Concerns have been raised over a suggested rise in sex-selective...
The danger of ‘It’s a girl’
In the light of a controversial legal decision, Lucinda Van der Hart looks at the rise of gender-selective abortion in the UK.
Are the most dangerous words in the world ‘It’s a girl’? Crossbench peer Lord Alton of Liverpool certainly thinks so. The Catholic believer and former MP, speaking to Christianity magazine after revelations in October 2013 that UK doctors will not be prosecuted for sanctioning abortions on the basis of gender, says, ‘In this climate of “gendercide”, the most dangerous words in the world are “It’s a girl” ‐ words which should herald the welcome entry into our world of a new life to be cherished, celebrated and protected.’
This case raises all sorts of issues ‐ issues of morality, legality, and pastoral care ‐ not least for feminists who are now being forced to address the question: should an adult woman have the right to a termination, or a female foetus the right to life equal to its male counterparts? Secular feminist voices are even suggesting that another right should be curbed in order to protect unborn girls, through banning hospitals from telling parents the gender of their baby.
The doctors in question were shown to allow gender-based terminations in secret film taken in abortion clinics by representatives from The Daily Telegraph in February 2012. The film showed Dr Prabha Sivaraman from Pall Mall Medical centre, Manchester, when asked by a patient for an abortion on the basis that her baby was a girl, replying, ‘I don’t ask questions. If you want a termination, you want a termination.’ Dr Palaniappan Rajmohan, who worked at Calthorpe Clinic in Edgbaston, Birmingham, was filmed likening the practice to ‘female infanticide’ when talking to his patient about her request for an abortion because her baby was a girl. He still agreed to the termination.
The director of public prosecutions (DPP) at the time, Keir Starmer QC, defended his decision not to prosecute, saying that the 1967 Abortion Act does not expressly prohibit gender-specific abortion, and that prosecution would not be in the ‘public interest’. David Burrowes, MP for Enfield Southgate, who is calling for a parliamentary debate on the matter, says, ‘The DPP’s decision makes it very unlikely that anyone could be prosecuted for an abortion-related crime.’
So was this the right decision? Currently, the law does not expressly ban gender-specific abortions, although it does prohibit any abortion without the consent of two medical practitioners judging that the health risks of continuing with a pregnancy outweigh those of termination. The Rt Rev James Newcome, the Bishop of Carlisle, stresses the importance of this law being clarified in order to ensure that ‘the sex of a child is never considered to constitute grounds for an abortion’
The attorney general, Dominic Grieve QC MP, who came under considerable pressure to explain the decision made by the Crown Prosecution Service, tells Christianity magazine: ‘I welcome the reconsideration that the director of public prosecutions has given the recent cases regarding alleged gender-specific abortions. After the discussions I have had with the director, and seeing the documents published, I understand that the question in these cases was not whether this was a gender-specific abortion, but whether the doctors made a proper, considered medical judgement.
I suspect a lot of people would opt for an early abortion if they could have an early accurate sexing
‘This was a difficult decision, and different prosecutors may have come to a different conclusion, but it is not for me to say whether it is the right or wrong decision ‐ it is for the DPP to make his decisions independently and based on the individual facts of the matter. However, following our discussions I am satisfied that the director has taken this decision properly and conscientiously.’
A STEP FORWARD
The Department of Health asked medical regulators to update the advice and guidance on carrying out abortions following Starmer’s decision. A triumph for the pro-life campaign against his judgement subsequently came at the end of October 2013, when plans were announced for the chief medical officer, Dame Sally Davies, to write to all GPs to clarify that abortions should not be allowed solely on the grounds of gender.
Davies’ letter will also remind doctors that it is illegal to pre-sign abortion forms. When pre-signed, these forms (which must currently be signed by two doctors in order to sanction an abortion, except in emergencies) may mean that insufficient consideration has been given to the grounds on which an abortion is requested. Spot checks at abortion clinics held in 2012 found evidence of this practice in 14 UK locations. Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes and a former GP, says it that it has led to difficulties in prosecuting in cases of alleged gender-selection abortion. ‘These forms begin with the words, “We hereby certify that we are of the opinion, formed in good faith” ‐ then it lists a number of criteria that must be fulfilled,’ she says. ‘How on earth can any doctor form an opinion in good faith if they have signed a form, undated and unnamed, and it has then been photocopied? That goes to the heart of one reason why a prosecution could not be brought.’
IN THE CLINICS
UK statistics on sex-selective abortions are, unsurprisingly, inaccessible. But the Telegraph investigations stand as proof that these do take place in the UK. Celia Wyatt, founder of crisis pregnancy counselling service Choices, Islington, confirms that the organisation had seen crisis pregnancy clients for whom gender had been an issue (although is unaware of what these clients eventually chose). Some UK statistics do exist to indicate that gender ratios at birth vary by mothers’ country of birth; health minister Earl Howe comments that these numbers ‘fall outside the range considered possible without intervention’. It is clear that further research is needed in this area.
We cannot assume this practice is confined to those from cultures in which male babies are traditionally considered more valuable than female, however. Dr Tamie Downes, GP and trustee of Alternatives, Watford, a charity offering advice and support to women including those facing unplanned pregnancy, describes the practice of gender-specific terminations as ‘dreadful’ but ‘entirely consistent with a society which chooses not to have a child because of inconvenience’. Should the door be open for acceptable early gender-selective abortion, Downes believes that many would choose this.
‘I suspect a lot of people would opt for an early abortion if they could have an early accurate sexing,’ she says. ‘For example, the middle class English couple who have had two boys and would love a girl as their third child. If they have previously chosen to have an abortion before marriage because a child was inconvenient at that stage of their lives and careers, then they have already justified abortion being an acceptable choice, so it would not be a big jump to do it again ‐ the end justifying the means.’
REACTIONS TO STARMER’S DECISION
There have been forceful, polarised reactions to Starmer’s decision. Dr Peter Saunders of the Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) writes in his blog: ‘The doctors betray their ethics and conspire to break the law on a massive scale. The DPP lacks the balls to prosecute, defers to the doctors and passes the buck to parliament. The police play poodle to the DPP. The attorney general washes his hands of the whole affair and parliament turns a blind eye... A law that is not upheld ‐ or is perhaps even unenforceable ‐ is no law at all.’
Clamouring for choice at any cost, Anne Furedi, the feminist chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service which performs 60,000 abortions a year, backs Starmer, saying: ‘We either support women’s capacity to decide, or we don’t…You can’t be pro-choice except when you don’t like the choice, because that’s not pro-choice at all.’
For some, however, a choice to selectively terminate female babies may be the ultimate demonstration of misogyny. Nadine Dorries, MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, who reported to the police one of the clinics later exposed by the Telegraph for allowing gender-specific abortions, echoes this sentiment: ‘Who is going to speak up for the female baby in the womb? I am a feminist, and that is why I am speaking up for female babies ‐ and male babies for that matter ‐ you can’t draw a distinction,’ she tells Christianity. ‘Someone has to champion the unborn baby.’
In an event held in November at the Houses of Parliament in association with the Alliance of Pro-Life Students, Fiona Bruce, MP for Congleton and co-chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group spoke of abortion as ‘the number one issue on her heart’. Describing sex-selective abortions as ‘one of the most fundamental forms of violence against women’, she says that objecting to abortion on the grounds of gender is the only logical stance on this issue for feminists. ‘If we condemn China’s one-child policy and its consequences, then we cannot be hypocritical and stand by and not say that abortion on the grounds of gender is wrong here too,’ she said.
THE RIGHTS DEBATE
What many Christians have reacted against in this case is that Starmer’s decision appears to elevate abortion rights over women’s rights. Philippa Taylor, head of public policy at CMF comments: ‘So the modern-day “feminist” movement, in this case, is not about women’s rights, it’s about abortion rights, no matter what the reason or the stage of pregnancy. Is it really possible to be a feminist and support the killing of your unborn sisters, simply because they happen to have been created female?’
This debate is ‐ and must be ‐ about more than a right to choice; not forgetting that in some instances of ‘gendercide’, what may appear to be an emancipated choice to terminate may in fact be a position taken by a woman due to spousal, family or cultural pressure. Lord Alton, speaking to Christianity, says: ‘It is extraordinary to hear abortion advocates justifying gender abortions on the grounds of autonomy and choice. If choice is the only thing which matters ‐ “my right to choose” ‐ their position is entirely logical, but the ending of an unborn child’s life purely on the grounds of its gender shows us how far this ideology has taken us. Worldwide the same thinking has led to the estimated abortion of 100 million girls.’
Secularist feminist voices declaring that a girl’s right to life should come before the right to abort are beginning to be heard. Writer Rahila Gupta ‐ who certainly would not ally herself with the pro-life movement ‐ argues against an overemphasis on choice in a piece for The Guardian: ‘We must be careful not to make a fetish of choice. If the technology allows and a woman wants a blue-eyed, blonde baby, do we support her because we are pro-choice? While we must be vigilant about the “pro-lifer” infested waters, we must be prepared to refine our pro-choice position; it must be circumscribed by context. Approximately 60 million women are “missing” in India. The cultural reasons for this femicide do not magically disappear with migration. A girl’s right to life has to be a basic tenet of any feminist position and cannot be compromised by an absolutist pro-choice narrative.’
The concern of some in the Christian feminist pro-choice camp is how to negotiate a pathway by which female babies and acceptable abortion rights are both adequately protected. Hannah Mudge, a digital communications officer who describes herself as a Christian feminist, says, ‘I believe that sex-selective abortions are wrong and shouldn’t be happening ‐ but how do you enforce that effectively without impacting negatively on acceptable abortion rights?’ It is worth bearing in mind that a foetus isn’t considered a legal person, and is therefore not covered by the Equality Act.
Notable about this debate is that many want to play the ostrich. But as Taylor points out, if a feminist does not speak up on the wrongs of selectively aborting female babies, she may be silently endorsing it. ‘I would have expected that more feminists would stand up against this kind of injustice to their fellow females, but very few have. Most feminists remain silent and, in their silence, implicitly support the practice. Silence, however, implies that people are ok with sex-selective abortion.’
Dr James Mumford, author of Ethics at the Beginning of Life: A phenomenological critique, (OUP), describes our communal silence on an issue as common as abortion as ‘astonishing’. His words in Standpoint magazine (July/August 2013) go some way towards explaining the lack of public argument on the sex-selective abortion debate: ‘Abortion is now a non-issue, because in the public mind at least, the debate has been framed as a stand-off between religion and secular philosophy.’
A choice to selectively terminate female babies may be the ultimate demonstration of misogyny
So if we want to speak up and stand up for what we believe is right in this ethical minefield, what should we do next? Dorries urges Christians to continue to campaign: ‘The only way to change what happens on the issue of abortion is to change what happens out there, not in here [Parliament]. It’s about changing hearts and minds…What you need is public pressure coming in, not parliamentary pressure going out.’ ‘We have an opportunity on this issue, which is a horrendous form of discrimination, to gain some traction,’ says Bruce. She urges people to support her in pressing for legislation to make abortion on the grounds of gender illegal.
‘It is perhaps time for us to issue greater clarification of what would constitute unacceptable grounds [for abortion],’ says Wollaston. ‘I speak as someone who firmly believes in a woman’s right to access safe abortion, but not to access it on grounds that, in my view and the view, I think, of the vast majority of the public, would harm women’s rights and make misogynist attitudes more acceptable.’
Gupta argues that all hospitals should be banned from informing parents of the gender of their baby (as is the current practice in some UK hospitals) in order to protect unborn girls. Anyone believing in their right to know their baby’s gender will throw their hands up in horror at this idea; but perhaps it is a sacrifice we will have to accept.