It can be hard to get people to talk about femicide. It’s just not that much fun as a topic, what with the brutality and the bereavement and the getting people to acknowledge male violence as a thing. There are so many ways that women are harmed and killed because we are women. One of them is through many countries’ refusal to provide safe, legal abortion on demand: according to the World Health Organisation, of the 21.6 million women who undergo unsafe abortion worldwide each year, 47,000 die as a result of complications. That death toll accounts for almost 13 per cent of all maternal mortality, and in the remaining 87 per cent, you can be sure there will be many women who would rather not have taken their chances but were never given the choice. These deaths are preventable. Why aren’t they prevented? Perhaps because women’s lives are not really thought of as something worth preserving.
There is one kind of femicide that seems to get attention, however. Coincidentally, it’s also the one kind of femicide that suggests more control of women’s bodies as a solution. Sex-selective abortion wins headlines, airtime and legislative attention in a way that plain old adult women killed by men never could. On Monday, MPs will vote on Fiona Bruce’s amendment to the serious crime bill, which if passed would “make it clear that conducting or procuring an abortion on the grounds that the unborn child is a girl – or a boy (although this practice mainly affects girls) – is illegal”. Perhaps it will become law: when Bruce originally introduced this legislation as the abortion (sex selection) bill, it passed its first reading by 181 ayes to a single lonely no. After all, sex-selective abortion seems like such an obviously bad thing, why would any MP oppose the ban?
First of all, they might oppose it because experience from other countries tells us that bans on sex-selective abortion just don’t work. Although sex-selective abortion was outlawed in India in 1994, the legislation has never been effectively enforced and there has been no alteration in a birthrate that is stubbornly biased towards boy babies. As the United Nations Population Fund points out, this is only to be expected in a state where multiple other statutes and customs enforce the son preference. If only sons can inherit property, while daughters require expensive dowries to be married off, and if women are subject to child marriage and endemic sexual assault, it seems obvious that many parents would see girls as at best a misfortune, at worst financial ruin. Making sex selection illegal did not change the viciously misogynistic conditions in which sex selection took place, and so sex selection did not stop.
From Taiwan, there’s more evidence that foetal femicide is an extension of the violence practiced against the born rather than an isolated phenomenon. A 2008 paper by Ming-Jen Lin, Jin-Tan Liu and Nancy Qian concluded that, while the availability of sex-selective abortion in Taiwan had led to fewer girls being born, it had also led to a decrease in relative female neo-natal mortality. “We estimate that approximately 15 more female infants survived for every 100 aborted female fetuses,” wrote the authors. Having expressed their preference for a son in the womb, parents were presumably less likely to express it against the girls they did have through neglect or infanticide. It’s a cold sort of accounting but the truth is this: wherever sex-selective abortion takes place, the determining factor is not its legality, but the existence of an extreme femicidal culture that fatally devalues women.
Does the UK have such a culture? The population data says no: gender distributions of birth rates for all populations are within normal boundaries. Does that mean that no woman is ever subtly pressured or explicitly coerced into an abortion because of foetal sex? It does not. Fiona Bruce offers the testimonies of women who aborted otherwise wanted pregnancies either because they recognised the social expectation to deliver boys, or because a violent husband beat them till they submitted to a termination. These women are the victims of male violence, and it seems unlikely that the man who punches and kicks his wife would balk at forcing her to have an unsafe backstreet abortion. With this in mind, the wording of Bruce’s proposal is truly extraordinary: by making it illegal to “procure” an abortion on the grounds of sex, the bill would criminalise the very women it presumes to protect, and punish the subjugated a second time. As the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation has said in a statement opposing the amendment: “these women who are victims in these cases should be provided with the support that they need.” They should not be treated as criminals.
According to a spokesperson from the office of Yvette Cooper MP, there are further concerns from medics that outlawing sex-selective abortion will impinge on parents who wish to avoid having a child with a sex-related congenital disorder. And then there’s that phrase used by Bruce: “unborn child”. At the moment, the foetus does not have the legal status of a person in English and Welsh law. To introduce it would be to move towards the situation in the Republic of Ireland, where the duty to balance the foetus’s “right to life” with that of the pregnant woman invariably works to the disadvantage of the woman – sometimes fatally (as in the case of Savita Halappanavar), sometimes with extreme brutality (as in the case of Migrant X, a woman who was raped, prevented from obtaining an abortion and then subjected to a forced caesarean). Fiona Bruce’s amendment makes women into vessels containing and controlled by the unborn – a misogynist logic, as feminist philosopher Mary Daly pointed out, that casts the foetus as something like an astronaut and the pregnant woman as the inanimate craft designed to protect the inhabitant. Its consequences for women can only be dreadful.
Much better is an alternative amendment formulated by Cooper and other MPs. This would give the government six months to conduct an investigation into the prevalence of sex-selective abortion and develop a plan of action for healthcare providers to help coerced and abused women. Such a plan will probably entail a reckoning with the shocking impact of the cuts on refuges, particularly those that offer specialist services for black and minority ethnicity women, who are disproportionately affected by the pressure to select for sex.
It will mean acknowledging that the problem here is not women’s “choice”, but male violence. And critically, it will achieve this without altering the 1967 Abortion Act and restricting women’s reproductive rights. As Jill Radford, one of the first to recognise the scope and savagery of femicide throughout all cultures, wrote: “Where the right of women to control their own fertility is not recognised… women die from botched abortions.” We can’t make a safe world for girls unless we start from the position that all adult women – whatever our backgrounds – are people, worthy of safety, deserving of life. MPs must reject the Bruce amendment.