Edinburgh City Council U-turn on blocked abortion advice website searches

Edinburgh City Council has announced it will no longer block access to vital abortion information websites, after facing heavy criticism from a leading charity.

Wednesday, 17th February 2021, 12:30 pm
Council U-turn welcomed by Katherine O'Brien of BPAS

The council was previously accused of ‘taking an anti-abortion stance’ by pro-choice campaigners after a freedom of information act, submitted by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, revealed the council does not allow employees or school pupils to access lifesaving healthcare information on abortion.

Previously, the only accessible website containing abortion information was the NHS website, however, charities such as the British Pregnancy Advisory Service(BPAS) – which campaigns for women’s reproductive choices, provides a helpline and appointments, and signposts women to treatment – were blocked .

Katherine O’Brien, associate director of campaigns at BPAS, said at the time: “It is absurd that Edinburgh City Council has blocked important sources of information about a procedure one in three women will undergo in their lifetime.

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Blocked websites review: Council leader Adam McVey

“Abortion is not controversial, and restricting access to abortion information will only add to the stigma that some women sadly still feel.

“We know that anti-abortion activists who protest outside clinics give women medically inaccurate literature, and they need to be able to research the facts.

“Especially during the pandemic, many women will be unable to seek advice from their GP or sexual health service, so it is even more important that they can seek this support online.

“Blocking abortion information is not a neutral stance – it is taking an anti-abortion position.

“We urge Edinburgh City Council to join the 21st Century and amend their retrograde policy.”

When contacted for comment, the council did not attempt to justify why it blocked abortion material.

A spokesperson insisted: “Our staff can access information on many health-related issues should they wish to and information on abortion is accessible through the NHS UK website.

“These pages give detailed information on the topic however other websites are blocked by our web filtering provider as they are classified under ‘adult/mature’ content.”

Now,council leader Adam McVey has intervened to unblock access to abortion information.

He said: “Contrary allegations circulating online today, the council does not have an anti-abortion stance or any policy prohibiting colleagues from accessing healthcare information about abortion services.

“The network fully enables access to the NHS Scotland and NHS Inform sites, the primary health information websites in Scotland.

“Like every large organisation, the council uses web-filtering software to improve cyber-security and to protect our staff but this can occasionally result in sites being inadvertently blocked.

“This was the case with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service's website and was an unintentional output of the system.

“The team are grateful for this being brought to their attention and this is being rectified as a priority to ensure colleagues can freely access the charity’s resources through the council’s network.

“The team are also taking the opportunity to review which other sites and resources which may be being blocked so that these can be made accessible by colleagues too.”

Reacting to the news, Ms O'Brien said: “We welcome the announcement that Edinburgh City Council has reviewed their IT security filters to ensure that information about abortion is accessible for all their staff, and thank the council for their swift action at what we are sure is a very busy time.

"Abortion care is healthcare, and it must be treated as such."

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