Jasvinder Sanghera CBE is the founder of Karma Nirvana, a charity that supports both men and women affected by honour based abuse and forced marriages.
I am extremely concerned that the Abortion (Northern Ireland) (No 2) Regulations open the door wide to sex selective abortions in Northern Ireland. They permit abortion to 12 weeks gestation for any reason without a qualification on the basis of sex.
I gave evidence to the Isle of Man as it sought to modernised their abortion law in 2018, proposing abortion on request to 14 weeks. It inserted a section into its own legislation which makes clear that abortion on the basis of sex (unless linked to a sex related genetic disorder) is not legal. I highlighted how this was a serious human rights issue, having had the experience of supporting hundreds of affected women in the UK.
The nature of these abuses are rooted in cultural systems that render it a hidden issue, concealed within communities that further oppress the voices of victims, and even remove them from the country to perform illegal abortions. Therefore, it is de-facto under-reported, and we cannot rely on the evidence of statistics to make these changes.
It is particularly shocking that the Government should have framed the Northern Ireland Regulations in this way because the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw) report on Northern Ireland, which was supposed to drive the changes, states:
‘…the Committee aligns itself with the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in the condemnation of sex-selective and disability-selective abortions, both stemming from the need to combat negative stereotypes and prejudices towards women and persons with disabilities.’
The Northern Ireland Regulations, which will be debated and voted on in the Lords today and the Commons on Wednesday, stand in sharp contrast to the law in Great Britain on sex selection.
In 2015, when pressed on the issue of sex selection after a Daily Telegraph investigation into the practice, the Government responded by saying that sex selection is an ‘abhorrent practice’, but argued that it was not necessary to add anything to the 1967 Abortion Act, because abortion is only legal on the grounds set out in that Act, none of which is the sex of the foetus.
On this basis, the then Minister, Jane Ellison, was able to say: “The Government have been consistently clear that abortion on the grounds of gender alone is already illegal.” And later, “…but I reiterate that abortion of a foetus on the grounds of gender alone is already illegal.” This same point was reiterated by the Government again in January.
This cannot be said about the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations because, like the Isle of Man Abortion Reform Act, they allow abortion for any reason – in the case of Northern Ireland, up to 12 weeks gestation. In 2015, Ministers said the sex of the foetus was identified at around 18-21 weeks gestation. With technological advancements sex can be identified using Non-Invasive Prenatal Testing (NIPT) between seven and ten weeks.
My concern about this issue is greatly compounded by the fact that answers provided by Government Ministers this week have suggested that, under the Northern Ireland regulations, it would not be lawful for someone to seek a termination because the foetus is the wrong sex.
Unless, however, there is a provision in the regulations currently held from sight by invisible ink, this assertion seems plainly wrong. One could only be content to provide such a careless answer if one was in denial about the seriousness of the issue.
As Brett Lockhart, a QC, has said in an expert legal opinion assessing the ministerial responses against the regulations: “I confess to being entirely unclear as to how one could legally have come to that opinion”.
I find it deeply concerning that the Government should suggest that the people of Northern Ireland are less worthy of protection from sex selective abortion than the rest of the UK.
Equally concerning, though, is the very dangerous precedent that this sets for the rest of the UK. The last thing we need now is for the Government to send the message that its resolve to address sex selective abortion is weakening and indeed, as far as Northern Ireland is concerned, evaporating.
The passing of these regulations, emanating as they do from the Government, would send a very unhelpful message not just in Belfast, but also to cities across the UK, where victims continue to be pressured or even forced to abort on the grounds of sex.
I have supported victims, and heard the harrowing experiences at the hands of family members who have a preference of boys over girls. These victims describe how refusal to abort results in domestic abuse, (I have personally dealt with a case where a mother-in-law pushed her daughter in law down the stairs to abort the girl), and severe isolation and being made to feel unworthy for not producing a boy.
When I attended the appointment of my first scan the midwife refused to tell me the sex of my child, saying “we don’t tell the Asian women, because they may abort if it’s a girl.” The Government has managed to demonstrate real resolve in addressing forced marriage. It now needs to demonstrate similar resolve in addressing the practice of sex selective abortion, and should change its proposed Northern Ireland legislation accordingly.