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.

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