The Tory Right denies Choice to Pregnant Women

Labour Party

I read in the Telegraph earlier this week that private clinics which carry out abortions will be allowed to advertise on television and radio for the first time. I was not surprised to learn that this news has been met with outrage from anti-abortion groups such as Life and the more dogmatic elements of the Conservative Party. As usual, their arguments range from the factually incorrect to those of gymnastic leaps of logic.

Joanna Hill from Life described the proposals as utterly unacceptable because it meant that abortions would be advertised as if they were cars or soap powder. The problem is that no abortion provider advertises their product in such a way. The Marie Stopes advert that caused so much outrage last year didn’t even mention the word abortion or suggest it. It simply said “If you are late, you could be pregnant and Marie Stopes could help you”. It accurately represented that Marie Stopes aims to provide a range of options to women who are undergoing an unexpected pregnancy.

Life also argued that the new rules would allow “money-grabbing abortion providers” to abuse vulnerable women. Firstly, the overwhelming majority of abortion providers such as Marie Stopes and BPAS are charities, run not-for-profit. Secondly, abortion is available on the NHS and that is where the most vulnerable women, such as teenagers who are unlikely to be able to pay for an abortion, are likely to go. Thirdly, the reason many women chose to pay for a private abortion rather than use the NHS is because they believe that such organisations provide a higher quality of care and counselling.

This issue highlights the hypocrisy of the right-wing Tories’ current stance on abortion. Nadine Dorries has demanded that women be forced to undergo compulsory counselling by an organisation that doesn’t itself provide abortion services before being allowed to undergo the procedure. This will actually delay treatment for women but she has justified these proposals on the grounds that women should have the choice to abort but need to have “as much information as possible”. Why then has she denounced these new proposals which are fundamentally about providing women with information about their options? The only possible reason is that Dorries and groups such as Life only want pregnant women to have certain kinds of information, the information and advice that fit in with their own agenda.

Anti-abortion campaigners are blinded by their dogma and prejudice into thinking that those involved in abortions are immoral people who either have no respect for human life or even get pleasure from the taking of it. This is totally and utterly wrong. Those who work for organisations like Marie Stopes are, I believe, motivated primarily by compassion, just like those who work in all other forms of healthcare.

Such organisations are also not simply about providing abortions. Marie Stopes, BPAS and similar bodies  provide a range of fertility, sexual health and counselling services. The mission statement of Marie Stopes sums up their role perfectly; “Children by choice, not by chance” and that includes helping women to have children as well as not to have them. Right wing Tories and the dogmatic elements of our society are trying to prevent women from being able to make that choice for themselves.

The Tories’ Real Record on Women’s Rights

Labour Party

I have been reading with some amazement recent statements on women from senior Tories, in particular David Cameron and Theresa May.  In David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative Party spring conference last month, he emphasised how “family-friendly” his party’s manifesto would be with the “right to flexibility to everyone with children”.  Last week Theresa May used the occasion of International Women’s Day to make a “pledge of support for women” in the Guardian online pages. 

All fine sentiments, but female voters beware!  Beyond Cameron and May’s words, there is little sense that there is any support for such policies in the core of the Tory party, or little evidence that the party leadership have the will to implement them.  Indeed, as I have blogged before, the voting record of Tory MEPs on women’s rights issues since David Cameron became leader is appalling, and exposes the fact that really nothing has changed in the Nasty Party.

For example, in 2006 Tory MEPs voted against a Report on combating violence against women, which included provisions on making rape within marriage a criminal offence, eliminating female genital mutilation, and encouraging cross border cooperation on so-called “honour” crimes, all matters mentioned by Theresa May in her Guardian article as commitments of a future Tory government. 

Yet it seems her MEPs do not share these concerns.  As recently as 2009, the Tory MEPs abstained in a vote urging member states to improve their national policies on combating violence against women, where the importance of recognising rape within marriage as a criminal offence was again underlined. 

On childcare, the EU adopted Employment guidelines as part of the EU’s Growth and Jobs strategy in 2008.  These guidelines included targets for flexible working, and access to childcare, surely a key element of Cameron’s pledge of the “right to flexibility to everyone with children”.  Again, this failed to get the Conservative MEPs’ backing.

In February of this year, the Tories voted against a report which included provisions on the need to tackle the gender pay gap – another issue Theresa May purports to be in favour of – and to link maternity and paternity leave.  The Tories in the European Parliament explicitly disagreed with the call to establish paternity leave across Europe, and against linking paternity and maternity leave to ensure fathers are able to take time off as well.  The report in question also contained a provision on one of David Cameron’s priority policies, combating persistent sexist stereotyping and degrading images.  Again the Tory MEPs voted against.

David Cameron said last month in his speech that as a parent he “dreads switching on the television and being bombarded with commercial messages”.  However, in 2008, the European Parliament discussed the issue of advertising and stereotypes in the media.  Member States were urged to ensure that marketing and advertising did not uphold discriminatory stereotypes, and consider the impact of advertising on children and teenagers’ body image and self-esteem, and yet 15 Tory MEPs still managed to vote against this measure.

I continue to be amazed at the disingenuousness of Cameron’s approach.  If he and his party were serious about family friendly policies and women’s rights, they would not let their MEPs vote so brazenly against these reports which recognise the importance of these issues. 

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that, with a general election drawing near, the Tories suddenly remember that they need to try and appeal to women, who do make up over 50% of the electorate, but I would urge female voters not to fall for these well-scripted sentiments, when time and time again it can be shown that they are not supported by the Tories in any way that matters.


Yesterday I heard back from the British Advertising Standards Authority regarding the complaint I lodged against Ryanair’s latest bout of sexist advertising. Because Ryanair’s publicity emails were sent out from the company’s headquarters, it is the Irish ASA that I need to contact with my complaint.

What is exciting is that the Irish ASA has a clause in its code of advertising standards stating:

‘Marketing communications should respect the principle of the equality of men and women. They should avoid sex stereotyping and any exploitation or demeaning of men and women. ‘

The UK code does not have this, despite the calls earlier this year from the parliamentary Gender Equality committee for all European advertising monitors to address gender stereotyping. In fact, the British ASA contacted me in July to say that a clause on gender stereotyping would not be necessary. They argued the ASA code already provides sufficient regulation to ensure that advertising is not discriminatory or harmful to women.

Ryanair’s recent advertising proves the British ASA wrong. Adverts containing harmful stereotypes persist. I have written to the Irish ASA to complain against the adverts. But I shall also find out whether Ryanair used the same publicity in Ireland as in the UK. I want to know why Irish women are protected from this advertising, but not British women.

If you would like to see the text of my letter to the ASAI, please join the facebook group below:


Yesterday I sent a letter to the Advertising Standards Authority, complaining about Ryanair’s latest derogatory ad campaign. Please feel free to use this letter as a template if you would also like to write to the ASA and to register your complaint.

Advertising Standards Authority
Mid City Place
71 High Holborn
24 September 2008
Dear Sir / Madam

RE: Ryanair’s Charity Calendar Advertisements

I recently received a publicity email from Ryanair, which included a large advertisement for their 2009 charity calendar featuring semi-naked female cabin crew. The advert also included a link to a ‘soft-porn’ style video on the making of the Ryanair calendar.

This advertising appears to contravene paragraphs 2.2 (social responsibility) and 5.1 (decency) of the non-broadcast CAP code.

I have highlighted some issues below that are of particular concern:

o Have Ryanair checked that the recipients of this mass email are not minors? If not then they are ignoring their social responsibility to consumers and the wider public.

o Have all of Ryanair’s staff consented to this calendar being made? This calendar clearly sexualises Ryanair’s female cabin crew and may undermine them professionally. The calendar will, I hope, have been made with the consent of the staff appearing in it. But such advertising will have ramifications for the wider body of staff. It may contravene paragraph 13 of the CAP (protection of privacy). Ryanair does not recognise trade unions, making it vital that their advertising does not adversely affect a body of workers who must remain voiceless.

Ryanair’s advertising has caused wide concern, as can be seen in the facebook campaign group that has been set up to raise awareness of the issue.

I ask you to take up these issues with Ryanair.

Yours faithfully

Mary Honeyball MEP


Online media

Recently the Women’s Rights and Gender Equality committee voted on a report on how marketing and advertising effect equality between men and women. We are surrounded by advertising in our day-to-day lives in newspapers, magazines, poster advertising, on the web and of course, on television. Advertisers are very talented at creating and reflecting trends in society in order to sell their products. To communicate with us their messages need to be very clear and pared down. Sometimes though, the necessity to be clear can lead advertisers to oversimplify a situation or to stereotype people. This can become a serious problem if the same message about a certain group of people is enforced over and over again. Children are particularly susceptible to the messages of advertising and we need to be careful that we are not giving them a skewed view of the world. For example, a recent British Medical Council Report highlights the fact that while advertising featuring extremely thin women does not directly cause eating disorders in young women, they do contribute to the problem by reinforcing the message that ‘thin’ equals good, successful and in control.

This is not to say that all advertising is bad, in fact, in the UK are lucky as Ofcom and the Advertising Standards Authority have very clear guidelines about stereotyping in advertising, and advertisers themselves have been good at avoiding direct stereotyping. It is no longer good enough in the UK to put a woman in a bikini beside a car or piece of furniture in order to sell it. British consumers demand more from advertising and as a result the bulk of our advertising is clever, sharp and often very witty.

Unfortunately this is not the case across the EU. In some countries women are still objectified like a product in order to sell a product. This is plainly wrong as it reinforces the message that women can literally be bought and sold. One of the positive things about the EU is that member states can learn from each others successes.

In Parliament’s report, I tabled amendments that were examples of best practice from the UK that were calling for a European-wide set of standards that advertisers could use to self-regulate, much like we already do here in the UK. The report is going to be voted on by the entire parliament in September and I am hopeful that these measures will go through. I believe it’s a really important step in the battle for equality between women and men.


Body Image, Gender, Sexual Equality

A report on how marketing and advertising affect equality between women and men has just been passed by the European Parliament Women’ Rights Committee.

It is an important document, highlighting how advertising fuels and highlights inequalities based on gender. Since advertising is designed to influence us, its impact on sexual equality cannot be underestimated. The report drew heavily on research conducted in Germany by the European Association of Craft, Small and Medium-Sized Enterprises and the Ministry of Labour in Poland. which showed that gender stereotypes consolidate narrow gender roles, thus restricting life opportunities.

I put down amendments to the report on body image, drawing attention to a publication by the British Medical Association entitled “Eating Disorders, Body Image and the Media” which states that media portrayals of the ideal body image can adversely affect the self esteem of women, particularly teenagers and those susceptible to eating disorders. One of my amendments called on advertisers to consider their use of extremely thin women more carefully while another pointed out that advertising could be a strong tool in challenging and tackling stereotypes.

I also submitted an amendment expressing extreme concern at the advertising of sexual services in local newspapers and other publications, something I know Harriet Harman, Barbara Follett, Fiona Mactaggart and other sisters in the House of Commons are taking up.

All my amendments were passed by the Women’s Committee and will now be voted on by the whole European Parliament.