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24 February 2015

UK: Bruce amendment on ‘sex selective abortion’ fails in Parliament

MPs have defeated a cross-party bid to put into the law that abortion on the grounds of sex is illegal in the UK. The proposed amendment to the Serious Crime Bill was rejected by a majority of 91 votes.

Conservative MP Fiona Bruce, who spearheaded the move, said the law was being ‘interpreted in different ways’, BBC News Online reports. But her proposal was defeated by 292 to 201.

An alternative amendment, tabled by Ann Coffey with cross-party support, which provided for a review of the extent of sex-selective abortion in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, was backed by 491 to 2.

Ms Bruce had received support from more than 100 MPs prior to the debate. Making the case for the change, the Congleton MP said her amendment would ‘clarify beyond doubt in statute that sex selective abortion is illegal in UK law’. And it would provide the government with an opportunity to address the ‘problem’, such as by bringing forward best practice regulations and guidance.

‘Why is this new clause necessary? It is necessary because there is no explicit statement about gender selective abortion in UK law,’ Bruce told MPs. ‘The law is being interpreted in different ways because when the 1967 Abortion Act was passed, scans to determine the sex of the foetus were not available.’

Ms Bruce insisted it would not criminalise any pregnant women because it applied only to doctors authorising an abortion. And she rejected as ‘totally incorrect’ the assertion that her proposal would block abortions based on a gender-linked disability.

Fellow Conservative David Burrowes lent his support to the amendment, telling MPs the law ‘does not expressly prohibit gender-selective abortions’. And the DUP’s Jim Shannon, MP for Strangford, also endorsed the move, rejecting any assertions it would criminalise women. It would be doctors that were held to account, he said.

But Dr Sarah Wollaston, chair of the Health Select Committee, was firmly opposed to the proposal, saying the amendment was ‘unnecessary’ and could have ‘unintended consequences’. It could prevent women confiding in their doctor that they ‘feel under pressure’ to abort their child because of its gender, as they may fear they will be criminalised, she told MPs.

Ms Wollaston said there was no evidence of a ‘systematic practice’ of sex selective abortion in the UK, and warned against stigmatising communities by implying it was a widespread practice. And she warned that the wording of the proposed clause would have implications for existing abortion laws, as it would ‘confer personhood on the fetus’.

This point was echoed by Labour shadow health minister Luciana Berger, who said Ms Bruce’s proposal would not address the causes of sex selective abortion. She supported instead a separate amendment to require a review of the evidence of abortion on the grounds of sex in England, Wales and Northern Ireland.

For the government, Health Minister Jane Ellison said gender-based abortion was ‘abhorrent’, but said: ‘The government has been consistently clear that abortion on the grounds of gender alone is already illegal. The Department of Health repeated this in guidance issued in May 2014 and it is important to stress that all independent sector providers have agreed to comply with and operate on the department’s guidance and must do so as part of their licensing conditions,” she said.

Women’s rights groups who campaigned for MPs to vote against the amendment celebrated ‘winning this battle’ for women’s abortion rights, the Daily Telegraph reports.

‘We don’t want to make women who might already be vulnerable more vulnerable and scared to ask for help. We don’t actually want to attack the fundamental principles of the abortion act which have served us very well,’ said Lisa Hallgarten of Voice for Choice. ‘I think it’s really important we won this battle but we’re not under the illusion that the anti-abortion lobby won’t keep coming back. We haven’t won everything.’

Clare Murphy of British Pregnancy Advisory Service said:

‘We are relieved to see this amendment so clearly defeated. Department of Health guidance is clear that abortion for reasons of gender alone is not lawful and women generally do not request abortions simply because they prefer one sex over another. This was an amendment designed to undermine abortion law and provision in the UK, and would have harmed the very women it purported to protect. Where gender inequality exists this should be tackled by challenging attitudes that elevate males over females, ‎not by further restricting women’s reproductive choices.’

But Bruce hit back, saying:

‘This vote showed what we all know but nobody wants to admit. The Abortion Act, which was drafted to permit abortion in serious circumstances, is broken beyond repair. Parliamentarians never imagined that women would try to abort for gender in 1967. But this attempt to update it to ensure that the law is clear has been stamped upon by Labour Party whipping. Only women who suffer with sex-selective abortion lose as a result of this vote.’

The Hansard report on the Parliamentary debate is available here.

The text of the Bruce amendment, and the Coffey amendment, is available here.

Also read:

MPs reject backbench bid to amend abortion laws. BBC News Online, 24 February 2015

MPs help women’s groups ‘win abortion rights battle’. Last night MPs voted against a change to the abortion law that could have negatively affected women’s rights. By Radhika Sanghani. Daily Telegraph, 24 February 2014

Guidance in Relation to Requirements of the Abortion ACT 1967: For all those responsible for commissioning, providing and managing service provision. Department of Health, 23 May 2014.

UK: Opposition to Bruce amendment grows. Reproductive Review, 23 February 2015

Britain’s Abortion Law: What it says, and why. BPAS, 2013
Reproductive Review topic archive: ‘Sex selection’ claims