Comment

Action must be taken to curb sex-selective abortion before it becomes a major problem in the UK

'The current legal situation regarding sex- selective abortion is highly ambiguous'

This coming Tuesday (November 4) will see a debate in the House of Commons over the Abortion (Sex Selection) Bill, put forward by Fiona Bruce MP. This Bill seeks to clarify the law, and to support in statute the view that abortion on the grounds of the baby’s sex is unlawful – which is the stated policy of the current government. A very simple website has been created enabling you to get in touch with your MP and encourage them to turn up on the day and support the Bill – it is user-friendly and very simple. Please consider taking a few minutes to make a real difference.

There is a great need for this Bill. The current legal situation is highly ambiguous. It has been said with some justification that in many parts of the world the most dangerous words are, “It’s a girl”. Abortion on the grounds of the child’s sex is endemic in parts of India and China. Indeed, the latter country now has a severe imbalance between the sexes, exacerbated by the vicious and barbaric one-child policy. Pre-natal gender testing has been formally banned in India for two decades, under the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994.

Now it seems that sex-selective abortion may be spreading in the UK. Evidence has been accumulating steadily for the last year or so that sex-selective abortion may be happening here, although it does not (yet) appear to be happening on a large scale.

The Department of Health tried to downplay the problem, and in May this year published an analysis of birth data which suggested that there was no statistically significant imbalance in sex ratios in any UK population group or region. Nevertheless, some academic papers do support the view that sex-selective abortion may be a growing problem in the UK, notably a paper published in 2007 by researchers at the University of Oxford. This view is also backed up by several newspaper investigations into the subject.

The Independent carried an analysis of UK census data in January this year, which claimed to show that imbalances in sex ratios at birth were present in some areas of the country, while in 2012 a Telegraph investigation uncovered a number of individual doctors who appeared to be offering sex-selective abortions. Although the Crown Prosecution Service eventually decided that they would not take any action against these doctors, such reports have left a lingering sense that action needs to be taken to clarify the exact legal situation concerning sex-selective abortion in the UK.

This is not as straightforward as it might initially appear, and there is considerable disagreement. The official Government position is that sex-selective abortion is straightforwardly illegal, unless the child has a sex-linked disability or impairment. This view is based on the fact that foetal sex is not a specific ground for the abortion under the terms of the 1967 Act. However, both the British Medical Association (BMA) and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) have publicly contradicted the Government on the issue, with BPAS in particular insisting that sex-selective abortion is not illegal under UK law. Because of the way the Abortion Act is drafted, this interpretation is not especially implausible.

Hence the need for this Bill. Most people, regardless of their position on abortion in general, have qualms about abortion on the grounds of the child’s sex, perhaps because they recognise the fact that it involves a deep injustice and a particularly insidious form of discrimination.

Even MPs who are wary of the pro-life movement should be aware that the Abortion (Sex Selection) Bill does not seek a sweeping change to the current law. It supports, and is consistent with, the Government’s interpretation of the law. Backing the Bill would strengthen the Government’s hand in dealing with the issue of sex-selective abortion. It would clarify a point of law that is urgent need of clarification, and limit any future attempts to undermine the enforcement of the Abortion Act by those like the BMA and BPAS inclined towards a more permissive view of sex-selective abortion.

Without this Bill, it is likely that we will continue to see little effective action to stop sex-selective abortion becoming more common and more widely accepted in Britain. When the Crown Prosecution Service decided in September 2013 that they would take no further action against doctors accused of offering sex-selective abortion, the lack of clarity in the law was one of the reasons offered in support of their decision.

A strong pro-life showing in this debate would also have the effect of keeping proper enforcement of the Abortion Act at the top of the political agenda. Recent years have seen a flood of stories suggesting that the health authorities have been highly complacent about abortion providers’ compliance with the Act, with no effective action being taken against pre-signing of abortion authorisation forms and no sanctions against doctors found to have been breaking the law.

We have a chance to nip sex-selective abortion in the bud before it becomes a serious problem in the UK. Contact your MP, and ask them to support this essential clarification of the law, which is in accordance with the government’s own stated policy and will help to stamp out discriminatory abortion.

Rob Flello is MP for Stoke-on-Trent South

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