In the UK, where abortion is a relatively uncontroversial procedure, two advertising practice watchdogs, CAP and BCAP, ruled last month that commercial family planning centres can advertise their services on television and radio, a practice previously only permitted to not-for-profit centres. The upshot of this ruling, argue its critics, is that not only does it cheapen a procedure which takes lives, but it could lead to a proliferation of advertisements for abortion clinics on the airwaves seeking to take advantage of women in a very vulnerable situation.

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In the USA when it comes to abortion nothing is uncontroversial, with abortion being one of the defining political issues of the past thirty years. The 1973 Supreme Court Case Roe v. Wade, which legalised abortion in the USA, is one of the most controversial Supreme Court rulings in US history and still defines the abortion debate today, as pro-life activists seek to restrict abortions as far as possible particularly through restricting the use of federal funds to pay for abortions. However, the entire nature of the abortion debate might soon change in America with the case of Jennie Linn McCormack.

Should McCormack win her case it would mean it would become constitutionally legal for women to purchase abortion drugs online…

In brief, Jennie McCormack, 32, an unemployed mother of three found out that she was pregnant with her fourth child, knowing there was no way she could raise four children on the paltry $250 a month she received from child support cheques, she thought she had to have an abortion. Being from Pocatello, Idaho, a tiny conservative town in a very conservative state, the nearest place she could have the procedure carried out was in Salt Lake City; a round bus trip to which would cost $500. She then heard of the drug RU-486, the so called abortion pill, and asked her sister in Mississippi (as Jennie has no access to the internet) to order it for her and send it to her. Things went wrong as soon as she took the pill. RU-486 is licensed for ending early term pregnancies and Ms McCormack’s pregnancy was far more advanced that she thought. The size of the fetus and the amount of blood terrified her. She put it in a box and left it on the porch, called a friend and the friend called the police. McCormack was arrested as she violated an Idaho state law which prevents women from inducing their own abortion. The case was thrown out because of lack of evidence but it is still possible for her to be re-tried. McCormack’s lawyer Richard Hearns has filed a civil lawsuit against the state citing two aims:

“The first is to prevent Jennie from being prosecuted and to give her a right not to live in fear. The second is to set a precedent. If Idaho cannot prosecute a woman for taking RU486, then women in the USA will be able to legally have access to abortion drugs from their computer. That would be revolutionary.”

The case is now at Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which is one rung below the Supreme Court, should it reach the Supreme Court it would become a landmark case alongside Roe v. Wade. McCormack’s full story can be read in this article on The Daily Beast. Should McCormack win her case it would mean it would become constitutionally legal for women to purchase abortion drugs online thus entirely bypassing the ability of state legislatures to legislate against them. This is particularly beneficial to poorer women in conservative states who have virtually no access to abortion clinics. This would be a major step forward for the pro-choice movement and would render impotent the moral posturing of male dominated state legislatures; it would also be a major triumph for the democratising powers of the internet.

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McCormack’s story, along with the UK ruling on abortion clinics being able to advertise, points the way to a possible future where women are aware of a far greater choice of how they want to terminate their pregnancies. This would lead to more women having a greater awareness of the options available to them when it comes to terminating their pregnancies, and thus by giving women an increased consumer choice introduces the powers of the free market.

This notion obviously raises a lot of objections from both pro-life seasoned campaigners and also from those with more moderate positions who find themselves agreeing with opponents to abortion who argue that television advertising could lead to people becoming desensitized about abortion. Adverts trivialise the subject and put it on a par with other more trivial decisions consumers make. They might also harbour a fear of things going too far, which might resemble this:

Abortionplex - the pro-life nightmare as depicted by The Onion. Source:

However, maybe that is exactly what the family planning market needs: increased customer choice which forces providers to compete for customers by offering the best services for the best value. The principles of the free market would not just function with abortion clinics in the UK but also with the abortion pills in the USA. If the McCormack case means that more women know that pregnancy ending drugs are a legal and cheaper alternative to expensive abortion clinics in far off places, it would be unsurprising to see more desperate women turning to drugs like Mifepristone; thus increasing the size of the potential market. With a larger market there is a greater incentive for pharmaceutical companies to develop better drugs which strive in some way to lessen the trauma of the procedure.

That we are left to postulate on whether family planning services might be improved by the free market shows that much work needs to be done, a society that is truly great looks after its weakest and most vulnerable and does not leave it to those who are driven by commercial gain to improve vital services. However, in this less than perfect world maybe being pro-choice means being pro-consumer choice as only the neutral hand of the free market can lead to women getting the best possible help and attention.