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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This Ada Lovelace Day, let’s celebrate women in tech while confronting its sexist culture

In an industry where men hold most of the jobs and write most of the code, celebrating women's contributions on one day a year isn't enough. 

Ada Lovelace wrote the world’s first computer program. In the 1840s Charles Babbage, now known as the “father of the computer”, designed (though never built) the “Analytical Engine”, a machine which could accurately and reproducibly calculate the answers to maths problems. While translating an article by an Italian mathematician about the machine, Lovelace included a written algorithm for which would allow the engine to calculate a sequence of Bernoulli numbers.

Around 170 years later, Whitney Wolfe, one of the founders of dating app Tinder, was allegedly forced to resign from the company. According to a lawsuit she later filed against the app and its parent company, she had her co-founder title removed because, the male founders argued, it would look “slutty”, and because “Facebook and Snapchat don’t have girl founders. It just makes it look like Tinder was some accident". (They settled out of court.)

Today, 13 October, is Ada Lovelace day – an international celebration of inspirational women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). It’s lucky we have this day of remembrance, because, as Wolfe’s story demonstrates, we also spend a lot of time forgetting and sidelining women in tech. In the wash of pale male founders of the tech giants that rule the industry,we don't often think about the women that shaped its foundations: Judith Estrin, one of the designers of TCP/IP, for example, or Radia Perlman, inventor of the spanning-tree protocol. Both inventions sound complicated, and they are – they’re some of the vital building blocks that allow the internet to function. 

And yet David Streitfield, a Pulitzer-prize winning journalist, someow felt it accurate to write in 2012: “Men invented the internet. And not just any men. Men with pocket protectors. Men who idolised Mr Spock and cried when Steve Jobs died.”

Perhaps we forget about tech's founding women because the needle has swung so far into the other direction. A huge proportion – perhaps even 90 per cent - of the world’s code is written by men. At Google, women fill 17 per cent of technical roles. At Facebook, 15 per cent. Over 90 per cent of the code respositories on Github, an online service used throughout the industry, are owned by men. Yet it's also hard to believe that this erasure of women's role in tech is completely accidental. As Elissa Shevinsky writes in the introduction to a collection of essays on gender in tech, Lean Out: “This myth of the nerdy male founder has been perpetuated by men who found this story favourable."

Does it matter? It’s hard to believe that it doesn’t. Our society is increasingly defined and delineated by code and the things it builds. Small slip-ups, like the lack of a period tracker on the original Apple Watch, or fitness trackers too big for some women’s wrists, gesture to the fact that these technologies are built by male-dominated teams, for a male audience.

In Lean Out, one essay written by a Twitter-based “start-up dinosaur” (don’t ask) explains how dangerous it is to allow one small segment of society to built the future for the rest of us:

If you let someone else build tomorrow, tomorrow will belong to someone else. They will build a better tomorrow for everyone like them… For tomorrow to be for everyone, everyone needs to be the one [sic] that build it.

So where did all the women go? How did we get from a rash of female inventors to a situation where the major female presence at an Apple iPhone launch is a model’s face projected onto a screen and photoshopped into a smile by a male demonstrator? 

Photo: Apple.

The toxic culture of many tech workplaces could be a cause or an effect of the lack of women in the industry, but it certainly can’t make make it easy to stay. Behaviours range from the ignorant - Martha Lane-Fox, founder of, often asked “what happens if you get pregnant?” at investors' meetings - to the much more sinister. An essay in Lean Out by Katy Levinson details her experiences of sexual harassment while working in tech: 

I have had interviewers attempt to solicit sexual favors from me mid-interview and discuss in significant detail precisely what they would like to do. All of these things have happened either in Silicon Valley working in tech, in an educational institution to get me there, or in a technical internship.

Others featured in the book joined in with the low-level sexism and racism  of their male colleagues in order to "fit in" and deflect negative attention. Erica Joy writes that while working in IT at the University of Alaska as the only woman (and only black person) on her team, she laughed at colleagues' "terribly racist and sexist jokes" and "co-opted their negative attitudes”. 

The casual culture and allegedly meritocratic hierarchies of tech companies may actually be encouraging this discriminatory atmosphere. HR and the strict reporting procedures of large corporates at least give those suffering from discrimination a place to go. A casual office environment can discourage reporting or calling out prejudiced humour or remarks. Brook Shelley, a woman who transitioned while working in tech, notes: "No one wants to be the office mother". So instead, you join in and hope for the best. 

And, of course, there's no reason why people working in tech would have fewer issues with discrimination than those in other industries. A childhood spent as a "nerd" can also spawn its own brand of misogyny - Katherine Cross writes in Lean Out that “to many of these men [working in these fields] is all too easy to subconciously confound women who say ‘this is sexist’ with the young girls who said… ‘You’re gross and a creep and I’ll never date you'". During GamerGate, Anita Sarkeesian was often called a "prom queen" by trolls. 

When I spoke to Alexa Clay, entrepreneur and co-author of the Misfit Economy, she confirmed that there's a strange, low-lurking sexism in the start-up economy: “They have all very open and free, but underneath it there's still something really patriarchal.” Start-ups, after all, are a culture which celebrates risk-taking, something which women are societally discouraged from doing. As Clay says, 

“Men are allowed to fail in tech. You have these young guys who these old guys adopt and mentor. If his app doesn’t work, the mentor just shrugs it off. I would not be able ot get away with that, and I think women and minorities aren't allowed to take the same amount of risks, particularly in these communities. If you fail, no one's saying that's fine.

The conclusion of Lean Out, and of women in tech I have spoken to, isn’t that more women, over time, will enter these industries and seamlessly integrate – it’s that tech culture needs to change, or its lack of diversity will become even more severe. Shevinsky writes:

The reason why we don't have more women in tech is not because of a lack of STEM education. It's because too many high profile and influential individuals and subcultures within the tech industry have ignored or outright mistreated women applicants and employees. To be succinct—the problem isn't women, it's tech culture.

Software engineer Kate Heddleston has a wonderful and chilling metaphor about the way we treat women in STEM. Women are, she writes, the “canary in the coal mine”. If one dies, surely you should take that as a sign that the mine is uninhabitable – that there’s something toxic in the air. “Instead, the industry is looking at the canary, wondering why it can’t breathe, saying ‘Lean in, canary, lean in!’. When one canary dies they get a new one because getting more canaries is how you fix the lack of canaries, right? Except the problem is that there isn't enough oxygen in the coal mine, not that there are too few canaries.” We need more women in STEM, and, I’d argue, in tech in particular, but we need to make sure the air is breatheable first. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.