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28 January 2015

Anti-choice MP pursues ‘sex selection’ campaign

Pro-choice organisations, legal scholars, and feminist academics have raised objections to an amendment tabled by Fiona Bruce MP to the Serious Crimes Bill, which would formally outlaw abortion ‘on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child’.

More than 70 members, spanning the main parties, have put their names to the amendment, which reads:

Termination of pregnancy on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child:

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.

In November last year, MPs backed a Ten Minute Rule Billl tabled by Fiona Bruce in a large majority, of 181 to one. But the vote has no legal force and was tabled to send out a ‘signal’ that sex-selective abortion was not acceptable.

The new Parliamentary move effectively adds a clause to Section 5 of the Serious Crime Bill, which contains new measures to combat domestic violence and female genital mutilation. The Bill has already completed its committee stage in the Commons and is on course to become law before the General Election in May.

Writing for the Telegraph, Bruce said:

‘The time has come to face up to the truth: sex-selective abortion is a reality in the UK - we can no longer ignore it. I do not pretend that my amendment can solve the problem of son-preference all on its own, but I know that it is a big step in the right direction. It is my hope that my colleagues in the Commons will agree that urgent action needs to be taken and vote in favour of my Amendment when the time comes.’

Mary Glindon, the Labour MP for North Tyneside and a member of the All-Party Prolife Group, said: ‘If opposing the abortion of baby girls – often under coercion – makes me anti-choice, then I will wear the label with pride.’

The ongoing campaign to create a formal clause within the Abortion Act to outlaw abortion on the grounds of fetal sex follows a high-profile investigation by the Daily Telegraph, which in 2012 claimed to find two British doctors agreeing to sex-selective abortions. In fact after a number of unsuccessful attempts at clinics across the UK, including at centres run by bpas, the undercover reporters were only able to secure approval for an abortion after introducing the risk of a female sex-linked chromosomal disorder with the pregnancy in question. This was one of the key reasons why prosecutions were not pursued.

Pro-choice organisations, legal scholars, and feminist academics and commentators have opposed the Bruce amendment. A letter to the Daily Telegraph on 28 January, signed by over 40 British academics, read:

‘SIR – A proposed amendment to the Serious Crime Bill would make abortion on grounds of sex selection a specific criminal offence.

‘Those pushing for this amendment claim abortions are being performed on women coerced into having the procedure, but any doctor in Britain performing an abortion on a woman against her will would already be committing a crime.
We have three main concerns about the proposed amendment. First, it would undermine the professional integrity of those who work in an already overstretched abortion service, as it suggests that they need to be stopped from doing something that constitutes a form of violence and abuse and thus need to be prevented from harming women. This is a serious claim.

‘Secondly, it risks encouraging doctors to enact some form of ethnic profiling that would, for example, require service providers to question Asian women specifically regarding their reasons for requesting abortion.

‘Thirdly, it seeks to construe abortion as an offence against “the unborn child”, specifically “the girl”. This is an attempt to secure a legal definition of a pregnancy that recognises the “rights of the unborn” – independent of the pregnant woman – and thus erodes women’s reproductive rights. MPs should seriously consider if they want to take that step.’

Some excellent commentaries have drawn out the problematic implications of the Bruce amendment for women’s reproductive choice. Writing in The Conversation, Dr Pam Lowe of Aston University argued:

‘Although it may seem counter-intuitive, supporters of women’s rights need to oppose the banning of sex-selective abortion. This campaign has nothing to do with ending gender discrimination. It is a strategy of the pro-life movement to reduce women’s access to abortion more generally. While the continuing discrimination against women which leads to coercive abortion for gender reasons is a serious problem, you cannot end gender oppression by placing new restrictions on women’s lives.’

In the Scotsman, Tiffany Jenkins argued:

‘There is a worrying attempt by campaigners to suggest that certain women aren’t capable of making choices – the kind of woman, that is, who makes the “wrong” choices. Along these lines, Conservative MP Angie Bray, has said: “‘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.”

‘It may be that many women don’t make decisions in circumstances of their choosing – few of us do – but they are still choosing to act. To restrict their choices further, which is what this will amendment will do, will make things worse for them. It will further erode a woman’s autonomy and have the consequence of impinging on her bodily integrity. People should have the right to make decisions about their family life without the state limiting their choices.’

Writing in the Daily Telegraph in November following Bruce’s Ten Minute Rule Bill, Renni Eddo-Lodge noted that ‘Making abortion on the grounds of gender illegal won’t stop it from happening, but it will make access to abortion harder overall for women.’ She argued, further:

‘I believe it is disingenuous to use the language of liberation to restrict these rights, pitting pregnant women against the fetuses inside them. Politics would be a better place if politicians stated exactly what they mean. Women and disabled people should not be tokenised for an anti-choice agenda. Remember, the overwhelming majority of abortions take place before the sex of fetus can be determined. Who exactly, then, is this debate serving, apart from the anti-choice lobby?’

Also read:

Abortion doctor will appear in court.  Telegraph investigation leads Christian campaigner to mount private prosecution against doctor accused of offering gender-based abortion. Daily Telegraph, 26 January 2015

UK: ‘Sex selection’ witch-hunt against doctors continues. A doctor has been ordered to appear in a criminal court accused of planning an abortion based on the sex of the fetus, in a private prosecution brought by an anti-abortion campaigner. Reproductive Review, 10 November 2014

Britain’s Abortion Law: What it says, and why. BPAS, 2013

Reproductice Review topic archive: Abortion laws

Reproductice Review topic archive: ‘Sex selection’ claims