TOPIC GUIDE: Sex Selective Abortion

"The UK should ban sex selective abortion"

PUBLISHED: 28 Aug 2015

AUTHOR: Jesse Faria

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In February 2015, the issue of female reproductive rights was back in the news when Fiona Bruce, a Conservative MP, tabled a parliamentary amendment to the Serious Crime Bill to outlaw sex-selective abortion [Ref: Telegraph]. Although ultimately defeated in the House of Commons, Bruce argued the purpose was to “oblige the Government to think of ways to support women who are under pressure to abort on grounds of the sex of their baby” [Ref: Stop Gendercide]. Supporters of the Bill argued it would help to ensure that sex-selective abortion is not allowed in the UK by a “simple clarification specifying that the 1967 Abortion Act does not allow abortion simply on the grounds of foetal sex” [Ref: Spectator]. However, critics claim that there is no reliable evidence for sex selective abortion in the UK, and argue the Bill was being used to serve a much wider anti-choice agenda, which will impact negatively on female reproductive rights [Ref: Telegraph]. Some also suggest that further legislation would make access to abortion harder overall, as well as potentially criminalising women and doctors in the process [Ref: Telegraph]. At stake within this debate are issues of female autonomy and choice, as well as broader questions regarding the ethics of when abortion should be available and for what reasons. With this in mind, how should we view sex-selective abortion? Should we see it as a fundamental right, integral to female reproductive choice, or is it an unethical practice that society should reject, even if it encroaches on reproductive rights? Should women have the right to sex-selective abortion, or are those campaigning for controls in this area right to question the ethics of abortion provision based on gender?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Sex-selective abortion in the UK
Sex-selective abortion, many campaigners argue, is prevalent in the developing world, particularly in parts of China, India and Pakistan. According to a non-governmental organisation (NGO), Invisible Girls Project, more than one million baby girls a year are lost to this practice [Ref: Invisible Girls]. In the UK, however, it is disputed that ‘gendercide’ exists on any significant scale. The Department of Health’s research into birth ratios conducted in May 2013 [Ref: Department of Health], could not find any evidence of sex-selective abortions [Ref: Guardian]. In addition, other research shows that the great majority of abortions - 91 per cent - take place before the sex of the foetus can be determined [Ref: Guardian], leading critics to assert that the proposed Bill was merely an attempt to “erode women’s reproductive rights, since it recognises the rights of the ‘unborn’ independent of the woman” [Ref: Guardian]. Those campaigning for legislation in this area, however, counter by pointing to a 2012 newspaper investigation in which The Telegraph reported that 14 NHS hospitals had been formally censured after regulators found they were conducting potentially illegal abortions [Ref: Telegraph]. Furthermore, commenting on the ethical dimension of the discussion, writer Tim Stanley observes that: “The definition of social decay is when you have to restate blindingly obvious moral truths, because too many people have forgotten them” [Ref: Catholic Herald], and suggests that abortion based on gender is one such moral truth that we cannot allow to become permissible.

Tackling the issue through education or legislation?
It is argued in some quarters that sex-selective abortion encourages retrograde attitudes towards females and diminishes the value of female life more broadly. Affirming this position, columnist Christina Odone is scathing of the assertion that abortion on the basis of sex should be defended, arguing that it is “the most anti-woman, patriarchal and cruel position anyone could sustain” [Ref: Telegraph]. As such, a clear statement in law would be an important first step, not only for the purpose of clarification, but also to provide the opportunity for the government to tackle a practice that, it has been argued, has been widely utilised by a number of immigrant communities in the UK [Ref: Spectator]. Failing to outlaw sex-selective abortions, continues Tim Stanley, “implies some tolerance of the notion that girls are worth less than boys” [Ref: Catholic Herald], adding: “It would make far more sense for society…to oppose sex selective abortion and the chauvinism that makes it happen, rather than lamely accepting that some men will always hate women” [Ref: Telegraph]. Although those in favour of a woman’s right to seek a sex-selective abortion recognise that there are certain communities within the UK where male foetuses have greater social value, they disagree that legal change would be a way to alter a male-centric mentality. Columnist Frances Ryan believes: “We should be asking why women feel pressured to abort female foetuses, not descending into an anti-choice panic about sex-selective abortion without evidence” [Ref: New Statesman]. Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (Bpas) goes further, arguing that “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 on to a culture that prizes boys over girls, but on to pregnant women themselves” [Ref: Independent]. What is necessary, according to Rebecca Schiller, commentator and co-chair of childbirth charity Birthrights, is education that affirms the value of girls in those communities where patriarchal structures prevail [Ref: Guardian]. Reni Eddo-Lodge agrees, noting that: “As long as women are valued less than men, there will be a demand for sex-selective abortion, but curtailing women’s reproductive rights will not solve this issue. Only education will.” [Ref: Telegraph

Protecting women or curtailing choice?
Some supporters of female choice note that while disguised as a way of protecting women, seeking to prevent sex-selective abortion is, in reality, “a strategic attempt to criminalise abortion, promoting the faulty logic that women are not to be trusted to make decisions about their reproductive futures” [Ref: Guardian]. They argue that this is because any attempt to restrict access to abortion “would lead to an increase in unsafe procedures” and that “unsafe abortions…put women’s lives at risk, and this is not the kind of risk the UK should ever take” [Ref: Telegraph]. Some, such as Jessica Valenti, go so far as to argue for women’s right to abortion in every circumstance even on the basis of sex – stating that we must “rid ourselves of the hierarchy of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ abortions” [Ref: Guardian], concluding that ultimately a “woman’s bodily integrity must trump politics” [Ref: Guardian]. In addition, others argue that as well as interfering with choice, any proposed legislation would risk making sex-selective abortion a serious crime, meaning that vulnerable women would be “arrested, imprisoned and ultimately blamed for the pressures exerted upon them” [Ref: Guardian]. According to the Observer newspaper’s editorial on the issue, “criminalising women and doctors, as this amendment would do, is not the answer. A woman subjected by force to agree to a termination is then mistreated again by the state; a double injustice” [Ref: Observer]. Writer Rahila Gupta though, fundamentally disagrees with this approach, and is suspicious of the “absolutist, pro-choice narrative” which aims to “preserve the purity of the concept of choice”, seemingly at any cost [Ref: Guardian]. She argues that if one considers that a majority of cases arise from cultures in which women have little control over their own bodies, and where their husbands and families might compel them to look for a termination, “state intervention may be the only thing that saves women from such oppressive cultural practices” [Ref: Guardian]. She concludes by warning: “We must not make a fetish of choice. If the technology allows, and a woman wants a blue-eyed, blond-haired baby, do we support her because we are pro-choice” [Ref: Guardian]? Furthermore, many of those against sex-selective abortion suggest that their opponents are caught in a contradiction: while believing that they can empower women by putting them in charge of what grows inside their bodies, they seem to disregard those females who are aborted. According to Rani Bilkhu, a true feminist should “defend the unborn girls being aborted in the UK because of their sex” [Ref: Spectator], and although seemingly paradoxical, critics of sex-selective abortion claim that prohibiting it as a practice “arguably gives women from disadvantaged backgrounds far greater reproductive freedom” [Ref: Catholic Herald].


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.

Opinions on abortion

YouGov 14 February 2013


We need an explicit ban on sex-selective abortion

Fiona Bruce MP Conservative Home 23 February 2015

Now is the time to phone your MP about sex-selective abortion

Tim Stanley Catholic Herald 23 January 2015


Why criminalising gender abortions is sinister and wrong

Reni Eddo-Lodge Telegraph 4 November 2014

Why women have a right to sex-selective abortion

Sarah Ditum Guardian 19 September 2013


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