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'Illegal abortions for wrong sex babies'

There have been several reports in the media suggesting that some doctors in British clinics are agreeing to abortions solely because of the foetus’ gender.

The allegations stem from an undercover investigation by The Daily Telegraph, which said it had secretly filmed three doctors offering to arrange terminations after being told the women did not want to go ahead with the pregnancy because of the sex of the foetus. The paper has posted edited highlights of the secret filming online.

Abortion for non-medical purposes, for example, because of the foetus’ gender alone, is illegal in Britain. The Abortion Act 1967 covers England, Scotland and Wales, but not Northern Ireland.  

What is the basis for these current reports?

In a report this week, the Telegraph said it carried out an investigation into the possible abortion of a foetus on the grounds of its unwanted gender after concerns were raised that the procedure was becoming increasingly common “for cultural and social reasons”.

Acting on specific information, undercover reporters accompanied four pregnant women of different ethnic backgrounds to nine abortion clinics in different parts of the country. In three instances, it said, doctors were recorded offering to arrange terminations after being told the woman did not want to go ahead with the pregnancy because of the sex of the foetus. 

Are abortions legally available “on demand” in Britain?

No. It’s a common misconception that a woman “has the right to choose” an abortion or that she can have an abortion carried out “on demand”.

Nevertheless, there are some 200,000 abortions carried out in Britain each year and a third of British women will have had an abortion by the time they reach the age of 45.

What does the law actually say on abortion?

The 1967 Abortion Act governs abortion in England, Wales and Scotland. Under the Act, termination of a pregnancy under 24 weeks is legally justified if two doctors “decide in good faith” that one or more of the following grounds are fulfilled:

  • Continuing with the pregnancy would be a greater risk to the woman’s life than ending the pregnancy.
  • Continuing with the pregnancy would involve a greater risk of injury to the woman’s physical or mental healththan ending the pregnancy.
  • Continuing with the pregnancy would be more of a risk to the physical or mental health of any of the woman’s existing children than ending the pregnancy.
  • There is a real risk that the child, if born, would have a serious physical or mental disability.

In 1990, the Act was amended to include “the selective reduction of a multiple pregnancy” as a permissible reason for abortion.

In the case of an emergency where there is risk of a serious injury or threat to the mother’s life, only one doctor needs to agree to an abortion.

The Act also allows abortion past the 24-week point in circumstances where it is likely to cause “grave, permanent injury” (physical or mental) to the pregnant woman.

The vast majority (over 95%) of the 200,000 induced abortions carried out in Britain each year are clinically justified on mental injury grounds: which are that to continue the pregnancy would cause a greater mental injury than having it terminated.

Does the law say anything about abortion on the grounds of gender?

No. But agreeing to an abortion on the grounds of the foetus’ gender alone, without a medical reason to support it, would not be viewed as fulfilling the medical criteria required by law.

Would there ever be any legal justification for an abortion on the grounds of gender?

If a foetus was found to have a genetic, sex-linked disorder that would cause serious disability, this might fulfil the legal, medical criteria for terminating the pregnancy. Sex-linked disorders are inherited through one of the X or Y chromosomes.

It may also be possible that a foetus could be aborted because of its gender if the gender issue could be shown to risk “injury” to the mother’s mental health. The predicted injury would have to be deemed greater than any caused by the termination. 

On what grounds are most abortions allowed?

According to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, of the 200,000 abortions carried out each year in Britain, 98% were carried out because the mother was less than 24 weeks pregnant and the continuation of the pregnancy would involve a greater risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman. Of these, the vast majority are justified on grounds of mental, rather than physical, injury.  

What happens next?

The health secretary, Andrew Lansley, has told the Telegraph that the Department of Health (DH) would be speaking to the police about the allegations to investigate whether criminal offences have been committed. He said the DH would furthermore ask the General Medical Council to investigate individual clinicians. The DH has also asked the Care Quality Commission (the NHS regulator) to inspect the named clinics urgently. The DH chief medical officer has written to all clinics licensed to carry out abortions to remind them of the requirements of the Abortion Act.

Two of the doctors filmed have reportedly been suspended.

Who can I talk to about whether to continue my pregnancy?

If you are pregnant and don’t know what to do, a good starting point is to consult the fpa (Family Planning Association) guide to your options.

Further reading

Legislation

Chief Medical Officer’s letter

Evidence-based clinical guidelines

Statistical bulletin

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