UK Politics

MPs back ban on sex-selective abortion

Woman with her head in her hands Image copyright SPL
Image caption Abortions can be provided if doctors decide there is a risk to a woman's mental or physical health

MPs have backed a bid to clarify the law on sex-selective abortion.

The Commons supported a bill by Conservative MP Fiona Bruce, which aims to put beyond doubt that the practice is illegal, by 181 votes to one.

The government says it is against the law, but Ms Bruce said "urgent clarification" was needed because the British Medical Association said the operations were sometimes justified.

Her 10-minute rule bill is unlikely to become law due to lack of time.

Ms Bruce told MPs there was "widespread confusion" over the legal position, saying the BMA and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service had contradicted ministers "over a practice that the government states is illegal".

She said: "We know that sex selective abortion is happening in the UK, and little is being done to stop this."

'Pressure'

Speaking before the debate, an MP called for people pressurising Asian women to abort their female foetuses to be "named and shamed" by the authorities.

Labour's Virendra Sharma told the BBC Asian Network the practice was not cultural or religious and called for a legal framework to ban it.

Image caption Fiona Bruce MP said "urgent clarification" was needed over the law.

Mr Sharma said: "If nothing else, then name and shame those families or individuals who are putting pressure on the young girls.

"What is most needed is the woman who is carrying the child needs to be empowered that she gets the support from society and from the system that if she is put under pressure, she can take the legal remedy against those people who are putting her under pressure."

Campaigners have called the abortion of female foetuses in the UK a form of discrimination.

Rani Bilkhu, from the campaign group Jeena International, said British Asian women, as well as those born in South Asia and married to men in the UK, were aborting girls because of the cultural pressure to have sons - often from their in-laws.

"We have a high rate of women coming to us and saying, 'We are being threatened and coerced to having abortions, we're being thrown down the stairs.'

Research

"There's also women who've actually had girls, and have been left in hospital wards, because they feel that they've shamed the family and that woman is cursed.

"Equally we know girls and families that aren't marriageable because they have five siblings who are all girls. This is a curse within our community that unfortunately isn't the curse of being a girl, it's about [the] curse of discrimination.

"Today, we are looking for forced marriages and they've legislated against that. Both statutory agencies and communities now know that it is illegal to be forced into a marriage.

"Equally, once this bill comes out, we can then make sure communities understand that it is illegal to abort on the basis of gender."

Campaigners have noted research by Sylvie Dubuc, from the Department of Social Policy and Intervention at the University of Oxford, that found a higher ratio of boys born to women of Indian origin having their third child.

It was 114:100, which is a lot higher than women of all backgrounds at 104:100.

Guidelines

In recent years there has been confusion over the law on gender-specific abortions. Following a Daily Telegraph investigation in 2012, the Crown Prosecution Service decided not to charge two doctors who were caught on camera agreeing to arrange abortions of female foetuses.

The then director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, said: "The law does not, in terms, expressly prohibit gender-specific abortions."

He added that doctors had "wide discretion" whether to allow a woman to continue with her pregnancy, based on the mental and physical wellbeing of the mother.

At the time, the Department of Health issued updated rules saying the 1967 Abortion Act stated that abortion on the grounds of gender was illegal.

It added that the two doctors who were required to approve abortions must consider women's individual circumstances and be ready to justify decisions. This was in response to concerns about the use of pre-signed forms.

However, the British Medical Association warned the updated rules failed to address the complexities and legalities around gender.

A Department of Health spokesman said: "We are clear that abortion on the grounds of gender alone is illegal and have repeated this in guidance issued in May."

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