The answer to son preference is better education, not criminalising women

The sex selection abortion amendment would have been the wrong answer to the wrong question


On Monday MPs debated an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill which, had it passed, would have represented a significant and retrograde step in UK legislation on abortion. The amendment concerned 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. Indeed nearly every MP that spoke prefaced their speech with an acknowledgement that the devaluing of girls in society is abhorrent. But, quite rightly, before rushing to legislate, many MPs wanted to be sure of the facts. Before meddling with the Abortion Act, MPs should be clear what the problem is that they’re seeking to address and whether legislation is the solution to that problem.

So is there a problem and how big is the problem? As several MPs pointed out in the debate, 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.” Dr Sarah Wollaston MP, Chair of the Commons Health Committee, explained in the debate last night:

“The updated data on this issue [the Department of Health research], which examines not only ethnicity but birth order, shows that there is no evidence of a systematic practice of gender-based abortion in this country. It happens in other parts of the world, where it is having a serious distorting effect on societies and on the status of women, but there is no systematic practice here, although I have no doubt that there are individual cases.”

So how could parliamentarians even begin to seek to redress this problem if, as Dr Wollaston points out, 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 proposed 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 and stigmatising women – which is what this amendment would have done – is the solution.

MPs who are concerned about this issue need to listen to organisations which work with and represent BME women – those same organisations which 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 condemned the amendment.

IKWRO argued powerfully that the consequences of this amendment being enacted would have been women being prosecuted, women being forced by abusive partners to have unsafe, illegal abortions, and perpetrators of abuse using the threat of prosecution as a means of further controlling and coercing women who have had abortions.

It’s not just BME women’s organisations who condemned the amendment. Charities working on genetic illnesses criticised the amendment on the grounds that it will prevent women from getting abortions for genuine reasons relating to chromosomal abnormalities 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 pointed 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’s been because of women’s economic and social empowerment, not because of restrictive abortion laws.

As the eminent feminist 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.”

After much impassioned debate, the amendment was defeated (Ayes 201, Noes 292) – a cause for celebration for many pro-choice campaigners, but not cause for complacency.

Scarlet Harris is the TUC’s Women’s Equality officer. Follow her on Twitter

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One Response to “The answer to son preference is better education, not criminalising women”

  1. Leon Wolfeson

    The most compelling issue for me is the one about genetic illness. Some of them are sex-linked, and if sex selection can let people have children while avoiding inherited disorders, then I’m all for it.

    I don’t support changes in general to the system we currently have.

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