Criminalising sex-selective abortions would be a terrible idea for women

The Fiona Bruce amendment would effectively prevent women from confiding in those caring for them, and accessing the support they need

Ann Furedi
Monday 23 February 2015 16:58
Fiona Bruce has tabled an amendment to clarify the law but is losing support
Fiona Bruce has tabled an amendment to clarify the law but is losing support

A woman sits before a doctor and explains that she cannot bring a daughter into the circumstances she is currently living in, as she fears for the safety of both herself and her future child. She is making plans to leave her partner, but she is not yet in a position to do so. She does not want to go to a women's refuge. The doctors say they are very sorry, but the law compels her to continue the pregnancy even though she is well within the time limit, and either return to her partner or accept help from external agencies. If an abortion is performed, both they and her could be prosecuted and sent to prison for 12 years.

A perimenopausal 45 year old woman who already has 3 boys discovers a unplanned pregnancy at 13 weeks. She decides to end the pregnancy: she says is worried for her own health and her ability to care for her existing family, which she felt was complete. But during the consultation she suggests to the doctor that she might have felt differently had the scan shown she had been carrying a girl. Because of a new restriction on the Abortion Act that prohibits terminations where gender is a factor, doctors feel compelled to turn her away.

A couple has a family history of a severe immunodeficiency syndrome that leaves babies extremely ill. It mainly affects boys. The condition cannot be tested for in utero as the genetic marker is not known, but in the absence of a definitive diagnosis, doctors feel reluctant to authorise an abortion on the basis of Ground E (a substantial risk of serious mental or physical handicap) so the pregnancy would previously have been ended on the basis of fetal sex. However, this new restriction means that is no longer possible, and the woman is compelled to continue the pregnancy.

Department of Health guidance already makes clear that under the 1967 Abortion Act a termination cannot be approved on the basis of gender alone, and rarely do women request abortion simply because they’d prefer a girl or a boy. But an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill tabled by Fiona Bruce MP intends to go much further, seeking to make it unlawful for a woman to terminate a pregnancy when the sex of the foetus is a factor in her decision. It would prevent women in all of the circumstances described above from accessing a lawful abortion.

There is now a groundswell of opposition to her proposal – with organisations including Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Southall Black Sisters, End Violence Against Women (a coalition of 60 organisations), Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation and the Royal College of Midwives all stating their deep concerns about the move.

It is appalling that any woman in the UK today could feel under threat simply because she is carrying a daughter. It is fortunate that this does not present itself regularly in this country, but when it does, doctors must be able to prioritise the health and wellbeing of the woman before them. They need to be able to listen carefully to her views of her own situation, and establish what she feels is best for her – the woman who must carry that pregnancy to term and live with the consequences.

The Fiona Bruce amendment would effectively prevent women from confiding in those caring for them, and accessing the support they need to make the right decision for them. If women are under pressure to undergo abortions on the basis that they are carrying a baby of the wrong sex, it is not hard to see that their needs are unlikely to be served by closing a crucial conversation down. And it is quite simply extraordinary that an amendment which claims its aim is to protect women seeks to shift the burden of responsibility for this not onto a culture that prizes boys over girls, but onto pregnant women themselves. The 1967 Abortion Act protects women and doctors from prosecution. Placing new restrictions on the Act removes those protections from women, as well as doctors.

It has been put forward by proponents of the amendment that should they be successful, doctors would be required to fill in a form for all abortions declaring they are satisfied the woman is not seeking a termination for gender reasons. This sinister suggestion would presumably mean an extra level of scrutiny being placed on every single woman’s abortion request to establish whether she knows the sex of her foetus – which in itself would cause untold distress. But we should be in no doubt that doctors would feel increasingly hesitant about treating women from certain ethnic communities, for fear they are inadvertently approving an abortion for the wrong reasons. And we know from the antics of the anti-choice movement to date, that the prosecution of doctors is exactly what they want.

Indeed it is the decision by the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) not to pursue charges against 2 doctors caught up in the 2012 sting investigation by the Daily Telegraph that is cited by the amendment’s sponsors as illustrating the need for “clarity” in this area, although the CPS gave lack of provable evidence of wrongdoing as it’s main motive for not prosecuting. What is often missing from discussion of the Telegraph’s investigation – not least because the Telegraph has never reported it – is whether other failed attempts were made at abortion clinics around the country, including at bpas centres, to obtain an abortion on the basis of gender alone. The undercover journalists involved saw their request approved when they introduced the risk of a female sex-linked chromosomal disorder with the pregnancy involved, and this was one of the key reasons why a prosecution could not be pursued, although one of the doctors involved also explained that she simply hadn’t believed that the prospective patient was telling the truth when she said that she already knew the sex of her unborn child at an impossibly early stage of gestation.

Doctors in abortion services work extremely hard to provide women with the care they need within the terms of the law. This amendment is directly aimed at restricting their ability to do just that, to the detriment of pregnant women.

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