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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Andy Burnham and Sadiq Khan are both slippery self-mythologisers – so why do we rate one more than the other?

Their obsessions with their childhoods have both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

Andy Burnham is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s widely seen as an unprincipled flip-flopper.

Sadiq Khan is a man whose policies and opinions seem to owe more to political expediency than they do to belief. He bangs on to the point of tedium about his own class, background and interests. As a result he’s the hugely popular mayor of London, the voice of those who’d be proud to think of themselves as the metropolitan liberal elite, and is even talked of as a possible future leader of the Labour party.

Oh, and also they were both born in 1970. So that’s a thing they have in common, too.

Why it is this approach to politics should have worked so much better for the mayor of London than the would-be mayor of Manchester is something I’ve been trying to work out for a while. There are definite parallels between Burnham’s attempts to present himself as a normal northern bloke who likes normal things like football, and Sadiq’s endless reminders that he’s a sarf London geezer whose dad drove a bus. They’ve both become punchlines; but one of these jokes, it feels to me, is told with a lot more affection than the other.

And yes, Burnham apparent tendency to switch sides, on everything from NHS privatisation to the 2015 welfare vote to the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, has given him a reputation for slipperiness. But Sadiq’s core campaign pledge was to freeze London transport fares; everyone said it was nonsense, and true to form it was, and you’d be hard pressed to find an observer who thought this an atypical lapse on the mayor’s part. (Khan, too, has switched sides on the matter of Jeremy Corbyn.)

 And yet, he seems to get away with this, in a way that Burnham doesn’t. His low-level duplicity is factored in, and it’s hard to judge him for it because, well, it’s just what he’s like, isn’t it? For a long time, the Tory leadership’s line on London’s last mayor was “Boris is Boris”, meaning, look, we don’t trust him either, but what you gonna do? Well: Sadiq is Sadiq.

Even the names we refer to them by suggest that one of these two guys is viewed very differently from the other. I’ve instinctively slipped into referring to the mayor of London by his first name: he’s always Sadiq, not Khan, just as his predecessors were Boris and Ken. But, despite Eoin Clarke’s brief attempt to promote his 2015 leadership campaign with a twitter feed called “Labour Andy”, Burnham is still Burnham: formal, not familiar. 

I’ve a few theories to explain all this, though I’ve no idea which is correct. For a while I’ve assumed it’s about sincerity. When Sadiq Khan mentions his dad’s bus for the 257th time in a day, he does it with a wink to the audience, making a crack about the fact he won’t stop going on about it. That way, the message gets through to the punters at home who are only half listening, but the bored lobby hacks who’ve heard this routine two dozen times before feel they’re in the joke.

Burnham, it seems to me, lacks this lightness of touch: when he won’t stop banging on about the fact he grew up in the north, it feels uncomfortably like he means it. And to take yourself seriously in politics is sometimes to invite others to make jokes at your expense.

Then again, perhaps the problem is that Burnham isn’t quite sincere enough. Sadiq Khan genuinely is the son of a bus-driving immigrant: he may keep going on about it, but it is at least true. Burnham’s “just a northern lad” narrative is true, too, but excludes some crucial facts: that he went to Cambridge, and was working in Parliament aged 24. Perhaps that shouldn’t change how we interpret his story; but I fear, nonetheless, it does.

Maybe that’s not it, though: maybe I’m just another London media snob. Because Burnham did grow up at the disadvantaged end of the country, a region where, for too many people, chasing opportunities means leaving. The idea London is a city where the son of a bus driver can become mayor flatters our metropolitan self-image; the idea that a northerner who wants to build a career in politics has to head south at the earliest opportunity does the opposite. 

So if we roll our eyes when Burnham talks about the north, perhaps that reflects badly on us, not him: the opposite of northern chippiness is southern snobbery.

There’s one last possibility for why we may rate Sadiq Khan more highly than Andy Burnham: Sadiq Khan won. We can titter a little at the jokes and the fibs but he is, nonetheless, mayor of London. Andy Burnham is just the bloke who lost two Labour leadership campaigns.

At least – for now. In six weeks time, he’s highly likely to the first mayor of Greater Manchester. Slipperiness is not the worst quality in a mayor; and so much of the job will be about banging the drum for the city, and the region, that Burnham’s tendency to wear his northernness on his sleeve will be a positive boon.

Sadiq Khan’s stature has grown because the fact he became London’s mayor seems to say something, about the kind of city London is and the kind we want it to be. Perhaps, after May, Andy Burnham can do the same for the north – and the north can do the same for Andy Burnham.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.