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.