The first television advert for abortion services in the UK is to be aired on Channel 4 next week, prompting anger from anti-abortion groups. The advert asks "Are you late?" referring to a woman who has missed her period and directs women facing an unplanned pregnancy to Marie Stopes International's 24-hour helpline, which is paying for the slot.
It will be aired for the first time at 10.10pm on Monday on during The Million Pound Drop, a gameshow hosted by Davina McCall. It will be repeated "around 25 times" until the end of June.
Marie Stopes International said the commercial would "confront the taboo" around abortion. It added it was "sensitive and tasteful" and will not actually mention abortion.
However a spokesman for the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (Spuc) said they would try to stop the broadcast: "Marie Stopes may claim to be a non-profit organisation, but they have a financial interest in drumming up demand for abortion. We are taking advice regarding the legality of the scheduled advertisement."
The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) said non-commercial providers of post-conception advice had long been permitted to advertise on television. Last year there was a furore over plans to extend it to commercial providers. Archbishop Vincent Nichols, the head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, urged Catholics to protest against the plans, which were put on hold – they are being considered by the Broadcast Committee of Advertising Practice. A spokesman for the ASA said: "If viewers have concerns about the content or scheduling of the ad, the ASA is able to consider complaints once the ad has aired. However, we cannot act on objections that viewers might have about the service being advertised at all."
The commercial was commissioned by the charity after a study found that only 42 per cent of UK adults said they would know where to go for specialist advice (other than their GP) if they faced an unplanned pregnancy.
The survey also found that 76 per cent of UK adults agreed that commercials about unplanned pregnancy advice services should be allowed on TV at appropriate times. In 2008 195,300 abortions were performed on women living in England and Wales, with 91 per cent funded by the NHS.
Marie Stopes International's chief executive Dana Hovig said: "We hope the new 'Are you late?' campaign will encourage people to talk about their choices, including abortion, more openly and honestly, and empower women to reach confident, informed decisions."
Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said: "It's great that services that help women with crisis pregnancies will be put into the mainstream but I am very glad BPAS is not footing the bill for it. We have always regarded TV advertising and the glossy private health campaigns as way out of our budget. It is a courageous step and it will be interesting to see what the feedback is."
But Michaela Aston from the anti-abortion charity Life said: "I can only express utter disbelief that this is being allowed, given the opposition to abortion advertising expressed during the recent public consultation. The tragedy is, these adverts will only lead to more abortions and more misery for women."
A Channel 4 spokeswoman said the advert had been approved and it was "up to viewers to form their own judgments".