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Cora Sherlock: No Oscars for the feminists who voted for sex selective abortion


There is something farcical about the women’s movement at times.  It certainly was the case on Monday, when two arenas with an ocean separating them gave a platform to equality.  Twitter was alight with news of both, but for very different reasons.

During the Oscar ceremony in the Kodak Theatre, Patricia Arquette’s acceptance speech for her Best Supporting Actress Award was concluded with a call to arms: women, she said, did the same work as men and so they should be rewarded with the same pay.  Giving a shout-out “to every woman who has given birth”, she made a well-received call for “wage equality”, at which point the camera cut to Meryl Streep and Jennifer Lopez, sitting together as they whooped and cheered in what is most likely one of the most-viewed clips from the show.

Fast forward a few hours to another grand amphitheatre, this time the Houses of Parliament, and the much anticipated attempt by Conservative MP Fiona Bruce to introduce an amendment to Section 5 of the Serious Crime Bill.  Her intention was to clarify for once and for all that sex selective abortion is illegal in Britain, and that there are no instances where it can be allowed under the 1967 Abortion Act.

On the face of it, an amendment that tries to confirm this fact should be straightforward enough.  It’s no secret that baby boys are not targeted by sex selective abortion.  In 2010, The Economist ran a cover story about how the world is missing an estimated 100 million baby girls due to infanticide and abortion.  “The War on Baby Girls”, they called it, and while attention has been drawn to the horrors of China’s One Child Policy by activists like Reggie Littlejohn and Chen Guangcheng, sex selective abortions have slowly but surely been creeping into societies where they would previously have been considered unthinkable.

A number of undercover investigations reported in The Daily Telegraph revealed that doctors in Britain were also willing to sign off on abortions where the unborn baby was a girl rather than the more desirable boy, and the resultant discussions over whether or not this practice was actually illegal under the 1967 Act should have meant that Bruce’s amendment was a fait accompli.  After all, you’d have thought, there may be many feminists who disagree on whether abortion should be legal or not, but surely they would all oppose a measure which allows baby girls to be specifically targeted in the womb?

You’d think so, wouldn’t you?  Unfortunately, that doesn’t take into account current pro-choice ideology, something which has become so bound up in the merits of abortion that it has completely lost all semblance of objectivity or reason.

In the weeks leading up to this vote, we’ve heard from pro-choice groups, who have been at pains to show how they can retain their feminist credentials while refusing to support the amendment.  This isn’t possible of course, but for pro-life advocates, it’s been an interesting exercise in observing just how far abortion supporters will go to avoid any restrictions on abortion, even if those restrictions are intended to protect the rights of baby girls.

So we’ve been told that this is an attempt to “plant pro-life views into the law”, or “return to the days of botched back-street abortions”.  The law must remain as it stands, we heard, or parents wouldn’t be able to screen out certain genetic diseases (does this mean that baby girls should be discarded if they are unwell?  That doesn’t sound very pro-woman to me).  There’s been another argument too, one that I find particularly curious – that we must first address “wider cultural factors regarding the complex issue of son preference before legislation”.  This quote, appearing on the Twitter feed of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (who roundly opposed the amendment and welcomed its defeat as “a victory for women”) deserves further examination.

There is no doubt that there are many cultural factors at work in societies where it’s considered preferable to give birth to a baby boy.  It’s true to say that this amendment wouldn’t have solved the entire problem.  But it would have been a step in the right direction.  When faced with a huge problem, there is a phrase that is sadly appropriate here – we should be taking baby steps.  Baby steps towards breaking down the pressures that tell women they should choose abortion of a baby girl over the taboo of giving birth to that baby.  The idea that we should deal with the “culture” before the legislation is farcical, and groups like BPAS know this.  Sometimes legislation follows culture changes, but sometimes legislation has to take the lead.

If we were still willing to wait for “culture” to change before laws were enacted, then very few would actually pass into law.  Would ordinary citizens opt to give up smoking in pubs of their own accord?  Decide that they aren’t, in fact, able to drive when they’ve had “only” one drink? It’s unlikely.  And even if that’s true, then it isn’t true of the type of culture that discriminates against baby girls.   In those societies, the practice of discrimination has continued for generations.  The law needs to take the lead and introduce the type of measures that are going to bring change about.  Feminists know this to be true, and by and large they support measures that fight discrimination against women.  It’s only when those measures start to point at one of the main culprits – abortion – that groups like BPAS start to get squeamish.

Just what is it about abortion that has such an effect on people?  Even those who defend it as a practice usually fall short from describing it as something good.  We’re told it’s a “necessary evil”, a “service” that women must have access to.  The problem at this stage is that abortion has become far more important than the women we’re told it serves.  No criticism can be levelled at it.  Attempts to restrict it are labelled as anti-women and misogynistic.  This has never been more evident than during the past week when we saw the spectacle of women’s groups insisting that one group of women should have the right to end the lives of another group of women, for no reason other than the fact that they will be born female! This isn’t women’s liberation; this is the tragic, twisted result of a society that deludes women into thinking abortion is something that must be protected, no matter what.

Fiona Bruce and the other MPs who supported this amendment are to be congratulated for their efforts, and encouraged to continue with their work.  Groups like BPAS may be celebrating, but their so-called “victory” is hollow.  This was no victory for the women’s movement.  Instead, it was a failure – a failure to clarify that no woman should be discriminated against because of her gender, regardless of whether she is an Oscar-winning actress or an unborn female relying on others to lend her a voice.

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Cora Sherlock
Cora Sherlock
Cora is a human rights activist, lawyer & writer. She is also Deputy Chair of the Pro-Life Campaign in Ireland.

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