17 February 2015
Commentary: Sex-selective abortion and honour-based violence
The Bruce amendment could lead to vulnerable women in abusive situations being victimised further, writes Shaheen Hashmat.
Over the last few months, the topic of sex selective abortion has become an increasingly worrying issue for campaigners, providers and policy-makers alike. On 23rd February 2015, MPs will vote on an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill that explicitly criminalises sex selective abortion. The move has been driven by the well known pro-life MP Fiona Bruce, and is strongly supported by some charities that work specifically with victims of honour abuse and forced marriage.
I’m a survivor of honour abuse and I escaped the threat of forced marriage at the age of twelve. I have been writing for several years to raise awareness of these issues, and up until recently have been a member of the Survivors’ Advisory Panel for one of the UK’s main charities providing support to victims of such abuses.This organisation has been a key stakeholder in the campaign to criminalise sex selective abortion. I also work full time as Executive Assistant to the CEO of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, one of the UK’s main abortion providers. I have a unique perspective on the issue, and am deeply worried that we are not only sleepwalking into a large scale attack on reproductive rights in general, but that vulnerable women in abusive situations will be victimised further as a result.
Given my strong support for the criminalisation of forced marriage, a few people are surprised at my vehement opposition to this amendment. They believe that the legislation provides similar ‘clarification of the law’ in order to ‘send a message’ to perpetrators of sex selective abortion. Besides the fact that the law is not a communication service designed to reach potential criminals to let them know that what they’re doing is bad, I am incredulous at the failure of supporters who claim to care about women to identify the real victims and perpetrators of gender-based abuse. In the case of forced marriage and female genital mutilation, the victim’s family is clearly identified as perpetrators of the abuse. In this instance, if the proposed amendment goes ahead, it will be the victim of honour abuse herself who will not only be punished most by the law and made to suffer life-long consequences, but she could well face a threat to her life as a result, as in these very sad cases.
Currently there is some confusion about how the law works. But it’s not so hard to understand – any woman who requests an abortion in the UK must meet one of the following five grounds, and two doctors must agree on which applies. Treatment is approved if:
A: the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman greater appropriate than if the pregnancy were terminated;
B: the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman;
C: the pregnancy has NOT exceeded its 24th week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman;
D: the pregnancy has NOT exceeded its 24th week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of any existing child(ren) of the family of the pregnant woman;
E: there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.
As you can see, sex selection is not one of those grounds. So what’s the problem with emphasising that the practice is wrong in legislation aimed at protecting vulnerable women who could be coerced into having an abortion because of the sex of the foetus?
To understand this you have to picture the woman who supporters believe they are protecting (organisations who work with victims of honour abuse, FGM and forced marriage). She is a victim of honour abuse herself, and is most likely trapped in a marriage into which she has been forced. She may have a poor grasp of English, no financial means to support herself, and certainly no family to whom she can turn even if she did want to leave – divorce in these communities is seen as being ‘shameful’. Her role in the home is likely to be that of a domestic and sexual slave, as well as a baby-maker. She may be raped repeatedly as part of her ‘wifely duties’. And the entire family, who already clearly subscribe to honour codes that place more value on boys than girls, will be placing pressure on her to produce a boy, whether it’s to carry on the family name, guarantee an inheritance, or because of deeply misogynistic attitudes in general. In some cases that pressure will be so great that the woman will either be told directly she must abort the foetus if it’s found to be female, or there may be a threat to her physical wellbeing significant enough to put her life in danger.
If the amendment were not to be passed, this woman, even if she is taken by her abusers to an abortion clinic under duress, will be seen on her own, and her health and wellbeing will be assessed by a clinician. If she mentions the danger she faces as a result of being pregnant with a female foetus, she will immediately be entered into strict safeguarding procedures to empower her to the make the choice that she really wants to make. This is in line with the ‘one chance rule’, which forms part of government-issued guidance on handling forms of honour based abuse (see p14, 2.8). Interpretation services will be provided, and there will be close liaison with a network of inter-agency services experienced in providing both short and long-term support to women in these situations.
However, if the amendment is passed and the woman even mentions that she is under pressure to abort because the foetus is female as part of this bigger picture of serious vulnerability, the doctor, under threat of prosecution and despite the clear risk to her life and mental health, will be forced to send this woman back her abusers. Supporters say that this will not be the case, and that the amendment will simply mean that doctors must prove that foetal sex is contributing to the woman’s poor mental health. But when they already have to go to such great lengths to approve any abortion, what more can a doctor possibly do to evidence this, possibly in a court of law, with the threat of prosecution hovering over them along with the real prospect of being struck off by the GMC and even a jail term?
I understand why this amendment has progressed so far through parliamentary procedures up to now. The need for charities to raise awareness of the issues their beneficiaries are affected by is of utmost importance. But given my own experiences with one organisation, I seriously question the judgement behind the idea that this legislation in any way protects the women in their care. And by voting in support of the amendment, MPs can make an easy, tokenistic gesture of their support for women’s rights without actually committing to meaningful action that will improve women’s lives. This is a perfect storm that puts women at great risk and I am deeply worried about the impact of this move on victims of honour based violence. We have seven days until the amendment is put to a vote. Please write to your MP to oppose this damaging legislation.
Read Shaheen Hashmat’s blog here.
RR topic archive: ‘Sex selection’ claims