Edward Davies: Abstain from emotive rhetoric, please

Edward DaviesWhen I read yesterday that “anti-abortion group” Life had been asked to join a government advisory panel on sexual health, my heart sank a bit.

Not because they have been asked to join – it strikes me that in a group of a dozen or so organisations to have one representing this view is probably not entirely at odds with the views of the public our government aims to represent – but because of the language.

The abortion debate has long been mired in polarised verbiage. The debate would have you pro or anti abortion, for choice or for life. But very few people really feel like this. Nobody is “pro abortion” as if it’s some kind of beneficent gift that we should all experience at least once in our lives. Nobody is against “life” as if we can’t wait for the next chance to abort. This kind of rhetoric does nothing but ramp up the heat in opposing factions leading to the kind of headlines that all decent people should abhor.

It’s a horribly complex and emotive issue and every one of the near 200,000 abortions each year represents 200,000 totally different situations about which I know nothing. There are a lot of hard conversations to be had somewhere between pro and anti which fail to get heard over the polarised shouting from either side.

And yet such pro and anti language perpetuates, and now it is creeping over into sex education as well. Because Life are also a “pro-abstinence” group.

To date, sex education seems to have escaped some of the more binary rhetoric and although there have been disagreements and arguments over what and how children should be taught, it has been sheltered from the kind of extreme reactions of the respective lobbies that row over abortion.

But now it seems we will be herded into our respective pens over whether we are pro or anti abstinence as well. Should children be hectored about the inherent moral and physical dangers of sexual intercourse from an early age or should we dish out condoms to them on entering primary school and tell the little blighters to go experiment? These are the only options.

Except they are clearly not. Nobody is “anti” abstinence. I hope most will agree that it is okay to say no if you don’t want to have sex. And given that Life supply equipment for new babies and offer fertility treatments my hunch is that they are not universally “pro” abstinence. Just as with abortion there will be as many shades of opinion between the extremes as there are people. And yet the two stalls are being laid out in newspapers and conversations around the country: pro or anti abstinence, you choose.

There are some very important conversations that need to be had around how we teach sexual health in schools and they will have to broach the degrees to which abstinence are a part of that. What those conversations do not need is to be mired in the emotive, polarising and politicking labels that the abortion debate has spent the last 40 years wading through.

Edward Davies is editor, BMJ Careers