From the TUC

Fiona Bruce’s abortion amendment: an attack on women’s rights

23 Feb 2015, by in Equality

This evening Parliament will debate an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill which represents a significant and retrograde step in UK legislation on abortion.

The amendment concerns abortions on the grounds of foetal sex – a practice which is commonplace in many countries but for which there is no empirical evidence in the UK.

Let’s be clear, most of us can agree that placing a higher value on male life than female life is abhorrent. But before we rush to legislate, let’s also be sure of the facts. We need to be clear what the problem is that we’re seeking to address and we then need to be clear how to solve it.

This is an approach singularly missing in today’s attack in the Daily Mail on the TUC’s briefing for MPs – an article which fails to recognise that many people including the Prime Minister, Conservative MP and chair of the Health Select Committee, Dr Sarah Wollaston, and a wide range of academics have expressed concern about Fiona Bruce’s amendment.  Worse, it argues that it is illegitimate for the TUC, an organisation with a long and proud pro-choice history, to hold policy on this or speak up for women trade unionists.

So is there a problem with sex-selective abortions and how big is the problem? As a resolution from TUC Women’s Conference stated last year, there is no statistical evidence to support the claim that the practice of sex selection is happening in the UK. Recent Department of Health research into birth ratios concluded that:

“analyses by country of birth and ethnicity do not offer evidence of sex selection taking place within England and Wales.”

BPAS, the largest abortion charity in the UK, has stated that this is not an issue that arises in clinics and that women are not asking for abortions on the grounds of gender. 

So how can parliamentarians even begin to seek to redress this problem if they don’t know if it exists at all, where it is happening, what is driving this practice, or whether it is a growing trend?

All of this is not to deny the possibility that some women may be pressured into abortions because their partner or family do not want a girl. Rather, it is to say that we need to seek to understand these women’s experiences better and find ways to support them rather than rushing into a knee jerk reaction.

If as Fiona Bruce MP, who is proposing this amendment, contends, this practice is widespread and is linked to so called “honour” based violence and abuse, then I would urge Ms Bruce to consider whether criminalising women – which is what this amendment does – is the solution.

We need to listen to organisations which work with and represent BME women – those same organisations that have been all but decimated by the austerity agenda – to find a solution that works for them.

In fact BME women’s organisations like Southall Black Sisters and IKWRO have condemned the amendment. IKWRO argue powerfully that the consequences of this amendment if passed  would be that women would be prosecuted, women would be forced by abusive partners to have unsafe, illegal abortions, and perpetrators of abuse would use the threat of prosecution as a means of further controlling and coercing women who have had abortions.

It is not just BME women’s organisations who have condemned the amendment. Charities working on genetic illnesses have also urged MPs to vote against the amendment on the grounds that it will prevent women from getting abortions for genuine reasons relating to chromosomal abnormalities that are linked to sex. They have also spoken of the “chilling effect” on doctors who will be fearful of prosecution and may be more reluctant to sign off abortions on any grounds.

In fact, the evidence suggests that legislation has been ineffective in tackling sex selective abortions in countries where the practice is widespread. As Sarah Ditum points out in a recent New Statesman article, the practice has been outlawed in India since 1994 yet there has been no change in the birth ratios as a result of criminalisation. Evidence also shows us that in countries such as South Korea where there has been a cultural shift away from the practice of sex selection, it has been because of women’s economic and social empowerment, not because of restrictive abortion laws.

As eminent academic Dr Aisha Gill explains in a statement on the End Violence Against Women Coalition website: 

“If we wanted to act on what we believe is son preference and a failure to value daughters the answers lie in better education, awareness raising, community work and demonstrating the value and equality of women and girls in every community, not legislation. This needs long-term commitment, not a last minute Westminster dog-whistle.”