Why is an anti-abortion group advising the government on sexual health?

Life’s inclusion on an advisory panel is the latest move to increase pro-life groups’ influence on t

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.

"Pushing abortion"

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.

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: ASA
Show Hide image

Harmful gender stereotypes in ads have real impact – so we're challenging them

The ASA must make sure future generations don't recoil at our commercials.

July’s been quite the month for gender in the news. From Jodie Whittaker’s casting in Doctor Who, to trains “so simple even women can drive them”, to how much the Beeb pays its female talent, gender issues have dominated. 

You might think it was an appropriate time for the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) to launch our own contribution to the debate, Depictions, Perceptions and Harm: a report on gender stereotypes in advertising, the result of more than a year’s careful scrutiny of the evidence base.

Our report makes the case that, while most ads (and the businesses behind them) are getting it right when it comes to avoiding damaging gender stereotypes, the evidence suggests that some could do with reigning it in a little. Specifically, it argues that some ads can contribute to real world harms in the way they portray gender roles and characteristics.

We’re not talking here about ads that show a woman doing the cleaning or a man the DIY. It would be most odd if advertisers couldn’t depict a woman doing the family shop or a man mowing the lawn. Ads cannot be divorced from reality.

What we’re talking about is ads that go significantly further by, for example, suggesting through their content and context that it’s a mum’s sole duty to tidy up after her family, who’ve just trashed the house. Or that an activity or career is inappropriate for a girl because it’s the preserve of men. Or that boys are not “proper” boys if they’re not strong and stoical. Or that men are hopeless at simple parental or household tasks because they’re, well...men.

Advertising is only a small contributor to gender stereotyping, but a contributor it is. And there’s ever greater recognition of the harms that can result from gender stereotyping. Put simply, gender stereotypes can lead us to have a narrower sense of ourselves – how we can behave, who we can be, the opportunities we can take, the decisions we can make. And they can lead other people to have a narrower sense of us too. 

That can affect individuals, whatever their gender. It can affect the economy: we have a shortage of engineers in this country, in part, says the UK’s National Academy of Engineering, because many women don’t see it as a career for them. And it can affect our society as a whole.

Many businesses get this already. A few weeks ago, UN Women and Unilever announced the global launch of Unstereotype Alliance, with some of the world’s biggest companies, including Proctor & Gamble, Mars, Diageo, Facebook and Google signing up. Advertising agencies like JWT and UM have very recently published their own research, further shining the spotlight on gender stereotyping in advertising. 

At the ASA, we see our UK work as a complement to an increasingly global response to the issue. And we’re doing it with broad support from the UK advertising industry: the Committees of Advertising Practice (CAP) – the industry bodies which author the UK Advertising Codes that we administer – have been very closely involved in our work and will now flesh out the standards we need to help advertisers stay on the right side of the line.

Needless to say, our report has attracted a fair amount of comment. And commentators have made some interesting and important arguments. Take my “ads cannot be divorced from reality” point above. Clearly we – the UK advertising regulator - must take into account the way things are, but what should we do if, for example, an ad is reflecting a part of society as it is now, but that part is not fair and equal? 

The ad might simply be mirroring the way things are, but at a time when many people in our society, including through public policy and equality laws, are trying to mould it into something different. If we reign in the more extreme examples, are we being social engineers? Or are we simply taking a small step in redressing the imbalance in a society where the drip, drip, drip of gender stereotyping over many years has, itself, been social engineering. And social engineering which, ironically, has left us with too few engineers.

Read more: Why new rules on gender stereotyping in ads benefit men, too

The report gave news outlets a chance to run plenty of well-known ads from yesteryear. Fairy Liquid, Shake 'n' Vac and some real “even a woman can open it”-type horrors from decades ago. For some, that was an opportunity to make the point that ads really were sexist back then, but everything’s fine on the gender stereotyping front today. That argument shows a real lack of imagination. 

History has not stopped. If we’re looking back at ads of 50 years ago and marvelling at how we thought they were OK back then, despite knowing they were products of their time, won’t our children and grandchildren be doing exactly the same thing in 50 years’ time? What “norms” now will seem antiquated and unpleasant in the future? We think the evidence points to some portrayals of gender roles and characteristics being precisely such norms, excused by some today on the basis that that’s just the way it is.

Our report signals that change is coming. CAP will now work on the standards so we can pin down the rules and official guidance. We don’t want to catch advertisers out, so we and CAP will work hard to provide as much advice and training as we can, so they can get their ads right in the first place. And from next year, we at the ASA will make sure those standards are followed, taking care that our regulation is balanced and wholly respectful of the public’s desire to continue to see creative ads that are relevant, entertaining and informative. 

You won’t see a sea-change in the ads that appear, but we hope to smooth some of the rougher edges. This is a small but important step in making sure modern society is better represented in ads.

Guy Parker is CEO of the ASA