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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Seven things we learnt from the Battle for Number 10

Jeremy Corbyn emerged the better as he and Theresa May faced a live studio audience and Jeremy Paxman. 

1. Jeremy Corbyn is a natural performer

The Labour leader put in a bravura performance in both the audience Q&A and in his tussle with Jeremy Paxman. He is often uncomfortable at Prime Minister’s Questions but outside of the Commons chamber he has the confidence of a veteran of countless panels, televised discussions and hustings.

If, like me, you watched him at more hustings in the Labour leadership contests of 2015 and 2016 than you care to count, this performance wasn’t a surprise. Corbyn has been doing this for a long time and it showed.

2. And he’s improving all the time

Jeremy Corbyn isn’t quite perfect in this format, however. He has a temper and is prone to the odd flash of irritation that looks bad on television in particular. None of the four candidates he has faced for the Labour leadership – not Yvette Cooper, not Andy Burnham, not Liz Kendall and not Owen Smith – have managed to get under his skin, but when an interviewer has done so, the results have never been pretty for the Labour leader.

The big fear going into tonight for Corbyn was that his temper would get the better of him. But he remained serene in the fact of Paxman’s attempts to rile him until quite close to the end. By that point, Paxman’s frequent interruptions meant that the studio audience, at least, was firmly on Corbyn’s side.

3. Theresa May was wise to swerve the debates

On Jeremy Corbyn’s performance, this validated Theresa May’s decision not to face him directly. He was fluent and assured, she was nervous and warbly.  It was a misstep even to agree to this event. Anyone who decides their vote as far as TV performances tonight will opt for Jeremy Corbyn, there’s no doubt of that.

But if she does make it back to Downing Street it will, in part, be because in one of the few good moves of her campaign she chose to avoid debating Corbyn directly.

4.…but she found a way to survive

Theresa May’s social care U-Turn and her misfiring campaign mean that the voters don’t love her as they once did. But she found an alternate route through the audience Q&A, smothering the audience with grimly dull answers that mostly bored the dissent out of listeners.

5. Theresa May’s manifesto has damaged her. The only question is how badly

It’s undeniable now that Theresa May’s election campaign has been a failure, but we still don’t know the extent of the failure. It may be that she manages to win a big majority by running against Jeremy Corbyn. She will be powerful as far as votes in the House of Commons but she will never again be seen as the electoral asset she once was at Westminster.

It could be that she ends up with a small majority in which case she may not last very much longer at Downing Street. And it could be that Jeremy Corbyn ends up defeating her on 8 June.

That the audience openly laughed when she talked of costings in her manifesto felt like the creaking of a rope bridge over a perilous ravine. Her path may well hold until 8 June, but you wouldn’t want to be in her shoes yourself and no-one would bet on the Conservative Party risking a repeat of the trip in 2022, no matter what happens in two weeks’ time.

6. Jeremy Paxman had a patchy night but can still pack a punch

If Jeremy Paxman ever does produce a collected Greatest Hits, this performance is unlikely to make the boxset. He tried and failed to rouse Jeremy Corbyn into anger and succeeded only in making the audience side with the Labour leader. So committed was he to cutting across Theresa May that he interrupted her while making a mistake.

He did, however, do a better job of damaging Theresa May than he did Jeremy Corbyn.  But not much better.

7. Theresa May may have opposed Brexit, but now she needs it to save her

It’s not a good sign for the sitting Prime Minister that the audience laughed at many of her statements. She had only one reliable set of applause lines: her commitment to getting the best Brexit deal.

In a supreme irony, the woman who opposed a Leave vote now needs the election to be a referendum re-run if she is to secure the big majority she dreams of. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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