News that the government has appointed anti-choice group LIFE to its new sexual health forum has been met with alarm by politicians and reproductive rights advocates, particularly after it was revealed that leading abortion provider BPAS will not be represented on the panel (24.05.11).
LIFE opposes abortion in all circumstances and campaigns for restrictions on access to the procedure. It has drawn criticism for its educational activities which sees LIFE representatives visit secondary schools across the UK to warn children of the dangers of abortion, and for the advice provided its network of pregnancy counselling services.
The move to appoint LIFE has been challenged by leading Labour figures. Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary and shadow minister for women and equalities, commented: “Many women will be alarmed to hear that an organisation that campaigns against abortion in all circumstances is now advising the government.
“Abortion is legal in this country but the appointment of this group raises a concern about whether that will continue to be supported by ministers in future.”
She added: “We know that women don’t take decisions about pregnancy and abortion lightly. They will want reassurances from ministers that the appointment of this group does not signal a backwards step in independent advice, proper health support for women and safe access to abortion.”
The sexual health forum, set up to replace the Independent Advisory Group on Sexual Health and HIV which was abolished by the government last year, includes representatives 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; Marie Stopes International; and Life.
Responding to news that BPAS would not be among groups attending the forum, BPAS chief executive Ann Furedi said,
“We are disappointed and troubled to learn that having initially been invited to the sexual health forum we have been disinvited, particularly now we understand that Life have been offered a seat at the table…We find it puzzling that the Department of Health would want a group that is opposed to abortion and provides no sexual health services on its sexual health forum.”
Lisa Hallgarten, director of pro-choice charity Education for Choice expressed similar worries: “Our main concern would be that Life might seek to obstruct further advances in contraceptive and abortion access or even turn the clock back on some of them.”
The government’s decision calls into question its commitment to ensuring abortion access in future, coming shortly after the tabling of amendments to the Health and Social Care bill proposing new pre-abortion counselling requirements and moves to introduce an abstinence-based approach to sex education for girls. In the past David Cameron has made it clear that he supports a reduction in the legal time limit for abortion, with a majority of Conservatve cabinet ministers supporting similar restrictions.
However a Department of Health spokesman played down the significance of the decision, saying only that “To provide balance, it is important that a wide range of interests and views are represented on the forum.”