Ethnic minorities and others in the United Kingdom have reportedly performed thousands of illegal abortions on female fetuses after learning their babies' gender through ultrasound. For hundreds of thousands of married couples in Britain whose families hail from India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and elsewhere, infant sons are prized, while baby girls are often viewed as a curse and a financial burden. As a result, a study of data from the 2011 National Census by the Independent newspaper revealed that gender-based abortions have affected the sex ratio of certain minority communities in England and Wales.
In response to the Independent’s findings, the Department of Health said it will investigate the disturbing practice. According to the paper’s report, somewhere between 1,400 and 4,700 infant girls seem to have “disappeared” as a result of couples choosing to abort female fetuses.
Such practices are widespread in India, where sex ratios have become greatly skewed in favor of males. Now, it appears this gender-control policy may have been imported to Britain. Abortion based on “sex selection is against the law and completely unacceptable,” said a spokesman for the Health Department. Abortion has been legal in England and Wales since 1967.
Reportedly, in 2011, some 10 percent of the 190,000 legal abortions that took place in England and Wales were performed after the 13th week of pregnancy, by which time the gender of the fetus is easily discernible on ultrasound scans. Some lawmakers in UK are considering having the results of ultrasound scans withheld from parents until late in the mother’s pregnancy in order to minimize such gender-selective abortions.
Dr. Sarah Wollaston, who is a member of House of Commons health select committee, and is a Conservative MP for Totnes in Devon, said the Independent’s findings conflict with the Department of Health’s own probe from last year, which concluded that ethnic minority communities were not intentionally aborting girls.
“There should be a consultation on whether it is suitable to withhold information about gender during those early scans,” Wollaston said, according to The Independent. “It would be excessively draconian to say that a woman cannot know at all, but the idea of postponing that information needs to be part of the discussion. The government also needs to look again at its own research into the issue.”
Wollaston also placed the onus on minority communities to address this issue. “We also need to hear a very, very clear voice from within the communities affected by this problem that it is totally unacceptable,” she said. “Until people acknowledge that there is a problem you will not change anything. Ultimately the solution to this issue lies within the communities themselves.”
In Britain and many Western countries, the average sex ratio at birth is about 105 boys for every 100 girls – but in parts of India and China, there are as many as 140 boys for every 100 girls. Rani Bilkhu of a British womens’ rights group called Jeena International, based in Slough, a city with a heavy ethnic minority population, described gender-based abortion as a form of “womb terrorism.” “The government can no longer brush this practice under the carpet, appease communities or be ignorant,” she said. “This is not a debate on pro-choice or pro-life, but an issue of violence against women before they are born.”
Some politicians are indeed seeking to ban such forms of abortion. In a joint statement, MPs Fiona Bruce (of the Scottish Conservative Party) and Jim Dobbin (Labour Co-operative), co-chairs of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, said: “This confirms what many of us have been saying for some time. Abortion legislation clearly needs to be revisited to clarify and confirm specifically that abortion on the ground of gender is illegal -- legislation as currently drafted does not specifically prohibit it in so many words since this situation was never envisaged when the original legislation was passed. A review of the abortion legislation is now needed.”
However, at the other end of the political spectrum, some pro-abortion-rights groups in the UK fear that any restrictions on gender-based termination of pregnancies may lead to more comprehensive restrictions on abortion. “The problem here is not abortion, it is gender discrimination,” said Clare Murphy, director of external affairs for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the UK’s biggest abortion provider: “Our concern would be the potential for new regulation in abortion which is designed to make it much harder for women to access services and reduce the latitude for doctors to make decisions when it comes to assessing a woman.”
A representative of one of Britain’s largest ethnic minority groups, Sikhs who hail from Punjab in northwestern India, declared that gender-based abortions and sex discrimination were anathema. “Regrettably, there is a man-made gender discrimination,” said Dr. Rami Ranger, chairman of the British Sikh Association. “Many consider that a boy will stay with his family and look after the business, wealth and properties, whereas girls will marry and leave their homes to join their spouses. We must condemn discrimination of every kind as no country or community can progress by turning assets into liabilities through discrimination.”
Amartya Sen, an Indian-born Nobel Prize-winning economist, has also condemned the practice of aborting unborn baby girls in India, likening it to a form of gender discrimination. “Selective abortion of female fetuses... is a kind of high-tech manifestation of preference for boys,” he told UK media.
A 2006 study undertaken by Indian researchers and published in Britain’s Lancet magazine estimated that at least 10 million female fetuses have been aborted in India since 1990, when virtually every maternity hospital in the country had ultrasound machines available.
In many South Asian families, a first-born daughter is "tolerable," but that only increases the pressures and expectations that the next children will be boys. Jasvinder Sanghera, a British Asian activist who campaigns against honor killings and forced marriage through a Leeds-based organization called Karma Nirvana, told UK media that she has no doubts that South Asian couples in the country are aborting female fetuses. "I think almost any Asian woman you talk to would say she feels a pressure to have a male child,” she said. “There will be many, many Asian women out there who are pregnant and who are thinking, 'please, please let it be a boy'. If you have a daughter, these women will tell us, they feel they have let their husband or in-laws down. In those circumstances, women are seeking abortions if they can find out that the child is a girl."
There are many reasons why some South Asian families prefer infant sons – as a way to guarantee the continuation of lineage and name, the generally higher incomes that men earn in society, the often expensive dowry payments required to give away a daughter in marriage, among others. "These attitudes are completely alive and kicking in our communities,” Sanghera added. “And yet nobody is speaking out about them. We should be in no doubt at all, this preference for sons and pressuring a woman to achieve that end is part of the same set of problems as honor abuse and forced marriage. But there is no counter message coming out of our mosques, [Hindu] temples or [Sikh] gurdwaras."
Yasmin Alibhai Brown, a British-Asian female columnist, said the government must intervene, citing that these “hateful attitudes” are rooted in “corrupted religious texts and archaic expectations” and exist even now in early 21st century Britain. “The girls are still devalued even among third generation, British-born Asians,” she wrote. “I can’t see this mindset shifting soon. Communities will carry on protecting these customs. So lawmakers and medical professionals will have to come up with stricter controls on clinics and maybe withhold information on fetal gender until pregnancies are advanced.”
But the preference for baby boys has also skewed gender ratios in various other nations far from India, including Albania, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. Indeed, Sen, who issued a warning about gender-based abortions many years ago, estimated at the time that some 100 million baby girls around the world have suffered the ultimate punishment due to the “crime” of being female. That number is likely to have doubled since Sen expressed his fears three decades ago.
“These numbers tell us, quietly, a terrible story of inequality and neglect leading to the excess mortality of women,” Sen wrote in an essay. “If this situation is to be corrected by political action and public policy, the reasons why there are so many ‘missing’ women must first be understood. We confront here what is clearly one of the more momentous, and neglected, problems facing the world today.”
The subject of abortion (whether by gender bias on not) is highly emotionally charged and raises medical ethics questions. Dr. John Keown, professor of Christian Ethics at the Kennedy Institute of Ethics at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., said in an interview that the views of medical ethicists vary on gender abortion. “But it would be fair to say that even some ethicists who are 'pro-choice' have reservations about abortion on grounds of fetal gender, especially as the evidence about the practice worldwide indicates that it is predominantly girls who are targeted,” he stated.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.