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15 February 2019

The BBC should treat abortion as a healthcare procedure, not just a plot point for Call the Midwife

The BBC, rightly, has links on its website to advice from organisations like Stonewall, Mind and Beat. So why did it refuse to link to abortion advice?

By glosswitch Glosswitch

As the saying goes, you can’t be a little bit pregnant: you’re either gestating a new life at enormous cost and potential risk to your physical and mental wellbeing, or you’re not. As far as this experience goes, there is no middle ground.

Similarly, you’re either in favour of women being forced to remain pregnant against their will, or you’re not. The alternative to safe, legal abortion is not the absence of abortion; it’s the torture of compulsory gestation, or it’s illegal, unsafe abortion. There is no neutral option, no world in which unwanted pregnancies must neither continue nor end.

This is annoying if, say, you’re a broadcaster who wishes to highlight the terrible consequences of backstreet abortion while maintaining an aloof detachment from the whole abortion “debate”. This is the position in which the BBC now finds itself, having aired an episode of Call The Midwife in which one character dies of the consequences of an illegal termination.

Such deaths were not rare occurrences prior to the 1967 Abortion Act, with an estimated 50 to 60 women losing their lives every year. The BBC is, one presumes, very sad about this, although not so sad as to be actively in favour of the solution.

While it’s great that women are no longer haemorrhaging to death for want of control of the reproductive destinies – and while remembering those who did makes for heartrending drama – celebrating the procedure that changed all this would be a bit much. Actually, forget celebrating; even mentioning it would be excessive.  

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The BBC Action Line website exists to highlight information and support for issues covered in recent programmes. As one can imagine, there are many such issues:  addiction, bereavement, bullying, debt, self-harm…. (This is why I restrict my BBC watching to one episode of Casualty at Christmas.)

The “pregnancy-related issues” section is tagged, as one might expect, to Call The Midwife. It covers such areas as infertility, pre- and post-natal depression and miscarriage. It does not cover unwanted pregnancies. There are no links to organisations such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service or Brook.

When alerted to this by women who visited the site after watching Call the Midwife, BPAS contacted the BBC for comment. The response is remarkable:

It isn’t possible for the BBC Action Line to offer support for abortion and similarly contentious issues without referring people either to campaigning organisations which take a particular stance on an issue or to organisations which provide it. Doing so could imply the BBC supported one side or another which it does not do in its coverage.

Imagine! Putting women who need abortions in touch with organisations which provide abortions! That might give the impression that, providing certain conditions are met, this necessary healthcare procedure is now legal in the UK. It might suggest directing individuals towards abortion providers is no more contentious than directing them towards organisations that support people dealing with postnatal depression, cancer or eating disorders.

As a letter co-signed by BPAS, the Royal College of Midwives and several other women’s healthcare providers points out, “in barring information the BBC is in effect ‘supporting one side’ by treating abortion as different to all the other medical procedures and conditions the BBC choses to include [on its Action Line page]”.  

Yes, there remains a minority of people who disagree profoundly with women having access to safe abortion. By the same token, there are people who oppose same-sex relationships, people who think mental health problems are self-indulgent, people who are members of pro-ana groups. This hasn’t stopped the BBC from linking to Stonewall, Mind and Beat.

Female suffering and death are staples of prime time entertainment. This is rarely considered “contentious”; on the contrary, such stagings seen as either thrilling or moving. Let’s all cry for the beautiful murder victim; let’s feel outrage on behalf of the pregnant woman who bleeds to death.

Real, live women – those who live happy, healthy lives due to the reproductive choices they are now free to make – may not be as engaging as fictional victims. They do, however, deserve respect from those who capitalise on the suffering of those who went before them.

Abortion is not a plot point; it is a healthcare procedure. It’s time the BBC treated it as such.