Amy Jenkins: A ban on an abortion advert won't make the issue go away

Sexual taboos
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The Independent Online

Have you ever had the feeling that you want to laugh and cry at the same time? It's the feeling I had when I read that pro-lifers were hoping to mount a legal challenge to the first ever abortion clinic advert on British TV.

It will run on Channel 4 on Monday night and it's made by Marie Stopes International which is hoping to increase awareness of its sexual health services. The laugh/cry thing is to do with the idiocy of it all, I suppose. What exactly is it that the pro-lifers are trying to achieve? They can't do much about the availability of abortion in this country so are they going to try to stop people from knowing about the clinics? Is this what it's come to: trying to trick some poor souls – teenagers, probably, who dare not tell their GP about an unwanted pregnancy – into motherhood because they don't know that Marie Stopes exists?

Marie Stopes says it made the TV advert in response to a study which showed that fewer than half of all adults knew where to go for specialist advice about unplanned pregnancy. Of course everyone should know that Marie Stopes provides an invaluable add-on to the NHS and saves the lives (I don't think that's an exaggeration) of many a young woman who isn't ready to face the profound loss of opportunities an unwanted child would bring. This is especially true in a society that has never prioritised subsidised childcare. The reality is that many young women will face a life of poverty if they go ahead and have a child before they are established.

But Michaela Aston of the anti-abortion charity Life says: "To allow abortion providers to advertise on TV, as though they were no different from car companies or detergent manufacturers, is grotesque." As is usual with the pro-lifers, she assumes a smug moral consensus that simply doesn't exist. The study Marie Stopes quotes says that 76 per cent of adults think adverts for abortion services should be allowed on television at appropriate times. Which is to say nothing of the fact that quite a few people think car companies and detergent manufacturers are pretty grotesque these days. Certainly the effect they have on the environment may end up wiping out more lives than abortion ever did.

All of which ranting and railing – on my part – can't hide the sad truth that abortion is still living in the murky shadows of our consciousness – and that's 43 years after it was first made legal. It is still something to be covered up, something that can't be talked about openly, something – supposedly – to be ashamed of. Look at our culture. Chris Morris just made a funny film about suicide bombers, but have you ever seen a film trying to be funny about abortion or even containing a run-of-the-mill abortion story? Have you ever seen a film at all with an abortion in it that isn't some horrific act of violence perpetrated on a woman or a terrible tragedy that leads to a woman's downfall? There are the films that are about abortion like Vera Drake, but, being as depressing as a dripping tap in a 1950s bedsit, it was hardly a film to bring abortion into the accepted discourse. I'm thinking more of a nice bumbling comedy in which a character just decides not to have a child yet and then gets on with life.

Meanwhile, what people really think (remember 76 per cent said an abortion services advert was OK) is in danger of getting lost in the – eminently reportable – bellowing of extremist groups. It's absolutely infuriating that every time the BBC reports a story about abortion it gets someone from the pro-life lobby on to have their say. The pro-life lobby is a tiny minority. It's like getting the BNP on every time there's a story about race.

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