Dominic Lawson: Spare me this faux outrage at sex-selected abortion

It's not even obvious that these abortions are illegal. Those wanting them are indeed most distressed

Share

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.

d.lawson@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Opilio Recruitment: QA Automation Engineer

£30k - 38k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: An award-winning consume...

Opilio Recruitment: UX & Design Specialist

£40k - 45k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Opilio Recruitment: Publishing Application Support Analyst

£30k - 35k per year + Benefits: Opilio Recruitment: We’re currently re...

Opilio Recruitment: Digital Marketing Manager

£35k - 45k per year + benefits: Opilio Recruitment: A fantastic opportunity ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Pokot woman holds a razor blade after performing a circumcision on four girls  

The campaigns to end FGM are a welcomed step, but they don't go far enough

Charlotte Rachael Proudman
Our political system is fragmented, with disillusioned voters looking to the margins for satisfaction  

Politics of hope needed to avert flight to margins

Liam Fox
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: ‘We give them hope. They come to us when no one else can help’

Christmas Appeal

Meet the charity giving homeless veterans hope – and who they turn to when no one else can help
Should doctors and patients learn to plan humane, happier endings rather than trying to prolong life?

Is it always right to try to prolong life?

Most of us would prefer to die in our own beds, with our families beside us. But, as a GP, Margaret McCartney sees too many end their days in a medicalised battle
Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night - is that what it takes for women to get to the top?

What does it take for women to get to the top?

Thomas Cook's outgoing boss Harriet Green got by on four hours sleep a night and told women they had to do more if they wanted to get on
Christmas jumper craze: Inside the UK factory behind this year's multicultural must-have

Knitting pretty: British Christmas Jumpers

Simmy Richman visits Jack Masters, the company behind this year's multicultural must-have
French chefs have launched a campaign to end violence in kitchens - should British restaurants follow suit?

French chefs campaign against bullying

A group of top chefs signed a manifesto against violence in kitchens following the sacking of a chef at a Paris restaurant for scalding his kitchen assistant with a white-hot spoon
Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour War and Peace on New Year's Day as Controller warns of cuts

Just what you need on a New Year hangover...

Radio 4 to broadcast 10-hour adaptation of War and Peace on first day of 2015
Cuba set to stage its first US musical in 50 years

Cuba to stage first US musical in 50 years

Claire Allfree finds out if the new production of Rent will hit the right note in Havana
Christmas 2014: 10 best educational toys

Learn and play: 10 best educational toys

Of course you want them to have fun, but even better if they can learn at the same time
Paul Scholes column: I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season

Paul Scholes column

I like Brendan Rodgers as a manager but Liverpool seem to be going backwards not forwards this season
Lewis Moody column: Stuart Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

Lewis Moody: Lancaster has made all the right calls – now England must deliver

So what must the red-rose do differently? They have to take the points on offer 
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game