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Controversial advert for abortion services to be screened on UK TV tonight

May 24th, 2010

Dr Petra

brook advert

Tonight the UK will see the first television advert for abortion services. Shown at 10.10pm on Channel 4 the advert for Marie Stopes will highlight for viewers where to get help and advice about pregnancy. The advert has already been opposed by charity Life and will not be shown in Northern Ireland (where termination of pregnancy is illegal).

Despite following a public consultation about advertising condoms and termination services on television, some quarters of the media have responded to this advert as though it was automatically going to entice all young women to have abortions – even if they weren’t pregnant! Before the advert had even been made available some journalists were expressing outrage that such messaging could be shared, and were referring to the campaign as ‘the abortion advert’ (rather than an advert for an advice service). Although there was also balanced coverage elsewhere.

One key question that the advert has raised is ‘why do we need to promote services offering termination on television?’ A common theme in discussing this case has been that those who want a termination would know how to get one so why should there be a television advert talking about this issue?

Unfortunately we know there are many myths about termination of pregnancy which include what terminations actually involve, how you go about getting one, when you can seek a termination, do you have to pay, and what happens afterwards (you can find answers to these questions here courtesy of Living Well/NHS and Patient UK).

We have to remember not everyone has access to the internet and signposting to reproductive health services is generally poor. So it is not always obvious what services are out there or how you might access them.

Some people agreed the advert should be shown, but felt it ought to be screened earlier in the evening so as to reach a younger audience. While I can see this viewpoint it does reinforce the stereotype we need to challenge that the only people who have/need terminations are teenagers and young adults. Terminations are sought by women of all childbearing ages and for a variety of reasons and with a variety of outcomes. This is why we need clear signposting as it may be older women, young women, unmarried or single women assume such services are not open to them.

We know through research women often make up their mind about having a termination before seeing a doctor but do benefit from prompt referral to termination or maternity care services (depending on the choice they make). But we do also know that women worry about making the move to discuss their options (having or not having a baby) for fear of being judged or concerns over confidentiality. Making it clear there is a service out there who can offer advice and support can be a step towards reassuring women and their partners. Particularly if the emphasis remains on choice – so people are reminded that while terminations can be offered, advice on proceeding with a pregnancy is also available for those who wish it.

Another issue raised was that having an advert on television ‘trivialised’ the topic of termination or made it into entertainment. This is obviously reliant on how the advert was presented, but generally having information about reproductive health made available on prime time television is beneficial because it is targeting an audience who may otherwise miss the information. Our problem remains if we decide some issues cannot be mentioned in public information adverts on television or in the cinema, where are we able to share them? And if we decide to only have information accessible online or in pamphlets at the GP surgery how many people will we be excluding?

In discussing the proposed advert the media rehearsed several of the stereotypes we’ve grown used to in relation to termination. That it’s only young girls who have unplanned pregnancies, that terminations are only for unplanned/unexpected pregnancies, that everyone who experiences a termination suffers regret (or should feel shame), and that most terminations are carried out at a very late stage. Having such views expressed but not challenged remains a problem – and causes distress for many people with either experience of termination or general problems with fertility. It is unfortunate in the run up to screening the advert there were not more opportunities taken to challenge such myths or provide accurate information.

Having advertising that helps people find advice services for termination of pregnancy is important – particularly since all evidence suggests an early intervention (if one is going to take place) is preferable. While I welcome the advert for Marie Stopes International I would prefer to see a far greater effort made to improve the general signposting to our reproductive health services, the funding for such services and more information about what is available. In particular highlighting contraception choices and getting access to family planning services is vital to women and men and equally as important as having adverts showing where to get advice in the case of considering whether or not to continue with a pregnancy.

Hopefully having this advert screened will pave the way for more opportunities to highlight reproductive and sexual health services and for us to lobby for better sex education and family planning care within our communities.

Here is the advert, see what you think…

Further help can be found at

Family Planning Association
has advice and information about what to do if you are pregnant
I’m not sorry is for women who have had positive abortion experiences to share their stories
Health Talk Online (DIPEX) focuses on the feelings and reactions people have when ending a pregnancy over a fetal abnormality

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