Even If 'Gendercide' Is a Major Issue, Is Criminalising Women and Doctors Really the Answer?

Today, a proposed amendment to the Serious Crime Bill would make performing an abortion on grounds of sex selection a crime, but the whole debate feels like a veneer for an attack on women's reproductive rights.

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23 February 2015, 12:30pm

Image via Flickr user Daniel Lobo

"All I remember him saying was, 'it's another girl'," Rani Bilkhu, founder of women's NGO Jeena International says to camera as she re-tells one woman's horrific experience at the hands of her partner. "Next thing she knows she was lying on the floor and he was repeatedly kicking her in the stomach." Bilku's head and shoulders are softened by sunlight radiating through a window as she says the words: "He almost left her for dead."

This is how Stop Gendercide – "a movement to stop sex-selective abortion" – have chosen to open their short, highly emotive video to support an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill, which will be debated in Parliament today.

The amendment intends to clarify that The Abortion Act 1967 does not permit a pregnancy to be terminated on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child. Proponents of the bill argue that sex-selective abortion is a serious issue in UK South Asian communities, where many families have a preference for sons.

The video – which also features Jasvinder Sanghera, who was awarded a CBE in 2013 for her work on forced marriages and honour killings – frames the issue of sex-selective abortion as a simple one, and the bill as a step to protect women and girls from gender based violence, echoing rulings against FGM or forced marriage.

However, aside from ignoring the complexities of the issue, proponents of the amendment have been criticised for failing to present any conclusive evidence that sex-selective abortion is actually a common practice in the UK. Instead, they are using "circumstantial" and "anecdotal" evidence to support a bill that campaigners say will erode abortion rights and could, ultimately, lead to racial profiling.

Navtej Purewal is the deputy director of SOAS South Asia institute and author of Son Preference, a book on son preference in India. Last week, she presented a paper in which she spoke frankly about the Bill, describing Fiona Bruce's assertion that sex selective abortion is a problem in the UK as "based on thin and very speculative evidence."

Purewal pointed out that, rather than coming from official bodies like the Department of Health, many of the studies purporting to show evidence of sex-selective abortion in the UK were commissioned by the media, raising questions about their reliability. As a social researcher with a specialism in South Asia, Purewal has had first-hand insight into these studies are conducted.

In 2002, after the 2001 census, Purewal said she was approached – like many other demographers and social researchers – and asked to help analyse data, actively looking for evidence of sex-selective abortion. Despite the leading nature of the questions she was asked, Purewal said: "Me and my colleagues at that point showed very clearly and adamantly that we did not see any evidence of sex-selective abortion taking place on a significant scale in the UK."

Since 2002, Purewal has been watching the research emerging on sex-selective abortion in the UK with understandable interest. "In many ways it looks very concocted," she explained, describing how studies have compared extremely specific groups – for example, only women born in India with exactly one or two children – with the general population and ignored those groups that didn't appear to support their hypothesis.

Fiona Bruce's speech on gender-selective abortion

Even with creative analysis, researchers have only able to provide "indirect" and "circumstantial" evidence of sex-selective abortion in the UK. This speculative evidence has been widely misrepresented in the media, despite the Department of Health having said conclusively that, "when broken down by the mothers country of birth, no group is statistically different from the range that we would expect to see naturally occur".

The leading UK abortion service provider British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) also states that they do not experience women seeking abortion based on the sex of the foetus. In fact, 91 percent of abortions in the UK take place before the sex of the foetus can even be identified.

On Monday 9th February, when the amendment was first supposed to be debated in Parliament, a group of women converged on the grass outside to protest against it, on the grounds that any erosion of women's right and access to abortions is dangerous. Considering abortion access has traditionally been a primary battleground for feminists, the protest – which was called "the national pro-choice campaign" by Abortion Rights – was surprisingly small. It was a workday, so perhaps it's understandable that only about 40 people turned up, but Purewal says the lack of opposition to the Bill could also be to do with how the debate has been framed.

Purewal believes that a "right-wing agenda" has consciously presented the debate "in polarised terms", to present a very simplistic "right and wrong". "The single issue can, when framed as an issue of violence against women and girls, attract unanimous support," she explained, citing the fact that at it's first reading in November the Bill received 181 "yays" to 1 "nay".

Although Purewal is extremely critical of the way the Bill has been framed by its proponents, she is critical of the position taken by people on the other side of the debate, too. She believes the polarisation of the two sides is simplistic and that, actually, no one is looking far enough below the surface. "In order to be able to respond to the introduction of this amendment," she says, "we must question what lies behind the states delving into the wombs of South Asian women".

While proponents of the Bill argue – in somewhat contradictory terms – that the Bill is not explicitly anti-abortion, many of the people behind it are part of what Purewal describes as the "Anti-Abortion Lobby", and none of them have been honest about their vested interest in restricting access to terminations.

For instance, Labour MP Mary Glindon said in a recent press release, "If opposing the abortion of baby girls – often under coercion – makes me anti-choice, then I will wear the label with pride." This quote seems audaciously dishonest when you consider that Glindon is a Vice Chair of the All Party Pro-Life Group in Parliament, and thus already explicitly anti-choice. Incidentally, Fiona Bruce – the MP proposing the amendment – is Chair of the group.

Tellingly, Abortion Rights point out that, if the Bill does go through, it will be the first time ever the words "unborn child" have been written into British law in place of the scientific, and far less emotive, term "foetus". Much of the rhetoric surrounding the Bill justifies it on the grounds of the right of unborn girls to live, which Abortion Rights believe fundamentally contradicts a pro-choice position.

"Pro-choice means recognising that women's rights take primacy in matters of reproduction," the group argues. "According foetuses rights on the basis of sex inherently means removing rights from pregnant women."

While evidence of sex-selective abortion is speculative, evidence that women are coerced into aborting female foetuses is even more sparse. When I spoke to Bilkhu she emphasised, emphatically, that "it's not always women who are being abused or under duress to have abortions – it's women themselves doing what they feel like they need to do."

If it's true that some women feel this way then the Bill would be explicitly taking away these women's ability to make a free, un-coerced choice. At the anti-Bill demonstration, Kate Smurthwaite, the Vice Chair of Abortion Rights, said: "Ultimately, you can be pro-choice or you can be anti-choice, and if we're going to support a woman's right to choose, awful as it may sound, you have to just support a woman's right to choose... making laws about what somebody's reasoning should be is not the way to make laws."

Given the presence of the Anti-Abortion Lobby behind the Bill, and the way in which it seems to fundamentally contradict a pro-choice position, both Abortion Rights and Purewal fear that the amendment could represent the top of a slippery slope away from easy access to abortion in the UK.

"Sex selection has been used in the US in a number of very high-profile cases in the last few years to undermine existing abortion legislation state by state," says Purewal. On analysing a recent petition to Parliament in favour of the bill, Purewal found that two-thirds of the signatories were faith groups, who are likely to oppose abortion on religious grounds. Again, this is reminiscent of how abortion is restricted in the US, where religious groups both lobby the government and picket abortion clinics on a far greater scale than we ever see in the UK.

"In other countries these tiny little encroachments have been very successful," said Smurthwaite. "Especially in the US, at eroding a woman's to choose."

Interrogate the evidence, and it's unclear how the Bill is going to help – and not damage – the interests of South Asian women

Abortion Rights have stated publicly that they believe "arguments in favour of criminalising sex-selection are imbued with prejudice towards ethnic minority communities." But proponents of the Bill still seem intent on presenting the people who disagree with them as a small group of "radicals", concerned by a hypothetical and petty erosion of their right to choose, while dismissive of the practical concerns of South Asian women, who are purportedly being coerced into having abortions on a significant scale, and who have, so far, been abandoned in their plight by the government.

But scratch the surface, interrogate the evidence, and it's unclear how the Bill is going to help – and not damage – the interests of South Asian women most of all. It's unclear whether "helping" was ever the intention of the people behind it.

In the same way that the Anti-Abortion Lobby have a vested interest in passing a Bill that restricts access to abortion, Purewal believes that anti-immigration groups had a vested interest in producing "evidence" of sex-selective abortion in the UK, because this perpetuates "the idea of [health] services under pressure, and deviant minorities using these public services for their health practices."

In her talk, Purewal pointed out that one of the most influential pieces of research on sex-selective abortion in the UK was produced by the Oxford University demographer David Coleman. Incidentally, as well as being a respected demographer, Coleman is one of the founders of think tank Migration Watch UK – an "independent, voluntary non-political body concerned about the scale of immigration to the UK".

Alongside scaremongering, projected statistics about immigration, Migration Watch highlights causes for concern like a lack of primary school places and pressures on the NHS due to health tourism and temporary migrants, while completely omitting any reference to the vital contributions of migrant labour to the NHS. Purewal believes it's important to take Coleman's background into account when considering the conclusions he inferred, indirectly, from the data.

Purewal also believes it's crucial to look at the wider context in which the Bill has been proposed; cuts to frontline health and social services – including many women's services – have been happening steadily since the Conservative government came into power. The "abuse" of health services by "deviant minorities" is an excellent excuse for the government to continue this agenda, justifying further cuts and implementing more restrictions.

It's not difficult to see how the Bill might discourage South Asian women from seeking terminations that have nothing to do with sex-selection. "It's just another piece of red tape to frighten and intimidate women into not getting the services that they want," said Smurthwaite, suggesting that doctors would be forced to ask South Asian women an increasing number of prying questions – as Purewal says, "delving" into their wombs.

While Bilkhu tried to discredit fears of racial profiling, saying "this is nonsense, and if the same argument were made about FGM and forced marriages, people would run a mile." She failed to explain, however, exactly how it is nonsense.

"Any attempts to criminalise sex selective abortion is just going to result in... reinserting state authority over women's bodies," says Purewal, and this authority is likely to be exercised over South Asian women's bodies the most.

The "abuse" of health services by "deviant minorities" is an excellent excuse for the government to continue this agenda, justifying further cuts and implementing more restrictions.

If sex-selective abortion does happen in the UK, and if women are indeed coerced in to it (which, let's be clear, is a huge assumption), it's still unclear just how criminalisation could help them. Stop Gendercide argue that criminalisation would send a strong message, presumably to the coercive men they believe are making women have abortions. But even if this is true, it's likely to happen at the expense of pregnant, victimised women who are denied recourse to abortion.

The fact that the law is unclear now – which seems like a deliberate thing, allowing practitioners to be sensitive to each woman's specific, complicated situation – reflects how difficult and murky an issue this is. Current UK law simply says that an abortion is justified when "continuing the pregnancy may involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated."

Purewal points out that the danger to the physical or mental health of a pregnant woman who is being victimised for being pregnant with a female foetus could, on these grounds, legally justify a sex-selective termination. In effect, denying a woman an abortion in this situation would squash her between two oppressive forces: a coercive patriarchal community, and an authoritarian, patriarchal law.

In India, Purewal believes there is little evidence that criminalising sex-selection abortion has helped at all, primarily because criminalisation does nothing to challenge the economic cultural and social dimensions of son preference. There's no reason why it would be any different in the UK, where Abortion Rights suggest that, if sex-selective abortions are happening, efforts should be "directed towards gender equality education instead."

"I want to see the government think about how they can help these women, so that they don't have to go through these traumatic situations," Bruce argues in her Bill. But it bears repeating: proposing a criminalisation of women demonstrates little understanding of the broader context and reasons why women might be seeking sex-selective abortions. As Abortion Rights argue, "the solution to societal gender inequality is not further removing women's rights."

Then again, there's not much evidence to suggest that Bruce cares about helping women, at least not as much as she cares about gradually eroding access to abortions.

@CharlottEngland

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