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There is a great deal of controversy about the apparent decision of the Advertising Standards Authority to permit for-profit abortion clinics to advertise their services through television and radio adverts. Many of those that regard themselves as generally in favour of permitting at least certain abortions say they are uncomfortable.

My view, by contrast, is that we do not need any laws specially to regulate abortion, since zygotes, embryos and foetuses are people and so the justifications or otherwise of their killing should be dealt with under murder and manslaughter laws.  (This doesn't, of course, mean there would be no legal abortions – e.g. it is legal to separate co-joined twins in ways that result the death of one twin.)  And my view is that if providing a commercial service is legal (whether I agree it should be legal or not) then it should be legal to advertise that service (albeit perhaps subject to restrictions on timing – we might not advertise hard liquor during children's programmes, for example).

Indeed, the very fact that those that favour specially regulated abortion (unlike myself) are uncomfortable about its being advertised seems to me to count in its favour.  I think abortion is, in a particular sense relevant here, something rather like killing animals for meat, or capital punishment: there is a natural tendency of nice middle-class urban dwellers to want such things to happen but to be able to avert their eyes.  They want to eat bacon and sausages and mince and other things that look as unlike a dead animal as possible.  Anything nakedly death-involving, like fox-hunting, for example, makes them queasy.  Animals should be "processed" in nice clean factories, far from middle-class eyes.  Surveys have often suggested that majorities of the population favour capital punishment.  Yet when there is film of people being hanged, or beheaded, or shot by firing squad, or stoned to death abroad, the outrage is near-universal.  We'd like our executions to be clean and invisible.


Similarly, people want there to be abortions.  But they want to pretend that abortion doesn't involve the death of an animal – for there is not the slightest grounds for disputing that an embryo is a living animal, even if one denies that it is a person.  And they want them to occur where they can't see.

Indeed, so much so that when anti-abotion campaigners try to illustrate what actually occurs in abortions they are regarded as ghoulish extremists.  That leads to astonishing ignorance.  When the US debate about partial birth abortion was raging, I would sometimes need to explain to people what a partial birth abortion actually involves.  Most people, upon having the procedure explained to them for the first time, would call me a liar to my face.  Because abortions occur outwith the public gaze, people don't know what they involve, and find it easy to avert their mental gaze from the philosophical and ethical issues.

When we sanction death, we should all, in principle, be prepared to join in – or we should not sanction it.  You should not eat meat if you would not be morally prepared to kill an animal yourself.  Hunters used to blood new participants in the hunt (wipe their faces with the blood of the animal killed) – a practice that was continued until recently in fox-hunts also.  That is the honourable way.  If we sanction executions, then the ethically ideal form is something like a stoning, where the whole society collectively kills the person executed.  If that is impractical (e.g. because it is thought to induce too much avoidable suffering) then executions should at the very least be public with a heavily imposed social norm that people are expected to attend.  Mass liquidations in gas chambers thousands of miles from the electing populace is not the honourable way to execute.  If you believe that abortion should be legal, you should be prepared in principle to carry out the procedure yourself, or to give the instruction to proceed, and certainly you should feel obliged to be prepared to watch.

Furthermore, my view is that if a practice is legal and commercially permitted, and we are not trying to phase it out, then it should be legal to advertise.  That is part of what it is to permit something commercially.  As I said, that does not mean there should be no restrictions on the timing, truthfulness and other features of advertising.  But the general proposition remains.

If it is legal to conduct abortions for profit, then it should be legal to advertise one's services.  Such advertising enhances competition, increases the quality of services offered, informs current and potential customers about one's products.  If we don't want people to know about abortion clinics, what does that say?

That would apply to other things as well.  If brothels were to be legalised, they should be able to advertise.  If euthanasia / assisted suicide services are legalised, they should be able to advertise.  And if you are in favour of legalising these things, but don't want to permit advertising, I put it to you that you should ask yourself why?  If you are uncomfortable with permitting abortion clinics to advertise, might that, perhaps, be because you are uncomfortable with some of what they do inside the clinics?

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