Life, a group that is opposed to abortion in all circumstances and promotes an abstinence-based approach to sex education, has been appointed to a government advisory group on sexual health.
The forum, set up to replaced the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV, excludes the British Pregnancy Health Service (BPAS), which had a long-term position on the previous advisory group. The exclusion is on the grounds that its stance is similar to that of Marie Stopes International.
"We find it puzzling that the Department of Health would want a group that is opposed to abortion and provides no sexual health services on its sexual health forum," said Ann Furedi, chief executive of BPAS.
Meanwhile, Stuart Cowie, Life's head of education, said he was delighted that the group would have the chance to "represent views that have not always been around on similar tables in the past".
So why did Anne Milton, who had been invited as public health minister, invite a group that opposes the very existence of an abortion law to sit on this panel?
It is difficult not to see this latest move as part of a mission creep of government opening itself up to faith-based or pro-life groups.
Into the breach
For a start, this is not Life's first foray into government. Last week, the group became a founding member of a new Sex and Relationships Council, launched in parliament with the endorsement of Michael Gove.
Other founding members of the panel – which will participate in policy discussions about sex education in schools – include Right to Life and the Christian pro-abstinence group the Silver Ring Thing.
Perhaps this is unsurprising: the Tory MP Nadine Dorries tabled a motion in parliament this month calling for the introduction of abstinence-based sex education for girls (not boys, note). It was narrowly passed by MPs.
Dorries and Frank Field MP have put forward amendments to the Health and Social Care Bill to tighten the rules on abortion. They suggest that any woman having an abortion must receive counselling from an "independent" organisation (though it is not clear what exactly is meant by this).
In addition to these legislative steps by MPs and the steadily increasing number of advisory roles for faith-based groups, there are some local examples of these organisations benefiting from the government's "big society" agenda and actually providing services in certain areas. The Guardian notes that:
In Richmond, south-west London, the Catholic Children's Society has taken over the £89,000 contract to provide advice to schoolchildren on matters including contraception and pregnancies. Another Christian-run charity, Care Confidential, is involved in providing crisis pregnancy advice under the auspices of Newham PCT in east London.
This gives serious cause for concern. It is crucial that women considering abortion receive objective advice. The state should facilitate that – not thrust them into the hands of interest groups.
About 20 per cent of women seeking an abortion at a BPAS clinic decide not to proceed with a termination following the counselling they receive, indicating that they are by no means pushing abortions to their clients.
It is vital that pro-choice and sexual health campaigners stay alert to this thread in government: both legislative changes pushed by Tory MPs such as Dorries and Field, and the increasing influence of faith-based groups. Otherwise there is a very real risk of severely retrograde steps being taken on the crucial issue of sexual health.