Television ads for abortions will be allowed for the first time under the biggest shake-up of advertising rules for 50 years to be announced today.
In a move which the advertising watchdog acknowledges will offend members of the public, ads for pregnancy advisory services will be allowed in prime-time evening slots on the major channels: ITV, Channel 4, Sky and other broadcasters.
Britain's biggest independent pregnancy advisory service, whose clinicians perform abortions as well, said it would immediately consider running ads. "Absolutely," said Julie Douglas, who is head of marketing at Marie Stopes International. "I don't know if we could afford to do it in prime-time TV, but it would be a very interesting thing to do."
The rule changes coincide with new government efforts to reduce the number of teenage pregnancies in Britain which, at 42 per 1,000 under-18s, has the highest rate in Europe.
Advisory services will be allowed to reach out to viewers of soap operas, documentaries and films. Clinics which do not offer abortions will have to make the point clear to viewers to avoid any confusion.
Pro-life groups have accused the advertising watchdog of showing "bias" against anti-abortion campaigners in proposing the changes which, they said, would increase the number of abortions. "It will mean that abortion is promoted as a solution to women's problems," said John Smeaton, the national director of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child.
The Broadcasting Committee on Advertising Practice (BCAP), which covers TV and radio, and the Committee on Advertising Practice (CAP), which controls other media such as newspapers, magazines and billboards, have proposed the shake-up after spending 18 months reviewing 2,500 rules and regulations and more than 400 pieces of legislation.
Among their other proposals, condoms will be allowed to be advertised on all channels during prime-time and traditional medicine promoters will be allowed to advertise, making possible advertising for Prince Charles' Duchy Originals brand, which sells St John's Wort and other herbal products.
Rules will be tightened on environmental claims and on the advertising of computer games to children. A 12-week consultation will be held on the changes. If approved, they will come into force next year.
The Television Code does not deal specifically with family planning centres but they are indirectly banned from advertising through a prohibition on commercial services offering individual advice on personal problems.
Acknowledging potential public disquiet, the watchdog said: "BCAP considers that members of the audience who might be seriously offended by the nature of the advertised services are afforded adequate protection under rules that guard against offence and ensure that advertisements are suitably and sensitively scheduled."
A spokesman for the Advertising Standards Authority, which is overseeing the consultation, said: "The proposed rule on pregnancy advisory services would, in theory, allow abortion clinics to advertise.
"However, as this service is normally accessed via a referral from a GP or hospital, it is unlikely that we are going to start seeing ads for them."
Marie Stopes International, however, was enthusiastic about the idea. "We have often thought about it and we would do it extremely sensitively and informatively rather than just plugging our organisation," said Ms Douglas. The service advertises in the Yellow Pages but receives most of its work through internet search engines.
The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child accused the ASA of not allowing a "level playing field". "We survive on a shoestring. We cannot afford to advertise," said Mr Smeaton.
Andrew Brown, chairman of CAP and BCAP, said: "The UK advertising codes are widely recognised for setting a high bar for social responsibility. Our priority is to ensure that the rules remain relevant for the future so consumers can continue to enjoy and trust the ads they see... We sought the views of industry and policy-makers and now we want to hear from all other interested parties, including the people that matter the most in advertising, the general public." The consultation closes on 19 June.