Ann Furedi, the head of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (bpas), recently came under media fire for her piece in Spiked about the "danger of clamping down on sex-selective abortions". Aptly named 'You Can't Be Pro-Choice Only When You Like The Choice', her article truthfully and level-headedly explained that while wanting a termination based on gender is not explicitly permitted on the grounds of the 1967 Abortion Act, actually doing so is not impossible and could be justified under the same terms that abortions as a result of rape or incest are performed. Furedi's words came as a response to CPS's decision to not prosecute doctors who were found last year by the Daily Telegraph to have performed abortions on the basis of gender, and have sparked new interest from some MPs in modifying the legality around abortion.
This is dangerous. The pro-choice fight has been a long and difficult one, with courageous demonstrations from people such as Wendy Davis reminding us that it is a freedom that is constantly at the risk of being undermined. Furedi's article has been purposefully misconstrued as an endorsement of sex-selective abortion - which it patently is not. Deliberate sensationalism as a way to block a woman's right to choose is nothing new; the anti-choice brigade have been twisting facts and using anatomically incorrect propaganda to shut down the voices of women in need for years, and to those interested in preserving the sanctity of choice over forced pregnancy, the reaction to Furedi's article comes as no surprise.
Rather than advocating sex-selective abortion as a reason for abortion, she merely points out that "a doctor agreeing to an abortion 'on grounds of rape' would be breaking the law no more and no less than a doctor who agrees an abortion on grounds of sex selection" - which is true. As Furedi correctly states, "there is no legal requirement to deny a woman an abortion if she has a sex preference, providing that the legal grounds [are] met... The law is silent on the matter of gender selection, just as it is silent on rape". Looking at the original article, it seems that the reasons their reporters gave for wanting a termination didn't wholly fit the sex-selection reasons themselves; in one of their entrapment escapades, the woman initially said that the abortion was because of the child's gender but went on to say that "we can't afford more than two kids". While sex-selective abortions may well happen, presenting the decision to abort based on gender as a consumerist choice when this wasn't the case even within their own investigation is dishonest. The Abortion Act does not consist of a list of reasons of when and why it is acceptable to have an abortion; rather, it is made up of broad grounds for termination of which reasons are assessed by two separate physicians.
The worry with the demand to modify the law around abortion is that expressly forbidding some kinds of abortion that fall within the legal time period necessarily means defining the terms under which one can obtain a termination. By doing this, the capacity for choice is lowered in ways that it is impossible to predict, and the arguments about what is an 'acceptable abortion' must necessarily begin. Sex-selective abortion may seem morally abhorrent, but it's also statistically rare. The earliest point at which people can find out the sex of their baby is 12 weeks. Abortions typically take place early on in the process; in 2012, 78% took place in the first 10 weeks of gestation, and 91% in the first 13 weeks. Around 98% take place before 20 weeks. Although the Telegraph have embarked on a somewhat vitriolic campaign to make sex-selective abortion seem like a widespread problem in the UK, statistics for such practice are impossible to find, and the estimates at this time are thought to be infinitesimally small. It's no secret that members of our current government such as Jeremy Hunt have been raring at the bit for years to get his hands on the Abortion Act, and the eagerness to go straight to prohibiting certain kinds of abortion instead of tackling cultural factors that may lead someone to terminate on the basis of gender is implicative of the priorities of those up in arms, particularly as it is well-known that abortions happen whether they do so legally or not.
We may balk at the idea of abortion on reasons pertaining to gender, but the answer is not to outlaw it. Realistically, the only barrier that would provide for people seeking sex-selective abortions is the minor hindrance of having to give a doctor another reason for why they wanted to end their pregnancy. Compared to the counter-effect of further stigmatising abortion and demonising women for choices we cannot understand them making, this seems like an extremely low-reward payoff. Whether the Telegraph and others who have been quick to condemn organisations like bpas are willfully ignoring the glaring fact that people who abort due to gender are likely to have distressing reasons for doing so, or have merely failed to grasp the concept that abortion is a matter of complexity and not just a flight of fancy, the fact remains that refusing to understand or educate people who go looking for such abortions but to instead frame them as evil, baby-hating criminals is unnecessarily harmful and entirely without compassion. So many of the women who end up looking for sex-selective abortions do so because they don't feel like they have a choice in the matter - punishing them instead of trying to prevent them ending up in those circumstances in the first place is very telling about precisely who the pro-lifers value.