Comic Relief: a bad taste lingers

'Why did Comic Relief cave in to the Catholic bishops on reproductive health?'

Ann Furedi

Topics Politics

Comic Relief’s Red Nose Day is one of those occasions when it is difficult to resist contributing to ‘a good cause’. It is a bit fun, a bit rude, and everybody is behind it: Ali G; pants on the outside of your trousers; Jack Dee on Celebrity Big Brother, and so on.

But particularly on some issues, Comic Relief is anything but progressive.

Comic Relief has come under some pressure from anti-choice organisations to stop funding organisations involved in reproductive healthcare in developing countries like Marie Stopes International, Population Concern, Brook Advisory Centres and the International Planned Parenthood Federation. A couple of Catholic schools courted publicity by planning to boycott Red Nose fundraising, because they wanted to object to the fruits of their labour funding family-planning ­ specifically abortion.

Faced with this opposition, Comic Relief could have responded in one of two ways. It could have justified its decision to support reproductive healthcare packages that included abortion, and maybe pointed out that those who morally object to contraception and abortion are a tiny minority – even of the Catholic Church’s own congregation. Or it could have denied that it would support any such packages, abortion being such a heinous sin and all that.

Comic Relief did the latter.

In an attempt to stave off this kind of criticism, this year Comic Relief decided to be open about its funding, and so ‘opened up a dialogue – and our books ­ to the Catholic bishops of England and Wales’ (1). (Note: not to reproductive healthcare charities.) Comic Relief’s statement reassures that:

‘Less than three percent of all the funds spent have been allocated to projects with a family-planning component. None of the money that we allocate to projects has been used to support abortions. Indeed, it goes towards the work that reduces the grievous damage done to young women by abortion, through promoting the welfare of mothers and children and caring for life.’

The statement acknowledges that some Catholics, who would otherwise support Red Nose Day, may be prevented from doing so ‘because of concerns about the small proportion of Red Nose Day funds that go towards projects working on sexual and reproductive health. So we have set up a separate bank account so that they can be reassured that their money will not go towards this kind of work’.

This statement was met with rapture by the anti-choice lobby. The Catholic Herald ran the news under a front-page banner headline, ‘Comic relief pulls funds from abortion groups’, and lauded the fact that reproductive health organisations received no money from last year’s Red Nose Day ­ and that the organisers ‘have made it absolutely explicit that they will not fund any project which provides abortion or promotes abortion’.

But what is there to celebrate about this decision?

I hold a deep cynicism about overseas family-planning projects. They often smack of racist eugenicism, and imply that third-world poverty could be resolved if only there were fewer black children being born. Every time I hear a family-planning expert talk about the ‘problem’ of overpopulation, I cringe. You know they are not talking about an overpopulation of middle-class white babies who will grow into family-planning doctors.

But putting these misgivings aside, it is worth considering exactly what message the Comic Relief statement is sending out. Not only is Comic Relief is granting the Catholic bishops of England and Wales the authority to influence its ethics. It is saying that abortion is unworthy of its funds, and that it is proud to announce that it does not allocate contributions to a procedure that it regards as grievously damaging. And it assumes that the Catholic Bishops represent the views of all Catholics, in wanting their contributions to ring-fenced even against spending on uncontroversial family planning projects.

There has been some debate in the pro-choice community about whether Comic Relief should even be criticised for its pathetic attempt to appease the bishops. After all, Comic Relief is made up of (generally) good guys who have, in the past, funded reproductive health organisations for non-abortion-related projects. There is a sense that, if the bishops have beaten the good guys up, we should lick their wounds and understand the difficult position that they are in.

But there are a number of very good reasons to criticise Comic Relief’s decision to play along with the bishops on reproductive health.

Comic Relief can concede to the bishops precisely because it can be confident of the support of liberals. When it took the decision to open its books to the bishops, you can bet it did so confident that few reproductive health NGOs would respond with equivalent aggression. Indeed, it probably knew that many would be more concerned about trying to devise projects that could win Comic Relief funding. Who wants to blot their copybook with one of the country’s biggest donors?

By denying that it is appropriate to fund abortion, Comic Relief increases the stigma attached to the procedure. In alleging that abortion is harmful, Comic Relief adds its significant weight to the lies propagated by those who try to distort medical evidence to scare women into continuing unwanted pregnancies.

By accepting the word of the Catholic bishops as representative of Catholic congregations, Comic Relief betrays its ignorance of the beliefs and practices of Catholics around the world, who maintain their faith yet control their fertility. In truth, you could argue that the seemingly contradictorily-named international advocacy organisation Catholics for a Free Choice is more representative of the ‘Catholic on the street’ than the bishops. Research repeatedly suggests that practising Catholics use contraception and abortion to regulate their fertility.

Having said this, perhaps something can come out of a pledge that Comic Relief made to the bishops. It agreed that they would establish a fund for projects that would have no connection with sexual and reproductive health.

According to the official statement, it ‘hopes this will enable all Catholics to take part in the fun of raising money for Red Nose Day’. Perhaps an unintended effect is that it might give the Comic Relief wallahs the message that everybody who doesn’t earmark their money to the ‘special fund’ ­ including, I anticipate, a significant proportion of Catholic donors – is quite happy for their money to go to abortion care.

And in that case, maybe Comic Relief will be receptive to funding reproductive healthcare ­ including abortion – for British women excluded from NHS provision.

Now that would be funny.

Read on:

Comic Relief goes to ‘Hell’, by Adam Hibbert

spiked-issue: Abortion

(1) ‘Crisis management/Comic Relief’ statement, 14 March 2001

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Topics Politics


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