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Abortion services to be advertised on UK television for first time

Planned screening provokes an enthusiastic welcome from advocates of women’s sexual health, and outrage from anti-abortion groups

The first commercial to offer advice on abortion services will be screened on British TV next week, campaigners said today, provoking an enthusiastic welcome from advocates of women’s sexual health, and outrage from anti-abortion groups.

The advert from Marie Stopes will be screened on Monday, offering what the organisation says will be “clear, non-judgmental information” on unplanned pregnancies and abortion services.

“Last year alone we received 350,000 calls to our 24-hour helpline,” said Dana Hovig, Marie Stopes’s chief executive. “Clearly there are hundreds of thousands of women who want and need sexual health information and advice, and access to services.”

Marie Stopes says it aims to provide women with information rather than to promote abortion or any other choice.

But the decision to screen the advert was described as “grotesque” by Michaela Aston, a spokeswoman for the anti-abortion campaign group Life.

“I can only express utter disbelief that this is being allowed, given the opposition to abortion advertising expressed during the recent public consultation. To allow abortion providers to advertise on TV, as though they were no different from car companies or detergent manufacturers, is grotesque,” she said.

The advert will be shown at 10.10pm on Channel 4 and is based around the slogan “Are you late?”

The Advertising Standards Authority said non-commercial providers of sexual health services, such as Marie Stopes, had been permitted to advertise on UK television for some time. “If viewers have concerns about the content or scheduling of the ad, the ASA is able to consider complaints once the ad has aired. However, we cannot act on objections that viewers might have about the service being advertised at all,” said a spokesman.

Marie Stopes said it took the decision to screen the commercial after a study found fewer than half of UK adults knew where to go for specialist advice about an unplanned pregnancy other than their GP. It also found that 76% of adults believed adverts for services offering advice on unplanned pregnancy should be allowed on television at “appropriate times”.

Darinka Aleksic, campaign co-ordinator for Abortion Rights, said the advert was an “important breakthrough” in the support services on offer to women”.

But the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said it was seeking advice over the advert’s legality.

Channel 4 has banned an advertisement for abortion services from being broadcast in Northern Ireland.

Millions of viewers in England, Scotland and Wales will be able to watch the TV ad for Marie Stopes International (MSI) on Channel 4 at 10.10pm on Monday.

But the UK’s fourth channel has been prevented from screening the commercial for MSI in Northern Ireland because abortion is still illegal in the province. Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK where the 1967 Abortion Act does not apply. All of the political parties in the Stormont assembly, except the Progressive Unionists, are opposed to the extension of the act to Northern Ireland.

Anti-abortion groups in Northern Ireland said they welcomed legislation blocking the ad from being broadcast, but they were angry that it would be screened elsewhere in the UK.

A leading sexual health charity based in Belfast said it was another example of how women in the province were treated differently to the rest of the UK.

The Family Planning Association said it highlighted the need to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland.

The ad, which is part of the ‘Are you late?’ campaign by MSI, will air on Channel 4 until the end of June.

Dana Hovig, MSI’s chief executive, said: “It’s a shame that we are not allowed to screen the commercial in Northern Ireland – abortion continues to be severely restricted there and women in Northern Ireland are forced to travel to England for abortion services.

“Therefore the advertising of abortion facilities, their contact numbers or addresses is against the law in Northern Ireland.”

Dr Audrey Simpson, director of Northern Ireland for the Family Planning Association, said: “I think a lot of people would say it is inappropriate to use this ad on television because it would encourage women to have abortions.

“They use the argument that if you give people information it encourages them to go and do something. But women already have access to that information.”