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Abortion (Sex-Selection) Bill

Volume 758: debated on Tuesday 16 December 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what action they intend to take following the First Reading of the Abortion (Sex-Selection) Bill in the House of Commons on 4 November.

My Lords, abortion is traditionally an area where there is a free vote on Private Members’ Bills. We have made it clear on numerous occasions that abortion on the grounds of gender alone is illegal. We take this issue very seriously and will continue to monitor birth ratios and consider any evidence that comes to light.

My Lords, did my noble friend note that at the end of the First Reading debate on the Bill 181 MPs voted for it and only one voted against it and the tellers counting the vote against insisted that their votes be counted in favour of the Bill? Does he consider that this indicates acceptance of the evidence that abortion for gender reasons is going on and is causing very grave concern? Even a Minister saying in this House that this is illegal does not make it so: only a parliamentary Bill can do that. If gender equality means anything at all, surely the protection of the lives of baby girls is a matter of urgency.

My Lords, the legal position is not in doubt. It is illegal to abort a foetus based solely on its gender. The Abortion Act states that two practitioners have to be,

“of the opinion formed in good faith”,

that the woman had grounds for an abortion. It is for doctors, in line with any guidance from their professional bodies, to satisfy themselves that they are in a position to give the opinion and to defend it if challenged. We refreshed the guidance in May of this year to make the position crystal clear.

My Lords, anyone who seeks an abortion on the basis of wrong gender is perpetuating a practice that is not only morally repugnant but illegal, as the noble Earl said. Sex-selection abortion is banned in the UK under the Abortion Act 1967. Does the noble Earl agree that because this practice happens in certain places in the world it may be taking place illegally in those communities in the UK? What are Her Majesty’s Government doing to identify whether this is the case?

My Lords, our latest analysis of data by country of birth and ethnicity, which we have done for a second year running, found no evidence of sex selection taking place in the UK. Without exception, the wide variation in birth ratios was within the bounds expected. Any termination wilfully failing to meet the requirements of the Abortion Act will render those performing such procedures liable to prosecution under other legislation.

My Lords, given that many are concerned that we may not be protecting the most vulnerable in our society in this area, we need to understand the full extent of sex-selection abortion in this country, if indeed it is taking place. We need to collect and collate data. In the light of that, will the Minister tell the House what Her Majesty’s Government are doing to require the registration of the gender of foetuses using forms such as HSA4 or something similar so that we can actually have the evidence?

My Lords, we are not moving in that direction partly because it is frequently not possible to determine the sex of the foetus after an abortion.

Does the Minister agree that sex-selection abortion is not just illegal, as he says, but totally abhorrent? Does he further agree that, as the BMA has said that in some rare medical cases it may be necessary, it is really up to his department to issue clearer guidance as the Bill to which my noble friend referred is a 10-minute rule Bill that is not going anywhere? It is up to the department to issue guidance on this matter.

My Lords, we issued guidance in May of this year. It sets out the expectations around the procedure to be adopted by the two doctors involved: certifying that an abortion meets the criteria set out in the Act by considering the individual circumstances of the woman and how they reached their decision. The guidance also reaffirms our position that abortion on the grounds of gender alone is illegal.

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that in China there have been 34 million abortions on the grounds of the one-child policy and that that has led to a distortion in the population of 34 million more males than females? Similar policies in India using ultrasound scanning tests have also led to the targeting of little girls. Given that some of these policies have been financed directly or indirectly through development funds from our own Department for International Development, will the noble Earl undertake to speak to his colleagues in that department to ensure that no British taxpayers’ money is used for these purposes?

I am sure that noble Lords around the House will form their own conclusions on the information provided by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, but I do give that undertaking.

My Lords, is not one of the difficulties being faced by the practitioner the fact that the guidance talks about “alone”, whereas we know that the psychological issues which arise among women who are put under pressure to have only boys may count towards the rationale that produces the abortion? What, if anything, do the Government intend to do to address this issue?

My Lords, coercion and violence is of course an issue that is taken very seriously. Every woman who is being seen for a possible abortion has the opportunity to speak to a healthcare professional on her own. Those healthcare professionals are trained to be alert to the signs of coercion and violence and will take appropriate action.

My Lords, it is clearly counterintuitive to say that there is no linkage of the practice to certain ethnic communities. As the practice is clearly illegal, can the noble Earl tell us how many prosecutions there have been, how many of them were successful, and whether he believes that any sanctions are sufficient?

My Lords, to my knowledge there have not been any successful prosecutions in this area, but the decision by the Crown Prosecution Service not to prosecute two doctors involved in recent allegations led to the call for my department to reissue the guidance on this matter, which, as I have said, we did earlier this year.