Will sex-selective abortion be part of Ireland’s future?

(September 2018)

Last week, something strange happened in the United Kingdom, something quite topical given recent events here.

The Labour MP Naz Shah, the Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities on Jeremy Corbyn’s frontbench, called for a ban on a particular form of gender test for unborn children.

The Non-Invasive Prenatal Test (NIPT) – which was often referred to in the run-up to the abortion referendum in May – can detect genetic conditions in an unborn child. It can also detect whether an unborn child is a boy or a girl very early on in the pregnancy.

There is increasing evidence that the availability of these tests is contributing to an upsurge in the number of baby girls being aborted, particularly among Britain’s Asian community, where the preference for sons is heavily pronounced.

Shah is of Pakistani heritage, and she represents a constituency in Bradford. As such, she has come to believe that many women are being forced “to adopt methods such as NIPT to live up to expectations of family members.”

Now she is calling for the government to introduce “appropriate restrictions” to stamp this practice out. Another Labour MP with an Asian background, Tan Dhesi, has joined Shah in calling for this.

The BBC news report on this includes considerable amounts of background information about the issue, and features an interview with a Sikh woman in London who felt pressured into having an abortion after finding out that she was expecting.

In spite of Shah’s comments, few people are under the illusion that this problem can be legislated for effectively. Abortion-on-request effectively exists in Britain for the first six months of pregnancy.

Even if a very specific law were introduced banning sex-selective terminations, it would be nigh on impossible to enforce in an environment where abortion is a right.

Estimating the precise scale of the problem is difficult also.

Yet in 2014, an investigation by The Independent showed that sex-selective abortion was affecting the balance between boys and girls in some immigrant communities in the UK. They estimated that the practice had cost the lives of between 1,400 and 4,700 females up to that point.

That sounds terrible, but it pales in comparison to the enormous scale of the problem in Asia itself.

In China, the prevalence of sex-selective abortion has been so common that the term ‘gendercide’ has long been used when discussing the situation.

A culturally ingrained preference for baby boys was greatly exacerbated by the implementation of the One Child Policy. Prospective parents were desperate that the one child their tyrannical government permitted them to have would be male.

For many decades, little girls have borne the brunt of this policy’s impact, be it through elimination before birth, or abandonment afterwards.

It is not just China where sex-selective abortions are common. It is also a reality in India – in spite of there being laws against it – where the dowry system adds an extra perverse incentive not to carry daughters to term.

The overall consequences of this are as clear as the magnitude is great: men now outnumber women by 70 million in China and India.

In the West, it is often posited that introduction of legal abortion constitutes an advance for women’s rights.

But the verdict from examining the world’s two most populous countries suggests the opposite. The ready availability of abortion – combined with modern ultrasound technology and screening methods – has cost the lives of tens of millions of tiny, defenseless girls, and it is continuing to do so.

Some will contend that the main problem lies in the societal attitudes about the worth of women compared to men. Promote gender equality, and the problem of boys being preferred to girls will go away, along with the grim spectre of sex-selective abortions.

This may be true up to a point: the problem is not nearly as serious among Britain’s Asian communities as it is in Asia itself.

Yet it is there. Many decades and several generations have gone by since these communities were established in Britain, and the problem remains so obvious that left-of-centre politicians like Naz Shah feel compelled to raise it.

Shah might well run into difficulties if she continues to address the issue, too. When new legislation to outlaw sex-selective abortions was being debated in 2015, Labour MPs were instructed to vote against it by the feminist Shadow Home Secretary and former cabinet minister, Yvette Cooper MP.

This was not an isolated incident. Last year, a member of the British Medical Association’s ethics committee, Professor Wendy Savage, condemned any efforts to tighten Britain’s laws to prevent sex-selective abortion.

“[If] a woman does not want to have a foetus who is one sex or the other, forcing her (to go through with the pregnancy) is not going to be good for the eventual child, and it’s not going to be good for (the mother’s) mental health,” Professor Savage said.

The abortion industry has also been critical of any restrictions being introduced, unsurprisingly, with the Chief Executive of the abortion giant BPAS going as far as to write an op-ed in opposition to any ban on sex-selective abortions.

“We either support women’s capacity to decide, or we don’t,” Ann Furedi concluded. “You can’t be pro-choice except when you don’t like the choice, because that’s not pro-choice at all.”

Naz Shah’s call for action related not to a ban on abortion, but to a restriction on screening, and she appears to have no problems with terminations per se. “NIPT screenings should be used for their intended purpose, to screen for serious conditions and Down’s syndrome,” she is on the record as saying.

Abortion in cases of Down’s syndrome does not appear to concern her, but abortion on the grounds of sex does.

There is a problem with this mindset, though.

When a liberal abortion regime is introduced in a country – like that which was pioneered in Britain in 1967, or that which Simon Harris is giddily introducing here now – it becomes extremely difficult to minimise the impact, or to introduce necessary corrections, even when the gravest abuses imaginable are routinely being perpetrated.

Needless to say, Harris does not intend to outlaw sex-selective abortion here.

That is something worth reflecting upon, as the Oireachtas starts to advance the Government’s abortion legislation. The reality of what Ireland will look like, and how abortion will be practiced, in post-Repeal Ireland is far from clear. The debate is not over.

What happened on May 25th was not the end, but the beginning, of a journey.

Where it leads is anyone’s guess, and many who voted to open the door to abortion will one day have serious cause to consider what they have really done, and who has had to pay the price for it.

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