Polling shared exclusively with BuzzFeed News has revealed that Conservative-voting women are the most likely to disagree with the government's decision to award funds generated by VAT on sanitary products to anti-abortion charities.
In response to the figures, the Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston told BuzzFeed News that she does not support the money going to such groups, and sees Brexit as an opportunity to withdraw the tax on sanitary products – known as the "tampon tax" – altogether.
At present VAT is imposed on all sanitary products because they are deemed "luxury items". The government has previously expressed a willingness to scrap the measure, but said its hands were tied by EU regulations.
"My feeling is that we shouldn’t have a tax on tampons at all and that once we are out of the European Union we will no longer be forced to levy it," Wollaston said.
Earlier this month it emerged that the Department for Media, Culture, and Sport had awarded a £250,000 grant over three years from money raised by the tax to the charity Life, whose website states it offers "prolife advocacy and education work with nationwide services providing positive alternatives to abortion".
A YouGov poll commissioned by campaigning group 38Degrees, the results of which were shared exclusively with BuzzFeed News, showed that 64% of male and female Brits aged over 18 who were surveyed said they did not agree with the decision to award tampon tax funds to Life. Female Tory voters were the least likely to agree with the decision, with 71% saying they opposed it.
Wollaston said: "I have long been very vocal in my support of women’s freedom to choose, and have access to safe termination of pregnancy and safe contraception," adding that getting rid of the tax altogether post-Brexit would resolve the issue of what it was funding.
A separate petition by 38Degrees opposing the government's funding of an anti-abortion group has gained more than 170,000 signatures.
Following a decision by government to retain the tax on sanitary products, it pledged to use funds raised in this way to support charities working to help women and girls. Domestic violence charity Refuge and the Society for the Assistance of Ladies in Reduced Circumstances have been among major beneficiaries of the scheme.
Fifty-four per cent of people surveyed believed that awarding tampon tax funds to anti-abortion groups did not live up to this pledge.
Conservative MP Maria Miller, chair of the women and equalities select committee, declined to comment.
Anne Scanlan, director of media and education at Life, told BuzzFeed News she would be surprised to see politicians campaign on this issue in the forthcoming general election. "It’s a kiss of death," she said.
Scanlan said reproductive rights do not have the same prominence here that they do in American politics, where candidates regularly declare their stance, because in Britain "pro-life is not seen as a politically correct position to take".
While there have been calls for the funding, which Life says will offer "hands-on support" to homeless women facing crisis pregnancies, to be withdrawn, Scanlan said this would show the government had not done due diligence in allocating it.
"If you read our application, it states clearly what we do," she told us. "I’m not embarrassed by the fact that we’re pro-life. We’ve been very transparent about that."A DCMS spokesperson said defended its decision to award the grant to Life.
"We will only make Tampon Tax grants where we are certain that projects align with the aim to improve the lives of disadvantaged women and girls," the spokesperson told BuzzFeed News. "We will shortly agree the specifics of all the projects to ensure taxpayers' money is put to best use."
But Labour MP Diana Johnson, who recently tabled a parliamentary bill that would decriminalise abortion in England, Wales, and Scotland, told us the poll proved the funding was inappropriate.
"Homeless women are extremely vulnerable, and they deserve expert advice from a professional organisation – not a body that isn’t even registered with the Care Quality Commission," Johnson said.
She believed the issue should be considered in election campaigning.
“Alongside Labour colleagues, I will be making the case for better abortion services, through properly-regulated services, that puts the needs of women first," she said. "This kind of provision can only take place in a decriminalised environment.
“And ideally, Britain must finance vital women’s services funded through general taxation, rather than a ‘Tampon Tax Fund’ raised from a pernicious 5% VAT on women’s sanitary products.”
Activist Laura Coryton, who has campaigned against the tampon tax, told us the polling proved the government's decision to fund an anti-abortion charity was "fundamentally wrong".
"It shows we need to fight for policy changes that will benefit women more than ever, like ending tampon tax," she said.
A spokesperson for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which provides the majority of abortion services in the UK, told us Life's stringent anti-abortion stance made it "fundamentally unsuitable to provide care to vulnerable women".
Life's Scanlan, however, said that while she would describe herself as anti-abortion, Life would not prevent a woman from having an abortion.
BPAS said abortion, which is experienced by 1 in 3 women over their reproductive lifetimes, should not have become a party-political issue.
"Conservative women, like all women, want their money to go to organisations that work to provide the highest standard of care to women in need," the spokesperson said. "This decision has angered women and men of all political persuasions and we urge the government to review it immediately."
Laura Silver is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.
Contact Laura Silver at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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