A Humanist View on the Devolution of Abortion Legislation

Abortion Devolution

by Meryl Cubley, originally published in the 2015 Summer edition of Humanitie Magazine.

In the last edition [of Humanitie magazine] we published a letter from A Blackadder, who responded to the failed attempt by Fiona Bruce MP to clarify the abortion law which would make sex selection abortion illegal.

Sarah Ditum recently wrote in the New Statesman that it was imperative that the ban on gender-based abortion was opposed. She said: “…rather than penalise vulnerable women, we should tackle the misogynist culture (that) deems a female child to be worth less.”

The topic of femicide is not one that people are clamouring to discuss. Yet the cold hard fact is that we still live in a word where women are abused, hurt and killed simply because we are women.

The World Health Organisation released information that states that of the 21.6 million women who undergo unsafe abortion worldwide each year, 47,000 die as a result of complications.

Ditum reported that the death toll accounts for almost 13 per cent of all maternal mortality”.

The mass media doesn’t like to cover the everyday violence towards women that we as women cope with on a daily basis. Femicide just doesn’t sell newspapers or procure massive online hits.

However, sex-selective abortion does make the headlines. Debate and discussion soon follows, as does a reactionary knee-jerk of legislative attention.

And why not? Who in their right mind would oppose gender-selective abortion?

Well firstly, it doesn’t work.

“Although sex-selective abortion was outlawed in India in 1994, the legislation has never been effectively enforced and there has been no alteration in a birth rate that is stubbornly biased towards boy babies,” reported Ditum. “As the United Nations Population Fund points out, this is only to be expected in a state where multiple other statutes and customs enforce the son preference. If only sons can inherit property, while daughters require expensive dowries to be married off, and if women are subject to child marriage and endemic sexual assault, it seems obvious that many parents would see girls as at best a misfortune, at worst financial ruin.

“Making sex selection illegal did not change the viciously misogynistic conditions in which sex selection took place, and so sex selection did not stop.” She goes on to say: “From Taiwan, there’s more evidence that foetal femicide is an extension of the violence practised against the born rather than an isolated phenomenon. A 2008 paper by Ming-Jen Lin, Jin-Tan Liu and Nancy Qian concluded that, while the availability of sexselective abortion in Taiwan had led to fewer girls being born, it had also led to a decrease in relative female neo-natal mortality. It’s a cold sort of accounting but the truth is this: wherever sex-selective abortion takes place, the determining factor is not its legality, but the existence of an extreme femicidal culture that fatally devalues women.”

A change in the abortion laws will do nothing for the women who are the victims of male violence. Does Bruce et al really think that the man who punches and kicks his wife would balk at forcing her to have an unsafe backstreet abortion?

Ditum went on to report that according to a spokesperson from the office of Yvette Cooper MP, there are further concerns from medics that outlawing sex-selective abortion will impinge on parents who wish to avoid having a child with a sex-related congenital disorder.

There is also the phrase that Bruce used – the “unborn child.”

As the law currently stands, the foetus does not have the legal status of a person in English and Welsh law. Under Scotland’s law the foetus is considered to be part of the mother’s body; and to change this would be a deliberate step moving further towards the Republic of Ireland where the ‘right to life’ of the foetus is at direct odds with the health and wellbeing of the woman – sometimes to the death of the woman as was the case with Savita Halappanavar – and sometimes with extreme brutally as was the case of Migrant X – who was raped, prevented from obtaining an abortion, and then subjected to a forced caesarean.

“Fiona Bruce’s amendment makes women into vessels containing and controlled by the unborn – a misogynist logic,” saidDitum, “and as feminist philosopher Mary Daly pointed out, that casts the foetus as something like an astronaut andthe pregnant woman as the inanimate craft designed to protect the inhabitant. Its consequences for women can only be dreadful.”

So why not conduct an investigation into sexselective abortion and develop a plan of action with healthcare workers, as is the alternative action formulated by Cooper and other MPs. Ditum said that such a plan would entail a reckoning with the shocking impact of the cuts on refuges, such as those that offer specialist services for black and minority ethnicity women, who are disproportionately affected by the pressure to select for sex.

Jill Radford, one of the first to recognise the scope and savagery of femicide throughout all cultures, wrote: “Where the right of women to control their own fertility is not recognised… women die from botched abortions.” It would mean acknowledging that the problem here is not women’s ‘choice’, but male violence. And critically, it will achieve this without altering the 1967 Abortion Act and restricting women’s reproductive rights.

Third Force News (tfn) the voice of Scotland’s third sector, reported that MPs were advised to reject devolution of the abortion law, due to the possibility of the erosion of a woman’s right to choose.

A range of third sector groups are concerned thatdevolving powers over abortion to the Scottish Parliament could lead to “discrimination” which could undermine a woman’s right to choose.

Concerns were raised when a devolutionurging amendment to the Scotlandl Bill, which is currently making its way through the UK parliament, was tabled by MPs who are all members of a cross-party pro-life group.

As A Blackadder pointed out in last edition’s letters response: “We must be careful of using the term gendercide as the main gendercide groups are fundamentally antiabortion…”

The European Humanist Federation, who run with the tagline that sexual and reproductive rights are human rights, said that back in 2013 it was clear that there would be troubled times ahead for sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR) in the EU. Opponents worked hard to impede new progressive developments in this area, often relying on religious beliefs. A main objective is to forbid access to legal and safe abortion and contraception for women in Europe.

Religious beliefs are not an obstacle to women’s SRHR but religious extremism is. Extremist religious groups try to impose their own conservative views at the EU level, ignoring the views of many religious and nonreligious people.

Internationally, a recent dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on Violence against Women at the UN Human Rights Council, the International Humanist and Ethical Union (IHEU)’s head of delegation, Elizabeth O’Casey, called on African states to comply with their international obligations on abortion.

In 2003, the African Union signed the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women (known as the Maputo Protocol),which, amongst other rights guarantees the right to abortion if a woman’s mental or physical health is at risk from pregnancy.

In response to devolution-urging amendment to the Scotland Bill, as said, tabled by MPs who are all members of a cross-party pro-life group, a statement was released in response containing the signatures of 17 individuals from organisations such as Engender, Scottish Women’s Aid, Zero Tolerance, Rape Crisis Scotland, the National Union of Students Scotland, Close the Gap, YWCA Scotland, the Scottish Women’s Convention, Women’s Support Project, Amnesty International, the Human Rights Consortium Scotland, the Scottish TUC and Abortion Rights Committee Scotland. It called on MPs to reject devolution of abortion laws and highlighted the situation in Northern Ireland, where the more restrictive laws have led to women travelling to mainland Britain for terminations.

The statement reads: “We are already in the situation in the UK where different legal frameworks of abortion have resultedin a discriminatory impact against women and girls in Northern Ireland, for which the UK has been repeatedly criticised internationally.

“Our concern is that this strategy of hasty devolution is being used in order to argue for regressive measures and, in turn, a differential and discriminatory impact on women and girls in Scotland.

“Women across the UK have fought for women’s bodies to be their own and, to this day, fight opposition to a woman’s right to choose. We do not wish this amendment to open the doors to those who seek to undermine this right.”

The women these laws claim to protect only result in treating them as criminals.

Photo courtesy: Steve Rhodes, Creative Commons.

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