British Pro-Life Leader Risks Jail Over Morning-After Pill Ad
LONDON — The leader of a major British pro-life organization has vowed to defy an advertising ban issued by a government watch-dog. He says he won't stop publishing an ad stating that the so-called morning-after pill is “abortion-inducing.”
John Smeaton, director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, known as SPUC, could even face a jail sentence if he continues defying the British Advertising Standards Authority, The authority is responsible for ensuring that ads are “legal, decent, honest and truthful.”
Some Catholic publishers have also pledged to disobey the ban.
SPUC is due next year to mount a legal challenge to the British government's decision to make Levonelle 2, the only morning-after-pill licensed in the United Kingdom, available from pharmacists without prescriptions and from high-school nurses.
An ad promoting a walk sponsored by SPUC officials to raise funds for the legal action was reported to the Advertising Standards Authority by a reader of The Tablet, a Catholic magazine.
The authority agreed that this statement from the ad was misleading: “Help us beat the morning-after pill. 50-mile sponsored walk from Liverpool to Manchester by SPUC's directors in September. SPUC is going to court to challenge the government over its decision to make abortion-inducing morning-after pills even more widely available.”
The authority said that while it noted SPUC's argument that a human being came into existence at the time of fertilization, not implantation, it understood that Prime Minister Tony Blair's government had defined pregnancy as beginning following implantation of the fertilized egg.
It added that most readers would understand “abortion” to refer to the expulsion of the fertilized egg from the womb post-implantation, and therefore that SPUC's claim was misleading. SPUC was ordered to change the statement to make clear it was an expression of opinion, or to state that SPUC's definition of abortion was pre-implantation.
The authority also warned newspapers carrying the ads to reject or amend any future ads with the same wording.
“The Advertising Standards Authority is expecting us to accept the government definition of when human life begins and furthermore to accept the fallacious claim that you cannot have an abortion unless implantation of an embryo has taken place,” Smeaton said.
Smeaton added that SPUC had presented overwhelming objective scientific evidence supporting its position to the authority.
Clare Forbes, spokeswoman for the advertising authority, said, “The authority based its judgment partly on the witness statement made by Mr. Smeaton that the U.K. government based its policies on accepted medical and legal opinion that the morning-after pill was not a method of abortion.”
Smeaton countered that his witness statement was simply an acknowledgement that SPUC believes that the pro-abortion British government has incorrectly defined when pregnancy begins. “Of course I [made the statement], because that is why we are taking the government to court.”
The distributors of Levonelle 2, the U.K.-based company Schering Health, lists three possible ways the drug blocks pregnancy: It stops or delays the release of an egg, it prevents its fertilization, or it stops the fertilized ovum from attaching itself (implantation) to the wall of the womb.
Dr. John McLean, a physician and a governor of the Linacre Center, the bioethics institute sponsored by the British and Irish bishops, said there is no doubt that the prevention of implantation makes the drug abortion-inducing.
Said McLean, “It is possible that it will delay or suppress ovulation but there is not a lot of hard evidence to suggest that is its main mode of action.”
He added, “The main mode of action is to prevent implantation, which makes it a form of abortion.”
Four out of Britain's five Catholic national weekly publications — The Catholic Herald, The Scottish Catholic Observer, The Universe and The Catholic Times — are prepared to flout the ad ban.
The only dissenting Catholic voice is The Tablet, whose letters pages have carried views from medical personnel who disagree with SPUC's stance.
Tablet editor John Wilkins backs the Advertising Standards Authority's view that the ad was misleading. “For the person in the street, abortion means a visit to a clinic or hospital by a pregnant woman to get rid of her unborn child, never mind what the government means or anybody else,” he said. “The trouble is biotechnology has gone ahead of our concepts, our words and our ethics.”
But The Tablet's view was rejected as secularist and unrepresentative of British Catholics by William Oddie, editor of The Catholic Herald.
“The Catholic Church does not accept the position of the U.K. government on the conception of life,” said Oddie. “We are going to continue publishing SPUC adverts with this wording — it will be interesting to see what they do next.
“We are not going to be dictated to by Tony Blair and his mob.”
It is not clear what sanctions the Advertising Standards Authority can impose on publications that disregard its instructions. Generally, it relies on publications and advertisers to exercise self-regulation, followed by “naming and shaming” those who defy its rulings.
However, officials have warned media outlets that they could obtain a court injunction that could see any objector jailed, and Advertising Standards Authority spokeswoman Forbes said that SPUC and the newspapers could be referred to the British Office of Fair Trading for printing misleading ads.
But the Office of Fair Trading disagreed, as it only deals with ads selling a product or service. Said its spokesman, Paul Matthews, “This would not fall within our remit.”
While Forbes said that the Advertising Standards Authority “is still deciding what to do next,” SPUC has no doubt over its next step. “Our No. 1 concern is that we are able to give our message of defending the unborn child,” said Smeaton. “Free speech has to be a fundamental human right and we campaign in a responsible way recognizing the rules of democratic society. We cannot accept any suppression of this right, and we are looking for wider opportunities to publish this ad.”
Paul Burnell writes from Manchester, England.
- December 16-22, 2002