It’s an election year, so perhaps it would be surprising if nuance and complexity were in evidence in the House of Commons. In this context we should be very concerned about a late amendment, snuck into the Serious Crime Bill, to outlaw sex-selective abortion. Pro-choice MPs may be seduced by the idea that this is a feminist amendment. They may be convinced that it will not change anything. They are likely to fear their voters concluding that they don’t care about the plight of female foetuses. But those who vote for this amendment may be unwittingly waving the white flag in the first battle in a long-term war to limit access to safe legal abortion in the UK.
There is no reliable evidence to support the view that women are routinely having abortions for reasons of sex selection. There is even less evidence to suggest that a sex-selective abortion ban would be effective in ending the phenomenon. The amendment does not address any of the complex economic, social, or cultural practices and beliefs that create a boy-preference in some communities; and, of course, it will remain possible to access an abortion in the UK or elsewhere without specifying sex selection as the reason.
In an off-the-record conversation, a seasoned feminist campaigner from the South Asian community admits to me that a ban wouldn’t work for just these reasons. Nonetheless, she supports a ban “because it doesn’t need to work”, she tells me, “just passing a law will send a strong message”.
So the ban is nothing more than a grand gesture, but unfortunately it is a grand gesture with potentially catastrophic consequences for women’s ongoing access to abortion. Although an earlier iteration of this amendment was described by its proposer – anti-abortion MP Fiona Bruce – as a “clarification of the law” in fact passing this amendment fundamentally undermines essential principles of existing law and practice.
Currently the law entrusts doctors with the decision of whether or not to authorise an abortion. The additional scrutiny and regulation required to police this proposed ban would undermine society’s trust in the medical profession to act in the interest of patients, and would jeopardise the confidential relationship between doctor and patient. The chilling effect this increased scrutiny and suspicion would have on doctors and their willingness to get involved in abortion referral is clearly not an unintended consequence of an amendment proposed by such a committed anti-abortion campaigner.
In the 1967 Abortion Act, which governs abortion practice, the physical and mental health of the woman is the overriding concern of a doctor authorising abortion. This amendment would remove this fundamental principle by introducing a specific prohibition that would trump the wellbeing of the woman.
Crucially this bill implies specific protection for foetuses in the event that they are aborted for sex-selective reasons, thereby giving rights to some foetuses in some circumstances. The anti-abortion lobby knows that to undermine the current principle that underpins UK abortion law – that the foetus is not a person with rights – opens the door for subsequent regressive legislation and seriously jeopardises the future of safe, legal abortion in the UK.
MPs would do well to look at the example of the city of San Francisco, which opposed all bans on sex-selective abortion because they understood that they are mere anti-abortion mischief-making. With the support of the National Association of Asian Pacific Women and black civil rights organisations they argued that bans would lead to racial profiling of ethnic minority women and would reduce their access to reproductive health services.
Our MPs too should be extremely concerned about the prospect of discriminatory practice if this amendment passes. Specific groups are assumed to be more at risk of sex-selective practices even where the evidence is sparse, and we risk denying women in those communities equal access to the full range of reproductive health services if they become objects of suspicion.
Furthermore, while some MPs have used the coercion and abuse of women seeking sex-selective abortion as justification for a ban, abortion providers are concerned that a ban would make women in this situation more vulnerable. Clinics providing abortions have safeguarding policies and protocols which rely on women being able to share, confidentially, their circumstances and their reason for requesting abortion. Guidance for abortion providers specifically emphasises the need to create clear referral pathways for women experiencing domestic violence and abuse.
If any woman is requesting an abortion against her will because she is being coerced, abused or threatened, it is vital that she can talk to the abortion referrer or provider about that, be supported to make her own decision, and be signposted to agencies that can provide her with the help she needs to be safe. Criminalising a specific reason for abortion would create a barrier to having that conversation.
A ban on any form of abortion falls far short of offering any kind of protection for a woman vulnerable to abuse in pregnancy (a time when the frequency and intensity of abuse often increases for women in all communities). It also disempowers her and diminishes her ability to make the choice she thinks best for her wellbeing and the wellbeing of any existing children and dependents. At worst it may cement her connection to an abusive partner.
A plea to MPs to vote against this amendment
Around the world anti-abortion activists are using sex-selective abortion bans as a tactic in a broader strategy to undermine and eventually end legal abortion.
A vote against this amendment would not be an indication of support for sex-selective practices. It would be an acknowledgement that it will do nothing to address the causes of, or reduce the incidence of, sex-selective abortion, and that there are some serious negative consequences that would result from enacting this part of the serious crimes bill.
Election notwithstanding, MPs need to find the courage to stand up against this insidious attack on women’s reproductive rights; to eschew the simplistic sloganeering of saving “girl babies”, and argue that the greatest threat to girls’ and women’s health and wellbeing is any legislation that jeopardises women’s full and equal access to all reproductive health services.
Lisa Hallgarten is chair of Voice for Choice, the UK coalition to defend and extend abortion access