An attempt to make the sex-selective abortions of baby girls an explicitly criminal offence has been thrown out by the House of Commons.
An amendment to the Serious Crime Bill, tabled by Fiona Bruce, the Conservative MP for Congleton, was defeated by 291 votes to 201.
The move would have clarified the Government’s interpretation of the 1967 Abortion Act that abortions on grounds of gender are illegal.
It was rejected after Yvette Cooper, the Shadow Home Secretary, and the Trades Union Congress wrote to Labour MPs asking them to vote against it.
On the day of the Report Stage debate, the Prime Minister, David Cameron also voiced his opposition to the amendment on the grounds that it could stop women being able to “avoid the certainty of genetic disease”.
Mrs Bruce’s amendment had simply stated that “nothing in section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967 is to be interpreted as allowing a pregnancy to be terminated on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child”.
But the British Medical Association and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service have argued that the Act does not prohibit abortions on grounds of gender. Instead, doctors make a decision whether the continuation of the pregnancy would harm the mental or physical health of the woman irrespective of underlying reasons.
Introducing her amendment, Mrs Bruce said that her clause was “not seeking to change the law on abortion, as some have said, but to confirm and clarify it”.
“It also provides the Government with an opportunity to address the problem by bringing forward best practice regulations and guidance to support and protect women at risk,” she said.
“Abortion providers and others, staggeringly, are still refusing to accept the Government’s interpretation of the law.”
She added: “If we cannot get a consistent line from abortion providers on whether or not it is illegal to abort a girl – it is usually girls but not always – for the sole reason that she is a girl, then the law is not fit for purpose.
“To do so constitutes a gross form of sex discrimination. Indeed it is the first and most fundamental form of violence against women and girls. Surely no one can object to a clause that simply states that that is wrong.”
Public Health Minister Jane Ellison, speaking for the Government, described sex-selective abortions as “abhorrent” but emphasised that in her view “abortion of a foetus on the grounds of gender alone is already illegal”.
Labour MPs were more strident in their opposition to the amendment, with Stockport MP Ann Coffey warning MPs that it might make women “feel that Parliament has legislated that if the sex of the child is at all an issue, irrespective of their mental distress, they will not have access to a termination”.
She said: “We do not want to go back to the days of the botched backstreet abortions that took place prior to the 1967 Act, which throughout the ages have been the resort of desperate women.”
Fiona Mactaggart, Labour MP for Slough, expressed regret for having voted for Mrs Bruce’s Ten Minute Rule Bill against sex-selective abortions in November, saying she felt she had been “pulled along by a Trojan horse” because “the new clause confers the status of an unborn child on the foetus, and that radically changes our abortion laws in a way I believe is dangerous”.
She said that the amendment would also discourage doctors from performing abortions, “as a result of which we end up with late abortions and women who cannot have abortions when they are entitled to them”.
Mrs Bruce had sought to change the law following revelations in a national newspaper three years ago that some British doctors had agreed to refer women for abortions on the grounds of the unborn child’s gender. The Crown Prosecution Service refused to bring cases against the doctors involved.
In November, Mrs Bruce’s Ten Minute Rule Bill proposing a ban on sex-selective abortions was supported by 181 votes to one.