'Join the 21st century' call as Edinburgh City Council blocks computer searches for information on abortion

Abortion searched blocked: Katherine O’BrienAbortion searched blocked: Katherine O’Brien
Abortion searched blocked: Katherine O’Brien
Edinburgh City Council chiefs have been urged to ‘join the 21st Century’ after it emerged the local authority ‘takes an anti-abortion stance’ by blocking employees, school children and anyone using council IT equipment from accessing information on abortion.

A freedom of information(FOI) request, submitted by the Local Democracy Reporting Service, revealed the council’s IT provider blocks gambling, pornography, and social media sites, but also women’s health sites that provide lifesaving information on abortion and contraception.

The only website that can be accessed with abortion information is 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 - are blocked by the council.

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With the vast majority of the council’s workforce working from home, and with GP surgeries under huge amounts of pressure due to the coronavirus pandemic, female employees of the council may find themselves unable to access important healthcare information.

Katherine O’Brien, associate director of campaigns at BPAS, said: “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.

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.

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“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 approached for comment, the council did not attempt to justify why it takes this stance on abortion.

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The council was asked: why does the council feel access to medical information on abortion should be restricted; is any information on male sexual health and contraceptives restricted; and what is the disciplinary process for a female employee trying to access these sites?

In response, a spokesperson said: “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.”

The FOI also revealed that over the last six months the local authority’s IT providers have had to block employees trying to access restricted material on the internet.

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Between June 1 and November 30 2020, employees attempted to access content relating to games, gambling, pornography, dating, and violence.

The council’s IT providers block access to content according to set restricted categories.

Aside from adult material, gambling and violence, the council also restricts access to categories such as ‘marijuana’, ‘alternative beliefs’, and ‘lingerie and swimwear’.

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