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House of Commons Hansard
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Abortion (Sex-Selection)
04 November 2014
Volume 587

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

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I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to clarify the law relating to abortion on the basis of sex-selection; and for connected purposes.

Sex-selective abortions are happening in the UK, and there is widespread confusion over the law, which is why this Bill is needed. The Bill is extremely straightforward, merely clarifying that nothing in section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967 allows a pregnancy to be terminated on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child. It is a shame that this clarification is needed. Successive Health Ministers and even the Prime Minister have been very clear on the matter. They state that abortion for reasons of gender alone is illegal. The Prime Minister has described the practice as “simply appalling”. But these Ministers are being ignored. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which performs around 60,000 abortions a year, flatly disagrees with them. Even today, it is advising women, in one of its leaflets and on its website, that abortion for reasons of foetal sex is not illegal, because the law is “silent on the matter”.

The British Medical Association holds yet another interpretation. It argues that there may be cases where having a child of a particular gender may be

“a legal and ethical justification for an abortion”

on the grounds that the sex of the child may severely affect the pregnant woman’s mental health. I wish to address that point. Some say that the sex of the unborn child can be a legitimate ground for an abortion where a woman is being threatened with abuse if she carries the baby to term. Those who make that argument perhaps fail to realise that, in such tragic cases, it is not the sex of the child that is the ground for the abortion but the threat of abuse, which may constitute a physical or mental risk. I find it deplorable that anyone would be satisfied to provide a sex-selective abortion to a woman who, after she has had it, is then sent back to an abusive partner. What needs to be addressed in those dire circumstances is the abuse itself. Those women need help, and that is one aim of the Bill.

The BMA represents every doctor who permits or performs an abortion and BPAS is the UK’s biggest abortion provider. We cannot sit idly by as it contradicts Ministers over a practice that the Government state is illegal. Urgent clarification from this House is needed.

The main motivation for the Bill, which is more than merely a desire to achieve a consistent policy line on this issue, is that we know that sex-selective abortions are happening in the UK and little is being done to stop them. We know that because a growing number of courageous women are speaking out about their experiences. Here is the story of Rupinder, which is not her real name, told by Jeena International, which works with UK women who have sex-selective abortions.

“Rupinder decided to abort her third child as she was expecting a girl. She was the eldest of six girls and she recalls that each time her mother went to hospital how disappointed everyone was when each time it was a girl. This experience traumatised and consumed her so much that the thought of giving birth to a girl meant disappointment, betrayal and lowered status within the family and the community. Rupinder made a painful decision to abort which she now regrets as she felt that she had no other choice.”

Then there is the experience of Uraj—also not her real name—which might help to persuade those who doubt that son-preference is a problem in this country.

“During a routine ultra-sound scan Uraj’s husband asked what the sex of the baby was and was told a girl. During the drive home, there was pin drop silence in the car. When they arrived home, Uraj started to prepare the evening meal in the kitchen, trying to silence her daughter at the same time as she was crying. She knew her husband was not happy and was angry that she was expecting another girl. She remembers him repeatedly punching and kicking her in the stomach and passing out. When she regained consciousness her husband had walked out and he sent her divorce papers a couple of months later.”

Despite the existence of such stories, there are still those who claim that there is no evidence for the practice. In response to these critics, Rani Bilkhu, the director of Jeena International, said:

“Saying that there is no evidence is tantamount to saying that these women are lying and that our organisation is making things up.”

It is hard to disagree with her, and it is crucial to note that Ms Bilkhu is referring to the brave few who have come forward in the hope that, in so doing, they will help to combat the practice. Their stories are only the tip of the iceberg. Another organisation, Karma Nirvana, which runs a crisis helpline for women in such situations, says:

“We believe the prevalence of sex-selective abortion in the UK is currently under-reported and this has been the case for many years. We have received, and continue to receive, calls from victims who are pressured to identify the gender of the child for the purposes of identifying if it is a girl. Victims express how they are then pressured by family members to abort the child and to give reasons other than sex selection and how they face abuse if they refuse to request this or abort.”

To those who argue that there is no evidence of sex-selective abortion in the UK, I pose a question: what reason do we have to doubt the word of these organisations? If the testimony of these women and those who work with them is not enough, consider the statement of the GP and former BPAS consultant, Dr Vincent Argent, who said he had “no doubt” that this was a problem in the UK and that there were

“an awful lot of covert sex-selective abortions going on.”

Indeed, I am told that some hospitals operate a policy of not telling the women the sex of their baby for fear that it will lead to a sex-selective abortion.

We can no longer ignore the fact that sex-selective abortion is a reality in the UK. Lest anyone think that this is an issue that applies only in certain communities, they should consider the tragic fact that the words “family balancing” are heard with increasing frequency and understanding across the country.

Thankfully, at the moment, countrywide analyses of birth data do not seem to show significant gender imbalances, but sex-selective abortion is clearly happening. Surely we cannot be saying that we will do nothing until the statistics show a national skewing in gender ratios, as in other countries. That would be wrong. How many more women must come forward before we take action? The time at which Government support should have been offered to women such as Rupinder and Uraj passed long ago, which is why I, and other colleagues, have brought this Bill to the House today.

The Bill is sponsored by 11 female MPs from all parts of the House and supported by a large number of other MPs. Today, I wish to place on record my thanks to those MPs, including: the hon. Members for Stoke-on-Trent South (Robert Flello) and for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty), my hon. Friends the Members for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), for Dover (Charlie Elphicke), for Salisbury (John Glen), for Enfield, Southgate (Mr Burrowes), for Stroud (Neil Carmichael), for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris), for Stafford (Jeremy Lefroy), for Wolverhampton South West (Paul Uppal), for Harrow East (Bob Blackman), for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Gordon Henderson), for Tewkesbury (Mr Robertson), for Calder Valley (Craig Whittaker) and for Cleethorpes (Martin Vickers), the hon. Member for East Lothian (Fiona O'Donnell), my hon. Friends the Members for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and for Pudsey (Stuart Andrew), and my right hon. Friends the Members for Chelmsford (Mr Burns) and for North Somerset (Dr Fox). All of them support this Bill and I sincerely thank them for that.

Clause 1 would send a clear signal that abortion for gender is not permissible under UK law, clearing up considerable confusion. Subsection (2) would make it clear that the clarification relates only to sex-selective abortions, therefore putting the Bill squarely in line with the Government’s interpretation of the Abortion Act. Clause 2 obliges the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that the law is being upheld. That will enable the Government to think about ways to help such women.

This month, for the first time, the UK has dropped out of the gender equality top 20. It is a further damning indictment of our commitment to female parity that we allow national institutions to contradict the Government on an illegal practice that predominantly affects girls. Even worse, we are choosing to ignore the evidence of women who have gone on the record and who have suffered under this appalling practice. This has gone on long enough. We must now act. As an editorial in The Independent said in January:

“Sex-selective abortion is barbaric and socially destructive.”

This Bill would be a step on the way to addressing this tragic and discriminatory practice and the first and most fundamental form of violence against women and girls. I commend it to the House.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).

Division 67

4 November 2014

The House divided:

Ayes: 181
Noes: 1

Question accordingly agreed to.

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Ordered,

That Fiona Bruce, Rosie Cooper, Mrs Mary Glindon, Kate Hoey, Pauline Latham, Naomi Long, Fiona Mactaggart, Sheryll Murray, Tessa Munt, Caroline Nokes, Sarah Teather and Dame Angela Watkinson present the Bill.

Fiona Bruce accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 January 2015, and to be printed (Bill 112).

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On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. My hon. Friend the Member for South West Devon (Mr Streeter) and I divided the House so that it would have the opportunity to express its view. May I put it on the record that both of us support my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) and the measure? I have been advised by many right hon. and hon. Members who are members of the Government and who abstained, as is usual practice, that they, too, would have supported it.

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As the House is well aware, that is not a point of order for the Chair, but it is certainly on the record.

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Further to that point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. As has just been mentioned, there is a convention that Ministers, Parliamentary Private Secretaries and members of the shadow Cabinet and their PPSs do not vote on ten-minute rule Bills. Will you confirm to the House that when the Bill receives a Second Reading, there will be a further opportunity to vote on it, and that the usual convention that it should be a conscience vote will apply?

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It is not a point of order for me to advise people how to vote, but I am sure they will reflect on that when they read Hansard tomorrow.

modern slavery bill (programme) (no. 2)

Ordered,

That the Order of 8 July 2014 (Modern Slavery Bill (Programme)) be varied as follows:

(1) Paragraphs (4) and (5) of the Order shall be omitted.

(2) Proceedings on Consideration shall be taken in the order shown in the first column of the following Table.

(3) The proceedings shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at the times specified in the second column of the Table.

Table

Proceedings

Time for conclusion of proceedings

New Clauses and new Schedules relating to transparency in supply chains; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to offences, other than offences of procuring sex for payment; remaining new Clauses and new Schedules, other than new Clauses and new Schedules relating to the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, overseas domestic workers or prostitution; amendments, other than amendments relating to the Gangmasters Licensing Authority, overseas domestic workers or

prostitution.

4.00 pm on the day on which the proceedings are commenced.

New Clauses and new Schedules relating to the Gangmasters Licensing Authority; amendments relating to the Gangmasters Licensing Authority; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to overseas domestic workers; amendments relating to overseas domestic workers; new Clauses and new Schedules relating to prostitution; amendments relating to prostitution; remaining proceedings on Consideration.

6.00 pm on that day.

(4) Proceedings on Third Reading shall (so far as not previously concluded) be brought to a conclusion at 7.00 pm on the day on which proceedings on Consideration are commenced.—(John Penrose.)