An amendment to the Serious Crime Bill has been proposed that would clarify that gender selective abortion remains illegal in the UK. A fierce debate has arisen between those who oppose the move and those who are in favour and, as women rights campaigners, we feel the need to state the arguments so you can make your own decision on where you stand.
First of all we would like to clarify that we are pro-choice. We believe that every woman has the right to choose what to do with her body and anyone who argues otherwise is just erasing all the progress we have made in fighting for women rights over the centuries.
That said, we wish that this debate about gender selective abortion go beyond the pro-life pro-choice rhetoric and really focus on what is important, namely, what would this amendment mean for a woman who is forced into aborting a girl. Will it benefit her or will it damage her and do we have the right to intervene in what is often seen as a cultural decision?
With the law as it stands, there is little protection for a woman who is forced to have a termination because she is carrying a girl. Often she is subjected to emotional and physical violence as there is a prolific preference for sons. And this happens more often than people think, particularly in certain communities. There is no other explanation for the discrepancies in sex ratio of children as emerged from the 2011 National Census Data.
This raises the concern that by clarifying the existing law – not changing it, the amendment will result in racial profiling as this practice is prevalent in certain communities. This is a fair argument as it starts to address cultural norms where there is a belief that girls are not as valuable as boys and this may take generations to change. But this argument does not go far enough for us to ignore the problem or turn a blind eye, if cultural practices are disadvantaging women and girls, surely we have the responsibility to raise these issues and look at ways of supporting the women who are faced with this decision.
So will this amendment benefit women and if so how? Clearly, from an ideological point of view clarifying that it is illegal to abort a foetus just because it is female means taking a stand against gender discrimination. As some argue, aborting a girl is the first act of violence against women and girls. In practice, things are more complicated. On the one hand, clearing any doubt on the illegality of the practice can act as a deterrent. People are less likely to pressure women into abortion if the law is against them. While doctors are already legally bound to refuse the procedure if they feel that a woman is under duress, the anecdotal research on gender imbalance indicates that this provision is not enough to prevent sex selective abortions. This amendment will make it more difficult for a health professional to overlook a situation where coercion is involved. On the other hand, there is a risk that illegal abortions may take place or that women will be sent to a different country to undergo the procedure. This is an issue that the bill needs to address.
Another risk is that continuing with the pregnancy could make the woman’s life more difficult as she could be shun by her community and/or abused by her husband/family for having given birth to a girl. So is it in her best interest to enforce a law which would force her to keep the baby even if this has negative consequences on her life? Instinctively we would say no but we need to take into account that should the amendment be approved, this will force the government to adopt regulations that protect and support women so that they will not be left on their own in such situations. This is crucial, as failing to adopt such measurements would put the woman at high risk. Whether the amendment goes through or not, more support is needed for women who are under pressure to have a termination.
So far we have assumed that a woman is being forced into having a termination but what if it is her own choice? Do we have a right to take this choice away from her? As we have mentioned at the beginning of the article, we are pro-choice and if a woman wants to have a termination we believe it is within her rights to do so. However, we have to be realistic and admit that in certain cultural contexts women do not truly have a free choice. If our focus is really on protecting the woman this is something that cannot be overlooked.
A strong argument against the amendment is the fact that it has the hidden agenda of banning abortion altogether. While we cannot rule out that this may be what some of the bill’s signatories hope for, many of its supporters are pro-choice and are just genuinely convinced that this move will favour women. However, this argument does need to be taken into account and if the bill is passed it is important to ensure that clear guidance is provided for health professionals to avoid restricting women reproductive rights.
Ultimately this is a complex issue and valid arguments have been put forward on both sides of the debate. Rather than create a divide, we see this as an opportunity to learn from each other and respect each others views.
What is crucial for us is that the reality of sex selective abortion is no longer dismissed as a non-British problem and that measures are put in place to prevent it while protecting the women involved.
We would love to hear your views on the issue. Please use the comments box below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.