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Volume 752: debated on Wednesday 12 February 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they intend to take in the light of recent analysis of the ratio of boys and girls in United Kingdom families suggesting that sex-selective abortion is taking place.

My Lords, it cannot be concluded from the recent analysis in the Independent newspaper that sex-selective abortions are taking place. We are absolutely clear that abortion on the grounds of gender alone is against the law and completely unacceptable.

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that when I last asked a Question on this matter in October, the House was informed that it was impossible to prosecute doctors known to be aborting on gender grounds because the evidence was not strong enough? However, has the Minister noted the findings of the national census of 2011, which show that between 1,400 and 4,700 fewer girls have been born recently? This, it was said, can be explained only by the fact that termination of girl babies is going on, even though my noble friend has said this morning and NHS spokesmen have warned that such operations are,

“against the law and completely unacceptable”.

When are the Government going to stop this practice, and what are the implications if they do not do so?

My Lords, the analysis recently reported in the Independent newspaper was based on census data, as my noble friend pointed out, for households with usually-resident dependent children. The gender balance of dependent children in these households is affected by a number of events that occur after birth, such as the age at which dependent children leave the parental home. As there are a number of alternative explanations for these observations, it cannot be concluded from the Independent’s analysis that sex-selective abortions are taking place. The best available data on which to base gender ratio analysis continue to be births data, which were the basis on which we did our analysis last year. I can tell my noble friend that that analysis will be updated on an annual basis when new data are available.

My Lords, gender-selection abortions are an extreme form of gender discrimination. Sadly, it is all too prevalent in sub-continent communities. The Sikh guru, Guru Nanak, taught from day one the total equality of women; they can join in and lead any part of the Sikh service. Unfortunately, culture sometimes gets the better of religion; even in the Sikh community, that sort of discrimination can take place. Will the Minister ensure that funding given to sub-continent communities is conditional—indeed, is predicated—on promoting gender equality and respect for women because, at the moment, it often feels as if it is given to those who shout the loudest?

My Lords, the provisions of the Equality Act 2010 must be adhered to by all who provide a public service. Any specific allegations about gender-selective abortions being undertaken will be reported to the police. Abortion on the grounds of gender alone is illegal, as I have said. The Abortion Act is very clear on that point.

Have my noble friend and his department had any discussions with the General Medical Council on this matter? It needs to be made publicly clear that, as he said, whatever happens in other countries, this practice is not acceptable in this country.

My Lords, my department is currently engaged in discussions with the GMC and other bodies with a view to publishing further guidance to doctors on these issues.

My Lords, there is an opportunity coming up where this can be underlined. At the moment, the procedures for the approval of independent sector places for the termination of pregnancy are being revised. Will Her Majesty’s Government undertake to ensure that they spell out clearly and unequivocally that termination on grounds of gender alone is illegal and that an appeal on gender alone is insufficient to satisfy the mental health criteria of the Abortion Act?

My Lords, as I have said, the guidance to abortion providers will be updated and that will include the guidance to independent sector providers. It will be made abundantly clear that gender selection is illegal.

The Minister has explained the issue extremely clearly. When the next tranche of research on live births comes through, will the Government undertake to dig deep into it to ensure that illegal sex-selective abortions are not taking place? Secondly, there is a statement in today’s Daily Telegraph about 36 abortion centres that are giving unreliable and misleading advice to women who wish to discuss terminations—for example, by telling them that if they have a termination they may get breast cancer. I know that the Department of Health has issued guidelines on this but I would like to know what the Government intend to do about it.

On the noble Baroness’s first question, the detailed analysis that we did last year was quality-assured by the methodology team at the Office for National Statistics. I can tell her that the team will quality-assure the future analysis of data each year. On the story in the Daily Telegraph, patients should be able to expect impartial advice from the NHS. CCGs and NHS providers must account for the counselling services that they recommend. Guidance on the provision of non-judgmental counselling was included in the Government’s framework for sexual health improvement, published in March last year.