Fiona Bruce is MP for Congleton.
On Tuesday 4th November I will present the Abortion (Sex-Selection) Ten Minute Rule Bill to Parliament on behalf of a number of MPs from all sides of the House.
The legal argument against sex-selective abortion runs something like this. The sex of an unborn child is not one of the reasons for an abortion outlined in the 1967 Abortion Act. As abortion is only permissible in UK law where the reason for the procedure meets the criteria of the Act, sex-selective abortion is therefore illegal.
On paper, this is true. But the outworking of the law is proving more complicated. It is now clear that urgent clarification is needed to put beyond doubt that sex-selective abortion is not permitted in UK law. That is the central purpose of this Bill.
It may come as a surprise to learn that there is any confusion over this issue in the UK where condemnation of the practice has been almost universal. Reports from the Economist, claiming that at least one hundred million girls across the world are ‘missing’ as a consequence of the practice has only entrenched public opposition.
So why the ambiguity?
Section 1(1)(a) of the Act permits abortion where two doctors believe that continuing with the pregnancy is a greater risk to the mental or physical health of the mother than abortion.
The law does not say what kinds of mental health risks might justify an abortion. This section (under which 98 per cent of all abortions are registered) has been interpreted so liberally over the last 40 years that some believe that having a baby of a particular gender may constitute a mental health risk.
Unbelievably, the British Medical Association is backing this interpretation.
Responding to Government guidance on abortion they have argued that having a child of a particular gender can affect the mother’s mental health and may therefore justify a sex-selective abortion.
The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which performs around 60,000 abortions per year (the vast majority of them tax-funded), goes even further.
Their leaflet ‘Britain’s abortion law, what it says and why’ poses the question ‘Is abortion for reasons of foetal sex illegal under the Abortion Act?’ They answer ‘No. The law is silent on the matter’.
Thankfully, the Government flatly disagrees. In a March 2014 PMQs, David Cameron said:
“It is a simply appalling practice, and in areas such as that, such as female genital mutilation and such as forced marriage, we need to be absolutely clear about our values and the messages we send and about these practices being unacceptable.
“The Government have made clear that abortion on the grounds of gender alone is illegal.”
Successive health ministers have also confirmed this in both Houses on many occasions in the past year.
Despite this and numerous efforts to raise the issue in parliament, women are still coming forward to say that sex-selective abortions are happening, that there is real confusion over the law and that little is being done to help battle this practice on the ground.
As Rani Bilkhu, spokeswoman of www.stopgendercide.org said:
“I support women who are under pressure to have gender-selective abortions, either here in the UK or when they travel abroad. Despite extensive lobbying, the Government has offered no help, besides stating that sex-selective abortion is illegal. This Bill is a chance to fight what we believe to be the first violence against women and girls, and to try to combat the social and cultural problems which lead to it.”
So urgent clarification is needed. Not simply to ensure that a clear message goes out about the morality of the practice, but also to ensure that Government has an opportunity to work out a way to offer help to women who are under pressure to have sex-selective abortions.
Whatever you think about abortion, most agree that the sex of the baby does not justify a termination. This issue seems to transcend the usual pro-life/pro-abortion polarities. I am deeply worried about abortion practice in the UK, but I’m pleased to be fighting for gender equality in this debate with colleagues who might normally take a different view in the abortion debate.
In 1967 it was not possible to identify the sex of the child before birth. It was simply never conceived that anyone would consider the sex of the unborn child a ground for an abortion.
So the purpose of the Bill that I and others will put forward on the 4th November is to support the Government’s line, clarifying the law to put beyond doubt that sex-selective abortions are illegal. We simply cannot have a free-for-all where abortion service providers are free to contradict the Government over a matter as serious as this.
While BPAS and the BMA split hairs over abortion law, UK women are obtaining sex-selective abortions, often under severe pressure. We know this because a growing number of brave women are speaking about their experiences in order to bring a stop to the practice. We must not turn a blind eye to them.
If you want to encourage your MP to support the Bill, go to www.stopgendercide.org.