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Women's experiences

BPAS' underground adverts
By Ellie Lee

On Wednesday last week, posters promoting British Pregnancy Advisory Services' (BPAS) abortion service were displayed on cross-track sites at London Underground tube stations. The posters, which are 10ft by 7ft, feature the word 'Abortion' in large letters, using a montage of images of women's faces to make up the letters. They state 'Abortion: last year 55,000 women turned to BPAS'. The posters also advertise BPAS' Actionline number so women can call for information or appointments.

It is the first time that the word 'abortion' has been used so prominently to advertise an abortion service. In the past, abortion services have more commonly been referred to through use of terms like 'pregnancy advice'. Commenting on the up-front approach, Ann Furedi, director of communications for BPAS pointed out that it was time to break the still existing taboo about the use of the word 'abortion'. She said:

'The posters break a long tradition where the 'A' word has been avoided for fear of offending those who disapprove of abortion. We believe it is time to break the taboo and challenge the notion that abortion is a problem.'

'Abortion is simply a fact of life. Forty per cent of women have one at some time. It's a necessary back-up to contraception if women are to choose whether, or when, to have children. Woman should not have to feel ashamed or apologetic about needing abortion care, and we make no apologies for providing it. Abortion can be a legal, moral and responsible solution to an unwanted pregnancy. BPAS is proud to be Britain's largest single abortion provider.'

An article in the Sunday Telegraph drew attention to the 'outraged' response of anti-abortion groups to the advert. In their comments, representatives of such groups contended that women do not choose to have abortions, that abortion services do not aim to help women, but rather to 'kill babies', and that the posters are unacceptable and offensive.

Jack Scarisbrick, director of Life claimed that the poster was 'exploiting women's vulnerability'. He said 'Everyone knows that abortion is nasty. They may say they want to break the taboo of the A word but we know that woman do not want to have abortions. They have abortions because of other people'. Sarah Macken, the director of an anti-abortion group called StudentLife Net argued 'They seem to be saying abortion is normal. It is not a normal operation. It is simply for the intention of killing alot of babies. It is not acceptable to advertise this in the same way that you would advertise make-up'. Bruno Quintavalle of the Pro-Life Alliance said 'I find the BPAS poster extremely offensive. They are not putting forward one side of the picture, they are misrepresenting the horror of abortion'.

While Quintavalle described the posters as 'offensive', he also argued that there is too much censorship of images of abortion. The Prolife Alliance is waiting for a legal ruling from Europe on whether a picture of a fetus could be used in a party political broadcast, following the banning of the Alliance's broadcast made for the 1997 General Election. However, in a move that could lead to the removal of the posters, Scarisbrick has said he is going to complain to the Advertising Standards Authority. The Prolife Alliance has chosen instead to ask the London Underground to put up a similar-sized poster of an aborted 21-week fetus, presumably on the grounds that the Alliance believes London Underground should itself take an active role in the abortion debate.

Neil Byrne, a spokesman for London Underground defended the decision to allow the poster to be displayed. He said the poster had passed the stringent guidelines it lays down for advertising. Commenting on the impossibility of offending no-one, he said: 'They are entitled to advertise their services as much as any business. Carrying as many people as we do, three million a day, it is hard not to offend somebody. When people submit posters we are aware that we carry large numbers of very young and older people with different views'. He added: 'We do turn people down, but we did not think this was a distasteful poster. It is a service offering pregnancy advice. It is shock tactics but it is within the guidelines we find acceptable.'

The advert, and other information about BPAS can be found on their website www.BPAS.org

Press release, 'Underground ads promote abortion care', BPAS, 19/4/00
'Family planning group shatters 'A' word taboo'. The Sunday Telegraph, 23/4/00

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