Pro-choice protest. Photo: Getty
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Our MPs must not sleep walk towards abortion restrictions

They should oppose any legislation that jeopardises women’s full and equal access to all reproductive health services.

It’s an election year, so perhaps it would be surprising if nuance and complexity were in evidence in the House of Commons. In this context we should be very concerned about a late amendment, snuck into the Serious Crime Bill, to outlaw sex-selective abortion. Pro-choice MPs may be seduced by the idea that this is a feminist amendment. They may be convinced that it will not change anything. They are likely to fear their voters concluding that they don’t care about the plight of female foetuses. But those who vote for this amendment may be unwittingly waving the white flag in the first battle in a long-term war to limit access to safe legal abortion in the UK.

There is no reliable evidence to support the view that women are routinely having abortions for reasons of sex selection. There is even less evidence to suggest that a sex-selective abortion ban would be effective in ending the phenomenon. The amendment does not address any of the complex economic, social, or cultural practices and beliefs that create a boy-preference in some communities; and, of course, it will remain possible to access an abortion in the UK or elsewhere without specifying sex selection as the reason.

In an off-the-record conversation, a seasoned feminist campaigner from the South Asian community admits to me that a ban wouldn’t work for just these reasons. Nonetheless, she supports a ban "because it doesn’t need to work", she tells me, "just passing a law will send a strong message".

So the ban is nothing more than a grand gesture, but unfortunately it is a grand gesture with potentially catastrophic consequences for women’s ongoing access to abortion. Although an earlier iteration of this amendment was described by its proposer – anti-abortion MP Fiona Bruce – as a "clarification of the law" in fact passing this amendment fundamentally undermines essential principles of existing law and practice.

Currently the law entrusts doctors with the decision of whether or not to authorise an abortion. The additional scrutiny and regulation required to police this proposed ban would undermine society’s trust in the medical profession to act in the interest of patients, and would jeopardise the confidential relationship between doctor and patient. The chilling effect this increased scrutiny and suspicion would have on doctors and their willingness to get involved in abortion referral is clearly not an unintended consequence of an amendment proposed by such a committed anti-abortion campaigner.

In the 1967 Abortion Act, which governs abortion practice, the physical and mental health of the woman is the overriding concern of a doctor authorising abortion. This amendment would remove this fundamental principle by introducing a specific prohibition that would trump the wellbeing of the woman.

Crucially this bill implies specific protection for foetuses in the event that they are aborted for sex-selective reasons, thereby giving rights to some foetuses in some circumstances. The anti-abortion lobby knows that to undermine the current principle that underpins UK abortion law – that the foetus is not a person with rights – opens the door for subsequent regressive legislation and seriously jeopardises the future of safe, legal abortion in the UK.

MPs would do well to look at the example of the city of San Francisco, which opposed all bans on sex-selective abortion because they understood that they are mere anti-abortion mischief-making. With the support of the National Association of Asian Pacific Women and black civil rights organisations they argued that bans would lead to racial profiling of ethnic minority women and would reduce their access to reproductive health services.

Our MPs too should be extremely concerned about the prospect of discriminatory practice if this amendment passes. Specific groups are assumed to be more at risk of sex-selective practices even where the evidence is sparse, and we risk denying women in those communities equal access to the full range of reproductive health services if they become objects of suspicion.

Furthermore, while some MPs have used the coercion and abuse of women seeking sex-selective abortion as justification for a ban, abortion providers are concerned that a ban would make women in this situation more vulnerable. Clinics providing abortions have safeguarding policies and protocols which rely on women being able to share, confidentially, their circumstances and their reason for requesting abortion. Guidance for abortion providers specifically emphasises the need to create clear referral pathways for women experiencing domestic violence and abuse.

If any woman is requesting an abortion against her will because she is being coerced, abused or threatened, it is vital that she can talk to the abortion referrer or provider about that, be supported to make her own decision, and be signposted to agencies that can provide her with the help she needs to be safe. Criminalising a specific reason for abortion would create a barrier to having that conversation.

A ban on any form of abortion falls far short of offering any kind of protection for a woman vulnerable to abuse in pregnancy (a time when the frequency and intensity of abuse often increases for women in all communities). It also disempowers her and diminishes her ability to make the choice she thinks best for her wellbeing and the wellbeing of any existing children and dependents. At worst it may cement her connection to an abusive partner.

A plea to MPs to vote against this amendment

Around the world anti-abortion activists are using sex-selective abortion bans as a tactic in a broader strategy to undermine and eventually end legal abortion.

A vote against this amendment would not be an indication of support for sex-selective practices. It would be an acknowledgement that it will do nothing to address the causes of, or reduce the incidence of, sex-selective abortion, and that there are some serious negative consequences that would result from enacting this part of the serious crimes bill.

Election notwithstanding, MPs need to find the courage to stand up against this insidious attack on women’s reproductive rights; to eschew the simplistic sloganeering of saving "girl babies", and argue that the greatest threat to girls' and women’s health and wellbeing is any legislation that jeopardises women’s full and equal access to all reproductive health services.

Lisa Hallgarten is chair of Voice for Choice, the UK coalition to defend and extend abortion access

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Meet Anne Marie Waters - the Ukip politician too extreme for Nigel Farage

In January 2016, Waters launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). 

There are few people in British political life who can be attacked from the left by Nigel Farage. Yet that is where Anne Marie Waters has found herself. And by the end of September she could well be the new leader of Ukip, a party almost synonymous with its beer-swilling, chain-smoking former leader.

Waters’s political journey is a curious one. She started out on the political left, but like Oswald Mosley before her, has since veered dramatically to the right. That, however, is where the similarities end. Waters is Irish, agnostic, a lesbian and a self-proclaimed feminist.

But it is her politics – rather than who she is – that have caused a stir among Ukip’s old guard. Former leader Paul Nuttall has said that her views make him “uncomfortable” while Farage has claimed Ukip is “finished” if, under her leadership, it becomes an anti-Islam party.

In her rhetoric, Waters echoes groups such as the English Defence League (EDL) and Britain First. She has called Islam “evil” and her leadership manifesto claims that the religion has turned Britain into a “fearful and censorious society”. Waters wants the banning of the burqa, the closure of all sharia councils and a temporary freeze on all immigration.

She started life in Dublin before moving to Germany in her teens to work as an au pair. Waters also lived in the Netherlands before returning to Britain to study journalism at Nottingham Trent University, graduating in 2003. She subsequently gained a second degree in law. It was then, she says, that she first learnt about Islam, which she claims treats women “like absolute dirt”. Now 39, Waters is a full-time campaigner who lives in Essex with her two dogs and her partner who is an accountant.

Waters’s first spell of serious activism was with the campaign group One Law for All, a secularist organisation fronted by the Iranian feminist and human rights activist Maryam Namazie. Waters resigned in November 2013 after four years with the organisation. According to Namazie, Waters left due to political disagreements over whether the group should collaborate with members of far-right groups.

In April 2014, Waters founded Sharia Watch UK and, in January 2016, she launched Pegida UK with former EDL frontman Steven Yaxley-Lennon (aka Tommy Robinson). The group was established as a British chapter of the German-based organisation and was set up to counter what it called the “Islamisation of our countries”. By the summer of 2016, it had petered out.

Waters twice stood unsuccessfully to become a Labour parliamentary candidate. Today, she says she could not back Labour due to its “betrayal of women” and “betrayal of the country” over Islam. After joining Ukip in 2014, she first ran for political office in the Lambeth council election, where she finished in ninth place. At the 2015 general election, Waters stood as the party’s candidate in Lewisham East, finishing third with 9.1 per cent of the vote. She was chosen to stand again in the 2016 London Assembly elections but was deselected after her role in Pegida UK became public. Waters was also prevented from standing in Lewisham East at the 2017 general election after Ukip’s then-leader Nuttall publicly intervened.

The current favourite of the 11 candidates standing to succeed Nuttall is deputy leader Peter Whittle, with Waters in second. Some had hoped the party’s top brass would ban her from standing but last week its national executive approved her campaign.

Due to an expected low turnout, the leadership contest is unpredictable. Last November, Nuttall was elected with just 9,622 votes. More than 1,000 new members reportedly joined Ukip in a two-week period earlier this year, prompting fears of far-right entryism.

Mike Hookem MEP has resigned as Ukip’s deputy whip over Waters’ candidacy, saying he would not “turn a blind eye” to extremism. By contrast, chief whip, MEP Stuart Agnew, is a supporter and has likened her to Joan of Arc. Waters is also working closely on her campaign with Jack Buckby, a former BNP activist and one of the few candidates to run against Labour in the by-election for Jo Cox’s former seat of Batley and Spen. Robinson is another backer.

Peculiarly for someone running to be the leader of a party, Waters does not appear to relish public attention. “I’m not a limelight person,” she recently told the Times. “I don’t like being phoned all the time.”

The journalist Jamie Bartlett, who was invited to the initial launch of Pegida UK in Luton in 2015, said of Waters: “She failed to remember the date of the demo. Her head lolled, her words were slurred, and she appeared to almost fall asleep while Tommy [Robinson] was speaking. After 10 minutes it all ground to an uneasy halt.”

In an age when authenticity is everything, it would be a mistake to underestimate yet another unconventional politician. But perhaps British Muslims shouldn’t panic about Anne Marie Waters just yet.

James Bloodworth is editor of Left Foot Forward

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear