Comment: Abortion rights must cover sex selection

Pro-life campaigners ' and now MPs ' are trying to restrict access to abortion if it is done with the aim of selecting one sex over another. Picture: Getty
Pro-life campaigners ' and now MPs ' are trying to restrict access to abortion if it is done with the aim of selecting one sex over another. Picture: Getty
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MAKING IT difficult to get a termination does not stop it from happening but does lead to a rise in unsafe procedures, writes Tiffany Jenkins

While everyone has been getting their knickers in a twist over Page 3, as if it’s the problem facing women, there is elsewhere a threat posed to women’s autonomy that does need to be tackled. Some are so obsessed with fretting about pictures in a newspaper that they have missed a substantive attack on a woman’s right to choose: one of our most important rights. Pro-life campaigners – and now MPs – are trying to restrict access to abortion if it is done with the aim of selecting one sex over another.

Last year, MPs backed a motion tabled by the Conservative member Fiona Bruce declaring the practice of abortion for reasons of sex selection illegal. The vote had no legal force, it just “sent a message”. Now more than 70 MPs – cross party – are backing a motion to fast-track a new law on to the statute book. The group want an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill which will state that it is illegal to seek an abortion on the grounds of the unborn baby’s sex. The group want it passed swiftly, before the election, before, it would appear, any real public debate on the issue.

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Abortions can be provided on the grounds that it’s best for the woman’s physical or mental health. The 1967 Abortion Act says an abortion is legal when two doctors agree that: “the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, to the physical or mental health of the woman or any existing children of her family”. The law, then, doesn’t specify that an abortion sought on the grounds of sex is illegal. The law is constructed deliberately so it is open to interpretation by doctors. The doctor has to feel that it’s in the woman’s best interests; the reasons why it is so are bound to be variable. It may be that it’s because she’s been raped, or it’s the wrong time to raise a child, or maybe she’s found out she cannot continue in a relationship and having a child would be too difficult in the circumstances, maybe she fell pregnant accidentally. There are a myriad of reasons why someone may not want to carry to term a pregnancy.

The argument Fiona Bruce and others make is that there is a problem of sex selection abortion in Britain; that it takes place in particular ethnic communities – ones that prefer boys to girls – and that it must be stopped. Mary Glindon, Labour MP for North Tyneside, has said: “If opposing the abortion of baby girls – often under coercion – makes me anti-choice, then I will wear the label with pride.” Apparently, the practice of sex-selective abortion is so commonplace that it has led to the “disappearance” of between 1,400 and 4,700 females from the national census records of England and Wales, according to the Independent newspaper.

But, contrary to what some may suggest, abortion for sex selection purposes is not common. The Department of Health researched sex selection abortion extensively and found no evidence that such practices are taking place here; it strongly disputes the figures banded about by the Independent. Abortion figures bear this out. To be able to request an abortion for reasons of gender, a woman has to know the sex of the foetus. But the overwhelming majority of abortions take place before the sex of the foetus is known. Usually women don’t know the sex until 18-20 weeks. More than 85% of abortions take place before then.

But even if it was a problem here – and it is elsewhere, such as in the Indian subcontinent – would using law in this way address the underlying causes? Or would it not make things more tricky for the woman, add to her burdens and undermine her autonomy further? I suspect the latter. History shows us that making it difficult to access abortions doesn’t stop them from happening. It leads to an increase in unsafe procedures.

The most effective way of tackling sex-selection abortions – which may in some situations be a rational choice – is to look away from the law, and look instead at the inequality that exists which means a mother could have good reason to worry for a girl child. As public policy analyst Sneha Barot notes, sex-selective abortion in South Korea changed only when the status of women in society did.

The worst thing about the current campaign is the use of the language of women’s liberation to restrict women’s choices. It is said that it’s in the interests of women’s rights to place restrictions on grounds for terminating a pregnancy. But that’s not supporting woman’s rights – which means supporting the right to choose. Being pro-choice means supporting the right of women to make their own decisions, including those you wouldn’t make yourself. You cannot say: “We support your right to choose, but only if you make the right choice”.

There is a worrying attempt by campaigners to suggest that certain women aren’t capable of making choices – the kind of woman, that is, who makes the “wrong” choices. Along these lines, Conservative MP Angie Bray, has said: “‘Choice’ is always socially informed and, for many of the women who have undergone sex-selective abortion, their practical autonomy is fundamentally compromised, if it exists at all. For many of these women, there is no choice.”

It may be that many women don’t make decisions in circumstances of their choosing – few of us do – but they are still choosing to act. To restrict their choices further, which is what this will amendment will do, will make things worse for them. It will further erode a woman’s autonomy and have the consequence of impinging on her bodily integrity. People should have the right to make decisions about their family life without the state limiting their choices.