Abortion ad sparks controversy in the U.K.

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Marie Stopes International, a sexual health group akin to the U.S.’s Planned Parenthood that provides abortions and other services at clinics throughout the U.K., has purchased a time slot for a 30-second commercial scheduled to air Monday night, the Telegraph reports. The ad — which does not mention the word abortion, but directs women to a 24-hour hotline after posing the question, “Are you late?”— has stirred heated debate and prompted condemnation from anti-abortion advocates and religious organizations.

The group was able to get around a ban on such advertisements because it is a non-profit, the Telegraph reports. In a statement released today on the Marie Stopes web site, the organization says the ad was prompted by survey results suggesting that fewer than half (42%) of adults in the U.K. knew where they might seek advice about an unplanned pregnancy, apart from speaking with a primary care physician. The survey also showed that 76% of British adults said ads about unplanned pregnancies should be allowed on television, provided they are broadcast during appropriate time windows.

In that same statement, Dana Hovig, the CEO of Marie Stopes International said:

“Last year alone we received 350,000 calls to our 24 hour helpline. Clearly there are hundreds of thousands of women who want and need sexual health information and advice, and access to services… We hope the new ‘Are you late?’ campaign will encourage people to talk about abortion more openly and honestly, and empower women to make confident, informed choices about their sexual health.”

Meanwhile anti-abortion groups and religious organizations have expressed outrage over the ad’s scheduled broadcast. The Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales released a statement saying that, “Abortion is not a consumer service,” Reuters reports, while the anti-abortion group, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said the ad would lead more women to terminate pregnancies.

Yet, as Reuters explains, the oversight agency charged with regulating TV ads, the Advertising Standards Authority, has said that because the ad has already been approved, critics are left little recourse until after it appears on television.

A report released in January of this year found that both teen pregnancy and abortions increased in the U.S. in 2006 after steadily declining since 1990. The latest U.S. teen abortion rate is 19.3 per 1,000 women, according to data from the Guttmacher Institute (PDF). Overall, 22% of pregnancies end in abortion each year in the U.S. Roughly half of all pregnancies among American women are unplanned, and 4 out of 10 of these end in abortion, according to the Guttmacher Institute.

According to figures from the U.K.’s Department of Health, 215,975 abortions were performed in the U.K. in 2008. Marie Stopes International, the organization behind the controversial abortion ad, In 2009, performed roughly one third of all abortions in England and Wales that year.