Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Outrage as government appoints anti-abortion group to sexual health panel

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Today's Guardian leads with the news that an anti-abortion charity, Life, has been invited by the government to join a new advisory forum on sexual health. The charity, which opposes abortion in all circumstances and favours abstinence-based sex education, will join the new forum while the pro-choice British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which was a member of the forum's predecessor, the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV, has not been invited.

Explaining the inclusion of Life and the exclusion of BPAS, a Department of Health Spokesperson pointed to the need for "balance" on a panel which will include other pro-choice groups:
"To provide balance, it is important that a wide range of interests and views are represented on the forum.

Marie Stopes International and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service have similar interests. We offered them shared membership but they declined, and after careful consideration we concluded that it was not feasible to invite both organisations."
While the inclusion of Life will shock many who favour abortion rights and comprehensive sex education, it is worth noting that it will be up against an array of well-respected sexual health organisations, with the rest of the forum consisting of the British Association for Sexual Health and HIV, the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Health at the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Association of Directors of Public Health, the British HIV Association, the Terrence Higgins Trust, Brook, the Family Planning Association, the Sex Education Forum and National Children's Bureau, and Marie Stopes International.

Speaking to the Guardian, Stuart Cowie, head of education at Life, expressed a desire to work together with the other groups on the panel:
"If we can be involved with other people in reducing [the number of abortions], then that fits with our charitable objectives and I don't think is unpalatable to anyone else, regardless of their position on when life begins."
However, others are sceptical about the impact anti-choice, abstinence-based approaches could have on the number of abortions. Simon Blake, the national director of Brook, which provides confidential sexual health advice for young people, pointed to the statistical success of the pro-contraception approach, which has led to a reduction in the abortion rate among under-18s, and warned against adopting regressive policies:
"Having made such massive progress, what we have to do is sustain that … and not go back to a time when the young had really poor sexual and relationship education and see a rise in teenage pregnancy rates and sexually transmitted infections as a result."
The profile of the anti-choice movement appears to have increased in recent months. As the Guardian point out, Life has also been invited on to a new Sex and Relationships Council, which was launched last week by education secretary Michael Gove, alongside the Silver Ring Thing, which encourages young people to make a pledge of abstinence until they are married. Three weeks ago, MPs voted in favour of a Ten Minute Rule Bill tabled by the Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, which called for girls to receive abstinence based sex education in school. Alongside the Labour MP Frank Field, Dorries has also tabled amendments to the to the health and social care bill which would require women seeking abortion to receive counselling from an organisation that does not perform the procedures itself.
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