‘I had to terminate my pregnancies because I was carrying girls’ - the story of a woman forced into gender-selective abortions
The horror of women pressed to have gender-selective abortions has become a modern scandal around the world. But rarely, if ever, have the victims themselves told their story. After Steve Connor, The Independent’s Science Editor, revealed the extent of the practice in this country, one young British mother risked the wrath of her family and community to get in touch with him. This is her story...
Steve Connor is the Science Editor of The Independent and i. He has won many awards for his journalism, including five-times winner of the prestigious British science writers’ award; the David Perlman Award of the American Geophysical Union; four times highly commended as specialist journalist of the year in the UK Press Awards; UK health journalist of the year and a special merit award of the European School of Oncology for his investigations into the tobacco industry. He has a degree in zoology from the University of Oxford and has a special interest in genetics and medical science, human evolution and origins, climate change and the environment.
Friday 14 March 2014
The voice on the other end of the telephone was nervous and excited. A young mother had taken an enormous risk by contacting The Independent herself to thank us for our coverage earlier this year of the scandal of Britain’s lost girls – the female foetuses aborted because they were the “wrong” sex.
After three or four more telephone conversations, she agreed that we could write about her own harrowing experience of being pressed into having abortions by her husband after pregnancy ultrasound scans had shown that she was carrying girls.
The British-born woman of Pakistani parentage wanted her story to be told so that the wider world can know of the physical and emotional torment she and others in her position have had to endure as a result of terminating a pregnancy because it would have led to an unwanted daughter.
Samira (not her real name) agreed to speak to us only on condition of complete anonymity, and some of her identifying details have been deliberately changed to protect her privacy.
She said that she fears for her safety – and that her family might be split up – if her husband finds out she has spoken to the press about the two abortions she has had under his influence.
Samira is pregnant again and about to have an ultrasound scan, but is terrified that it will show she is once more carrying a girl, which will inevitably lead to yet another abortion.
“Since falling pregnant, I think about it all the time. What’s going to happen? I’m really, really scared. I’m stressed out and I’m having nightmares about bleeding and being beaten up,” Samira said. “I think about running away with her and having the baby somewhere, but the thing is I can’t leave my children with him… I have my duty to my other children. I can’t leave them for someone who is not born. I don’t want it to happen.”
Samira first approached The Independent after reading our coverage earlier this year on “The Lost Girls”, which highlighted the statistical evidence from the 2011 national census suggesting that sex-selective abortions among certain ethnic minorities were skewing the gender ratio of some families in favour of boys.
Although many community organisations welcomed The Independent’s investigation, the findings were denounced by some abortion groups. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, for instance, dismissed the findings as “nonsense” and doubted whether any woman living in Britain had undertaken an abortion purely on grounds of gender alone – which is illegal in the UK.
However, Samira’s harrowing testament is further anecdotal evidence that it is relatively easy to organise an abortion – either privately or within the NHS – after receiving the results of an ultrasound scan, which can determine the sex of a baby after about 14 weeks of pregnancy.
She spoke about the need to change the rules on ultrasound scans to make it mandatory to delay giving out gender information to the parents until after 24 weeks of pregnancy, when an abortion becomes practically impossible. “I think there should be a campaign, definitely, to ban gender scans altogether or get them delayed until some time when the abortion cannot happen,” she said.
Read more: Thousands of ‘missing’ girls revealed by analysis of 2011 census results
Knowing the gender is not medically necessary - so delay it
Samira said her first termination happened some years ago in an NHS hospital after she and her husband had driven to another city for a private ultrasound scan, which showed that she was about 14 weeks pregnant with a girl.
At the time, she said, she went along with her husband’s demands for a gender test because she said that she was not sure herself about whether she wanted another baby. “Basically it was an unplanned pregnancy for me, and for him it was because it was a girl. But looking back on it, I wouldn’t have had an abortion because it was a girl,” Samira said. “At the time I felt so pressurised by him. I wouldn’t have had the abortion at the time, it was hard for me. That’s why I went in for it because I was pressured by him because it was a girl.”
When the ultrasound sonographer told them the foetus was female, her husband asked how sure he was and then went quiet. His body language showed how unhappy he was with the news, Samira said.
“They gave us photographs. But he just put them away and when we came home he said ‘tear those photographs up and don’t look at them because you’ll be thinking about it’,” she said.
She then arranged to have the abortion at her local NHS clinic but made sure that she did not reveal the real reason, which was because it was a girl. “Yes, because if it was a boy I would have had a pregnancy. I would have gone ahead with it. I wouldn’t have had an abortion,” she said.
Her second abortion was even more traumatic than the first, partly because she was much clearer in her own mind that she wanted the child, even though a routine ultrasound scan had shown it to be a girl.
“We didn’t want to go back to the first clinic where they do ultrasounds at 14 weeks because we didn’t want them to think why we were coming back for a gender scan again. We went to another place,” Samira said.
She was able to have an NHS scan slightly earlier than usual because she told them she did not know how long she had been pregnant, but thought it was for longer than 16 weeks. “The sonographer said I was 15 weeks and my husband asked her what the sex of it was. She said ‘it’s a girl’ and he said ‘are you sure?’ and she showed him and he just went quiet, but I was really, really happy,” she said.
“It wasn’t planned or anything but I was just happy because it was female and I was happy it was inside me, but then the look of him when I saw him, I couldn’t explain my happiness to him. So I kept it to myself.”
This time, Samira and her husband organised the termination at a private clinic. She thought he would eventually relent when he realised how unhappy she was about going through with it a second time. “On the day of the termination I went into the clinic crying. I was crying and crying and could not stop. I was just hoping he was going to ring me and say you’ve got to get out of there,” Samira said.
“The nurse saw I was upset but she said ‘just put these tablets inside you’. They weren’t concerned that this person looked upset. I was crying but I was trying to be careful because what if they didn’t go ahead with the abortion and then my husband would blame me,” she said.
“I just wanted them to stop. I just wanted to run away from there, but the thing was, where would I run away to? What would I do? The last day before I had the abortion I said to him very clearly that what he was doing was wrong .... I felt I couldn’t make the choice on my own because if I’d made that choice and gone ahead with the baby then he would actually end the pregnancy himself. He would probably beat me up to such a state that there would probably be no pregnancy inside me. I was scared of that.
“The worse thing was, when I went in, I had a bump, and when I came out there was no bump. I kept touching it and I just wanted to scream but the noise wouldn’t come out. I felt as if I was screaming but no noise was coming out. I wanted my baby back.”
Read more: DH to launch investigation into reports of illegal abortions
Government under pressure to curb use of scans to show gender
We asked Samira why her husband is so opposed to having daughters, given that he already has sons. She said that he is worried about having to look after girls when they get older and start to get interested in boys.
“Basically his reasons were that he thinks girls will run off with boys when they are older. He said that he can’t support them when they are older. He said he won’t be able to keep an eye on her, when she’s dating guys,” she said. “At one point he said that if a girl falls pregnant, that’s wrong. But boys can do anything. The main thing, I think, is that he’s scared.”
Samira’s case is obviously unique in some respects, but it exemplifies the difficulties faced by many women within certain ethnic minorities that put a premium on sons and downgrade daughters as second-rate offspring.
Her case is also important because she would not have been included in our statistical analysis for two reasons: she was born in the UK, and her eldest child is a boy. (The Independent used 2011 census data to see whether second-born children are more likely to be boys than girls for women born abroad who already had a daughter).
Samira’s two abortions would not, therefore, have been included in our estimation that between about 1,400 and 4,700 girls are “missing” from the 2011 national census. Her two abortions, and those of other second-or third-generation women in the same position, were deliberately not included in our findings.
This indicates that the problem may be far more widespread, and, if anything, we could have underestimated the true extent of Britain’s missing girls.
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