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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The Femicide Census honours the victims of gender violence

The survey shows that the majority of women who are killed by men suffer their fate at the hands of a current or former partner.

 

The phrase “isolated incident” often turns up in media reports when a man kills a woman. The police use it at press conferences. It’s a code: it means the story ends here, no one else is in danger, the rest of the world can sleep safe because this particular killer does not have his sights on anyone else.

Thanks to the Femicide Census – a collaboration between Women’s Aid and nia, two specialist services dealing with violence against women – we now know how many of those “isolated incidents” there are, in England and Wales at least. Between 1 January 2009 and 31 December 2015, it was nearly a thousand: 936 women (aged 14 and over) were killed by men in seven years.

As the census reveals, the killing of women follows a very different pattern to the killing of men, although there is one thing both groups of victims have in common: their killers are almost always men.

But female victims are more likely to know their killer than male victims. In fact, they usually know him very well: 598 (64%) of the women were killed by a current or former partner, 75 (8%) by their son, 45 (4.8%) by another male family member. Killing is often what the census describes as “the final act of control”: not an “isolated incident”, but the culmination of a long campaign of coercion and violence.

This means that trends in femicide – the killing of a woman by a man – don’t match the overall homicide trend, as a 2011 UN study found when it noted that the overall rate of homicide had fallen while killings of women remained stable. But official records have long failed to recognise this difference, and there were no statistics specifically on men’s fatal violence against women until 2012, when Karen Ingala Smith (CEO of nia) started cataloguing reports of women killed by men on her personal blog, a project she called Counting Dead Women.

That was the start of the Femicide Census, now a high-powered data project on a platform developed by Deloitte. The list has been expanded so that victim-killer relationship, method of killing, age, occupation, ethnicity, health status and nationality can all be explored.

Or rather, these factors can be explored when they’re known. What gets reported is selective, and that selection tells a great a deal about what is considered valuable in a woman, and what kind of woman is valued. As the census notes: “almost without exception, it was easier to find out whether or not the victim had been a mother than it was to find out where she worked”.

Killings of black, Asian, minority ethnicity and refugee women receive vastly less media coverage than white women – especially young, attractive white women whose deaths fulfil the stranger-danger narrative. (Not that this is a competition with any winners. When the press reports on its favoured victims, the tone is often objectifying and fetishistic.)

Women’s chances of being killed are highest among the 36-45 age group, then decline until 66+ when they jump up again. These are often framed by the perpetrators as “mercy killings”, although the sincerity of that mercy can be judged by one of the male killers quoted in the census: “‘I did not want her to become a decrepit old hag.”

Another important finding in the census is that 21 of the women killed between 2009 and 2015 were involved in pornography and/or prostitution, including two transwomen. The majority of these victims (13 women) were killed by clients, a grim indictment of the sex trade. The most chilling category of victim, though, is perhaps the group of five called “symbolic woman”, which means “cases where a man sought to kill a woman – any woman”. In the purest sense, these are women who were killed for being women, by men who chose them as the outlet for misogynist aggression.

The truth about men’s fatal violence against women has for too many years been obscured under the “isolated incident”. The Femicide Census begins to put that ignorance right: when a man kills a woman, he may act alone, but he acts as part of a culture that normalises men’s possession of women, the availability of women for sexual use, the right to use force against non-compliant or inconvenient women.

With knowledge, action becomes possible: the Femicide Census is a clarion call for specialist refuge services, for support to help women exit prostitution, for drastic reform of attitudes and understanding at every level of society. But the census is also an act of honour to the dead. Over two pages, the census prints the names of all the women to whom it is dedicated: all the women killed by men over the six years it covers. Not “isolated incidents” but women who mattered, women who are mourned, women brutally killed by men, and women in whose memory we must work to prevent future male violence, armed with everything the census tells us.

 

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