The campaign against sex-selective abortion is a cynical effort to take choice away from pregnant women

Sex selective abortion is abhorrent, and it must be prevented. But there is no evidence of widespread sex-selective abortion in the UK. By campaigning against it, the <em>Telegraph</em> is able to recruit the support of people who would normally stand ver

What did Dr Prabha Sivaraman do wrong? She said this: “I don’t ask questions. You want a termination, you want a termination.” The woman she said this to wasn’t even pregnant: she was a Telegraph journalist claiming to want an abortion because of the sex of the foetus. The result of this sting has been another strand of the Telegraph’s long-running attack on abortion provision.

Previous installments in this war include the Telegraph claiming (wrongly) that “one in five abortion clinics breaks law”, and it promoting Maria Miller’s muddled and false claims that the abortion limit should be reduced “to reflect the way medical science has moved on”. (Easy one, this: given that the medical science hasn’t actually moved on, abortion law can reflect it by staying put.) What’s different this time, though, is that the sex-selection angle has allowed the Telegraph to recruit the support of people who would normally stand very far away from such campaigns.

On Wednesday, the Crown Prosecution Service Service announced that while there was enough evidence to justify bringing proceedings against Dr Sivaraman and Dr Palaniappan Rajmohan (caught in a second Telegraph set-up), there was insufficient public interest in doing so. The Telegraph did not like this. On Friday, its front page announced: “Abortion laws left ‘meaningless’ as doctors put ‘above the law’” .

Health secretary Jeremy Hunt (who supports halving the abortion limit to 12 weeks) demanded answers, so did the shadow attorney general. And even people who don’t consider themselves anti-abortion grew concerned and head-shaky, like Tom Chivers of the Telegraph who said: “Pro-choice feminists should be more concerned than anyone by the sex-selection abortion story” .

Let me introduce myself. I am a pro-choice feminist, and I’m intensely concerned. Not because I think the CPS has allowed femicide to go unpunished – remember, no abortions arose from these consultations, and there is no evidence of widespread sex-selective abortion in the UK – but because this is a cynical and determined effort to take choice away from pregnant women.

If you think the Telegraph would be satisfied with the prosecution of two doctors, then you’re not paying attention. (The fact that the paper is pursuing this vendetta against choice while also running a campaign for better sex education is just the caramelised irony skin on the crème brûlée of compulsory pregnancy.)

Despite what the Telegraph’s outrage suggests, the law offers several likely reasons for the CPS’s decision – including, as legal blogger Greg Callus notes, the fact that sex-selective abortion may well be wrong but it’s not actually illegal in England and Wales. Under the 1967 Abortion Act, an abortion is legal when “two registered medical practitioners are of the opinion, formed in good faith… that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family…”

Abortion for sex selection wouldn’t necessarily pass that test, but any prosecution would essentially be a trial of the doctors’ “good faith”: did they genuinely believe that the woman requesting the termination would be harmed more by giving birth to an unwanted baby girl than by ending the pregnancy? And when Dr Sivaraman says “you want a termination, you want a termination,” it seems to me that she is, precisely, taking the testimony of her patient in good faith.

At this point, it’s worth remembering that the punishments inflicted on women for bearing unwanted girls, and on girls for being unwanted, are both real and severe: a culture that hates you before you’re born does not soften towards you just because you’ve passed the cervix. Violence, neglect, abuse, rape and murder are all commonplace for the female populations of femicidal societies. The phenomenon of missing women is a scar on a scar, a horrifically damaging imbalance that speaks of profound and wounding misogyny.

Femicide is a product of cultures that treat women as property and deny them their full human rights. And critically, one of those human rights is the right of women to control their own fertility. The fact that a woman’s reason for wanting or not wanting a baby might be founded on sexism is not a matter for the consulting room. Doctors are guardians of our wellbeing, not policemen of our morals, and if we accede to the Telegraph’s campaign, we accede to the principle that a woman cannot be trusted with decisions about her own body.

Sex selective abortion is abhorrent. It must be prevented, and there are several ways this might be done. For example, withdrawing sex-screening from NHS hospitals wouldn’t stop prospective parents from finding out if they’re having a boy or a girl, but it might be a powerful way to signal that it doesn’t matter what sex their baby is. Or perhaps doctors like Sivaraman should ask some questions – such as, “Do you feel pressured into having an abortion?” Above all, though, we must treat adult women as rational and entitled to the fruits of their own choices. Because it is impossible to create a sexism-free society by forcing women to give birth to babies they do not want.

Friday's Daily Telegraph front page (courtesy of @suttonnick on Twitter).

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

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John McDonnell interview: "We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility"

The shadow chancellor on the Spending Review, Jeremy Corbyn's leadership and why trade unions will have to break the law. 

When I interviewed John McDonnell in March, before the general election, he predicted that Labour would be the largest party and confessed to a “sneaking feeling that we could win a small majority – because I think the Tory vote is really soft”. As the long-standing chair of the Socialist Campaign Group, McDonnell anticipated leading the resistance inside Labour to any spending cuts made by Ed Miliband. Eight months later, he is indeed campaigning against austerity – but as shadow chancellor against a Conservative majority government.

I meet McDonnell in his new Westminster office in Norman Shaw South, a short walk down the corridor from that of his close friend and greatest ally, Jeremy Corbyn. The day before George Osborne delivers his Spending Review and Autumn Statement, his desk is cluttered with economic papers in preparation for his response.

“The message we’re trying to get across is that this concept of the Tories’ having a ‘long-term economic plan’ is an absolute myth and they’re in chaos, really in chaos on many fronts,” he tells me. McDonnell points to the revolt against cuts to tax credits and policing, and the social care crisis, as evidence that Osborne’s programme is unravelling. On health, he says: “He’s trying to dig out money as best as he can for the NHS, he’s announced the frontloading of some of it, but that simply covers the deficits that there are. Behind that, he’s looking for £22bn of savings, so this winter the NHS is going to be in crisis again.”

Asked what Labour’s equivalent is to the Tories’ undeniably effective “long-term economic plan” message, he said: “I don’t think we’re going to get into one-liners in that way. We’ll be more sophisticated in the way that we communicate. We’re going to have an intelligent and a mature economic debate. If I hear again that they’re going to ‘fix the roof while the sun shines’ I will throw up. It’s nauseating, isn’t it? It reduces debate, intellectual debate, economic debate, to the lowest level of a slogan. That’s why we’re in the mess we are.”

Having abandoned his original support for the Chancellor’s fiscal charter, which mandated a budget surplus by 2020, McDonnell makes an unashamed case for borrowing to invest. “The biggest failure of the last five years under Osborne is the failure to invest,” he says. “Borrowing at the moment is at its cheapest level, but in addition to that I’m not even sure we’ll need to borrow great amounts, because we can get more efficient spending in terms of government spending. If we can address the tax cuts that have gone ahead, particularly around corporation tax, that will give us the resources to actually start paying again in terms of investment.”

He promises a “line-by-line budget review” when I ask whether there are any areas in which he believes spending should be reduced. “My background is hard-nosed bureaucrat . . . we’ll be looking at where we can shift expenditure into more productive areas.”

From 1982 until 1985, John McDonnell, who is 64, was chair of finance at the Greater London Council under Ken Livingstone. After vowing to defy the Thatcher government’s rate-capping policy he was sacked by Livingstone, who accused him of manipulating figures for political purposes. “We’re going to look like the biggest fucking liars since Goebbels,” the future mayor of London told him. McDonnell, who later described Livingstone’s account as “complete fiction”, has since resolved his differences with the man now co-chairing Labour’s defence review.

After his election as the MP for Hayes and Harlington in 1997, McDonnell achieved renown as one of New Labour’s most vociferous opponents, rebelling with a frequency rivalled only by Corbyn. His appointment as shadow chancellor was the most divisive of the Labour leader’s reshuffle. “People like Jeremy even if they don’t agree with him. People don’t like John,” one MP told me at the time. Mindful of this, McDonnell has sought to transform his image. He has apologised for his past praise of the IRA and for joking about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, rebranding himself as a “boring bank manager”. But there are moments when his more radical side surfaces.

He told me that he supports workers breaking the law if the trade union bill, which would limit the right to strike, is passed. “It’s inevitable, I think it’s inevitable. If the bill is introduced in its existing form and is used against any particular trade unionist or trade union, I think it’s inevitable that people will resist. We established our rights by campaigning against unjust laws and taking the risk if necessary. I think that’s inevitable and I’ll support them.”

“Chaos” might be how McDonnell describes Osborne’s position but the same term is now daily applied to Labour. The party is riven over air strikes in Syria and the renewal of Trident and MPs are ever more scornful of Corbyn’s leadership.

While Corbyn has so far refused to offer Labour MPs a free vote on Syria, McDonnell says that he favours one and would oppose military action. “My position on wars has always been that it’s a moral issue and therefore I veer towards free votes . . . We’re waiting for Cameron’s statement; we’ll analyse that, there’ll be a discussion in shadow cabinet and in the PLP [Parliamentary Labour Party] and then we’ll make a decision. I’m still in a situation where I’ve expressed the view that I’m opposed to the bombing campaign or engagement. I think the history of the UK involvement in the Middle East has been a disaster, to say the least . . .This isn’t like the Second World War where you have a military campaign – you defeat the enemy, you sign a peace agreement and that’s it – this is asymmetric warfare. In addition to the risks that are in the battlefield there’s a risk in every community in our land as a result of it.”

Would he want any of the 14 former shadow cabinet members who refused to serve under Corbyn to return? “All of them, we’re trying to get them all back. We’ve got Yvette [Cooper] helping us on a review we’re doing about the economy and women . . . It’s an open door policy, I’m trying to meet them all over these next few weeks.”

Livingstone, a member of Labour’s National Executive Committee, recently called for Simon Danczuk, who revealed details of a private meeting with Corbyn in the Mail on Sunday, and Frank Field, who told me that MPs should run as independents if deselected, to be disciplined. But McDonnell takes a more conciliatory line. “With Simon [Danczuk] in particular and the others, it’s just a matter of saying look at the long-term interests of the party. People don’t vote for a divided party. They’ll accept, though, that within a party you can have democratic debate. As I said time and time again, don’t mistake democracy for division. It’s the way in which you express those different views that are important. All I’m saying is let people express their views, let’s have democratic engagement but please don’t personalise this. I think there’s a reaction within the community, not just the party, against personalised politics. It’s not Jeremy’s style, he never responds in that way. It’s unfortunate but we’ll get through it. It’s just minor elements of it, that’s all.”

McDonnell disavows moves by some in Momentum, the Corbyn-aligned group, to deselect critical MPs. “What we’re not into is deselecting people, what we want to try and do is make sure that everyone’s involved in a democratic engagement process, simple as that.

“So I’ve said time and time again, this isn’t about deselection or whatever. But at the same what we’re trying to say to everybody is even if you disagree, treat each other with respect. At the height of the debates around tuition fees and the Iraq war, even though we had heated disagreements we always treated each other with mutual respect and I think we’ve got to adhere to that. Anyone who’s not doing that just lets themselves down, that’s not the culture of the Labour Party.”

In private, the 90 per cent of MPs who did not support Corbyn’s leadership bid speak often of how and when he could be removed. One point of debate is whether, under the current rules, the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged or be forced to re-seek nominations. McDonnell is emphatic that the former is the case: “Oh yeah, that’s the rule, yeah.”

McDonnell’s recent media performances have been praised by MPs, and he is spoken of by some on the left as a possible replacement if Corbyn is removed or stands down before 2020. His speech to the PLP on 23 November was described to me by one shadow minister as a “leadership bid”. But McDonnell rules out standing in any future contest. “No, no, I’ve tried twice [in 2007 and 2010], I’m not going to try again, there’s no way I would.”

Despite opinion polls showing Labour as much as 15 points behind the Conservatives, McDonnell insists that the party can win in 2020. “Oh definitely, yeah, you’ll see that. I think this next year’s going to be pivotal for us. We’re going to destroy Osborne’s credibility over the next six months. But more importantly than that, we can’t just be a negative party . . . we’re going to present a positive view of what Labour’s future will be and the future of the economy.

“Over the next 18 months, we’ll be in a situation where we’ve destroyed the Tories’ economic reputation and we’ve built up our own but we’ll do it in a visionary way that presents people with a real alternative.”  

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.