Thursday 5 September 2013

Sex-selective abortion in the news

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt is upset that the two doctors involved in the Telegraph’s 2012 sex-selective abortion ‘sting’ have not been prosecuted, and is seeking ‘urgent clarification’ on the case. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has stated that it is not in the public interest to prosecute the doctors and has referred the case on to the General Medical Council (GMC). As far as we know the doctors have already had conditions put on their registration to prevent them from work involving abortion.

Over in the Telegraph’s ‘Wonder Women’ section, journalist Cathy Newman claims that “wherever you stand on abortion, it's extremely hard to understand why the Crown Prosecution Service has decided not to press criminal charges against doctors who agreed to arrange terminations because of the sex of the unborn baby.” Both Newman and Hunt forcefully assert that "sex-selection abortion is banned in the UK under the terms of the 1967 Abortion Act" and is "against the law". Newman goes on to claim that “there's growing evidence (sex selective abortion is) also carried out illegally in communities in this country.” 

So, what is the law around sex selective abortion? And is it happening in the UK? Why haven’t these doctors been thrown in jail?

First of all, it’s important to note that these cases were not of women actually requesting sex-selective abortions. This was an artificial situation set up by the Telegraph, where undercover journalists underwent consultations and filmed the results, something the CPS seem to have taken into account: “in these cases no abortions took place or would have taken place.”

Secondly, the law around abortion and sex-selection is a lot more complicated than these articles imply. As our blog from last year points out, the 1967 Abortion Act does not specifically prohibit abortion for this reason. However, abortion is a criminal act unless certain grounds are met. The majority of abortions in the UK are performed under Ground C: ‘the continuation 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.’ This ground could cover a number of individual circumstances and it is left to doctors to decide which of these satisfy the legal criteria for abortion. As legal abortion is statistically safer than childbirth, some doctors may consider this ground legitimate for women who do not provide further ‘reasons’ for their abortion, other than a desire to end the pregnancy. There is more information about the law in this article by Professor of Law Sally Sheldon.

Thirdly, it is not clear what ‘evidence’ there is of sex-selective abortion happening in the UK. Certainly two journalists requesting abortions they don’t intend to have is not evidence that women in the UK are actually having abortions due to sex selection. The Government’s investigation into the issue showed that the UK’s "gender ratio" is "well within the normal boundaries for populations".

In an older article for the Wonder Women section of the Telegraph Emma Barnett explores this very difficult issue and concludes that, "abortion laws don't need to change: attitudes towards girls do... it’s so important that abortion remains legal, above board and crucially transparent...Pushing abortion into the backstreets would help no one." We need to remain aware of the nuance in this debate and avoid sliding into anti-choice rhetoric which in reality does not support women to make the decision to have an abortion in any circumstance.

For more information, read the EFC blog on this issue from last year, when the allegations first arose.

'Women with money have options, women without money have babies'

This is a guest blog from Mara Clarke, founder and director of the Abortion Support Network.

What would you do if the condom broke? If your pill hadn't worked? If you had been raped? If you were faced with an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy? What would you do?

If you lived in England, Scotland or Wales, you could go to your GP or your local sexual health clinic, and get a referral for an abortion. You could do this regardless of your race, class, financial situation, or age. You could make this decision on your own, or with the support of your parents, or friends.

But what if you lived in a country where abortion was illegal? And you couldn't tell your parents? And your boyfriend threatened to paint “murderer” on your house, if you had a boyfriend? And you had no money? And no credit card, passport or photo ID?

Abortion is virtually against the law in Ireland and Northern Ireland. This is the case whether you are pregnant as a result of rape, whether the foetus has catastrophic abnormalities, if the woman involved is 14, or if, like most women having abortions, it simply isn't the right time to have a baby. But of course as we all know, making abortion against the law doesn't stop abortion from happening. It just means that, when faced with an unplanned, unwanted pregnancy, women with money have options and women without money have babies – or do dangerous and desperate things.

This is even more true for young women living in Ireland and Northern Ireland who need abortions. Because of the stigma, many of these young women aren't able to tell friends or family members. And yet somehow they need to raise the £400 to £2000 it can cost to travel and pay privately for an abortion.

Abortion Support Network is a charity that provides financial assistance, accommodation and confidential, practical information to women from Ireland and Northern Ireland forced to travel to access a safe, legal abortion. Since launching in October of 2009, we have heard from almost 1,000 women. More than 250 of those calls have been from women and girls under the age of 25. At least 30 of those were aged 16 or under.

Here’s an example of what these young women have told us:
“I can’t have this baby, I've been trying to get money together and I told the father and he left me. I'm in college and have no money. I depended on my parents and they will disown me if they knew I was pregnant. I'm getting really worried and I don’t know what to do. Anything will help. I know my time is nearly up so I'm beginning to really worry, I know I shouldn't have left it this long but this is my last option and I can’t have this baby.”
“If my parents find out I've had sex, they’ll kill me. I'm not kidding.”
A young teenager whose mother called us in desperation. The pregnancy was a result of rape and her daughter was severely self-harming.
“I'm 19 and a student and I'm approximately 18 weeks pregnant. I can’t financially and emotionally support a child so I'm planning on having an abortion. The problem is my partner and I have both been saving and scraping money together but we’re still short. I was enquiring as to whether we could get any assistance, be it monetary or just providing us with somewhere to stay when we get there.”
A young teenager with medical complications that could have been compromised by continuing her pregnancy. She and her boyfriend both sold their electronics in order to raise £100.
“I'm a college student and I'm pregnant. I can’t tell a soul and I'm devastated. My parents work so hard to put me through college that I can’t drop out to have a child. Never mind afford to support a child, nor necessarily want one at this stage in my life. Is there any assistance I could have or even an ear?”
A young teenager with an abusive ex-boyfriend. He was threatening her, to try and make her continue with the pregnancy. Her family were not in a position to provide support, emotionally or financially, a family friend put herself in debt to help with the costs but was still unable to provide the full cost.
“I'm growing more desperate by the week. I'm 6 weeks pregnant with an unwanted baby that I cannot have for financial and personal reasons. My boyfriend is unwilling to help with the costs of the abortion, as are my parents and his family. I have to cover this entire cost by myself and I am an unemployed student who will probably be homeless before long. Please let me know if there is anything you can do to help.”
These young women came from all parts of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Some had support and others didn't. Many had to delay their abortions as they tried to raise the necessary funds, causing even more expense as the price of abortion rises with gestation.

But what did these women have in common?

They were pregnant.
They didn't want to be pregnant.
They were poor.
And not a single one of them thought they would ever be in a position where they would have to call a total stranger in another country to ask for money for an abortion.

Mara Clarke is the founder of Abortion Support Network, an almost entirely volunteer run charity that helps women travelling from Ireland and Northern Ireland to access a safe and legal abortion. To find out how you can help or to sign up for their monthly eNewsletter visit or follow @AbortionSupport on Twitter.