The lost girls: Department of Health to launch investigation into reports of illegal abortions

Government to act on yesterday's report on the issue in The Independent
  • @cahalmilmo

The Department of Health has launched an investigation into claims that illegal abortions of female foetuses are taking place among some families living within ethnic communities in Britain who seek to ensure that they have sons.

A study of data from 2011 National Census carried out by The Independent has indicated that gender-selective abortions have significantly shifted the natural sex ratio of some communities in England and Wales in favour of boys.

Officials from the health department have requested details of the analysis by statisticians at Imperial College London on data provided to The Independent by the Office for National Statistics (ONS). We have agreed to full disclosure of all the relevant data.

A spokesperson for the health department said: “We can confirm that officials have been in touch with Imperial College. We continue to monitor birth ratios on a yearly basis and will consider any new studies as they are published.”

The analysis of families registered on the census revealed that the practice of aborting females following an ultrasound scan to determine sex is likely to account for the “disappearance” of between 1,400 and 4,700 girls among the communities where gender-based abortions appear to be prevalent.

The practice, which is widespread in parts of India and China where sex ratios have reached as high as 140 boys for every 100 girls, was condemned by politicians and campaigners who believe that the gender of an unborn baby should be withheld until later in pregnancy when an abortion is difficult to obtain.

Last night, a senior Conservative MP called on the Government to consider whether parents-to-be should have the sex of their unborn child withheld during ultrasound scans at the 13- and 20-week stages of pregnancy to minimise abortions being sought on the grounds of gender up to the legal abortion limit of 24 weeks.

Sarah Wollaston, a GP who sits on the House of Commons health select committee, said that in the light of The Independent’s investigation, the Department of Health also needed to revisit its own finding last year that there was no evidence of women from particular ethnicities selectively aborting girls.

Dr Wollaston said: “There should be a consultation on whether it is suitable to withhold information about gender during those early scans. It would be excessively draconian to say that a woman cannot know at all but the idea of postponing that information needs to be part of the discussion.

“The Government also needs to look again at its own research into the issue.”

She added: “We also need to hear a very, very clear voice from within the communities affected by this problem that it is totally unacceptable. Until people acknowledge that there is a problem you will not change anything. Ultimately the solution to this issue lies within the communities themselves.”

Campaigners underlined the need for action by ministers to curtail the opportunities for selective abortions to be sought. Rani Bilkhu, of the Slough-based women’s charity Jeena International, said: “The Government can no longer brush this practice under the carpet, appease communities or be ignorant of what I term as ‘Womb Terrorism’. This is not a debate on pro-choice or pro-life but an issue of violence against women before they are born.”

The pressure for a review of the issue of pregnancy scans is highlighted by a lack of a central policy within the NHS which means that the decision on ask a pregnant woman if she wants to know the sex of her baby is left down to individual hospitals.

A spokesperson for the health department said: “Disclosing the sex of a foetus is a local decision. We are clear that abortion on the grounds of sex selection is against the law and completely unacceptable.”

NHS England said yesterday that it does not provide any guidance to NHS trusts on what information to offer to parents-to-be regarding the gender of foetuses. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which advises hospitals to offer to divulge gender at the 20-week scan, said it kept no figures on the policies of individual trusts.

While many hospitals do offer provide the information, a number of trusts withhold it unless it is directly requested. Wexham Park Hospital in Slough, which has a high ethnic minority population, said it had a policy of not offering information on the gender of a child but would reveal it if asked at a 20-week scan. Birmingham Women’s Hospital said it had a similar policy but would not give any indication of gender at the 12 to 13-week scan.

The Independent’s investigation has also provoked renewed calls for abortion legislation to be revised to specifically outlaw terminations on the grounds of gender.

In a joint statement, MPs Fiona Bruce and Jim Dobbin, co-chairs of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, said: “This confirms what many of us have been saying for some time. Abortion legislation clearly needs to be revisited to clarify and confirm specifically that abortion on the ground of gender is illegal - legislation as currently drafted does not specifically prohibit it in so many words since this situation was never envisaged when the original legislation was passed. A review of the abortion legislation is now needed.”

Women’s rights groups and abortion providers voiced concern that the revelations about gender-based terminations would be hijacked by pro-life campaigners to seek the further tightening of guideline and access to abortion services.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), Britain’s largest abortion provider, said it was strongly opposed to any restriction being imposed on the divulging of gender during pregnancy scans.

Clare Murphy, BPAS director of external affairs, said: “The problem here is not abortion, it is gender discrimination. Where this is happening, the onus really needs to be upon the relevant community to sort it out.

“Our concern would be the potential for new regulation in abortion which is designed to make it much harder for women to access services and reduce the latitude for doctors to make decisions when it comes to assessing a woman.

“It is a woman’s body and she has every right to know information about her pregnancy. The implication of withholding information such as gender has unpleasant implications that you cannot trust a woman with information about their own body.”

Community leaders said they recognised the need to campaign further on the issue. The British Sikh Association said any gender discrimination was contrary to the Sikh faith and said it would discuss The Independent’s findings.

Dr Rami Ranger, chairman of the BSA, said: “Regrettably, there is a man-made gender discrimination. Many consider that a boy will stay with his family and look after the business, wealth and properties, whereas girls will marry and leave their homes to join their spouses.

“We must condemn discrimination of every kind as no country or community can progress by turning assets into liabilities through discrimination.”