Question: Is abortion on gender grounds illegal in the UK?
Answer: yes and no and maybe – depends who you ask.
Ask Britain’s biggest abortion provider, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, and they will tell you that the law is ‘silent on the matter’. Try the British Medical Association and they’ll say that it may be permissible in some circumstances. Ask an academic, like Professor Sally Sheldon, and you’ll get a nuanced answer about how the illegality of the practice is ‘far from clear’. Meanwhile, the government repeats in vain that ‘abortion on the grounds of gender alone is illegal’. So who’s right?
Well, everyone apparently. The way abortion law is framed means that contradictory interpretations of the law are possible. This confusion is trickling down to grass-roots level, contributing to complacency in the minds of those who think they can get away with it.
Many UK women are understandably confused about UK abortion law, which is hardly surprising given that the people who are supposed to be advising them all take a different view.
Clearly, this is unacceptable. If we can’t get a consistent line from abortion providers on whether or not it is illegal to abort a girl for the sole reason that she is a girl, then the law is not fit for purpose.
My own personal experiences in this area led me to want to do something about this. So, about a decade ago, I decided to try and gain some political traction. I took the view that if sex-discrimination started before birth, then any effort to combat it would have to do the same.
And so I naively waded into the abortion debate, asking for the government to act, assuming that no one would oppose our efforts to stop sex-selective abortion. I assumed wrong.
I now realise that, regardless of their motivation, anyone who tries to speak about abortion gets caught in the old pro-life/choice rhetorical crossfire. And it isn’t pleasant.
Since all this began, I have been fielding a torrent of nonsense accusations ranging from how this will criminalise women (it won’t) to the frankly insulting claim that ‘there is no evidence’ for sex-selective abortion in the UK (there is).
I have always been pro-choice, and this remains the stance of Jeena International, which I founded. I am a feminist. I have been supporting women dealing with sex-selective abortion with virtually zero resources for almost a decade. So to be accused of being anti-women rankles somewhat.
Let’s try to take a step back and free ourselves from this stale culture war and look at what is actually happening. Women are having abortions in the UK because they don’t want girls. We know this because we have been dealing with them. Sometimes this is a matter of physical coercion backed up with violence. Most of the time it is far more subtle, with women themselves seeking sex-selective abortions because they have been brought up to think that women are worth less than men.
‘Son-preference’, as it is called, is ingrained in some communities. It is extremely hard to combat. A clear statement in law alone cannot solve the problem. But a clear statement in law would be an important first step, not just for clarificatory purposes, but, crucially, because this amendment provides the opportunity for the government to act.
So why the vociferous opposition from some in the pro-choice lobby? I think the honest answer is that those organisations don’t like the current law, which permits abortion only in certain circumstances. They would rather a regulatory framework to govern abortion, rather than the criminal law.
And so in their desperation to oppose us, they have sunk to making things up about the amendment (all debunked here including the ludicrous claim that this will prevent abortions for disability) and launching harsh, personal attacks on Fiona Bruce MP who kindly agreed to take this on for us. Beyond the dry abortion rhetoric are the lived realities of the women I work with. Action is long overdue and this amendment is an important first step.
On Monday 23 February MPs will vote on an amendment seeking to clarify the law on sex-selective abortion. Rani Bilkhu, founder of Jeena International and spokeswoman for www.stopgendercide.org is campaigning for change.