It’s a scandal that our periods are funding anti-abortion propaganda

Stephanie Merritt grew up knowing the damaging impact of Life’s anti-choice rhetoric. The revelation that the organisation is being funded by the tampon tax is deeply worrying

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By Stephanie Merritt on

When I found myself unexpectedly pregnant at the age of 27, in an already foundering relationship, I went to see my doctor. The first thing she asked was, “How do you feel about this pregnancy? Let’s look at your options.”

It was only later that I fully appreciated how unbelievably lucky I was to have met with this response, and how many women all over the world in the same situation would give anything to be offered timely, medically sound, non-judgemental advice, and to be told they had “options”. Surely one of the basic markers of an enlightened, civilised society is that it recognises that not all women who become pregnant want to be mothers at that moment, and gives them safe, legal alternatives.

But there will always be those who want to prevent women from having those options, and if they can’t challenge abortion in law, they resort to other, subtler tactics – most often, emotionally-charged propaganda. This week it was revealed that an anti-abortion organisation, Life, is the beneficiary of a £250,000 grant from the “tampon tax” fund. For those of us already furious at the government’s refusal to scrap VAT on sanitary products (because, as we all know, they are “luxury items”), the “compromise” that the money would go to women’s charities was a further insult, and the arguments against it were clear at the time – wouldn’t it be fairer to slap VAT on some male necessities and use that money to fund domestic violence refuges, since it’s male abusers who create the need for them? And to make women pay through our menstruation for Life, an organisation whose mission statement is “We won’t give up until… abortion is a thing of the past” – this goes beyond insulting. It’s forcing us to fund a campaign aimed at eradicating our hard-won legal autonomy over our own bodies.

I didn’t have an abortion; for me, that turned out to be the right choice, though it was not an easy one

Life’s propaganda was a prominent feature of my teenage years. I grew up in an evangelical church that was stridently anti-abortion and organised regular talks for the youth group on matters of what we should and shouldn’t do with our reproductive organs (the “Hate the Sin, Love the Sinner” evening on homosexuality was a particular highlight). The girls were given leaflets and booklets filled with deliberately emotive language: guilt, trauma, grief, bereavement, depression would all result from “killing” a “baby”.

But the most distressing experience by far was when they screened a 1984 film called The Silent Scream. Still – unbelievably – in circulation, this pretend documentary shows ultrasound footage of an abortion procedure, with the foetus (referred to throughout as a “child”) supposedly screaming in pain. Though the film was criticised as deliberately factually misleading by medical experts, it was widely distributed to schools, colleges and church groups worldwide in the 1980s. In the UK it was promoted by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC), another anti-abortion organisation that frequently runs joint campaigns with Life and shares many of the same stated aims.

The writer Katie Roiphe, author of The Morning After: Fear, Sex and Feminism, called The Silent Scream “a horror movie that used frank distortions”.  If you show those images, and the accompanying language of those booklets, to young teenage girls, they make an impression that goes deep, which is the whole purpose of these campaigns. In a country where abortion is legal, their best hope is to reframe it as something other than a rational, morally neutral, informed choice. Life pregnancy advice centres were among those condemned by an undercover report in 2011 for giving women misleading and “scaremongering” information.

More than a decade after that first teenage contact with Life and SPUC, the emotional blackmail and overpowering sense of guilt they had instilled in me had a significant influence on the decision I eventually made. I didn’t have an abortion; for me, that turned out to be the right choice, though it was not an easy one. But for many women and girls that would not be the case, and it angers me to think of vulnerable women having their right to that choice undermined. Such a monumental decision as when to become a mother should not be something women are shamed or manipulated into by partial or misleading information based on someone else’s ideology. And that ideology certainly shouldn’t be funded by the state – especially not on the profits from our periods.


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