The anti-abortion charity at the centre of the tampon tax funding row gave talks in nearly 200 schools last year – despite the Government advising teachers to avoid “polarised” classroom debates on abortion.
Life, which advocates against abortion in all circumstances, even in cases of rape, received a controversial £250,000 grant from a government fund raised through tax on sanitary products.
The pro-life group said this money would support a project for homeless pregnant women in London, but MPs and campaigners said it was inappropriate for the group to receive Government funding and raised concerns about Life’s presence in schools.
“Having fought so long and hard for sex and relationship education to get into schools, and very carefully for the principle of balanced and accurate information, I don't believe they meet that test,” Stella Creasy, MP for Walthamstow, told The Independent.
“We're a democracy and a free country, we must be able to set up organisations like Life. But there's a big difference between having an organisation like that and the government funding them to promote the kinds of views they espouse.”
Life says it delivers talks to 25,000 pupils in UK schools each year, including "life before birth" sessions for primary school pupils and a presentation on abortion for teenagers.
Many of these take place in faith schools, but elsewhere it is common for teachers to agree to host the free talks as a way of presenting different sides of the abortion debate, said Laura Hurley, who led a 2013 report into abortion education in UK schools by the sexual health charity Brook.
In its official guidelines on sex and relationship education, the Department of Education says it aims to “prepare pupils for the responsibilities and challenges of adult life” – and warns this can be compromised by pitting pro-life and pro-choice stances on abortion against each other.
“Polarised debates can mean pupils miss the purpose of the lesson,” a department spokesperson told The Independent. “The guidance also sets out that outside organisations brought in to teach some or all of the school’s sex education should follow the school’s sex education policy.”
One testimony from a pupil in the West Midlands published on Life’s website said: “The talk made me think about my view on abortion and I have come to a conclusion that I am pro-life, meaning I am for life and I believe no human should be killed.”
Feedback from another pupil in the region said: “I learnt lots of new things about what abortion is and what emotional distress it can cause and lead to, both with the mother and others involved.”
Ms Hurley said her research had revealed a number of instances where pro-life groups speaking in schools had offered misinformation about contraception and abortion.
Life, which received £49,000 from the Big Lottery Fund last year, previously published a leaflet linking abortion to breast cancer, which has not been proven by scientific studies.
The group said it does not include misleading or inconclusive scientific information about abortion in its school presentations, adding that its education programme was “professional” and “non-confrontational”.
“We encourage debate in schools,” Mark Bhagwandin, Life’s senior education and media officer, told The Independent. “If it was so objectionable, a lot of schools wouldn’t have us in.”
Mr Bhagwandin said Life would not give out its presentations “as a matter of policy”, but said the talks do contain information on the potential psychological effect of abortion.
He said the talks refer to a long-term study by psychology professor David Fergusson that linked abortion to higher rates of depression, anxiety and drug and alcohol abuse.
However the American Psychological Association’s review of nearly 10 years of empirical studies on abortion found “no evidence that having a single abortion causes mental health problems”.
“There are a lot of statistics back and forth on this: some studies say yes, and others say no,” said Mr Bhagwandin. “What we can say, hand on heart, is that we have seen women who have had an abortion, and we see them again because they are experiencing feelings of loss, grief and anxiety.”
“We tell students that there are other studies that suggest there isn’t a link. But we speak from our own experience when we say it is not without psychological implications.”
Thousands march in Dublin for Irish abortion rights
Laura Russell, senior policy officer at the Family Planning Association, said education on abortion should be “evidence based, accurate and doesn't further any unnecessary stigma of abortion, which is quite frequently what happens if you invite anti-choice groups into schools.”
Ms Russell told The Independent she understood schools may wish to present a certain moral position for discussion, for example in religious education lessons.
However, she said it was “worrying” when pro-life views were “being presented in opposition to a pro-choice stance, which says people should be allowed a range of views, not that abortion is the correct response to an unwanted pregnancy.”
She said while some anti-abortion organisations could provide valuable services under some circumstances, such as shelter for homeless women who choose to continue their pregnancy, they should not receive funding while there are “other organisations providing an accurate, evidence-based and balanced view”.
Updated guidelines are expected to be published by the Department for Education when sex education is made compulsory in all schools in England from September 2019.
“We do hope with their education services that any new guidance regulation makes it completely clear they shouldn't be allowed into schools if they are going to propagate any misinformation or present moral arguments as fact,” said Ms Russell.
The Department for Education said: “We are introducing a new comprehensive programme of age-appropriate content on Relationships and Sex Education which will include updated guidance for schools, including how to discuss the topic of abortion.
“Schools will have flexibility over how they deliver this new programme, so they can develop an approach that is sensitive to the needs of the local community; and in the case of faith schools, in accordance with their faith.”
The Charity Commission said Life's work in schools would not affect its charitable status, as the organisation does a range of charitable work and one of their stated objectives is to promote education.
A Commission spokesperson told The Independent it was up to schools to decide whether a talk delivered by the organisation was appropriate for its pupils.Reuse content