Britain’s trades unions today put their weight behind efforts to derail a ban on the sex-selective abortions of girls because of their gender.
The Trades Union Congress sent an email to MPs to ask them to oppose an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill today which would outlaw the controversial practice.
The unions say the amendment would divide communities and also suggest that a ban might make women more vulnerable to domestic violence from partners who do not want to father girls.
Isobel Larkin, the TUC parliamentary officer, told MPs that the unions were “in agreement” with groups such as Abortion Rights and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the largest provider of private abortions in Britain, which were campaigning against the move by Fiona Bruce, the Conservative MP for Congleton, Cheshire.
Miss Larkin told MPs: “I hope you will consider opposing this amendment on Monday.”
In a briefing paper attached to her email, the TUC stated that situations in which women from ethnic groups who sought terminations to escape violence from partners who did want girls made a “compelling” case for sex-selective abortions.
It said that while the TUC wholeheartedly supports a redoubling of efforts to eradicate violence against women “the solution is not to seek to limit women’s access to abortion”.
“While the notion of parents seeking abortion on the grounds of the sex of the foetus may be abhorrent, the solution to this problem – if indeed it is a problem, as there is no data to support the argument that this is a widespread practice – cannot be to curtail women’s right to choose,” it continues.
“To force a woman to continue a pregnancy to term and to go through labour because we do not like her reasons for wanting an abortion would be a significant retrograde step.”
The arguments outlined by the TUC echo those in literature published by BPAS just days ahead of the Report Stage debate and vote in the House of Commons.
BPAS said that instead of protecting women from pressure by husbands and boyfriends to abort girls, a ban on gender abortions “could exacerbate their situation”.
But Mrs Bruce said last night that it was “utterly wrong” to allow women to be coerced into the abortions of their daughters in the hope that it might somehow reduce domestic violence against them.
“Sex-selective abortion does not solve domestic abuse,” she said. “Allowing sex selective abortion would not protect women but would condone and exacerbate such abuse.
“It is unconscionable to provide a woman with a sex-selective abortion for her then to return to an abusive partner.”
She continued: “It is utterly wrong to claim women will suffer domestic abuse unless they are able to abort on the grounds of gender – indeed the opposite is the case – unless we support women by opposing this kind of dreadful abuse it will simply continue.”
Mrs Bruce’s amendment, which already has the support of more than 100 MPs, aims to ensure that an abortion cannot be carried out where the sex of the child is a factor in the woman’s request for an abortion.
It reads: “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.”
BPAS has consistently 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.
Even though the Government has directed the medical profession to consider sex-selective abortions as unlawful, the view of BPAS is shared by the British Medical Association and also by lawyers advising the Catholic Church.
Both the TUC and BPAS claim that the Bruce amendment would racially discriminate against women from some South Asian communities, in which sons are often preferred to daughters for cultural reasons.
They say that abortion clinics would begin the racial profiling of women and that abortion services for those from South Asia would be ‘compromised’ as a result.
Robert Flello, the Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent South, said that he was “deeply saddened that the trades unions had been swayed by misleading propaganda and decided to lobby MPs against efforts to save baby girls from abortion”.
He said: “The law was drafted to stop such abortions and this clause merely clarifies the need to protect girls from abortion.”
Mary Glindon, Labour MP for North Tyneside, said that she was surprised that the TUC was intervening against the amendment when the Labour Party had promised its members a free vote.
“I am not happy that they are saying that this amendment divides communities and are urging people to vote against it,” she said.
“I am very, very disappointed that they are saying that. I have been a trade unionist all my life and I think the TUC does some very valuable work on equality but sometimes there are issues of overstepping the mark.
“On this occasion I would say that the TUC has got it wrong on this really, really important amendment.”
“I am disappointed that they are claiming it will divide communities,” she said. “That is something that should have been discussed with MPs rather than making an unsubstantiated claim. They won’t have any evidence to that effect.”
Mrs Glindon, a member of the GMB and the Public and Commercial Services Union, said the amendment would not alter the 1967 Abortion Act and said she intended to speak in support of it.
She said: “To me, it beggars belief that in this country we can say that one sex has less right to life than another. That is what they (the unions) are condoning.
“For me, as a trade unionist, I would say why should a girl not have a right to live and a boy have a right to live? That is fundamental to our Socialist belief in equality.”
Last week, representatives of 25 Hindu and Sikh, Christian and Muslim groups voiced their support for the Bruce amendment.
Mrs Bruce has sought to change the law following revelations in a national newspaper three years ago that some British doctors had agreed to requests to abortions because 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.
The intervention of the TUC also sparked anger among British Asians.
Bal Sandhu of the Sikh Council UK said that the trades unions were acting “completely out of their remit” and were “making idiots of themselves”.
“Why does the TUC feel the need to make a comment on this?” she asked.
Dr Jafer Qureshi, a Muslim and the co-chairman of the Medical Ethics Alliance, a group of medical organisations committed to upholding the Hippocratic principles, said there could be no justification whatsoever for sex-selective abortions and said they should be forbidden.
He said the toleration of the practice would put Britain on the “slippery slope to designer families”.
“Islamic teaching is very clear on this – it is not allowed, period,” he said. “I am extremely worried about this being abused, especially by ethnic minorities.”
Dr Majid Katme of the Islamic Medical Association said the claim by the TUC that the Bruce amendment divided communities was “ridiculous, rubbish”.
“No-one will accept that,” he said. “How will this divide communities? This is upsetting only the pro-choice people, that’s all.”