Campaigns against sex-selective abortion are misogyny disguised as feminism

We should be asking why women feel pressured to abort female foetuses, not descending into an anti-choice panic about sex-selective abortion without evidence.

It was last year that the Telegraph declared sex-selective abortion was available “on demand” in the UK. I spoke on a couple of radio programmes at the time, suggesting that fictional stories from undercover journalists were somewhat weaker evidence than statistics on er. . . real women and that, even if there was truth to the problem of sex-selective abortion, curtailing abortion rights was not the best response.

I’m still not convinced these were particularly radical ideas. Still, it struck me how easily a bit of calm pro-choice thought was translated into anti-human sexism. “Abortions for everyone!” “Death to all first-born females!” There is something about the issue of sex-selective abortion that allows the people arguing for the reduction of women’s rights based on largely problematic evidence to position themselves as the reasonable ones, fighting the cause of feminism.

We’re here again, as of yesterday, with the Independent running a “Lost Girls” campaign, claiming abortion is being “widely used” by some ethnic groups to avoid having daughters.

Cristina Odone, bastion of progressive pro-women thought, has asked, with all this apparently happening, where are the “so called feminists?”

Well, I guess, looking at the evidence. Education for Choice take issue with the claim that sex-selective abortion is even illegal: rape, they point out, is not direct grounds for abortion in the UK, but the emotional and physical harm that can come from it is.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service’s Clare Murphy states the BPAS provides a third of all abortions in the UK and they don’t have experience that women from any community are coming into their clinics, anywhere in the UK, seeking to abort girls. This is supported entirely by the statistical analysis of the Department of Health (pdf).

Still, basing anti-choice panic on criticised research by journalists is, in this debate, an improvement from rooting it in stings based on pregnant women that didn’t even exist.

That the Telegraph’s original story involved cases that had gender-based health concerns (one journalist told doctors she’d miscarried a female foetus due to abnormalities and feared this would happen again) is symbolic of the false simplicity that the self-declared “pro-women feminists” are still relying on. 

One of the Independent’s own articles points to a case where the issue is not parents not wanting a girl but that not wanting a girl had led to a risk to the mother’s life.

Karma Nirvana, based in Leeds, said it had dealt with a woman brought from Pakistan after marrying her British husband, who then underwent fertility treatment to become pregnant with a boy after she gave birth to two daughters. She had been physically and emotionally abused by her spouse and in-laws over her failure to produce a son.

(The story goes on to say that when a scan showed this woman was indeed expecting a boy – but the foetus had mild disabilities – she was forced to have an abortion.)

Two-dimensional outrage and quick fixes may soothe conservative sensibilities but as cases like this show, the women that are facing “sex-selective abortion” can be drowned in complex issues of oppression, abuse, and prejudice that are insulted by shock headlines and easy solutions.   

Anti-choice campaigners like to work in normative wishes; the women who should always cope with a baby, the disabled children who should be cared for, and now the little girls who should be wanted. It’s little use for the pregnant women that are not abstract imaginings in an ideal society but living people, with the emotional, physical, and financial vulnerabilities that comes with reality. We deal with circumstances as they are: the entrenched misogyny that sees women valued as less, and the dangers that women subsequently face. Some of those dangers, it seems, facing women carrying future girls. 

Patriarchal structures that oppress women, to some degree in all communities, are what need to be dealt with. The violence, the isolation, the abuse, the discrimination. It’s harder than a cry to change medical rights and not tell pregnant women whether they’re carrying a girl; it doesn’t have the comfort of the easy morality and quick fixes campaigns like the Independent’s create. Depriving women of information concerning their own pregnancy empowers them. Forcing them to give birth to a child that their family reject, and greet with violence, would protect them. Reducing their reproductive rights is what will help make them become more equal in society.  

We should be very careful of anyone peddling such lines, of using sex-selective abortion, in all its confused evidence and reductive simplicity, to further their own agenda. It is misogyny in feminist clothing. Anti-choice campaigners who cling to these stories are the most dangerous; trying to chip at women’s rights whilst positioning themselves as our saviours. If there’s any doubt who the “pro-women” feminists are, it’s the ones who know equality for women will never be achieved by removing women’s rights.


People protesting against abortion in Spain. Photo: Getty

Frances Ryan is a journalist and political researcher. She writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman, and others on disability, feminism, and most areas of equality you throw at her. She has a doctorate in inequality in education. Her website is here.

Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.