Angie Bray is MP for Ealing Central and Acton.
I am proud to have added my name to an amendment laid by Fiona Bruce MP seeking to clarify the law on sex-selective abortion.
The amendment has been tabled to Part 5 of the Serious Crime Bill which deals with FGM and other crimes which have a disproportionate effect on women and girls.
The amendment itself is very modest. It merely states in black-and-white the current position in UK law, which is that abortion on the grounds of fetal sex is illegal. Together with another section of the Serious Crime Bill, it provides the Government with an opportunity to think about how to help women who are living with the reality of this practice.
That the clarification is needed is unfortunate. There is a concerning diversity of opinion over the law in this area, with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service claiming that the law is “silent on the matter” of sex-selective abortion, and the British Medical Association claiming that the sex of the baby can be a legitimate mental health ground for an abortion.
While it is difficult to address the BMA’s position in a short amendment such as ours, this initiative clears up much of the confusion and is a welcome and necessary re-confirmation of the equal dignity and rights of women and girls. The Stop Gendercide campaign is backing the amendment, a coalition of women’s empowerment charities like Jeena International, Karma Nirvana and other concerned citizens. They have much more information on what the now-undeniable reality of sex-selective abortion is like to live with.
But there are still some who claim that there is no evidence for sex-selective abortion in the UK.
A 2007 study by academics Sylvie Dubuc and David Coleman of the Oxford University department of social policy and intervention, found evidence of skewed boy/girl ratios. They conclude “circumstantial evidence strongly suggests that since the 1990s, sex-selective abortions have become sufficiently prevalent among India-born mothers in England and Wales to alter the secondary sex ratio…No other explanation seems possible.”
Since then, a statistical investigation (strongly disputed by the Department of Health) by The Independent has found that sex-selective abortion in some communities led to “the ‘disappearance’ of between 1,400-4,700 females from the national census records of England and Wales. Meanwhile, an investigation by the Daily Telegraph in 2012 covertly filmed two doctors allegedly agreeing to arrange abortions because of the sex of the fetus, and one of whom, Dr. Prabha Sivaraman, is now subject to private prosecution. All of this corresponds to the anecdotal evidence reported again and again of women coerced into abortions for many reasons chief amongst which is the simple sexist valuing of boys more than girls.
That this phenomenon should exist in the UK provokes revulsion across the ideological divide, and amongst a huge majority of the British public. In November, a ComRes poll found that 84 per cent of people agreed that “[a]borting babies because of their gender should explicitly be banned by law”, with 80 per cent of people agreeing that doctors who performed such abortion should be prosecuted. Amongst women, these numbers were slightly higher, with 85 per cent favouring a ban, and 81 per cent agreeing with prosecutions. Clearly, there is an overwhelming social consensus against sex-selective abortion as a legal practice, and this was reflected amongst MPs last year, when the Abortion (Sex-Selection) Ten Minute Rule Bill passed its initial vote 181-1.
I referred above to the confusion that abounds on this topic. Some have gone further and argued that the principle of abortion choice must include the choice not to have a girl. This is not the law. But it also forgets that no one lives in a vacuum. ‘Choice’ is always socially informed, and for many of the women who have undergone sex-selective abortion their practical autonomy is fundamentally compromised, if it exists at all. For many of these women, there is no choice.
Government has a role in intervening to stop oppressive practices, and the Prime Minister was surely right when he compared sex-selection to forced genital mutilation and forced marriages, saying “we need to be absolutely clear about our values and the messages we send and about these practices being unacceptable”.
Clarifying the law by this amendment would send the clearest message possible, looking beyond the stale rhetoric surrounding abortion to take a necessary first step in ending the abusive coercion underpinning sex-selection.
We cannot be indifferent to practices that undermine the dignity and value of women and girls in our country. This issue is about what ethical and social standards govern our liberal democracy, and whether the kind of culture and society we aspire to be allows our daughters to be born, grow up, and flourish.