kendall, Labour MP for Leicester West (took one intern, 2011-12)

Naomi Long, former Alliance Party MP for Belfast East (took one intern, 2012-13)

Sharon Hodgson, Labour MP for Washington and Sunderland West (took one intern, 2011-12)

Simon Hughes, former Liberal Democrat MP for Bermondsey and Old Southwark (took one intern, 2013-14)

Tim Farron, Liberal Democrat MP for Westmorland and Lonsdale (took one intern, 2011-12)

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