The Warner Brothers' cartoon character Wile E. Coyote never failed to amuse with the canyon trick. In hot pursuit of his quarry, he would charge over the edge of a canyon – and keep running in thin air. Only a little while later would he look down, see with horror where he actually was, and plunge earthwards. Something like this seems to have happened to various newspapers and commentators in recent days, following the Daily Telegraph's filmed exposé of British clinics agreeing to terminate pregnancies when an undercover reporter gave as her reason that her child-to-be had the wrong gender – female.
On Sunday, the implacably pro-choice Observer pronounced in its leading article that those on both sides of the abortion debate had "rightly spoken as one in soundly condemning the practice [of sex-selection terminations]". Two days earlier, The Independent declared: "In some other regards, this newspaper would defend to the hilt the individual's right to choose an abortion. Not in this one."
Why the sudden consternation? It is generally agreed that abortion is available on demand in this country – at least up until the 24th week of the pregnancy. As Dr Gillian Lockwood, a former vice-chairman of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology's Ethics Committee, last week told the BBC's Today programme, termination is lawful if "the mental or physical health of the woman would be more severely affected by continuing with the pregnancy than by ending it".
In practice, doctors do not second-guess, let alone reject, the woman's own assessment of her mental state: so if she says that having the child would cause her acute mental distress, the necessary papers are signed and the unwanted occupant of her uterus is sucked out and disposed of. This is what pro-choice means: it is a bit late for newspapers such as this one to express shock and horror. We went over this particular precipice a long time ago.
As one doctor wrote last week: "If the consultants offering sexually selected abortions should be struck off the register, so should a probable majority of British practitioners." This was in response to Andrew Lansley's rushed-out statement that abortions on the grounds that the women concerned didn't want a girl-child were "illegal and morally wrong".
How fascinating to hear the invocation of morality: would the Health Secretary care to express a similar personal view on any other of the 190,000 or so abortions that take place each year in this country? No, I thought not. It is not even obvious that sex-selective abortions are "illegal", as Lansley asserts. Those genuinely asking for such a termination – that is, not undercover journalists – are indeed most distressed at the prospect that the child will be a girl. Some might think, if the mothers-to-be are of Indian origin, that they are themselves victims of an anti-female culture, or of the economic consequences of the dowry system: but if we are to legalise abortions solely on the grounds that the woman concerned genuinely believes that she would be happier without the child – and we have – then the only issue is getting the paperwork right. That is to say, the pregnant woman, having identified by tests that her child-to-be is female, must, to satisfy Mr Lansley, merely give a less precise reason for her distress at the thought of the baby being born.
On a more fundamental level, it is a bit puzzling that those who have always been vehemently pro-choice should suddenly be worried about sex-selective abortions. It has always seemed to me that such people take the view that it is absurd to ascribe any independent rights or even moral meaning to the unborn child – the foetus, as they would say. If they are right about that, then it is surely irrelevant as to what sex the embryo has acquired, or even if that identity is the reason for the mother's decision. If the child-to-be is not wanted, it is not wanted: end of argument.
It's a pity that Mary Anne Warren is no longer around to join in the debate. Back in 1985, this American philosopher and feminist wrote Gendercide: the Implications of Sex Selection. She envisaged the time when people would be able to select embryos according to sex, and worried about what would then be the appropriate attitude to take if the result was the systematic weeding-out of those with two X chromosomes. Having asked whether "gendercide" would be "no less an atrocity than genocide", Warren's conclusion was that choosing the sex of one's child was wrong only if its intent was discrimination against women.
In other words, it would not be the abortions that were wrong, but only that the thoughts behind them might be bad (a remarkably prescient anticipation of Britain in the 21st century). Thus, if a white middle-class mother has had two girls and would like a boy, not for reasons of "prejudice", but because she wants a "balanced" family, this would be unobjectionable; but if a British-Asian woman of peasant background has had two girls, and is filled with culturally inspired horror at the thought of another, rather than the hoped-for boy, then that would be most objectionable. I can't see the moral distinction, myself.
Mary Anne Warren would probably have said that, as a man, I can have no idea of a woman's feelings in this matter. In a way, that is quite right: no man can fully appreciate how a woman who doesn't want to give birth feels about the idea that the state might compel her to do so against her will. Intellectually, I can see the power of this argument, based on the vital concept of personal autonomy which, at its most basic, must mean control over one's own body.
But then there is this: last week in Newport in south Wales, Carl Whant was sentenced to life, not just for the murder of a young woman called Nikitta Grender – but also for "child destruction": Ms Grender had been pregnant at the time.
No one seems to have thought it odd that this brute had received an additional punishment for the destruction of the unborn child. Presumably, this was because the unborn child was deemed to have independent moral status and meaning. If that is indeed the case, it casts an interesting light on the current row over sex-selective abortion: that it is the stopping of a beating heart that is the issue, rather than whether that heart is beating inside a developing form of one particular gender or another.
So I have some sympathy for the British-Asian medical assistants entrapped by undercover reporters. Morally, these clinicians can see no distinction between what they were authorising and what others have been doing in this country, in vast numbers, ever since the passing of the Abortion Act back in 1967. Perhaps the outrage expressed by the English media is all the greater because they know it.