Doctors warned against carrying out abortions based on gender of foetus


‘Daily Telegraph’ inquiry showing doctors ready to do ‘social’ terminations raises passions in UK

IN 2007, an Oxford University study found clear evidence that women of Indian background living in Britain were having abortions because the foetus was not a boy.

Similar evidence existed elsewhere: “Male preference in many Asian cultures results in discriminatory practices against females, including neglect and infanticide,” wrote researcher Sylvie Dubuc.

Following months of investigation, the Daily Telegraphnewspaper in London has recently found examples that some abortion clinics are prepared to carry out such abortions, with few, if any, questions asked.

In her research, Dubuc found there had been a four percentage point increase since 1990 in the numbers of boys born to ethnic Indian mothers living in Britain. “This suggests that sex-selective abortion is occurring among mothers born in India and living in Britain,” she said, adding no significant increase had been found among Pakistani or Bangladeshi mothers. “It seems that male preference in different cultures does not necessarily lead to sex-selective abortion.”

However, the issue is not confined to the Indian community, since women from different ethnic backgrounds were accompanied by undercover Telegraphreporters to nine clinics. In three, doctors agreed to termination, even though they were clearly told that the reason the women wanted one was because they were unhappy about the sex of the foetus.

In Edgbaston in Birmingham, Dr Raj Mohan of the Calthorpe Clinic was secretly filmed offering a woman an abortion because she was unhappy at the prospect of a daughter. “It’s like female infanticide, isn’t it?” he said, before going on to agree to carry out the termination – which is deemed to be illegal under the 1967 Abortion Act, though a few lawyers have a doubt on this point.

Detectives yesterday visited the Telegraphto talk to the reporters involved in the investigation, while the department of health passed on concerns about the Calthorpe’s paperwork recently raised by the Care Quality Commission.

Abortion is legal in the UK up to the 24th week if two doctors decide in good faith that the continuation of a pregnancy would damage the physical or mental health of a woman. It is also allowed if doctors accept there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped, the College of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists said.

Despite the availability of contraception under the National Health Service, there were 189,574 abortions in England and Wales in 2010 – an eight per cent increase in the past decade.

Tests available on the internet, according to Prof Thérèse Hesketh of University College London’s global health unit, can now tell the sex of a foetus at just seven weeks into pregnancy.

Last year, the Council of Europe urged that all of its 47 member states should stop doctors from telling parents of the sex of their baby because of its concern about so-called “social abortions”.

Some British hospitals have stopped doing so, while the current controversy may lead to an official ban – even if that will do nothing to stop the availability of online testing.

The closure of such internet services – however difficult that would be to manage in reality – would be “a big step forward”, Prof Hesketh has declared.

Following the Telegraph’sinvestigation, doctors have been suspended, while the General Medical Council is to mount a separate inquiry to the one now under way by Scotland Yard.

The Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists insists that abortion law clearly bans sex-selection abortions, according to its ethics committee head, Gillian Lockwood.

“Every clinician working in the field in the UK is very well aware that a foetus being the wrong gender is not grounds for termination under any circumstances.”

Warning doctors that they will face the full force of the law if they are found guilty of breaches, secretary of state for health Andrew Lansley said Westminster, not doctors, decided the law.

“Carrying out an abortion on the grounds of gender alone is in my view morally repugnant. It is also illegal.

“If some professionals disagree with the law as it stands they should argue their case for change. Simply flouting them in a belief that they know better is unacceptable.”

However, Prof Sally Sheldon of the Kent Law School is not so sure, arguing that sex selection “was not in the mind” of MPs when they laid down the rules in the 1967 legislation.

Meanwhile, the passions raised by abortion were illustrated by the Conservative-leaning writer Philip Blond, who posed the question: “Bizarre that those who support abortion find selective sex abortion objectionable – it’s only about choice and the foetus is nothing . . . No?”