The proposers of the amendment to criminalise sex-selection abortion in the Serious Crime Bill are claiming that it will be sending an important message about the position of women in society. They are right about this. But the message that is being sent is not challenging gender oppression but undermining women’s status by shifting the definition of abortion and the societal position of all pregnant women. Part of the way they are doing this is through the language they have chosen to describe their position.
The dangers of anti-abortion language
The proposed amendment would introduce the term ‘unborn child’ into British law. This term is not a medical one, it is an emotive description used by those opposing abortion. Currently in the UK, the foetus is not recognised as a person. This means that women’s rights to bodily integrity during pregnancy cannot be challenged. The primary patient during pregnancy is the woman and they have a legal right to make all decisions about their lives (unless mentally incapacitated).
If the foetus becomes recognised as an ‘unborn child’ in this context, there is a danger that it will be used to challenge other areas. This could mean that pregnant women are deniedor forced into specific medical treatments. It could also lead to other legal changes in the name of protecting the foetus. The evidence from elsewhere has shown what can happen. In Ireland, giving equal rights to the foetus not only restricts abortion but contributed to the death of Savita Halappanavar as concerns about the legality of terminating her pregnancy were placed above her medical needs. Here in 2014, we had an attempt to make the Criminal Injuries Compensation Fund pay damages for the consumption of alcohol during pregnancy. This failed as the foetus does not have a separate existence in law so no crime had been committed. In future cases, an understanding of the foetus as an ‘unborn child’ could change this. After all, in some states in the US, women are in prison for ‘mistreating’ their foetus both during and after pregnancy. This shows what the implications are.
Any recognition of the ‘unborn child’ in law poses a significant threat to women’s right to bodily integrity during pregnancy.
Protection of ‘girls’, but not women
The proposers of this amendment make claims about the need to protect the ‘girl child’. Discrimination against girls, and women, needs to be challenged, but here a deeper message is also being conveyed. Those in favour of the amendment are claiming that women may be coerced into abortion not necessarily directly, but through accepting prevailing attitudes. They argue that sending a message about gender discriminationis the most important element. In other words, women who agree to sex selective abortion may be cultural dupes that need protecting from themselves. Hence, the target of the amendment is not necessarily women who are currently living in situations of violence, but is based on the premise that women need to be treated as ‘girls’ in need of instruction.
Moreover, if coercion is defined as a cultural atmosphere, then any abortion of a female foetus in Asian communities could potentially fall under this description. How could doctors tell which women have fallen prey to cultural understandings about gender discrimination and which really just want an abortion?
We know that many women do live in abusive relationships, and that that being directly coerced into an abortion is a possibility. This is not necessarily a sex-selection issue, but a potential risk for any women living with domestic violence. Domestic violence is a complex problem and it can take a long period of time before women feel able to report what is happening to them. Private consultation with health professionals, including abortion providers, is a potential space for this to happen. This amendment will do nothing to assist women needing help. Instead it potentially undermines all Asian women’s access to abortion.
Worldwide, the anti-abortion lobby have learnt that directly challenging abortion is unlikely to succeed. Instead their campaigns have two main agendas. First , they seek to make abortion less accessible and, second, they try to challenge the way that abortion is defined. The proposed amendment to the Serious Crime Bill does both of these things. If sex-selective abortion becomes criminalised, doctors may become risk adverse leading to Asian women finding it much more difficult to access. Moreover if this form of ‘coerced’ abortion can be outlawed, we will no longer have clinical judgments about health asthe primary concern. In addition, introducing the concept of the ‘unborn child’ within the law changes the status of the foetus to the detriment of women.
This amendment does nothing to help women vulnerable to discrimination. Instead it changes the way that abortion is defined and prioritises the foetus rather than the pregnant woman. This has implications for future abortion challenges and, potentially, for many other aspects of reproductive health.
Dr Pam Lowe
Senior Lecturer in Sociology