The abortion of healthy female foetuses on the grounds of their sex alone is one of the uglier features of the modern world. Not only is the practice emblematic of deep-rooted social and economic prejudices against women. The results are also expected to be grim. With crowds of young men reaching adulthood with little hope of a family life, sociologists warn of everything from a spike in crime to social instability to political extremism.
It is concerning enough, then, that there are areas of India and China where one-and-a-half times as many males are born as females. But it is more alarming still to discover that the phenomenon is now also discernible in Britain. According to statistical analysis carried out by this newspaper, between 1,400 and 4,700 baby girls have “disappeared” in recent years, leaving the gender balance of some ethnic communities notably skewed towards boys.
On this, British law is perhaps not as clear as might be hoped. Although sex-selective abortion is technically illegal, two doctors can agree that it is in the best interests of the mother and proceed. Hence last year’s decision from Keir Starmer, who was Director of Public Prosecutions at the time, not to prosecute doctors appearing to offer sex-selective abortions in a newspaper “sting”. Meanwhile, the authorities appear loath to acknowledge that there is a problem here; a recent Department of Health investigation concluded that there is no evidence of widespread illegality.
Now, though, with indisputable evidence of so many “missing” girls, the issue cannot continue to be brushed under the carpet. The question, of course, is what can be done about it. All possible efforts must be made to limit access to, and regulate the use of, the technology that allows for sex-selective terminations. But we cannot hope to solve the problem by prohibition alone. The suggestion that mothers-to-be might be kept in the dark about their babies’ sex until it’s too late for an abortion is not only impractical but comes with an uncomfortably illiberal tinge. Equally, the call for the sex of all aborted foetuses to be recorded – so as to establish, at least, whether selective terminations are taking place – is of little value, given that the majority of abortions are performed in such a way that the sex cannot be established.
The only effective solution is to focus on education. That means tackling the assumption that male children are more desirable (and, crucially, economically valuable). Even more importantly, it also means offering easy-to-access support to pregnant women who are either themselves considering aborting a female foetus, or are under pressure from family members to do so.
This issue is one that is fraught with sensitivities. Some may try to exploit The Independent’s revelations to exacerbate social divisions; some may hope to marshal them to the anti-abortion cause. This newspaper unequivocally rejects both positions. But the risk that the facts may be misused by an axe-grinding minority cannot trump the value of bringing them to light. Sex-selective abortion is barbaric and socially destructive. The only way to root the practice out is through education. And that starts with the recognition that the problem exists.