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Caroline Farrow: MPs must wake up to the sex-selective abortion nightmare

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Far be it from me to be ageist, but you have to wonder whether or not it’s time for the 81-year-old Wendy Savage, retired gynaecologist and obstetrician, to step down from British Medical Association’s ethics committee, as she appears to have a tenuous grasp of facts and reality.

In an interview with the Mail on Sunday, Professor Savage makes the outrageous claim that women ought to be able to abort their babies on the grounds of their not being the desired gender right up until the point of birth.

According to our learned professor, “If a woman does not want to have a foetus who is one sex or the other, forcing her [to go through with the pregnancy] is not going to be good for the eventual child, and it’s not going to be good for [the mother’s] mental health.”

Which all sounds very convincing, except for the fact that this is all supposition. There is absolutely no data or empirical evidence to suggest that mothers prevented from having sex-selective abortions suffer any related mental health difficulties and neither is there similar research suggesting that outcomes are poorer for children whose mother had hoped that they might be the opposite gender. There is not a shred of evidence linking child neglect with a women not being able to have an abortion. And even if there were, would a woman’s distress morally justify her being able to kill her unborn baby, long past the point of viability, another thing that Professor Savage is asking for?

The average pregnancy lasts 40 weeks during which most women become reconciled to their status and begin to joyfully anticipate the arrival of their little one, even if they were unplanned or not the sex that they had perhaps hoped for. In terms of forcing women, since when did not performing an abortion on an unborn child constitute violence? This is cliché much beloved of the pro-choice movement, who have co-opted the violence and harm done to the unborn child and conferred it on the woman to consolidate her top-trump victim status.

Where in the Hippocratic Oath does ‘do no harm’ equate to kill an unborn baby because control-freak mother can’t cope with not getting her own way, or because said child doesn’t live up to the mother’s idea of what constitutes a ‘perfect’ family? Admittedly many woman who have sex-selective abortions in this country don’t do so for quite such trite reasons, but because they are forced or coerced by cultural and familial pressure. Is this really something that Professor Savage wants to sanction? It doesn’t seem very feminist to me, especially when it is predominantly girls who are wiped out by sex-selective abortion. Rather than succumbing to male pressure or a culture that treats women as lesser beings, wouldn’t it be more empowering to teach women to stand up to such patriarchal pressure?

It might seem ‘outrageous’ to Wendy Savage that the knowledge of a baby’s sex is denied to a mother, but for many women this lack of information acts as a vital safety barrier, enabling her to reach that vital 24-week barrier, after which point she will not be able to abort the baby. Arguably, with the easy availability of private scans, it’s a moot point, but it isn’t actually a human right to know the baby’s sex prior to birth and indeed many woman prefer to keep it as a surprise. Anyone who has had such a scan will also testify that there is no guarantee of 100 per cent accuracy.

It highlights how the NHS ante-natal screening programme is thought of by professionals as being just another opportunity to give a woman a choice to abort. It makes sense really. If you are going to screen for abnormalities in order to give a woman an opt-out, then why not add in sex? Those of us who think that ante-natal screening ought to be for delivering therapeutic treatment to the baby either inside or ex-utero, or for ensuring that appropriate care measures can be put in place where necessary for delivery, are clearly being naive. It’s all about a woman’s right to know.

Imagine if a child’s future sexual orientation could be accurately determined before they were born? What if (and it’s highly unlikely thanks to Christian beliefs about the sanctity of life) a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim wanted to abort a baby on the grounds that he or she were going to grow up gay, or transgender and incompatible with their religious beliefs. That being gay would cause such distress to both you, the child and the wider family that they would be far better off being aborted. You’d have social services round your house quicker than you could say Ukip, claiming said religious beliefs were harmful, could endanger the emotional health of your children, turn them into bigots and any existing children would be whipped into care along with the baby as soon as they were born. It would be utterly reprehensible and socially unacceptable to deny a child its life on the grounds of sexuality, so why should gender, or disability for that matter, be any different?

At the start of her respected 35-year career in obstetrics, it wasn’t even possible to determine the sex of the unborn child, therefore how did Ms Savage’s patients get on then with this outrageous denial of information? As a scientist she ought to know that anecdote is not the plural of data, therefore just because she only ever had to deal with a handful of cases of women requesting abortion after the 24 week limit, the stats bear out a different story. As indeed they do when it comes to the estimated 4,700 girls who are missing in the UK when it comes to sex-selective abortion. Would Wendy listen to the testimony of UK women who were coerced into sex-selective abortion and now campaign for its explicit removal?

Most basic of all, this influential professor doesn’t even seem to have read any embryology textbooks, as she refers to a foetus as a potential human life, claiming that gender discrimination only refers to living people. This is sub-GCSE level stuff. It is indisputable scientific fact that a new human life is formed at fertilisation whereby a new living organism comes into existence. The debate about abortion is philosophical, hinging on what status and rights ought to be afforded to this new human being. Should personhood coincide with physical development, sentience and the ability to survive outside the womb or should we treat all human beings as equal, right from their very beginnings?

It would be easy to dismiss Professor Savage’s interview as the ravings of an extremist fringe, one symbolised by an aptly-named octogenarian desperate to justify a career in which she provided abortions. It’s certainly one that’s out of step with public opinion on the matter in which four out of five adults believe that sex-selective abortion ought to be banned. A further 92 per cent of women would also disagree with Professor Savage’s call for abortion pills to be made available over the net, believing that women wanting an abortion should always see a doctor.

But both of these things, abortion pills dispensed like sweeties (a licence to rapists and child abusers), and the savage killing of a fully-formed baby on the grounds of it being the wrong sex, are precisely what has just been agreed in Parliament, with the passing of Diana Johnson’s 10 minute rule Bill last week. Hopefully this will be the wake-up that MPs need, meaning that more of them will actually bother to turn up and vote it down, when the Bill has its first reading.

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Caroline Farrow
Columnist for the Catholic Universe

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