Two weeks ago the Daily Telegraph reported that doctors are prepared to refer women for abortion when their presenting reason was the sex of their fetus.
Those who are shouting loudest with delight about the Telegraph’s sex-selection‘sting’ have said both that the referrals the Telegraph filmed were ‘illegal’ and also that this proves that the law needs to change because it does NOT preclude referral for sex selection. This position is contradictory. Either the law is too liberal because it does allow for women to request an abortion when their emotional distress is a result of finding out the sex of their fetus, in which case doctors have acted completely lawfully by providing an abortion referral, OR doctors have broken the law by allowing abortion referral in these circumstances.
So what does the law actually say?
The current law (Abortion Act 1967, as amended 1990) does not provide a shopping list of specific circumstances for abortion, but asks doctors to weigh up the relative risks for the woman of ending or continuing a pregnancy. Most abortions in this country are allowed under ground C of the Abortion Act which means that two doctors must decide in good faith that the (mental and physical) health of the woman would be at greater risk if she continued the pregnancy than ended it.
So, a woman who has been raped can be referred for abortion because the doctor believes that continuing the pregnancy and bringing up the child of her rapist will cause her considerable stress and anguish (i.e. be a risk to her mental health), but not specifically because she has been raped. Because rape is not mentioned in the Abortion Act, abortion on the grounds of rape in and of itself is neither legal nor illegal.
Sex selection is also not mentioned in the Abortion Act and is neither legal nor illegal. A doctor’s job is to consider whether – whatever her presenting reason, and indeed whatever the general public think about that reason – refusing this woman an abortion will cause a level of distress or illness that will put her mental or physical health at risk. This is why it is incorrect for anyone to claim that doctors have acted illegally in the Telegraph case.
See part 2 Abortion Law time for a change