By Sarwar Alam
MPs and women’s campaigners have urged ministers to investigate cases of British Asian women carrying girl babies being “forced into abortions” after it emerged they terminate their pregnancies following early blood tests which reveal the unborn child’s gender.
Women can take the Non-Invasive Prenatal Test (NIPT) eight weeks into their pregnancy to check the foetus for genetic conditions such as Down’s Syndrome; the test can also tell the baby’s gender and has led to some Asian women aborting the child if they find out it is a girl.
The NHS is set to roll out this service from next month but health authorities will not disclose the sex of the baby, with parents waiting until the 20-week scan to find that out. Private clinics, however, offer to disclose the gender, and a BBC investigation found many women on online forums discussed aborting the foetus after finding out they were having a girl.
Labour MPs have urged the government to follow the example of India and China and ban this practice. Shadow women and equalities minister Naz Shah described sex-selection abortions as “morally wrong”.
“I believe it is not acceptable. It’s unethical,” Shah told the BBC this week. “It’s absolutely wrong for women to be under that pressure to have sex-selective abortions. Girls need to be celebrated as much as boys. I feel very strongly that the fight for gender equality shouldn’t be started in the womb.
“What we have now are men and women going into education and earning equally. The whole pres-sure of a woman being a burden because of a dowry and a man being an earner doesn’t apply anymore.
“Where we have moved on in society, we need to move forward as a community. We need to under-stand these cultural practices are very outdated. There’s no place for them in modern society.”
Women’s rights campaigners added that a ban was not enough and more needs to be done to protect women in abusive families who are often forced into having abortions against their will.
Jasvinder Sanghera, founder of Karma Nirvana, a charity that supports both men and women affected by “honour-based” abuse and forced marriages, disagreed with Shah. She stated dowry still plays a major part in women being treated as the “property” of a family and being pressured into getting rid of girl babies.
Sanghera said: “These are not out-dated practices of dowry. This is still happening. It is the fact that many of these women are told they have become the property of that family.
“Within that dynamic, there is the expectation for them to give birth to males, not females, because you be-come a good daughter-in-law if you have sons. We receive thousands of calls on our helpline each month from young women who have been married into families.
“This week, we had a case of one young girl whose family had identified she was having a girl and thrown her down the stairs in order to abort that child as she had passed the abortion stage. We hear this all the time. This is a problem within south Asian communities.
“The south Asian community have got to start accepting this is a reality and deeply rooted in how these communities view women.”
She added: “You can say: ‘My body, my fetus; we have a right’. But actually in these cases, these women don’t have the right because their bodies become the ‘property’ of that family and the expectation placed upon them is if they don’t give birth to boys they are not worthy and can be replaced.
“And now we have a city like Slough, with the minority community in the majority, proactively promoting roadside adverts for these tests. It is appalling and as a country we need to speak out.”
A young British Asian woman told the BBC that she had a surgical abortion at five months of her pregnancy after finding out she was expecting a girl. She explained that seeing how the community reacted after her mother gave birth to her sisters was the reason behind her decision.
She said: “We were a family of five girls and every time my mum had another daughter everyone would come to the house as if they were coming to mourn. For them, it’s like a burden. My fear was I didn’t want to go through what my mother went through.”
The woman, from London, added she now regretted her decision, saying: “You see friends and family who have daughters and they have such a lovely relationship. I’m someone’s daughter and someone’s sister.”
Jeena International, a charity supporting British Asian women, wants sex-selective abortion to be viewed as a form of “honour-based” violence as they supported many women who suffered violence or were coerced into having an abortion because they were pregnant with their second or third child.
“Many women have been thrown down the stairs or had their stomach kicked for having their second or third girl. I know women who have told us: ‘I wasn’t allowed to breastfeed my baby girl because my mother-in-law didn’t think she was worthy of having my breast milk’,” said Jeena International founder Rani Bilkhu.
“This is the plight of some of these women, and no wonder they are resorting to sex-selection abortion because they’ve got no choice. “They don’t want to be homeless, they don’t want their marriages to fail simply because they couldn’t give birth to a boy. It’s toxic in our community where we are devaluing women.
“Not only do the government not understand there’s an issue around sex-selection abortion, but also charities and statutory sectors aren’t asking the questions.”
There are no specific figures for how many sex-selection abortions there have been because abortion is legal in the UK and there is no requirement for parents to declare if they are terminating a pregnancy because of the gender of a baby. However, the BBC investigation revealed that “thousands” of pregnant women used online forums to discuss the discovery of their baby’s gender through NIPT testing and many contemplated a termination.
In 2015, the government admitted it did not know how widespread it was for couples to take the NIPT solely for the purpose of gender identification and ministers added they will monitor the potential impact it could have on gender ratio in ethnic minority communities.
In view of these latest findings, the government said it will “continue to review the evidence” on NIPT testing in the UK. Shah said the government’s response wasn’t good enough and there needed to be a total ban on NIPT for gender testing, including private clinics and web-based companies offering the service.
“The NHS doesn’t do it, so why should the private sector be allowed to do it?” said Shah. “It’s really alarming that women can order these tests online, they can do these in the safety of their own homes with a prick of blood and then go on to have selective abortions without any support or after-care.
“It’s not good enough when you have clinics advertising in a British city (Slough). It’s not good enough that we know it is going on. One abortion this way is one too many. One woman abused is one too many.
“The government really needs to act to make sure they are either putting legislation into place like we have in India, like we have in China. And at the very least is to order an immediate investigation.”
Labour MP for Slough, Tan Dhesi, added: “For any clinic to be marketing gender-determination I think is absolutely deplorable.
Communities in South Asia have made huge strides in tackling this social evil and that’s primarily been through legislation, by banning gender determination clinics. In the UK, we need to be doing likewise with regards to the private sector as well.”