Back in September, we wrote a blog in response to the Telegraph’s ‘exposé’ of sex-selective abortion in the UK. Today, the Independent has launched its own campaign to raise awareness of "the illegal abortion of female foetuses" with a series of articles headed ‘The Lost Girls’.
Firstly, as before, we take issue with the claim that sex-selective abortion is ‘illegal’. Under the 1967 Abortion Act an abortion is legal if two doctors agree, in good faith, that the continuation of the pregnancy would involve more risk to the woman’s mental or physical health than having an abortion. Therefore, if a doctor considers a woman’s individual circumstances and believes that ending the pregnancy would be better for her health and well-being he or she can permit the abortion to take place. One of the Independent's articles recognises some of the potential risks for a woman in this predicament:
“Karma Nirvana, based in Leeds, said it had dealt with a woman brought from Pakistan after marrying her British husband, who then underwent fertility treatment to become pregnant with a boy after she gave birth to two daughters. She had been physically and emotionally abused by her spouse and inlaws over her failure to produce a son”.
The law permits a woman who has become pregnant as a result of rape to have an abortion if she feels it would negatively affect her to have the child, even though ‘rape’ is not a direct ground for abortion in the UK. Sex-selection falls under the same criteria – is the woman’s mental or physical health at risk if she is forced to continue with the pregnancy? (It's also worth noting that legal abortion is statistically safer than childbirth, some doctors would therefore always authorise a requested abortion on health grounds).
We haven’t seen the original data from which the Independent draws its evidence, so won’t comment on the claim that;
“The practice of sex-selective abortion is now so commonplace that it has affected the natural 50:50 balance of boys to girls within some immigrant groups and has led to the “disappearance” of between 1,400 and 4,700 females from the national census records of England and Wales”
The question is, if there is evidence of sex-selective abortion happening in the UK (albeit on an extremely small scale) what is to be done about this?
Anti-choice groups use the ‘evidence’ (from a newspaper, not a medical body) in an attempt to shore up their belief that ALL abortions should be banned. SPUC claims that sex-selective abortion "demonstrates how legalising abortion for ‘hard cases’ is so easily abused" and Life states:“We object to all direct abortion on principle, but to end a child's life because they are the 'wrong' sex seems particularly unjust.”
The ‘hook’ of sex-selective abortion is being used by these groups to argue that there should be no legal access to abortion. It feeds into anti-choice myths that women cannot be trusted to make decisions about their own bodies.
We reject the co-option of feminist rhetoric by these groups, feigning concern about women’s rights when in fact they seek to curtail them. It’s crucial that all those dedicated to protecting human rights, and improving reproductive health and gender equality pay attention to the underlying thrust of these arguments about sex-selective abortion. In countries where sex-selective abortion is a reality, the answer is not to restrict abortion access. Unfortunately gender discrimination is ingrained in all societies and we have a lot of work to do to improve the status of women the world over. Refusing them ultrasounds or reproductive care is not the way to do this. Reproductive rights groups, alongside women's rights organisations, will continue to campaign for improved education and material conditions for women, to tackle male violence and discrimination in all forms.