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23 February 2015

UK: Opposition to Bruce amendment grows

MPs are due to vote on an amendment today that would formally ban women from aborting fetuses because of their sex.

The amendment to the Serious Crime Bill seeks to prevent women having an abortion when the sex of the fetus is a factor in her decision to end the pregnancy, the Daily Telegraph reports. But prominent figures working in reproductive health and women’s rights groups have warned that it could criminalise women and doctors, as well as endanger women in desperate circumstances.

The amendment, tabled by Fiona Bruce MP, Chair of the Pro-Life All Party Parliamentary Group, is opposed by groups such as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the End Violence Against Women coalition, Voice for Choice, the Royal College of Midwives, and the British Medical Association.

Lisa Hallgarten, chair of Voice for Choice, a coalition defending women’s choice on abortion, said: ‘We urge MPs from all political parties to oppose this dangerous amendment. This is the wrong piece of legislation to address the issue of son-preference and gender discrimination and could disadvantage the very women it claims to be helping. If passed, this amendment would seriously undermine abortion law and provision in this country, which is clearly the intention of its proposer Fiona Bruce MP.’

In a letter to MPs, Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, told Labour MPs that sex-selective abortions are already illegal under the Abortion Act so new legislation is not needed, and that the move could inadvertently outlaw abortion in cases where there are ‘gender specific abnormalities’. She also warned that the amendment has the potential to undermine Britain’s abortion laws because it uses the phrase ‘unborn child’: the term would open abortion laws to judicial challenge because “children are accorded a wide range of protections and rights that are not accorded to the fetus’.

Prime Minister David Cameron refused to back the Bruce amendment. Asked about his views on a visit to Saga, an over-50s group, in Hastings, Mr Cameron said:

‘I support the status quo whereby abortion on gender grounds is not legal, it is not allowed under our arrangements. Now, there are very few circumstances, for example avoiding the certainty of genetic disease, that it might be allowed, so I support that and I will be voting – if I’m in the House of Commons this afternoon which I hope to be – to maintain the status quo. But in doing so, I hope that the abortion rules are properly policed and prosecutions and all the rest of it are carried out when the laws are broken.’

However, the Bruce amendment still enjoys some support from influential individuals. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Dominic Grieve MP, who was Attorney General from 2010-2014, has called for MPs to support the Bruce amendment, in order to ‘clarify’ the abortion law. He writes:

‘In my view, the Government is correct when it says: “Abortion on the grounds of gender alone is illegal.”

‘However, the former Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer was also correct when he said: “The law does not in terms expressly prohibit gender-specific abortions.” And the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) was arguably also correct when it said: “The Act does not prohibit a doctor from authorising an abortion where a woman has referenced the sex of her fetus.”

‘The reason that these seemingly contradictory statements are all possible simultaneously is that there is no explicit statement about gender-selective abortion in UK law.’

In January a group of professionals and academics wrote a letter to the Daily Telegraph which also opposed sex-selective abortion on the basis that it would ‘undermine the professional integrity of those who work in an already overstretched abortion service’ and risk encouraging doctors to enact ethnic profiling. They added:

‘[The amendment] 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.’

In a letter to the Independent on 19 February, a number of women’s organisations stated:

‘If the amendment were adopted, doctors and service providers would be under further pressure to screen and use methods of ethnic profiling when reviewing requests for abortions, which is problematic on many grounds. In our view, the pro-life lobby is using this as an opportunity to fracture the pro-choice lobby (which, we emphasise is not pro-abortion, but pro-choice).

‘Those signed here are entirely against sex selection and gender discrimination of all forms. However, the proposal to criminalise sex selective abortion fails to support the women who are at the very centre of the discussion. The Serious Crime Bill is not the means by which to address sex selection in our communities.’

The End Violence Against Women Coalition, a coalition consisting of more than 60 women’s organisations, many of whom provide frontline services for women and girls who are experiencing abuse, also urged MPs to vote against the Bruce amendment.

A letter to the Times on 23 February, signed by Dr David Richmond, president, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists; Dr Christopher Wilkinson, president, Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare; Louise Silverton, director of midwifery, Royal College of Midwives; Alastair Kent, director, Genetic Alliance UK; and Jane Fisher, director, Antenatal Results and Choices, argued:

‘The amendment to the Serious Crime Bill by Fiona Bruce MP sets a dangerous precedent for altering the law on access to abortion. First, the 1967 Abortion Act, backed by guidance from the department of health, makes it clear that abortion on the basis of foetal sex alone is not permissible. Second, were this amendment to be passed, it might prevent parents whose foetus is carrying a serious genetic disorder from accessing an abortion to avoid having a child with life-limiting diseases.

‘Finally, although government research has so far found no evidence that abortions based on gender alone are being carried out in the UK, we realise that there may be situations where women feel under intense pressure from a partner, family or the wider community to have an abortion once they discover the sex of the foetus. However, the amendment will do little to alleviate the pressures or coercion these women face, nor will it eradicate prejudices, customs and traditions that place preference on one gender over another.’

Commentary highlighting the problems with the Bruce amendment

The campaign against the Bruce amendment has been shaped by some excellent commentary exposing the agenda behind the amendment, and the consequences it would have if passed. Recent pieces include:

A vote to criminalise gender-selective abortion will be a disaster for women. Britain should address the pressures on women, not criminalise them – as happened in the US. By Rebecca Schiller, Guardian, 23 February 2015

Criminalising sex-selective abortions would be a terrible idea for women. The Fiona Bruce amendment would effectively prevent women from confiding in those caring for them, and accessing the support they need. Independent, 23 February 2015

The Observer view on the sex-selection debate. MPs must oppose amendment to the Serious Crime Bill that would criminalise women and doctors. Observer, 22 February 2015

Against the Fiona Bruce amendment: why feminists should oppose the ban on sex-selective abortion. Fiona Bruce MP wants to criminalise anyone who procures an abortion based on the sex of their “unborn child”. But rather than penalise vulnerable women, we should tackle the misogynist culture deems a female child to be worth less. By Sarah Ditum. New Statesman, 20 February 2015

Stop Gendercide: A dangerous campaign. Changes to the UK criminal law could put abortion doctors on trial. By Ellie Lee. spiked, 17 February 2015

The powerful medical case against explicitly banning gender abortion. Today MPs will vote on whether to amend the Abortion Act to explicitly outlaw terminations on the grounds of gender. Alastair Kent, Director of Genetic Alliance UK, puts forward the strong medical case for why no changes should be made. Daily Telegraph, 23 February 2015

Why MPs should vote against next week’s amendment on sex-selective abortion. By Sunny Hundal. LabourList, 18 February 2015

Criminalising women to protect them? Abortion law proposal is seriously flawed. By Sally Sheldon. The Conversation, 10 February 2015

Britain’s abortion law - why doctors are so important. Jennie Bristow explains why clinical discretion is central to the Abortion Act. Reproductive Review, 4 February 2015

Our MPs must not sleep walk towards abortion restrictions. They should oppose any legislation that jeopardises women’s full and equal access to all reproductive health services. By Lisa Hallgarten, New Statesman, 29 January 2015.

Why I oppose a ban on sex-selection abortion. By Pam Lowe. The Conversation, 26 January 2015

Read more news and commentary about the Bruce amendment in the Reproductive Review topic archive, here.

Also read:

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

Abortion “on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child”: the threat to women posed by an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill. A briefing from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), February 2015

Women’s rights groups urge MPs to vote against gender abortion amendment. MPs are due to vote on an amendment today that would formally ban women from aborting foetuses because of their gender. By Radhika Sanghani. Daily Telegraph, 23 February 2015

Labour torpedoes attempt to outlaw same sex abortions. Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, faces criticism from Tory and Labour MPs after urging them to vote against an amendment banning same-sex abortions. By Steven Swinford. Daily Telegraph, 22 February 2015

Why we need to clarify our abortion laws. Despite the official line, our woefully out-of-date Abortion Act is being routinely abused. By Dominic Grieve. Daily Telegraph, 23 February 2015

MPs balk at banning practice of aborting babies for their gender. The Independent, 21 February 2015‎