Campaigns against sex-selective abortion are misogyny disguised as feminism

We should be asking why women feel pressured to abort female foetuses, not descending into an anti-choice panic about sex-selective abortion without evidence.

It was last year that the Telegraph declared sex-selective abortion was available “on demand” in the UK. I spoke on a couple of radio programmes at the time, suggesting that fictional stories from undercover journalists were somewhat weaker evidence than statistics on er. . . real women and that, even if there was truth to the problem of sex-selective abortion, curtailing abortion rights was not the best response.

I’m still not convinced these were particularly radical ideas. Still, it struck me how easily a bit of calm pro-choice thought was translated into anti-human sexism. “Abortions for everyone!” “Death to all first-born females!” There is something about the issue of sex-selective abortion that allows the people arguing for the reduction of women’s rights based on largely problematic evidence to position themselves as the reasonable ones, fighting the cause of feminism.

We’re here again, as of yesterday, with the Independent running a “Lost Girls” campaign, claiming abortion is being “widely used” by some ethnic groups to avoid having daughters.

Cristina Odone, bastion of progressive pro-women thought, has asked, with all this apparently happening, where are the “so called feminists?”

Well, I guess, looking at the evidence. Education for Choice take issue with the claim that sex-selective abortion is even illegal: rape, they point out, is not direct grounds for abortion in the UK, but the emotional and physical harm that can come from it is.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service’s Clare Murphy states the BPAS provides a third of all abortions in the UK and they don’t have experience that women from any community are coming into their clinics, anywhere in the UK, seeking to abort girls. This is supported entirely by the statistical analysis of the Department of Health (pdf).

Still, basing anti-choice panic on criticised research by journalists is, in this debate, an improvement from rooting it in stings based on pregnant women that didn’t even exist.

That the Telegraph’s original story involved cases that had gender-based health concerns (one journalist told doctors she’d miscarried a female foetus due to abnormalities and feared this would happen again) is symbolic of the false simplicity that the self-declared “pro-women feminists” are still relying on. 

One of the Independent’s own articles points to a case where the issue is not parents not wanting a girl but that not wanting a girl had led to a risk to the mother’s life.

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 in-laws over her failure to produce a son.

(The story goes on to say that when a scan showed this woman was indeed expecting a boy – but the foetus had mild disabilities – she was forced to have an abortion.)

Two-dimensional outrage and quick fixes may soothe conservative sensibilities but as cases like this show, the women that are facing “sex-selective abortion” can be drowned in complex issues of oppression, abuse, and prejudice that are insulted by shock headlines and easy solutions.   

Anti-choice campaigners like to work in normative wishes; the women who should always cope with a baby, the disabled children who should be cared for, and now the little girls who should be wanted. It’s little use for the pregnant women that are not abstract imaginings in an ideal society but living people, with the emotional, physical, and financial vulnerabilities that comes with reality. We deal with circumstances as they are: the entrenched misogyny that sees women valued as less, and the dangers that women subsequently face. Some of those dangers, it seems, facing women carrying future girls. 

Patriarchal structures that oppress women, to some degree in all communities, are what need to be dealt with. The violence, the isolation, the abuse, the discrimination. It’s harder than a cry to change medical rights and not tell pregnant women whether they’re carrying a girl; it doesn’t have the comfort of the easy morality and quick fixes campaigns like the Independent’s create. Depriving women of information concerning their own pregnancy empowers them. Forcing them to give birth to a child that their family reject, and greet with violence, would protect them. Reducing their reproductive rights is what will help make them become more equal in society.  

We should be very careful of anyone peddling such lines, of using sex-selective abortion, in all its confused evidence and reductive simplicity, to further their own agenda. It is misogyny in feminist clothing. Anti-choice campaigners who cling to these stories are the most dangerous; trying to chip at women’s rights whilst positioning themselves as our saviours. If there’s any doubt who the “pro-women” feminists are, it’s the ones who know equality for women will never be achieved by removing women’s rights.


People protesting against abortion in Spain. Photo: Getty

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

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Why Theresa May won't exclude students from the net migration target

The Prime Minister believes the public would view the move as "a fix". 

In a letter to David Cameron shortly after the last general election, Philip Hammond demanded that students be excluded from the net migration target. The then foreign secretary, who was backed by George Osborne and Sajid Javid, wrote: "From a foreign policy point of view, Britain's role as a world class destination for international students is a highly significant element of our soft power offer. It's an issue that's consistently raised with me by our foreign counterparts." Universities and businesses have long argued that it is economically harmful to limit student numbers. But David Cameron, supported by Theresa May, refused to relent. 

Appearing before the Treasury select committee yesterday, Hammond reignited the issue. "As we approach the challenge of getting net migration figures down, it is in my view essential that we look at how we do this in a way that protects the vital interests of our economy," he said. He added that "It's not whether politicians think one thing or another, it's what the public believe and I think it would be useful to explore that quesrtion." A YouGov poll published earlier this year found that 57 per cent of the public support excluding students from the "tens of thousands" target.

Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, has also pressured May to do so. But the Prime Minister not only rejected the proposal - she demanded a stricter regime. Rudd later announced in her conference speech that there would be "tougher rules for students on lower quality courses". 

The economic case for reform is that students aid growth. The political case is that it would make the net migration target (which has been missed for six years) easier to meet (long-term immigration for study was 164,000 in the most recent period). But in May's view, excluding students from the target would be regarded by the public as a "fix" and would harm the drive to reduce numbers. If an exemption is made for one group, others will inevitably demand similar treatment. 

Universities complain that their lobbying power has been reduced by the decision to transfer ministerial responsibility from the business department to education. Bill Rammell, the former higher education minister and the vice-chancellor of Bedfordshire, said in July: “We shouldn’t assume that Theresa May as prime minister will have the same restrictive view on overseas students that Theresa May the home secretary had”. Some Tory MPs hoped that the net migration target would be abolished altogether in a "Nixon goes to China" moment.

But rather than retreating, May has doubled-down. The Prime Minister regards permanently reduced migration as essential to her vision of a more ordered society. She believes the economic benefits of high immigration are both too negligible and too narrow. 

Her ambition is a forbidding one. Net migration has not been in the "tens of thousands" since 1997: when the EU had just 15 member states and the term "BRICS" had not even been coined. But as prime minister, May is determined to achieve what she could not as home secretary. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.