The stories in the press over the past weeks, instigated by the Daily Telegraph undercover investigation into sex selective abortions, have left me, as a pro-choice feminist, struggling with the issue and frustrated by the public debate. I have felt personally conflicted on the matter and I don't think I have been alone in that. This doesn't make me a hypocrite or water down my pro-choice values. But it does mean I'm asking myself some really difficult questions.
The debate has been focused around the rights or wrongs, lawfulness or not of such abortions. The 1967 Abortion Act does not list all the circumstances in which an abortion is considered lawful; rather it requires that certain grounds for abortion are met. This includes "that the continuation of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy was terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family; or that the termination is necessary to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman, or that the continuation of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman, greater than if the pregnancy was terminated."
There are a range of different factors that might mean these grounds were fulfilled, such as already having several children and feeling that economically another would not be possible to support - or for darker reasons, such as pregnancy resulting from rape.
The headlines have focused on the hysterical demonization of abortion professionals and the condemnation of the pursuit of 'designer babies', but I fear we are missing the point. Abortion is a red herring. We should be asking ourselves, why? Why are women requesting to abort female foetuses?
The reality is that through history and across cultures girls are not consistently valued equally. For generations women have found themselves pressurised into 'producing a boy'. This 'expectation' can manifest itself in numerous ways and with varying degrees of seriousness. In the most serious cases, sex selective abortions can, regrettably, fall under the grounds of grave permanent injury to the mental health of a pregnant woman, even possibly the physical health of that woman.
My dilemma is this; if sex-selection abortion is rooted in the most unacceptable gender discrimination, how should a feminist who is pro-choice respond? If we accept sex-selection on the grounds that the woman's wellbeing is at risk if the pregnancy continues, are we also indirectly colluding with unacceptable discrimination? And therefore, allowing it to go on unchallenged for generations to come.
Conversely if we know that women are facing an indescribable pressure not to bear a girl, are we further oppressing and isolating those women (or possibly putting their lives at risk) by not affording them access to safe, legal abortion?
I don't think there are simple answers to dilemmas of this complexity and I'm not afraid to say I certainly don't have them. But I do know that if a woman is pregnant and doesn't feel confident that the future child will be fully supported, or that her physical or mental health would be at risk, they must have the choice not to continue with the pregnancy.