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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

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