Since the introduction of ultrasound to determine foetal sex, it is estimated that there are 90 million less females in the combined populations of China, India, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Pakistan, South Korea and Taiwan. In such patriarchal societies where women are viewed and treated as less equal a preference for male heirs is not unusual. In such societies a wife’s status- and therefore economic security- is not assured until she produces a son. Further, it is often the case that a dowry is required to marry off a daughter, whereas a son would bring in a dowry, thereby adding to the family’s wealth.
In the UK, the socio-economic context is different and yet police and the General Medical Council (GMC) confirmed this week that they are investigating claims that clinics in England are performing abortions based on the sex of the foetus. Evidence that non-medical bias against females is occurring in the UK was first highlighted in 2007, in a study of sex ratios at birth amongst Indian immigrants. Although abortion of female foetuses is a practice that is well documented in some countries, this was the first time such bias was observed in a Western Country.
Sex selective abortion is currently legal in the UK when there is a possibility of a hereditary sex-linked disease. There are several hundred known diseases that affect only males and prospective parents with a family history of such a condition are legally allowed to reduce the chance of their child suffering by ensuring they have a girl. But what about parents that would like to have a family that includes children of both sexes or have a general preference for children of one sex? When an ultrasound confirms a foetus of the undesirable sex are women in the UK opting to have an abortion?
The only actual quantitative evidence that this is occurring in the UK remains based in immigrant Indian communities, where ingrained cultural ideals are probably influencing choices. In such cases there may be wider pressure from the family to terminate the pregnancy based on sex-selection and this is an issue which must be addressed by health professionals. There is no evidence that this is typical in the wider community and outlawing non-medical sex-selective abortion would be futile, and impossible to police.
Abortion has been legal in the UK since 1967 and ultrasound technology in use from as early as 1961. Women are routinely referred for abortions on the NHS without having to offer any reason for the termination and they can even refer themselves privately if they wish. Women who want to abort pregnancies based on foetal sex are already doing so; they’re just not talking about it.