Should Gender Based Abortions Be Illegal?
By Bea Mahmood
An investigation recently showed that the illegal practise of gender based abortions has become commonplace in many South Asian families living in Britain. Led by The Independent newspaper, the study into sex-selective abortions has found that Bangladeshi, Indian and Pakistani women are more likely to terminate their unborn female child to ensure that they only have sons.
The inquiry involved an analysis of the 2011 Census which highlighted a significant shortfall in the proportion of girls. The newspaper revealed an anomaly amongst some first-generation immigrants. The study showed that in two-child families, having elder daughters first increased the chances of a male second child significantly, a heavily-biased ratio which is quite uncommon. The Independent’s research showed that gender selective abortions has led to the disappearance of a shocking amount of females. Now referred to as ‘The Lost Girls’, between 1400 – 4500 females have disappeared due to terminations following an ultrasound scan to determine the sex of the baby.
The practice is particularly prevalent in countries such as India and China, where there is an established gender heirarchy embedded in the culture, with males perched firmly at the top. However, it seems the procedure has found its place in Britain, as there is evidence to suggest that even British ethnic women are forced to succumb to social and cultural pressures to abort female foetuses.
The Abortion Act (1967) does not explicitly ban the implementation of gender-biased terminations, a loophole which has become an advantage to many British South Asian families who seek to have exclusively male offspring. The research has sparked widespread debate on the ethics of revealing the sex of unborn children to new parents. Following the release of The Independent’s figures, many politicians and campaigners have argued for withholding the gender of unborn babies until later in the pregnancy when abortion is no longer an option.
Cultures which favour males are also known to force a miscarriage instead of insisting on a termination. Pushing an expecting mother down the stairs is just one of the horrifying methods of ensuring a home-termination. With no option but to wait until birth to discover what the gender the child is, illegalising the procedure could serve as a preventative measure against such appalling acts and significantly change the lives of many.
However, a blanket ban on revealing the sex of an unborn baby is deemed unfair by some. Those where gender hierarchy is non-existent feel unnecessarily stripped of the right to know what sex their child will be. For the sake of a few problems within a select group of communities, is it unjust that every woman in the UK be denied the right to know the gender of her baby before birth?
Racial profiling is not an alternative, as it would most certainly aggravate existing sensitivities. Speaking on BBC debate show The Big Questions, Rahila Gupta, Director of Southall Black Sisters, argues against this method: ‘There should be no racial profiling because there is no way of looking at a woman and telling whether she would be in favour of having a girl or a boy child or whether she’s under pressure or not, so I would say no profiling whatsoever.’
One reader of Entouraaj, who fathered a baby girl last year, told us: ‘When we went for our scan, you could tell immediately the midwife was uncomfortable revealing the sex of the baby. My wife wears a headscarf and so it was obvious what she was thinking.’
In the name of preventative terminations, perhaps a blanket ban isn’t a terrible idea. Rahila argues that concealment of the gender can actually help the mother: ‘It empowers the woman against the family because if something is illegal, it is outside of their control.’ The shift in the balance of power is now in the mother’s favour because she is protected from both violence and forced abortion by law.
The ethical issues surrounding abortion are most definitely blurred in a general sense, with some likening it to murder and others believing it is an unselfish choice to not become a parent. However, the debate of whether or not the gender of the child should be revealed pre-birth does beg the question – what quality of life would a female child lead if she is born into a family who see women as inferior?
Jasvinder Sanghera of women’s rights charity Karma Nirvana also revealed on The Big Questions: ‘We have calls on the helpline where women have rung in saying I’ve given birth to a [female] child and it’s like a funeral in my house’.
In families who believe girls to be a burden and an economic liability, is it constructive to allow them to have female children at all? It doesn’t seem fair to allow a girl child to live a life where she is constantly perceived as a disappointment or even a mistake.
Abortion based on gender is wholly sexist and supports archaeic thinking, but allowing a female child to grow up unloved is equally upsetting. Will these cultures ever find a way out of this catch-22?