BBC Abortion Row: Why Reproductive Rights Should Never Be ‘Contentious’

By Jenn Selby, Freelance News Editor 18 Feb 2019

The BBC found itself in the midst of controversy last week after it refused to include advice about abortion rights as part of its advice service because it believed it was a “contentious issue”.

The information on accessing terminations in the UK, and what those procedures entail, should have featured as part of the broadcaster’s Action Line following an episode of Call The Midwife on 3 February that featured a character dying from a backstreet abortion.

However, the BBC’s decision, originally intended so the “impartial” organisation did not “take a particular stance”, was widely criticised.

Not least because abortion comes under reproductive rights, recognised as human rights not just by the European Court of Human Rights, but also by the United Nations (further information on this below).

The broadcaster has since reneged, and included a link to NHS guidance on abortion via its website in all UK nations bar Northern Ireland, where having an abortion still can still carry a potential sentence of lifelong imprisonment under the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 (OAPA).

In a statement on Sunday, a spokesperson for the BBC said: “Our original letter, in response to a complaint on this issue, didn’t characterise our position correctly, but we have updated the website to provide a link now.”

Even so, the apparent lapse of judgement continues to be countered and critiqued, not least by Government ministers and reproductive rights services.

‘At The Expense Of Health, Welfare And Human Rights Of Women’

Image Credit: Number 10 / Flickr

According to the Sunday Times, Women and Equalities Minister, Penny Mordaunt and Health Minister, Jackie Doyle-Price, wrote to the BBC to complain about its choice.

Nearly 100 MPs also signed a letter sent to BBC director general Lord Hall criticising the decision to “withhold information about women’s reproductive healthcare services which have been legal and have been part of the NHS for over 50 years”.

The letter reads: “By citing an issue as ‘contentious’, it [appears] any regressive and vocal minority could exercise a veto, and effective editorial control, over BBC content — at the expense of health, welfare and human rights of women in often the most vulnerable position.”

The BBC is in effect ‘supporting one side’ by treating abortion as different to all the other medical procedures [it] chooses to include.

Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists also expressed its concern in a letter.

It wrote that abortion is a “routine part of NHS-funded healthcare” that is provided by doctors, nurses and midwives in England, Scotland and Wales every day.

“The BBC is in effect ‘supporting one side’ by treating abortion as different to all the other medical procedures [it] chooses to include,” it read.

There is also some praise for the BBC’s U-turn on its decision.

A protest in Ireland over the 8th Amendment.

Speaking to EachOther, a spokesperson for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) said: “We are very pleased that the BBC has now recognised that refusing to provide information about a medical procedure that one in three women will undergo in their lifetime, was completely the wrong decision to take. In doing so, they were taking a political stance on a healthcare issue, and we welcome this reversal.

“The outpouring of support from the public, MPs, and government ministers has made it abundantly clear that abortion is not contentious, and that access to abortion care and information is not just accepted in our society, it is expected.”

What Is An Abortion?

Also known as a termination, an abortion it is the medical process of ending a pregnancy so that it doesn’t result in the birth of a baby.

This is achieved by taking medication or by undertaking a minor surgical procedure.

The decision and right to undergo an abortion is an important and often difficult one which requires support, both physically and mentally, for any woman who experiences the procedure.

According to the NHS, one in three women will have an abortion during their lifetime.

Is Abortion Legal In the UK?

Partially: in England, Scotland and Wales, women can’t access abortion as easily as they can in the (newly legal) Republic of Ireland and in much of Europe.


Image of campaign badges from 1970/ Commons Wikimedia

Under the Abortion Act 1967, women are granted abortions only in certain circumstances; circumstances which must be approved by two separate doctors before they can have access to a legal and safe termination.

There are five categories under which abortion in England, Scotland and Wales is permissible.

This includes where the mother’s life is in danger (Category A) and foetal abnormalities (Category E).

There is also Category C, an exemption that allows termination if the mother can prove that the pregnancy and childbirth would damage her mental health. A huge 98 per cent of all abortions are permitted under this category.

Campaigners for reproductive rights want the law, which is now over 50 years old and was intended only as interim legislation to negate the OAPA 1861 before a more comprehensive law could be introduced, to be updated to allow women to be able to have an abortion when they require one without having to seek approval.

Why Are Abortion Rights Not Extended To Northern Ireland?

In Northern Ireland, women can still face imprisonment for having an abortion. Whilst Northern Irish women can now access free abortions in England under a recent change to the law and can apply for a hardship fund to allow for travel and accommodation required when making the trip, they will receive no physical or mental support for their experience upon their return to Northern Ireland.

By Rwendland [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], from Wikimedia Commons

Image: Stella Creasy MP via Creativecommons.org

Not only does this risk the health of the expectant mother by forcing her to travel, often alone, at a particularly vulnerable time, but the financial implications of last-minute flights and accommodation create a class bias for women that require an abortion within Northern Ireland.

With many politicians and women’s rights activists demanding for decades that safe and legal access to abortions is a human right that should be afforded equally to all citizens of the UK, Stella Creasy, Labour MP for Walthamstow, has recently been a vocal parliamentary advocate on this issue.

“The Republic of Ireland may have voted with an overwhelming majority to remove the ban on abortion but women in Northern Ireland are still criminalised by cruel and outdated Westminster laws,” she tells EachOther.

In 2019 we will be redoubling our fight against this injustice and seeking to amend legislation.

Stella Creasy

She added that the collapse of the power-sharing agreement at Stormont, the devolved Northern Irish Assembly, two years ago “cannot be used as an excuse not to act on this basic human rights issue”.

“In 2019, we will be redoubling our fight against this injustice and seeking to amend legislation to decriminalise abortion across the UK, including in Northern Ireland. Whatever deals the PM does with the DUP to stay in power, we will not rest until abortion is free, safe, legal and local for every UK citizen.”

A cross-party group of MPs, including Creasey, sent a letter to the Joint Committee for Human Rights on Friday demanding that the issue of abortion rights in Northern Ireland be tackled as part of the upcoming Domestic Violence Bill.

The intention of the Domestic Violence Bill was to bring the law in line with the government’s commitment to ratifying the Istanbul Convention – the gold standard in legislation to tackle violence against women and girls in all forms.

Is Safe And Legal Access To Abortion A Human Right?

According to the United Nations, “women’s sexual and reproductive health is related to multiple human rights, including the right to life, the right to be free from torture, the right to health, the right to privacy, the right to education, and the prohibition of discrimination.

“The Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) have both clearly indicated that women’s right to health includes their sexual and reproductive health. This means that States have obligations to respect, protect and fulfil rights related to women’s sexual and reproductive health.”

We hope that this year will mark the end of inhumane and degrading treatment of UK citizens.


This is echoed under Article 8 of the Human Rights Act, which states that an individual has the right to respect for their family and private life, home and correspondence.

“Abortion is a human right – one which is still denied to many women here in the UK,” a spokesperson for BPAS tells EachOther.

“In 2018, the Supreme Court found that the current near-total ban on abortion in Northern Ireland is in breach of Article 8, right to a private and family life, of the European Convention on Human Rights.

“We hope that this year will mark the end of this inhumane and degrading treatment of UK citizens and that MPs decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland and across Great Britain.”

Main image credit: BBC Call The Midwife/TV Still