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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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