With this it will be convenient to discuss New clause 25 —Termination of pregnancy on grounds of sex of foetus—
(3) The Secretary of State shall consider the assessment made under subsection (1) and—
(a) determine and publish a strategic plan to tackle substantiated concerns identified in the assessment made under subsection (1); or
(b) publish a statement and explanation in relation to why a plan under subsection (3)(a) is not required.
(4) Any strategic plan under subsection (3)(a) must include, but need not be limited to, steps—
(a) to promote change in the social and cultural patterns of behaviour with a view to eradicating prejudices, customs, traditions and all other practices which are based on the idea of the inferiority of women and which may amount to pressure to seek a termination on the grounds of the sex of the foetus;
(b) to ensure best practice exists in identifying women being coerced or pressured into seeking a termination on the grounds of the sex of the foetus, or at risk of being so, and in the provision of protection and support to potential victims; and
(c) to promote guidance to service providers, health professionals and other stakeholders.
(5) The Secretary of State must lay a copy of the plan, determined under subsection (3)(a), before each House of Parliament within 6 months of the publication date of the assessment under subsection (2).’
New clause 1, which I wish to be put to a vote, is supported by more than 100 MPs. The arguments for it are straightforward. First, it is to clarify beyond doubt, in statute, that sex-selective abortion is illegal in UK law. This new clause is not seeking to change the law on abortion as some have said, but to confirm and clarify it. It also provides the Government with an opportunity to address the problem by bringing forward best practice regulations and guidance to support and protect women at risk.
New clause 1 is necessary because there is no explicit statement about gender selective abortion in UK law. The law is being interpreted in different ways because when the Abortion Act 1967 was passed, scans to determine the sex of the foetus were not available. That has led to a huge amount of confusion and mixed messages. That is despite the fact that the Government have repeatedly said that abortion on the grounds of gender alone is illegal. Health Ministers have said so; the Prime Minister has said so; the Department of Health has published guidance to that effect; and the chief medical officer has written to doctors about it. Despite all of that, abortion providers and others, staggeringly, are still refusing to accept the Government’s interpretation of the law.
Only last week, the country’s largest abortion provider, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, republished its controversial guidance in a booklet entitled, “Britain’s abortion law: what it says and why”. The following question is posed: is abortion for reasons of foetal sex illegal under the Abortion Act? To this, it answers, “No, the law is silent on the matter.” The former Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, has said:
“The law does not in terms expressly prohibit gender-specific abortions.”
Absolutely right. That is the purpose of new clause 1. I will come on to explain why it is so important to many of the women who are suffering as a result of the lack of clarity in the law.
This House must make the matter clear. If we cannot get a consistent line from abortion providers on whether or not it is illegal to abort a girl—it is usually girls but not always—for the sole reason that she is a girl, then the law is not fit for purpose. To do so constitutes a gross form of sex discrimination. Indeed it is the first and most fundamental form of violence against women and girls. Surely no one can object to a clause that simply states that that is wrong.
New clause 1 will do more than that, because if it is passed, by virtue of clause 79 (2) the Government will be able to issue guidance to help address this abuse and support affected women. That is why new clause 25 is inadequate when taken alone. What it is proposing is a
Department of Health assessment or review of the issue. The Department can already do that. Without new clause 1, it is inadequate, because it fails to go to the heart of the issue and to clear up the very real confusion that exists. It fails to clarify the law, as new clause 1 does, that sex election abortion is illegal in this country.
Let me turn now to some of the objections to new clause 1. Much of them have misrepresented its impact and some have been plain scaremongering. First, it is said that it will criminalise women. That is flatly untrue. The clause applies only to authorising doctors; it does not affect an expectant mother’s standing in law. We have also heard that it will stop abortion for disability where there is a sex-linked condition. That is also totally incorrect. I can reassure colleagues that there is nothing in this new clause to prevent a doctor from diagnosing substantial risk of serious handicap via the sex of the baby. In such cases, the ground for the abortion is the risk of the disability, not the sex of the baby. New clause 1 will not change that, and I have been careful to obtain expert legal opinion to that effect.
The hon. Lady spoke rightly a few moments ago about the importance of clarity in law. Does she not agree that there would be reluctance and confusion when the grounds for a termination were the genetic disorder, but the only way in which that genetic order could arise is in relation to the gender of the foetus?
Not at all. We can trust our medical practitioners to be professional in that respect. It is quite clear that the ground for the abortion in such cases would be the genetic condition and not the sex of the child.
There are certain genetic diseases that are transmitted by the mother to a male foetus. They are not passed on to a female foetus. So the hon. Lady’s argument is invalid.
That is exactly the point that I am making. If the handicap, or the condition, is diagnosed via the sex of the baby, in such cases the grounds for the abortion, through that diagnosis, is the risk of serious handicap, and on that ground the abortion can be legitimately carried out.
Perhaps I can help my hon. Friend, although I do not think that she needs assistance. Of all the arguments that have been put forward on this matter, the one that has no traction at all is the suggestion that enacting this new clause would lead to the confusion that Glenda Jackson fears. It plainly would not. There might be other arguments that can be advanced and of course there will be different views across the House, but that could not possibly happen if the new clause were enacted.
No, I am going to continue. I thank the former Attorney-General for making that point so lucidly.
We have also heard that the new clause could introduce racial profiling of expectant mothers, but has anyone argued that for female genital mutilation? The term “family balancing” goes wider than any one particular community.
Then there is the argument that the new clause will do nothing to help abused women. It will indeed. It will clarify the law and as Polly Harrar of Jeena International powerfully told me:
“What we’ve found with the Forced Marriage Act 2007 was that we were able to use that piece of legislation as a bargaining tool to negotiate with parents, so a young woman could say, ‘You do realise this is a criminal offence?’”
In the same way, Polly says,
“with sex-selective abortion: having clarity in the law means that women could use this clarification to protect themselves against pressure to have a sex-selection abortion.”
She continues that
“as with FGM having a higher profile, legislation does effect a step change in cultural attitudes. So while legislation alone is not enough, it has real power to change behaviour, and that’s what is needed.”
“We also we hope this will act as a deterrent—it will enable women to have more control over their own decisions.”
Is that not what many objecting to the clause want?
What does not help women under pressure to have an abortion simply because they are carrying a girl or a boy, whether that pressure comes from violence or coercion or is more subtle, is allowing that abortion to take place and sending the woman back to an abusive situation. To do so is to condone the very culture behind the pressure for such abortions and to exacerbate such abuse. The new clause does nothing to diminish services for those suffering abuse. Indeed, if it is followed by sensitively crafted regulations it should certainly improve them.
Then the quite offensive point is made that there is no evidence for sex-selective abortions in the UK. That is offensive as it is insulting to women such as those I have mentioned who have been campaigning for many years to stop this practice. Yes, the numbers are small compared with those in China or India, but they are real. Should we have to wait until those numbers grow before we take action? Rani Bilkhu, who, incidentally, is pro-choice, says:
“I have been supporting women dealing with sex-selective abortions…for almost a decade. Saying that there is no evidence is tantamount to saying that the women we work with are lying and that my organisation”—
“is making things up.”
Interestingly, Rani also says that “nobody is collecting data”, so it is no wonder that opponents of the new clause say that there is none.
I know of many examples of women who have suffered. One had one daughter, conceived a second girl, had an abortion and then could not conceive again. Another had three abortions on the basis of gender, including of twins. Another’s husband punched and kicked her in the stomach when he discovered she was having a girl. Yet another says that
“women suffer depression after these abortions. What is not always considered is the emotional and psychological impact.”
These women deserve our support in the manner that they say will really help—through legislation and by clarifying the law. That does not stop a review, but it is essential that we clear up the confusion, support these women and pass new clause 1. In doing so, we would reflect the overwhelming public mood. A recent ComRes poll showed that 84% of the public agree that aborting babies because of their gender should be explicitly banned by law. More than that, we should support new clause 1 because it is, quite simply, the right thing to do.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in support of new clause 25, tabled by me, Jenny Willott, my right hon. Friend Dame Tessa Jowell, my hon. Friend Valerie Vaz and the hon. Members for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton) and for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). I will seek to test the opinion of the House on the new clause.
The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 makes it a criminal offence intentionally to unlawfully procure a miscarriage, including for a woman to procure her own miscarriage. The Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 makes it a criminal offence intentionally to kill a child capable of being born alive before it has a life independent of its mother. The Abortion Act 1967 creates exceptions to those offences in limited circumstances and abortion on the grounds of gender is not one of those exceptions. It is therefore illegal and subject to criminal prosecution. Indeed, guidance was reissued as recently as May 2014 by the Department of Health that said again categorically that abortion on the grounds of sex was illegal. I am therefore not quite sure why the new clause proposed by Fiona Bruce is needed or how inserting it into the 1967 Act would address her concerns.
If the hon. Lady thinks that such abortions are illegal under the 1967 Act, what possible objection could there be to making that explicit in law?
If the hon. Gentleman will wait, I am coming to that point.
The statement the hon. Member for Congleton proposes would sit alongside the existing seven grounds for termination in the 1967 Act, but of course the sex of the foetus can be a factor in causing so much distress for the woman that she meets the existing medical criteria for a termination. The British Medical Association supplied two case studies that demonstrated how that can occur. In both cases, gender was a key factor in affecting the state of mind of the pregnant woman and her wish not to continue the pregnancy. It is not clear how new clause 1, if added to the Bill, would affect the decision of doctors on the legal grounds on which they might agree a termination, if at all. It would inevitably be subject to legal challenges that would, I believe, dilute the clarity of the 1967 Act. As far as I am aware, there is no evidence that doctors are granting terminations to women who do not meet the medical grounds laid down in the Abortion Act 1967.
I am sure that the hon. Lady is right about there not being evidence for that. Is she aware of whether there is evidence of doctors refusing permission for a termination on the grounds of none of those criteria? Are there statistics to demonstrate that that happens?
As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, part of the new clause proposes a proper assessment of some of the issues surrounding this question. I hope that during the assessment we would get much better facts about what is and what is not happening.
Women are pregnant in very different circumstances, subject to different pressures—economic, familial and community—that can all influence a pregnant woman’s state of mind and her attitude to continuing her pregnancy. If there is no substantiated evidence that doctors are granting abortions on the grounds of gender alone, we might be dealing with a more complex issue, which is how wider community and cultural attitudes to girls and women affect the physical and mental health of the pregnant woman.
Therefore, before legislating we should examine the facts relating to this complex issue, because I am concerned that the insertion of the proposed statement might have the unwanted consequence of women who might otherwise have access to an abortion on the grounds of physical and mental welfare being denied a termination. New clause 25 would arrange for an assessment of the evidence of termination of pregnancy on the grounds of the sex of the foetus in England, Wales and Scotland to be published within six months of Royal Assent. Of course, included in that assessment should be the experiences of women who feel that they have been pressured to have their pregnancies terminated.
Like other hon. Members, I have received briefings from many organisations and groups on the issue, and they demonstrate its complexity. One group that is in favour of new clause 1 talked about a growing body of research comprising the experiences of women who have talked about having sex-selective abortions in the UK as well as abroad. It states:
“We know from experience that women are having sex-selective abortions in the UK, and we feel their experiences—which reflect a much wider problem—should be taken seriously before the situation worsens.”
Another group that is opposed to new clause 1 has said that it would
“have far reaching and unintended consequences for the very women it purports to protect.”
It talked about the need to locate the protection of women from sex-selective abortion within a safeguarding framework. It states:
“There is a need to examine the issue alongside other forms of gender discrimination that impact on the practice, including the practice of dowry, domestic violence and honour based violence.”
It therefore calls for a wide-ranging inquiry, including on available support services.
The arguments that the hon. Lady is making are those that I have read and that have persuaded me against supporting new clause 1, which I had originally intended to do when it was first mooted. I am persuaded that the real difficulty we face is getting evidence to court, and nothing that my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce has said will improve the quality of the evidence. I horribly disapprove—
Order. This is not an opportunity for the hon. and learned Gentleman to make a speech. This debate must end at 9 o’clock and many Members wish to speak, so interventions must be brief. I think that we have the gist of what he was saying—
I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman has made his point.
I agree that the connection between cultural preferences for one sex and the factors that might then lead to a state of inconsolable distress for the pregnant woman needs to be better understood to enable us to protect women from coercion and to support them in their pregnancies. We should certainly look at the facts before agreeing to any change in the wording of the 1967 Act, because we must be careful not to worsen the situation for already vulnerable women.
New clause 1 assumes that restating that sex-selective abortion is illegal will offer women protection from pressure to terminate their pregnancies, but women subject to intolerable pressure to abort will continue to be subject to coercion. My concern is about how women would interpret the inclusion of the new clause. They might feel that Parliament has legislated that if the sex of the child is at all an issue, irrespective of their mental distress, they will not have access to a termination. Sometimes it is not what legislation says that has a powerful effect on behaviour, but what people believe it says. That might lead them to pursue alternative routes as a first resort, rather than a last one. We do not want to go back to the days of the botched backstreet abortions that took place prior to the 1967 Act, which throughout the ages have been the resort of desperate women. I remember the lengths to which women would go to terminate their pregnancies prior to that Act, in spite of the risks to their own health.
If the assessment that we propose uncovers substantiated concerns that there is pressure to seek terminations on the grounds of gender, we need to put in place a plan to deal with what is giving rise to those pressures and how we can better support women who might be being coerced. That is the proposal in the second part of new clause 25. I hope that in bringing forward those proposals there would be extensive consultation with women from all cultural backgrounds.
Finally, I would like to share a story with Members. On a recent train journey I started talking with an Asian woman who was originally from Bangladesh. In the course of the conversation she showed me a photo of her three daughters, who are now grown up. I said that they were beautiful and how lucky she was to have three daughters, at which point she looked very distressed. She then told me that she had never enjoyed any of her pregnancies because she knew that she was carrying a girl and that her then husband saw girls as being of no value and, in turn, viewed her as having no value as a wife because she had not produced a son. He eventually abandoned her. However, I am happy to report that my travelling companion went on to have her own career and that her girls are confident young women who are finding their own ways in life.
When I asked her what she thought could be done about those attitudes to girls, she said that the answer was education, education, education. She of course is right. We understand that from our own history of fighting for women’s equality—a fight that many of us still feel is a work in progress. I hope that this cross-party amendment will be supported by the House and that it will mean that when the Secretary of State reports back in six months’ time on her assessment, with accompanying proposals, we will be better informed about a way forward in addressing concerns that I agree we should not ignore. No woman should feel pressured into seeking a termination for any reason, including gender.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate, and I will try to do so relatively briefly in order to allow more Back-Bench contributions. New clause 1, which stands in the name of my hon. Friend Fiona Bruce, and new clause 25, which stands in the name of Ann Coffey, both relate to the very important matter of addressing the abhorrent practice of sex-selective abortion.
The Government have been consistently clear that abortion on the grounds of gender alone is already illegal. The Department of Health repeated that in guidance issued in May 2014, and it is important to stress that all independent sector providers have agreed to comply with, and operate on the basis of, the Department’s guidance and that they must do so as part of their licensing conditions. The Care Quality Commission monitors compliance with that, including through its inspection visits.
On the welcome guidance that was published, I understand from freedom of information requests, and from an e-mail sent on
It was the Department’s own guidance, which is why the Department published it. In the course of forming the guidance, we spoke with all the people we would be expected to speak to.
The chief medical officer for England has written twice to all doctors—in February 2012 and November 2013—reminding them of their responsibilities under the 1967 Act and reiterating the Government’s position on gender-selective abortion, and that was reiterated by professional bodies.
The Department has also undertaken detailed analysis to investigate whether the gender birth ratio in the UK varies by the mother’s country of birth beyond the range that might be expected to occur naturally. The analysis, first published in May 2013 and updated in 2014, concluded that, when broken down by the mother’s country of birth, no group was statistically different from the range we would expect to see naturally occurring. The Department has quite rightly committed to repeat that analysis annually when new birth data become available. However, I stress that the Government will remain vigilant, will continue to monitor data and will be fully open to any other evidence that comes to light.
My hon. Friend the Member for Congleton cited poignant anecdotal reports of sex-selective abortion, as she did on her ten-minute rule Bill. As I said to her at the end of that debate, I urge her and anyone with evidence of individual cases to report this to the police to investigate. I invite her once again to come to the Department with such evidence.
Considerable concern has been expressed about the impact of new clause 1 and it is right that we touch on that. The Government consider that the new clause would restate our long-standing position on the issue—that abortion on the ground of gender alone is illegal. However, hon. Members will have heard the concerns expressed by a number of groups about the practical implications of new clause 1. Although the Government do not consider on balance that ground E would be affected by the new clause, it is naturally worrying for me as a Health Minister to hear from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Midwives about the concerns that new clause 1 has caused among health professionals providing termination of pregnancy services to women.
I am very grateful to hear from my hon. Friend that ground E would not be jeopardised. The Government have access to good legal advice—[Interruption.] I trust that they have access to good legal advice, and it must be the case that the Government have a position on the matter. I am grateful to hear from my hon. Friend that that particular anxiety is completely misplaced.
I am concerned about the fears that some people have about the practical implications of the new clause, and I think others share that concern. I hope to come on to that
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists highlighted the potential impact on abortions for foetal abnormality—I hear the point that was made on that in two interventions—where an inherited gender-related condition may be indicated, and the possibility that the new clause, if passed, may result in further concerns. The RCOG says:
“Parents with a family history of such a condition may not have the option of Ground E.”
The RCOG also says, in relation to how doctors might feel about the practical implications, that
“doctors deciding not to provide this aspect of gynaecological care” might do so
“because it is deemed to be too ‘risky’ to them professionally.”
The House will want to be aware of these and other concerns regarding the practical implications of the new clause from the body that represents the doctors who provide these services and whom we entrust with the training, support and education of our future work force.
Does the Minister agree that one of the issues is that there are some types of X-linked genetic disorders affecting only one sex that cannot be detected by genetic testing for the specific condition in question, and that that is where the uncertainty arises? In other words, it would be entirely on the basis of the sex of the child. That is why the concern and uncertainty would be increased by the new clause.
My hon. Friend exactly describes the concerns as they have been expressed to me by the RCOG.
It may be helpful for me to give the House some figures on abortions in our country. The House is aware that the vast majority of abortions—91%—are carried out at under 13 weeks’ gestation. This is before the gestational age at which the sex of the foetus is routinely identified at the second scan, at around 18 to 21 weeks’ gestation. Disclosing the sex of the foetus is a local decision and is based on clinical judgment about the certainty of the assessment and the individual circumstances of each case. Some 98% of all abortions were carried out at under 18 weeks’ gestation in England and Wales in 2013. It is also the case that 98% of abortions performed in the independent sector in 2013 were carried out at under 18 weeks. By contrast, in 2013, 94% of reported abortions for foetal abnormality were performed in NHS hospitals. In the light of this, the House would want to consider that the new clause could be thought likely to have greatest potential impact on those health professionals working in our NHS, rather than on independent sector providers.
As the hon. Member for Stockport explained, new clause 25 would require a further assessment of the evidence that terminations are taking place on the ground of the sex of the foetus alone. I have already outlined the analysis that the Department of Health is undertaking on an annual basis in this area. We will also take into consideration any other evidence that comes to light. I stress to the House that we take the issue of coercion and abuse very seriously. Women who present for an abortion will always have the opportunity to speak to a health professional on their own at some point during the consultation. From my perspective as public health Minister, this is the sort of issue that would sensibly be considered as part of any further review, and the Department of Health is already considering what further sources of evidence can contribute to our knowledge on this important issue.
That is a useful point to draw out about other parts of this important Bill.
It is for the House to decide whether it wants to place the commitment to a further review on a statutory footing by supporting new clause 25.
As is the convention with such issues of conscience, as a Government we do not take a position either for or against new clauses 1 and 25. If the matter is pressed to a Division, Government Members will have a free vote. However, I hope that it has been helpful to hon. Members in forming their own opinion on these two new clauses for me to set out the Government’s actions to date in this area, the facts in relation to the gestations at which most abortions are performed, and the concerns raised by professional bodies. As I have said, it is for the House to decide whether it wants to support either of the new clauses, or indeed both or neither of them, but I reiterate that abortion of a foetus on the grounds of gender alone is already illegal.
The impassioned speeches that we have heard in this debate are testament to what a sensitive and complex matter this is. New clause 1 would amend the Abortion Act 1967 and proposes that a pregnancy could not
“be terminated on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child.”
New clause 25 would require a review of the evidence relating to abortion on the grounds of gender alone and for this to be followed by a strategic Government plan that addresses concerns about the prevalence of termination on the grounds of the sex of the foetus in England, Scotland and Wales.
I am in favour of new clause 25 as the best way to address concerns about sex-selective abortions. Outwardly, the intentions behind new clause 1 might seem reasonable. However, a wide range of well-respected organisations and experts have raised concerns, pointing out a number of unintended and troubling consequences. The organisations include the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the British Medical Association, the TUC, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, Genetic Alliance UK, Imkaan and the Southall Black Sisters, among many others.
I am going to continue because we have a lot to get through and many Members wish to speak.
New clause 1 represents a significant departure from the current principles on which abortion law in this country is based. Given that this is a matter of huge significance, the new clause deserves fuller debate and scrutiny than we have the opportunity for in the remaining 24 minutes of this debate.
Choosing to terminate a pregnancy simply because the foetus one is carrying is not the sex one wishes for is a notion that most people find abhorrent. As the hon.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I am not going to take his intervention.
The Government, along with the chief medical officer, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, and the Royal College of Midwives, have said that abortions carried out on the sole premise of foetal sex are illegal. As we have heard, updated guidance and instructions to doctors published within the past 12 months have clarified this. All independent sector providers have also agreed to follow the revised guidance as part of their licensing agreements. Let me be clear: we do not need new clause 1 to make sex-selective abortion illegal. However, it is right that we should send a strong message from this Parliament that gender-selective abortions are wrong. We can do that today by requiring the Government to carry out a thorough assessment and produce an action plan to address the root causes of this practice. That is what new clause 25 would do.
The change to the law proposed in new clause 1 would not only fail to address the root issues that lie behind the problem but have serious unintended consequences. I listened closely to the hon. Member for Congleton and to the former Attorney-General, Mr Grieve, but I point to the text of new clause 1, which it is worth reading out:
“Nothing in section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967 is to be interpreted as allowing a pregnancy to be terminated on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child.”
It says that nothing is to be so interpreted, so that includes medical grounds, the well-being of the mother, and gender-specific abnormalities. At best, this would create uncertainty and doubt for doctors who administer abortions in these situations and a legal grey area for women who are already facing a very difficult decision. I heard the former Attorney-General’s intervention, but I have listened to many legal experts who have written on the pages of many papers—
I appreciate that there may be policy arguments and all sorts of good arguments to make, but it is simply incorrect to argue that the new clause would have the consequences that have been claimed of preventing, for example, abortion from taking place where, because of the gender, there was a likelihood of disability. The Minister confirmed that. She was a bit hesitant about it, but she eventually did so when I intervened on her, so I repeat her assurance. My view is that this argument is completely groundless.
I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for his intervention, but, as we have heard, many legal experts dispute that position. I refer to the specific text of the new clause, which says nothing about, and is in direct conflict with, paragraphs (a) to (d) of section 1(1) of the Abortion Act.
The Genetic Alliance has said that
“the consequences of this amendment could be devastating to women and couples at risk of having a child affected by a serious x-linked condition.”
I have heard from one family where two sisters were carriers of x-linked severe combined immunodeficiency, a disease that affects only boys. After years of thinking, one sister decided not to have any children, because she did not want to risk the chance of having to choose between having a very poorly son or a termination. Her sister decided—also after many years of consideration—to have children and went on to have three healthy daughters. Those were the choices that those women made after much consideration and deliberation with their families. How can Parliament take that decision away from them? I am sure that no one would wish to deprive their daughter, sister or partner of that choice. It is surely not for Parliament to rush this through in the short time available and deny families the opportunity to have children or a healthy baby.
Another serious concern is that new clause 1 is not just a clarification of the law, but a fundamental reform of the essential principles on which existing abortion law in this country been based for 47 years. The Abortion Act 1967 places the physical and mental health of the woman as the overriding concern of a doctor authorising abortion. Our current legislation refers to the foetus rather than the unborn child. That is because, across our legislation and common law, children are accorded a wide range of protections and rights that Parliament has previously agreed should not be accorded to the foetus.
Changing the language of the Abortion Act, as this new clause would do, would send a very different signal to the courts and open up different judicial interpretations of abortion or new consequences and restrictions that would go far beyond the issue of sex selection. For the first time since legislation in 1929, new clause 1, if passed, could afford the foetus rights that would be in conflict with those of the mother and it could seriously jeopardise the future of safe, legal abortion in the UK.
There are many other points that I would have liked to address, particularly the issue of custom and practice and why new clause 25 addresses the issue of coercion in communities, which is something we all want to deal with.
Voting against new clause 1 is not an indication of support for sex-selective practices, but an acknowledgement that it would do nothing to address the causes or reduce the incidences of sex-selective abortion and that some serious negative unintended consequences would result from enacting this proposed change to the Serious Crime Bill.
Few people would support the idea that families should be able to have abortions on the grounds of gender alone. That is why it is illegal under our current law. New clause 1 represents a significant departure from the current principles on which abortion law in this country is based. Instead, new clause 25 would require a review of the evidence relating to abortion on the grounds of gender alone, to ensure that we have a full understanding of the practice and the extent of the problem, and for that to be followed by a Government strategy to tackle it accordingly, based on the evidence of what works. I sincerely hope that Members on both sides of the House will vote against new clause 1 and in support of new clause 25.
It is important that we try as far as possible to develop a consensus on subjects such as this. Everyone across the House is against abortion on the grounds of gender alone. We have communicated that view, the Government have written it in guidance and we want to make it clear in statute. It is as simple as that. We do not seek to have a Trojan horse or to upgrade the status of the unborn child. On that point, one simply needs to look at section 1(1)(d) of the Abortion Act 1967, which refers to “child” as a legal term, so that definition is not unknown.
We could support new clause 25, which aims to develop further research and have a plan, but it is not an alternative to new clause 1. Yes, we should develop more understanding and evidence, but we should not ignore the main point of this debate, which is what brought together more than 50 Members from both sides of the House—whether they were pro-choice or pro-life—when they signed a letter in 2013. Some of them have now signed different new clauses and are seeking to divide one another when we should be coming together to show that we want to clear up the law.
“The law does not…expressly prohibit gender-specific abortions”.
That no doubt came as a surprise to many members of the public. To put it simply, that is what new clause 1 is about—it would expressly prohibit such abortions. What does the law do? As Keir Starmer went on, rather the law
“prohibits any abortion carried out without two medical practitioners having formed a view, in good faith, that the health risks of continuing with a pregnancy outweigh those of termination.”
What drew Members from both sides of the House and all sides of the ethical debate to be concerned in 2013? They jointly said that the Crown Prosecution Service’s decision not to prosecute
“could lead to the conclusion that gender-specific abortion is merely a matter of professional misconduct rather than illegal.”
The issue is whether we simply delegate this matter to professionals’ judgment in performing a balancing act and to their conduct, or deal with it—as we as parliamentarians should do and are charged with doing—by recognising that at the very least we must ensure that the law is clear.
What did the Department do? It responded to the concerns expressed in 2013 by deciding to issue departmental guidance to set out its interpretation of the law. As we have already heard, and we have been bombarded with lots of briefings from many organisations —the royal colleges, the TUC, the BMA and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service—there are different interpretations of the law.
We have to base the law on the law. There is no mention of this in the 1967 Act. There was no possibility of mentioning it in the Act, because it was not possible to determine gender when it was passed. Keir Starmer is therefore absolutely right: the law is unclear.
That is right. The Department issued helpful guidance that abortion on the grounds of gender alone was illegal. However, guidance is not sufficient. We do not simply rely on guidance in many areas of policy.
As freedom of information requests have revealed, the Government’s attempt jointly to badge all stakeholders together did not succeed, because the BMA rejected the very guidance published by the Government. It said that gender selection abortion is “normally unethical”, but that the guidance
“fails to reflect the…full legal situation regarding abortion and gender.”
The BMA therefore had a different interpretation. It also said that, separate to the issue of gender-related disability that has quite properly been raised,
“in some cases doctors may come to the conclusion that the effects of having a child of a particular gender are so severe to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman as to provide legal and ethical justification for an abortion”.
We need greater clarity than can be given in guidance; we need to be sure that such a prohibition is clear in statute. The law as it stands is not clear. We have a duty not just to leave it to a doctor to perform a balancing act. No longer should we be silent on this issue. I urge hon. Members to support new clause 1.
Order. May I ask Members to make their comments very brief, because the debate will end at 9 pm and I want to get in as many as I can?
Many Members, including myself, strongly support new clause 1 as a means of clarifying the law to make it absolutely clear that sex-selective abortion, which is plainly discriminatory, is illegal in the United Kingdom. In so doing, we seek to inspire the Government to develop interventions that will address the issue of why boys are more desired than girls—the issue of son preference.
In setting out my position, I want to address head on the argument that the new clause will criminalise women. That is not the case: the legal standing of women would in no way be changed, but doctors would instead be held to account, and rightly so. Sex-selective abortion is already illegal in the United Kingdom. In fact, the Prime Minister suggested in March 2014 that abortion on the grounds of gender was not only unacceptable, but illegal. It is alarming that medical organisations, such as the British Medical Pregnancy Advisory Service and the British Medical Association, have suggested that that is not the case, or that at the very least the law is silent on the matter. That must be addressed.
Thankfully, we do not have the Abortion Act 1967 in Northern Ireland. One of the difficulties is that organisations, such as the BMA and others, which constantly call for clarification of the law in Northern Ireland by seeking to extend the level of abortion there are quick to say that we do not need to clarify the law when it comes to tightening the law on abortion in Great Britain.
I thank my right hon. Friend for making that clear and salient point.
If abortion laws are unclear on whether sex-selective abortion is legal, let us tighten them up using new clause 1, so that it is clear beyond reasonable doubt that the practice is unacceptable. The new clause would inevitably clarify the law by stating explicitly that the termination of pregnancy on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child is illegal. It would add clarity and certainty for women and medical professionals, so that neither party would be left wondering what their rights and obligations were.
New clause 25 would not provide adequate means for holding doctors to account, because a prosecution would still hinge on the ambiguity of section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967. It is clear that it would do nothing to move forward the debate on the clarity of the law. New clause 1 would make it certain, without a doubt, that sex-selective abortion is illegal. There would be no conflicting interpretations, just the black letter of the law. It would force the Government not only to clarify the law, but to create initiatives to address the issue of son preference.
I will conclude, because I am conscious that others want to speak and I want to allow time for that. New clause 1 is vital for at least two reasons. First, at the moment it is possible to ask whether sex-selective abortion is illegal and to get three different answers that appear to be contradictory, but that are all correct. That will not do. If there are varying interpretations of the law and the legality of a practice is unclear, the law must be amended to thwart any confusion, particularly for women, who should be in no doubt as to their rights in this area. It is therefore important that we support new clause 1.
Secondly, campaigners such as Jeena International and Karma Nirvana suggest that a prejudicial attitude towards girls is a phenomenon that is occurring in the United Kingdom. Therefore, the time to act against sex-selective abortion is now, not when our sex ratios become distorted to the same levels as those of India and China. New clause 1 sends a clear, unequivocal message to doctors and medical practitioners that sex-selective abortion is illegal and cannot be tolerated in our society. I urge right hon. and hon. Members to vote for it tonight.
We all agree that it is abhorrent to terminate a pregnancy on the grounds of a belief that daughters are less valuable than sons. However, I will vote against new clause 1 for three reasons: it is unnecessary, there would be unintended consequences and we have insufficient time to debate what would be a fundamental change to an underlying principle of the Abortion Act 1967.
We have heard clearly that it is already illegal to terminate a pregnancy on the grounds of gender alone, and rightly so. That has been clarified since many of us agreed that there was an issue. I agree that there was an issue. It was not possible to bring prosecutions until the clarification was issued by the Department of Health and the chief medical officer.
The updated data on this issue, which examines not only ethnicity but birth order, shows that there is no evidence of a systematic practice of gender-based abortion in this country. It happens in other parts of the world, where it is having a serious distorting effect on societies and on the status of women, but there is no systematic practice here, although I have no doubt that there are individual cases.
New clause 1 would have unintended consequences. At present, women may have the confidence to disclose to a doctor in the confidence of a consulting room that they feel under pressure. If we brought in the new clause, women might feel that they may be criminalised. That would do more harm than good and bring about the exact reverse of the intended consequence of the new clause. We also risk stigmatising communities through the implication that this is a widespread practice, which it is not in the UK. We have to be clear about that.
New clause 1 uses the very emotive term, “the unborn child”. That would change the meaning within the Abortion Act. We have to be very careful about that. My hon. Friend Mr Burrowes mentioned that the word “child” appears in the Abortion Act. I accept that, but we must look at the context in which the word is mentioned. It is mentioned in the grounds for terminating a pregnancy when there is a grave risk that a child may suffer a serious abnormality. In other words, it does not confer personhood on the foetus in the way that this change would. It may be the view of the House that that needs to change, but let us come back and debate this incredibly serious ethical point with the time it deserves, not shoehorn it on to the tail end of a new clause with which it is difficult to disagree—as I said earlier, we are all agreed that termination on the grounds that a daughter is somehow of less value than a son is totally abhorrent.
I urge hon. Members please to come back to this issue and give it the time it deserves. Let us debate it on its ethical merits, not try to pretend that we are talking about something else. We are all agreed on the fundamental premise, so let us give it the time it deserves and reject new clause 1 tonight.
I speak as one of the 13 MPs who co-sponsored the original ten-minute rule Bill of Fiona Bruce. I did that because I think she was right to make people aware that sex selective abortion is illegal, and I thought her Bill was a powerful and good tactic to do that. However, I feel a bit as though I have been pulled along by a Trojan horse because, as Dr Wollaston said, the new clause confers the status of an unborn child on the foetus, and that radically changes our abortion laws in a way I believe is dangerous.
As I said in an earlier intervention, clauses 73 and 74, which deal with coercive behaviour, contain a powerful tool that we should use to prevent the kind of coercion to which the hon. Member for Congleton referred. In those references she quoted extensively from an organisation based in my constituency, but personal experience of how that organisation has failed to help individual constituents has led me to the conclusion that it is not possible to depend on the accuracy of what it says. I am therefore concerned that we are using anecdote from an unreliable source to make legislation on the hoof.
Having supported the hon. Lady’s original ten-minute rule Bill, I have since read something from an organisation in America that is closely linked to the all-party pro-life group that she chairs. The head of that group stated:
“I propose that we—the pro-life movement—adopt as our next goal the banning of sex…selective abortion. By formally protecting all female fetuses from abortion on the ground of their sex, we would plant in the law the proposition that the developing child is a being whose claims on us should not depend on their sex…This sense of contradiction will be further heightened among radical feminists—”
I think he means people like me—
“the shock troops of the abortion movement. They may believe that the right to abortion is fundamental to women’s emancipation, but many will recoil at the thought of aborting their unborn sisters.”
My final reason for arguing that we should reject the new clause is the concern of the British Medical Association that it will make doctors more fearful of providing abortion services and training to carry out abortions. One of the biggest risks for young women seeking help to terminate a pregnancy is not getting that help in time, as a result of which we end up with late abortions and women who cannot have abortions when they are entitled to them. One reason for that is the growing number of doctors who are reluctant to perform abortions because they practise defensive medicine. I have no doubt that the new clause is unnecessary and likely to increase that and make it more difficult for women to access their right to termination—a right that I am afraid the hon. Member for Congleton, although I agree when she says that we all agree that abortion should not be available on the basis of gender, does not support at all.
If the whole House is agreed that it is morally repugnant to destroy a foetus simply on the basis of its gender—it is usually a girl—let us make that explicit in law.