Fiona Bruce MP (in white jacket) delivers a petition against gay marriage in 2012. Photo: Getty
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Against the Fiona Bruce amendment: why feminists should oppose the ban on sex-selective abortion

Fiona Bruce MP wants to criminalise anyone who procures an abortion based on the sex of their "unborn child". But rather than penalise vulnerable women, we should tackle the misogynist culture deems a female child to be worth less.

It can be hard to get people to talk about femicide. It’s just not that much fun as a topic, what with the brutality and the bereavement and the getting people to acknowledge male violence as a thing. There are so many ways that women are harmed and killed because we are women. One of them is through many countries' refusal to provide safe, legal abortion on demand: according to the World Health Organisation, of the 21.6 million women who undergo unsafe abortion worldwide each year, 47,000 die as a result of complications. That death toll accounts for almost 13 per cent of all maternal mortality, and in the remaining 87 per cent, you can be sure there will be many women who would rather not have taken their chances but were never given the choice. These deaths are preventable. Why aren’t they prevented? Perhaps because women’s lives are not really thought of as something worth preserving.

There is one kind of femicide that seems to get attention, however. Coincidentally, it’s also the one kind of femicide that suggests more control of women’s bodies as a solution. Sex-selective abortion wins headlines, airtime and legislative attention in a way that plain old adult women killed by men never could. On Monday, MPs will vote on Fiona Bruce’s amendment to the serious crime bill, which if passed would “make it clear that conducting or procuring an abortion on the grounds that the unborn child is a girl – or a boy (although this practice mainly affects girls) – is illegal”. Perhaps it will become law: when Bruce originally introduced this legislation as the abortion (sex selection) bill, it passed its first reading by 181 ayes to a single lonely no. After all, sex-selective abortion seems like such an obviously bad thing, why would any MP oppose the ban?

First of all, they might oppose it because experience from other countries tells us that bans on sex-selective abortion just don’t work. Although sex-selective abortion was outlawed in India in 1994, the legislation has never been effectively enforced and there has been no alteration in a birthrate that is stubbornly biased towards boy babies. As the United Nations Population Fund points out, this is only to be expected in a state where multiple other statutes and customs enforce the son preference. If only sons can inherit property, while daughters require expensive dowries to be married off, and if women are subject to child marriage and endemic sexual assault, it seems obvious that many parents would see girls as at best a misfortune, at worst financial ruin. Making sex selection illegal did not change the viciously misogynistic conditions in which sex selection took place, and so sex selection did not stop.

From Taiwan, there’s more evidence that foetal femicide is an extension of the violence practiced against the born rather than an isolated phenomenon. A 2008 paper by Ming-Jen Lin, Jin-Tan Liu and Nancy Qian concluded that, while the availability of sex-selective abortion in Taiwan had led to fewer girls being born, it had also led to a decrease in relative female neo-natal mortality. “We estimate that approximately 15 more female infants survived for every 100 aborted female fetuses,” wrote the authors. Having expressed their preference for a son in the womb, parents were presumably less likely to express it against the girls they did have through neglect or infanticide. It's a cold sort of accounting but the truth is this: wherever sex-selective abortion takes place, the determining factor is not its legality, but the existence of an extreme femicidal culture that fatally devalues women.

Does the UK have such a culture? The population data says no: gender distributions of birth rates for all populations are within normal boundaries. Does that mean that no woman is ever subtly pressured or explicitly coerced into an abortion because of foetal sex? It does not. Fiona Bruce offers the testimonies of women who aborted otherwise wanted pregnancies either because they recognised the social expectation to deliver boys, or because a violent husband beat them till they submitted to a termination. These women are the victims of male violence, and it seems unlikely that the man who punches and kicks his wife would balk at forcing her to have an unsafe backstreet abortion. With this in mind, the wording of Bruce’s proposal is truly extraordinary: by making it illegal to “procure” an abortion on the grounds of sex, the bill would criminalise the very women it presumes to protect, and punish the subjugated a second time. As the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation has said in a statement opposing the amendment: “these women who are victims in these cases should be provided with the support that they need.” They should not be treated as criminals.

According to a spokesperson from the office of Yvette Cooper MP, there are further concerns from medics that outlawing sex-selective abortion will impinge on parents who wish to avoid having a child with a sex-related congenital disorder. And then there’s that phrase used by Bruce: “unborn child”. At the moment, the foetus does not have the legal status of a person in English and Welsh law. To introduce it would be to move towards the situation in the Republic of Ireland, where the duty to balance the foetus’s “right to life” with that of the pregnant woman invariably works to the disadvantage of the woman – sometimes fatally (as in the case of Savita Halappanavar), sometimes with extreme brutality (as in the case of Migrant X, a woman who was raped, prevented from obtaining an abortion and then subjected to a forced caesarean). Fiona Bruce’s amendment makes women into vessels containing and controlled by the unborn – a misogynist logic, as feminist philosopher Mary Daly pointed out, that casts the foetus as something like an astronaut and the pregnant woman as the inanimate craft designed to protect the inhabitant. Its consequences for women can only be dreadful.

Much better is an alternative amendment formulated by Cooper and other MPs. This would give the government six months to conduct an investigation into the prevalence of sex-selective abortion and develop a plan of action for healthcare providers to help coerced and abused women. Such a plan will probably entail a reckoning with the shocking impact of the cuts on refuges, particularly those that offer specialist services for black and minority ethnicity women, who are disproportionately affected by the pressure to select for sex.

It will mean acknowledging that the problem here is not women’s “choice”, but male violence. And critically, it will achieve this without altering the 1967 Abortion Act and restricting women’s reproductive rights. As Jill Radford, one of the first to recognise the scope and savagery of femicide throughout all cultures, wrote: “Where the right of women to control their own fertility is not recognised… women die from botched abortions.” We can’t make a safe world for girls unless we start from the position that all adult women – whatever our backgrounds – are people, worthy of safety, deserving of life.  MPs must reject the Bruce amendment.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

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Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories