Fiona Bruce MP (in white jacket) delivers a petition against gay marriage in 2012. Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

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.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

The Prevent strategy needs a rethink, not a rebrand

A bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy.

Yesterday the Home Affairs Select Committee published its report on radicalization in the UK. While the focus of the coverage has been on its claim that social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are “consciously failing” to combat the promotion of terrorism and extremism, it also reported on Prevent. The report rightly engages with criticism of Prevent, acknowledging how it has affected the Muslim community and calling for it to become more transparent:

“The concerns about Prevent amongst the communities most affected by it must be addressed. Otherwise it will continue to be viewed with suspicion by many, and by some as “toxic”… The government must be more transparent about what it is doing on the Prevent strategy, including by publicising its engagement activities, and providing updates on outcomes, through an easily accessible online portal.”

While this acknowledgement is good news, it is hard to see how real change will occur. As I have written previously, as Prevent has become more entrenched in British society, it has also become more secretive. For example, in August 2013, I lodged FOI requests to designated Prevent priority areas, asking for the most up-to-date Prevent funding information, including what projects received funding and details of any project engaging specifically with far-right extremism. I lodged almost identical requests between 2008 and 2009, all of which were successful. All but one of the 2013 requests were denied.

This denial is significant. Before the 2011 review, the Prevent strategy distributed money to help local authorities fight violent extremism and in doing so identified priority areas based solely on demographics. Any local authority with a Muslim population of at least five per cent was automatically given Prevent funding. The 2011 review pledged to end this. It further promised to expand Prevent to include far-right extremism and stop its use in community cohesion projects. Through these FOI requests I was trying to find out whether or not the 2011 pledges had been met. But with the blanket denial of information, I was left in the dark.

It is telling that the report’s concerns with Prevent are not new and have in fact been highlighted in several reports by the same Home Affairs Select Committee, as well as numerous reports by NGOs. But nothing has changed. In fact, the only change proposed by the report is to give Prevent a new name: Engage. But the problem was never the name. Prevent relies on the premise that terrorism and extremism are inherently connected with Islam, and until this is changed, it will continue to be at best counter-productive, and at worst, deeply discriminatory.

In his evidence to the committee, David Anderson, the independent ombudsman of terrorism legislation, has called for an independent review of the Prevent strategy. This would be a start. However, more is required. What is needed is a radical new approach to counter-terrorism and counter-extremism, one that targets all forms of extremism and that does not stigmatise or stereotype those affected.

Such an approach has been pioneered in the Danish town of Aarhus. Faced with increased numbers of youngsters leaving Aarhus for Syria, police officers made it clear that those who had travelled to Syria were welcome to come home, where they would receive help with going back to school, finding a place to live and whatever else was necessary for them to find their way back to Danish society.  Known as the ‘Aarhus model’, this approach focuses on inclusion, mentorship and non-criminalisation. It is the opposite of Prevent, which has from its very start framed British Muslims as a particularly deviant suspect community.

We need to change the narrative of counter-terrorism in the UK, but a narrative is not changed by a new title. Just as a rose by any other name would smell as sweet, a bad policy by any other name is still a bad policy. While the Home Affairs Select Committee concern about Prevent is welcomed, real action is needed. This will involve actually engaging with the Muslim community, listening to their concerns and not dismissing them as misunderstandings. It will require serious investigation of the damages caused by new Prevent statutory duty, something which the report does acknowledge as a concern.  Finally, real action on Prevent in particular, but extremism in general, will require developing a wide-ranging counter-extremism strategy that directly engages with far-right extremism. This has been notably absent from today’s report, even though far-right extremism is on the rise. After all, far-right extremists make up half of all counter-radicalization referrals in Yorkshire, and 30 per cent of the caseload in the east Midlands.

It will also require changing the way we think about those who are radicalized. The Aarhus model proves that such a change is possible. Radicalization is indeed a real problem, one imagines it will be even more so considering the country’s flagship counter-radicalization strategy remains problematic and ineffective. In the end, Prevent may be renamed a thousand times, but unless real effort is put in actually changing the strategy, it will remain toxic. 

Dr Maria Norris works at London School of Economics and Political Science. She tweets as @MariaWNorris.