It's Time To Stop Calling Abortion A 'Contentious Issue'

The BBC not providing abortion support information after a harrowing Call the Midwife episode feels like a betrayal of both the show and of women
PA Entertainment

Cosying up on a Sunday evening to watch Call The Midwife has become an essential activity for so many people – including many of my fellow team members at Marie Stopes UK. This series, which is set in the swinging Sixties, made for harrowing viewing when a recent episode shows a young woman dying from complications following an illegal abortion. This was a devastating reality for so many women during this era when they had no safe and legal abortion option, and their healthcare provider’s hands were tied by a restrictive law. It’s distressing, and makes me all the more grateful that in 1967 accessing safe and legal abortion services became possible in England, Scotland and Wales when the Abortion Act was passed.

As the credits roll, the familiar message from BBC Action Line announces that support on the issues raised in this episode are available via their website. This is true, as long as the support you are looking for has nothing to do with abortion.

Our colleagues at Bpas were alerted to the fact that the BBC Action Line website contains no information at all on abortion and asked them whether this was a simple oversight.

Their response was poor, and incredibly out of touch with the reproductive lives of women across the UK. They suggested that “It isn’t possible for the BBC Action Line to offer support for abortion… without referring people either to campaigning organisations which take a particular stance on an issue or to organisations which provide it” and that “doing so could imply the BBC supported one side or another in any contentious issue which it does not do in its coverage.”

Frankly, this response makes a mockery of their brilliant Call The Midwife episode which shows that trusted abortion care information and compassion from healthcare providers is so important, and that women’s choices around their pregnancies should be supported. We trust the BBC to produce brilliant programming that is educational and celebrates our British values. That is the very reason why their response feels like a betrayal.

Yesterday, a collective of medical bodies, reproductive healthcare charities and abortion care providers (Bpas, Brook, the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, Family Planning Association, Marie Stopes UK, the Royal College of Midwives, and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists) sent a letter to BBC Action Line to share our concerns with the lack of signposting to information about abortion following the episode. We called on the BBC to urgently amend the current policy, so that women who are visiting their website for advice on abortion can easily find links to evidence based, impartial information.

By omitting information on abortion from their support website, and saying that abortion is “contentious” or “controversial”, what the BBC are really telling us is that abortion is not to be spoken about in polite circles. We’re here to tell the BBC that our personal reproductive healthcare decisions are NOT controversial.

Pitching abortion as “contentious” where there is “one side” against “another” is a typical false opposition created by the BBC’s warped perception of impartiality. We are impartial healthcare providers, and follow guidance and regulation from impartial regulators and from the NHS. The perceived other side to this is not equivalent – it is an anti-choice minority who do not believe in legal and evidence based healthcare for women. This BBC policy to give equal weighting to the views of these people and the views of health care professionals is being used to refuse women the abortion care information they are searching for.

The informed decisions women make with our healthcare providers about whether or not to legally end a pregnancy deserves to be acknowledged as a valid and supported option. When the BBC decide not to include direct links to factually accurate information about women’s healthcare, they choose to leave us in the dark, in the early 1960s, in silence, all in the name of impartiality.

Excluding links to healthcare information about abortion effectively supports the aims of those people who would rather abortion was never a legal option for women. These are the people who opposed abortion law reform in 1967, and those who would seek to restrict access today. The abortion stigma for both healthcare providers and for women that this exclusion reinforces has no place in a supposedly impartial service.

Ignoring the fact that abortion is a valid healthcare decision is what ultimately causes a misunderstanding of women’s reproductive health. In this scenario, the BBC are imagining abortion as an abstract concept, not as the most common gynaecological procedure in the UK.

So, what can the BBC do to fix this? Impartial information about abortion linked to their Action Line website is all we ask. Their response to the letter was to reiterate their opinion that abortion is “controversial” and that there is already a link to the NHS website around pregnancy. However, a review of this link shows that it does not contain any information about abortion, but about continuing pregnancy only.

We will never stop talking about abortion care as an option that one in three women of reproductive age in the UK will decide on. This is not because we are trying to be “contentious” or “controversial”, but because we are healthcare providers, we support women to make their own healthcare decisions, and we will not go back to the early 1960s. The only controversial issue we can see is BBC Action Line’s anti-abortion policy.

Franki Appleton is a communications and advocacy advisor for Marie Stopes UK