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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We're racing towards another private debt crisis - so why did no one see it coming?

The Office for Budget Responsibility failed to foresee the rise in household debt. 

This is a call for a public inquiry on the current situation regarding private debt.

For almost a decade now, since 2007, we have been living a lie. And that lie is preparing to wreak havoc on our economy. If we do not create some kind of impartial forum to discuss what is actually happening, the results might well prove disastrous. 

The lie I am referring to is the idea that the financial crisis of 2008, and subsequent “Great Recession,” were caused by profligate government spending and subsequent public debt. The exact opposite is in fact the case. The crash happened because of dangerously high levels of private debt (a mortgage crisis specifically). And - this is the part we are not supposed to talk about—there is an inverse relation between public and private debt levels.

If the public sector reduces its debt, overall private sector debt goes up. That's what happened in the years leading up to 2008. Now austerity is making it happening again. And if we don't do something about it, the results will, inevitably, be another catastrophe.

The winners and losers of debt

These graphs show the relationship between public and private debt. They are both forecasts from the Office for Budget Responsibility, produced in 2015 and 2017. 

This is what the OBR was projecting what would happen around now back in 2015:

This year the OBR completely changed its forecast. This is how it now projects things are likely to turn out:

First, notice how both diagrams are symmetrical. What happens on top (that part of the economy that is in surplus) precisely mirrors what happens in the bottom (that part of the economy that is in deficit). This is called an “accounting identity.”

As in any ledger sheet, credits and debits have to match. The easiest way to understand this is to imagine there are just two actors, government, and the private sector. If the government borrows £100, and spends it, then the government has a debt of £100. But by spending, it has injected £100 more pounds into the private economy. In other words, -£100 for the government, +£100 for everyone else in the diagram. 

Similarly, if the government taxes someone for £100 , then the government is £100 richer but there’s £100 subtracted from the private economy (+£100 for government, -£100 for everybody else on the diagram).

So what implications does this kind of bookkeeping have for the overall economy? It means that if the government goes into surplus, then everyone else has to go into debt.

We tend to think of money as if it is a bunch of poker chips already lying around, but that’s not how it really works. Money has to be created. And money is created when banks make loans. Either the government borrows money and injects it into the economy, or private citizens borrow money from banks. Those banks don’t take the money from people’s savings or anywhere else, they just make it up. Anyone can write an IOU. But only banks are allowed to issue IOUs that the government will accept in payment for taxes. (In other words, there actually is a magic money tree. But only banks are allowed to use it.)

There are other factors. The UK has a huge trade deficit (blue), and that means the government (yellow) also has to run a deficit (print money, or more accurately, get banks to do it) to inject into the economy to pay for all those Chinese trainers, American iPads, and German cars. The total amount of money can also fluctuate. But the real point here is, the less the government is in debt, the more everyone else must be. Austerity measures will necessarily lead to rising levels of private debt. And this is exactly what has happened.

Now, if this seems to have very little to do with the way politicians talk about such matters, there's a simple reason: most politicians don’t actually know any of this. A recent survey showed 90 per cent of MPs don't even understand where money comes from (they think it's issued by the Royal Mint). In reality, debt is money. If no one owed anyone anything at all there would be no money and the economy would grind to a halt.

But of course debt has to be owed to someone. These charts show who owes what to whom.

The crisis in private debt

Bearing all this in mind, let's look at those diagrams again - keeping our eye particularly on the dark blue that represents household debt. In the first, 2015 version, the OBR duly noted that there was a substantial build-up of household debt in the years leading up to the crash of 2008. This is significant because it was the first time in British history that total household debts were higher than total household savings, and therefore the household sector itself was in deficit territory. (Corporations, at the same time, were raking in enormous profits.) But it also predicted this wouldn't happen again.

True, the OBR observed, austerity and the reduction of government deficits meant private debt levels would have to go up. However, the OBR economists insisted this wouldn't be a problem because the burden would fall not on households but on corporations. Business-friendly Tory policies would, they insisted, inspire a boom in corporate expansion, which would mean frenzied corporate borrowing (that huge red bulge below the line in the first diagram, which was supposed to eventually replace government deficits entirely). Ordinary households would have little or nothing to worry about.

This was total fantasy. No such frenzied boom took place.

In the second diagram, two years later, the OBR is forced to acknowledge this. Corporations are just raking in the profits and sitting on them. The household sector, on the other hand, is a rolling catastrophe. Austerity has meant falling wages, less government spending on social services (or anything else), and higher de facto taxes. This puts the squeeze on household budgets and people are forced to borrow. As a result, not only are households in overall deficit for the second time in British history, the situation is actually worse than it was in the years leading up to 2008.

And remember: it was a mortgage crisis that set off the 2008 crash, which almost destroyed the world economy and plunged millions into penury. Not a crisis in public debt. A crisis in private debt.

An inquiry

In 2015, around the time the original OBR predictions came out, I wrote an essay in the Guardian predicting that austerity and budget-balancing would create a disastrous crisis in private debt. Now it's so clearly, unmistakably, happening that even the OBR cannot deny it.

I believe the time has come for there be a public investigation - a formal public inquiry, in fact - into how this could be allowed to happen. After the 2008 crash, at least the economists in Treasury and the Bank of England could plausibly claim they hadn't completely understood the relation between private debt and financial instability. Now they simply have no excuse.

What on earth is an institution called the “Office for Budget Responsibility” credulously imagining corporate borrowing binges in order to suggest the government will balance the budget to no ill effects? How responsible is that? Even the second chart is extremely odd. Up to 2017, the top and bottom of the diagram are exact mirrors of one another, as they ought to be. However, in the projected future after 2017, the section below the line is much smaller than the section above, apparently seriously understating the amount both of future government, and future private, debt. In other words, the numbers don't add up.

The OBR told the New Statesman ​that it was not aware of any errors in its 2015 forecast for corporate sector net lending, and that the forecast was based on the available data. It said the forecast for business investment has been revised down because of the uncertainty created by Brexit. 

Still, if the “Office of Budget Responsibility” was true to its name, it should be sounding off the alarm bells right about now. So far all we've got is one mention of private debt and a mild warning about the rise of personal debt from the Bank of England, which did not however connect the problem to austerity, and one fairly strong statement from a maverick columnist in the Daily Mail. Otherwise, silence. 

The only plausible explanation is that institutions like the Treasury, OBR, and to a degree as well the Bank of England can't, by definition, warn against the dangers of austerity, however alarming the situation, because they have been set up the way they have in order to justify austerity. It's important to emphasise that most professional economists have never supported Conservative policies in this regard. The policy was adopted because it was convenient to politicians; institutions were set up in order to support it; economists were hired in order to come up with arguments for austerity, rather than to judge whether it would be a good idea. At present, this situation has led us to the brink of disaster.

The last time there was a financial crash, the Queen famously asked: why was no one able to foresee this? We now have the tools. Perhaps the most important task for a public inquiry will be to finally ask: what is the real purpose of the institutions that are supposed to foresee such matters, to what degree have they been politicised, and what would it take to turn them back into institutions that can at least inform us if we're staring into the lights of an oncoming train?