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British Parliament Votes to Ban Sex-Selective Abortions



Greg Daly - published on 11/06/14

Action seen as first step to recognizing rights of all unborn.

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The British Parliament has voted 181-1 in favor of banning sex-selective abortion.

Tuesday’s vote in the House of Commons came on the first reading of a bill that parliamentarians hope will clarify and tighten British abortion law for the first time since 1990.

The Abortion (Sex Selection) bill was presented as a private member’s bill by Conservative MP Fiona Bruce, co-chairwoman of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, with the backing of 11 other female MPs drawn from the three main parties.

Although under a third of MPs attended the vote, many more are expected to vote on its second reading on
January 23, 2015. Among those who abstained from the first reading were ministers, members of the shadow cabinet, and parliamentary private secretaries, all of whom are precluded by parliamentary convention from voting on private members’ bills of this sort.

Steve Baker, Conservative MP for Wycombe, nonetheless said he had been advised that many members of the government parties who had abstained, “as is usual practice,” would also have supported the bill. 

Explaining the need for the bill, Bruce said, “sex-selective abortions are happening in the UK, and there is widespread confusion over the law.” The bill’s aim is simply to clarify the fact that nothing in the 1967 Abortion Act, which permits abortions on a limited number of grounds, “allows a pregnancy to be terminated on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child.” 

Successive health ministers and even the Prime Minister had been clear on this, she said, but the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), which performs around 60,000 of Britain’s roughly 190,000 annual abortions, “flatly disagrees with them,” claiming the law is “silent on the matter” of sex-selective abortion.

A third interpretation, she continued, is put forward by the British Medical Association, representing Britain’s doctors, arguing that there may be cases where having a child of a particular sex may justify an abortion on the basis that “the sex of the child may severely affect the pregnant woman’s mental health.”

Describing as a “damning indictment” of Britain’s commitment to female parity the fact that such national institutions could “contradict the Government on an illegal practice that predominantly affects girls,” Bruce said a growing number of courageous women had spoken out about having been forced to abort their daughters.

“If the testimony of these women and those who work with them is not enough,” she said, “consider the statement of the GP and former BPAS consultant, Dr. Vincent Argent, who said he had ‘no doubt’ that this was a problem in the UK and that there were ‘an awful lot of covert sex-selective abortions going on.’”

Writing for the 
Catholic Herald in advance of the vote, Labour MP Rob Flello said there has been a steady accumulation of evidence that sex-selective abortion is a reality in the UK, albeit not yet on a large scale. 
Acknowledging that Department of Health data suggest that no UK population group or region shows a statistically significant imbalance in sex ratios, he cited a 2007 paper from University of Oxford researchers and an analysis of census data by the 
 in January suggesting otherwise.

Independent analysis showed significant imbalances in sex ratios among second children in families where parents came from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, India, and Bangladesh, tallying with research from Canada and the United States suggesting that in certain immigrant communities, couples whose first child is a girl may be willing to abort further pregnancies to ensure their next child is a boy.

Lamenting that the “global war on girls” had reached the UK, the 
Independent estimated that the number of Britain’s “missing girls” was at least between 1,400 and 4,722. 

Flello argues that “Most people, regardless of their position on abortion in general, have qualms about abortion on the grounds of the child’s sex, perhaps because they recognize the fact that it involves a deep injustice and a particularly insidious form of discrimination,” but says that without legal clarification, Britain would be unlikely to take effective action to prevent sex-selective abortion spreading and becoming more acceptable.

He referred to how in September 2013 the Crown Prosecution Service had cited legal ambiguity as a factor in its refusal to take action against doctors thought to have been performing sex-selective abortions.

Commenting on how it is not always easy to discern whether an abortion has taken place for reasons of sex selection, Niall Gooch, research officer for LIFE, told Aleteia that, “There is some anecdotal evidence that doctors have, in the past, interpreted the 1967 Act in such a way that the child’s sex might be a valid ground for abortion if it is the sex of the child that is causing the woman to suffer severe problems with her mental health and wellbeing.” 

Acknowledging that this facilitates claims that the Act does not prohibit sex-selective abortion, Gooch conceded that the proposed bill “only addresses this problem indirectly,” but stressed that the bill “does provide for the Secretary of State to establish a regime of regulation and inspection to ensure that sex-selective abortions are not occurring.”

“In addition to this,” continued Gooch, “Fiona Bruce was very careful in her speech to stress that a doctor who performs a sex-selective abortion because pressure from a woman’s partner or community had turned a female unborn child into a problem and a threat to her mental wellbeing is not protected by the law, because it is not the continuation of the pregnancy that in undermining her mental health, but the negative and discriminatory attitudes that she is facing.”

Commenting on what she called the “hypocrisy” of pro-choice groups who oppose the ban on sex selective abortions, Cora Sherlock of Ireland’s Pro Life Campaign said such groups care nothing for gender discrimination. 
Congratulating Bruce and the other sponsors of the bill, she told Aleteia that “gendercide is a human rights violation on a massive scale — perhaps the most widespread form of violent anti-female discrimination in the world today,” and that “the campaign against gendercide is one which should unite all those who are campaigning for women’s rights.”

“Recognizing as Britain’s Parliament did today that the abortion of babies because of their gender is wrong is the first step towards bringing the public to the recognition that abortion of babies for other reasons is wrong,” she continued, adding, “This bill is real progress towards the restoration of a society of equal respect for all, born and unborn.”

Greg Daly
covers the U.K and Ireland for Aleteia
AbortionUnited Kingdom
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