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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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.