The following statement was drafted in response to recent attempts to criminalise sex selective abortion in the UK.
Over the last year, there has been widespread discussion in Britain about sex selective abortion. While there is no peer-reviewed evidence to suggest that abortion for this reason alone is taking place in the UK, it is clear that the issues of violence and abuse that affect women in some black and minority ethnic (BME) communities have been exploited by anti-choice campaigners in order to harass women seeking access to abortion care. Their activity was designed to roll back the legal gains made within the last fifty years that have allowed women to exercise control over their own body. However, several of the organisations we represent support women who have experienced abuse arising from son preference. Dowry payments, inheritance practices and honour-related issues, as well as general misogynistic social, religious and cultural attitudes, can all contribute to the pressure that some women face during pregnancy to give birth to a boy rather than a girl. In extreme situations, women may face domestic abuse or even murder if they give birth to a girl. The criminalisation of sex selective abortion does nothing to address these issues, and is in fact more likely to expose vulnerable women to the risk of further victimisation, not to mention potentially placing the baby she is forced to carry to term in danger of neglect or harm. Women at risk may also be denied their only opportunity to be identified and referred for further safeguarding and support.
Criminalisation also dismisses the needs of women who either already have a pre-natal diagnosis of a sex-linked disorder or who carry a sex-linked condition, and BME communities are certainly not exempt from these concerns. The experiences of women facing a decision about whether or not to terminate what is often a much-wanted pregnancy because of a sex-linked genetic disorder can be incredibly painful and challenging, and it is unacceptable that, to date, they have largely been ignored. Any discussion about the policies and legislation relating to abortion where foetal sex is a factor must continue to allow women to make the right decision for themselves and their families, while also enabling doctors to facilitate their decision-making without fear of prosecution.
It is impossible to address the wide range of issues that contribute to son-preference within the confines of abortion care alone, although safeguarding is of course a priority - as it is for any woman, regardless of her background. Abortion providers will continue to maintain high standards of safeguarding practice that incorporate the NICE guidance on screening for domestic violence. The policies and procedures will be reviewed regularly, and informed as much as possible by external organisations with expertise in supporting pregnant women who are under pressure due to son-preference. Women should be given every opportunity to disclose coercion when seeking abortion care. Healthcare providers are responsible for ensuring that women at risk of abuse are identified and well-informed about the support available, and that, when necessary, referrals are made to the local authorities and specialist organisations for ongoing care. However, it is impossible for healthcare providers and specialist organisations alone to ensure the safety and wellbeing of women. Over the last four years, the UK government has imposed devastating cuts on women’s services, especially specialist services for BME women, placing those at risk, along with any existing children, in further danger. These cuts must be reversed: this group calls for the immediate reinstatement of legal aid and increased funding for refuges, rape crisis centres and related services for all women and girls. As well as working to alleviate the immediate pressure regarding son preference on individual women, there is also much that needs to be done to challenge the cultural and religious attitudes that value the lives of men more highly than those of women. This requires a wider debate and discussion about socio-economic practices, and extensive work to undermine misogynistic perspectives. The conflation of sex selective abortion with ‘honour’ abuse and domestic violence poses a grave threat to women’s reproductive rights, while absolving policy makers from their responsibility to ensure that women at risk receive the support they need.
This statement is supported by the following organisations and individuals:
Dr Aisha K. Gill: Reader in Criminology, University of Roehampton
Navtej Purewal: Deputy Director, SOAS South Asia Institute