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For Women's Sake, Don't Ban Sex-Selective Abortion

13/11/2014 15:45 GMT | Updated 13/01/2015 10:59 GMT

Aborting a foetus because they are the "wrong gender" is perhaps the ultimate form of sex-based discrimination. The prevalence of sex-selective terminations has a huge impact on population balance worldwide, usually leading to disproportionately few female babies being born. Such a problem should be of great concern to feminists, and anyone who sees all human life as equal, regardless of sex, colour or creed.

A recent Oxford University study published on the topic has claimed that these procedures are on the rise in Britain prompting a vote in the House of Commons last week to explicitly ban abortion on such grounds. At first glance any attempt to combat this unjust practice seems a step in the right direction, but this bill, devised by Conservative MP Fiona Bruce, may well do more harm than good.

Ethical concerns aside, this law will be incredibly hard to enforce. Women often cite multiple factors as influencing their decision to terminate a pregnancy, so reducing the reasons behind any abortion to one simple factor is bound to over-simplify the situation. In the case of abortion on the grounds of sex-selection, this reductionism is likely to lead to biased and prejudiced decisions by doctors. The Oxford study that provoked the vote focused on mothers of Indian origin, claiming the ratio of female to male births is skewed among this group, with just 100 girls born for every 114 boys, a gap is significantly wider than the national average of 100 to 104. Faced with legal action for being complicit in any abortion on the grounds of sex-selection, doctors may well be inclined to place Southern Asian women coming to them for terminations under undue scrutiny. This could make it much harder for thousands of British-Asian women to access services they need.

In those cases where women are seeking to abort a foetus on the grounds of its sex, banning them from doing so is unlikely to be an effective measure. Restrictive measures tend to have low success rates in terms of improving the ratio of male to female births, and could pose a danger to some of the most vulnerable women in society. The bill passed last week failed to take into account the reasons why women might not want to carry a female foetus to term. Rather than seeking to understand and tackle the social demands that a husband, family or community might place upon a woman to produce male offspring, it vilifies the women themselves. A ban will make the difficult choices facing these women even harder, and make criminals of those who buckle under the pressure.

Such an ill thought out policy puts the lives of women in danger. Those in the most extreme situations, who feel their life or marriage will be at risk by giving birth to a female child, may be forced to turn to backstreet procedures. It has been shown time and time again that restricting access to free and safe abortions does little to reduce the number of terminations. It only reduces the number that are free and safe.

In India, the government have gone to great lengths to reduce the number of abortions carried out on the basis of sex selection. In 2004, they introduced the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Regulation to deter and punish the misuse of pre-natal screening to ensure against the birth of a girl. But the imbalance between male and female births remains. Unable to access legal and sterile facilities, thousands of women turn to unsafe procedures to avoid giving birth to female children, resulting in approximately 4,600 deaths per year. Where unwanted pregnancies are carried to term, female children are often denied the food and medical attention granted to their brothers and so have a much greater chance of dying in their early years.

Denying women access to safe and legal abortion is not in their interest, especially if the complex motives behind the decision to abort are not taken into account. Of course, attempting to reduce sex-selective abortion is a noble cause, but we must question policies that ultimately fail to address the reason this problem exists - that is, the systematic oppression of women around the world. Sex-selective abortions take place because the lives of female children are undervalued and their potential is underestimated, while the right of mothers to make their own reproductive decisions is not always respected by their partners or families. These pernicious attitudes towards women exist - thankfully to a lesser degree - in British society too. To combat sex-selective abortion, it is these views that the government needs to target.

Last week's vote in the Commons is representative of the shallow approach to feminism and wider issues of equality endemic in our politics. It is easy to wear a T-shirt telling the world you are a feminist, or enforce quotas demanding employers hire certain percentages of female or ethnic minority candidates. Much harder to address the root causes of gender inequality in the home and the workplace, or tackle the systemic educational difficulties faced by ethnic minorities and immigrant communities. The electoral incentive to dig deep is low. There is no obvious photo opportunity and any results will take years, not months, to achieve. Sadly, the vulnerable people in our society in most need of this long -term investment by politicians are the least likely to have anyone to advocate on their behalf. The areas in which sex-selective abortions are most likely to take place are often culturally insular and economically poor. And so, the women in these communities are overlooked by the most prominent women in the feminist movement, who tend - like our politicians - to be white and middle class, and therefore removed from their struggles.

Feminism, and all movements striving for equality, should aim to empower individuals to make choices free from the arbitrary restrains of gender, race, sexuality or class. Sex-selective abortion is a symptom of inequality, and the only way to rid our society of this practice, or any other form of discrimination, is to attack the virus of bigotry itself. This will require more than a stop-gap solution. It demands sustained efforts to help women stand up to social pressures that try to dictate what goes on inside their uterus and, most importantly, to eliminate the pressures themselves - so female children are just as welcomed as their brothers.