Cooper and Kendall advise Labour MPs to vote against sex selective abortion bill

Shadow Cabinet members Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall have written to the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), asking that their colleagues join them in voting against tomorrow’s bill about sex selective abortion. Sunny Hundal wrote for LabourList this week on his reservations about the proposed legislation.

You can read the full letter here:

Dear colleague,

On Monday, at Report Stage of the Serious Crime Bill, there will be a free vote on sex selective abortion.

There are two amendments down: one tabled by Fiona Bruce, which amends the Abortion Act 1967 and states that a pregnancy cannot be terminated on the grounds of the sex of the unborn child; and one a cross-party amendment signed by Ann Coffey, Sarah Wollaston and Jenny Willott, calling for a strategic plan that addresses concerns about the prevalence of terminations on the grounds of the sex of the fetus in England, Scotland and Wales.

A wide range of well-respected organisations and experts have raised concerns about Fiona Bruce’s amendments with us, pointing out a number of unintended and troubling consequences, including the Royal College of Midwives (RCM), the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecologists (RCOG), the British Medical Association (BMA), the TUC, the End Violence Against Women Coalition (EVAW), the Genetic Alliance, IMKAAN, and Southall Black Sisters, amongst others.

Having looked at both amendments in considerable detail and taking the advice of legal experts, community groups and medical experts, we are asking you to join us in voting in favour of the tabled by Ann Coffey, and against Fiona Bruce’s amendment. We believe this cross-party amendment is the best way to raise concerns about sex selective abortions and the call for action from some campaign groups, whereas Fiona’s amendment would have very troubling wider consequences.

We feel this for the following reasons:

  1. Sex selective abortion is already illegal under the Abortion Act 1967 and doesn’t need a change in the law to make it so. Fiona Bruce’s amendment is not needed to make it unlawful.

The Government, the Chief Medical Officer (CMO), the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG), and the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) have all said that abortions carried out on the sole premise of fetal sex are illegal. They have confirmed this in updated guidance and instructions to doctors within the last twelve months and all independent sector providers have also agreed to follow the guidance as part of their licensing agreements.

  1. Fiona Bruce’s amendment also has wider troubling consequences for gender specific abnormalities.

There are a significant number of families who have children with, or have a family history of, a condition that is clearly sex-linked, but where prenatal diagnosis is not possible. Examples of such sex-linked conditions include Kabuki syndrome, x-linked infantile spinal muscular atrophy and x-linked severe combined immunodeficiency. The amendment says that “nothing in the act gives grounds for abortion based on sex” – creating uncertainty and doubt for doctors who have to administer abortions in these situations and a legal grey area for women who are already facing a very difficult decision.

The Genetic Alliance have said that: “the consequences of this amendment could be devastating to women and couples at risk of having a child affected by a serious x-linked condition.”

  1. Fiona Bruce’s amendment puts the phrase “the unborn child,” into the Abortion Act, with potential long-term consequences that could undermine the framework of abortion law.

Legislation on abortion and other medically-related legislation refers to the fetus rather than the unborn child. Across our legislation and common law, children are accorded a wide range of protections and rights that are not accorded to the fetus. Changing the language in the Abortion Act sends a very different signal to the court and starts to open up different judicial interpretations of abortion law, or new consequences and restrictions that go far beyond the issue of sex selection.

We do not believe that is the right approach, and hope you will agree with us that it would be wrong for Parliament to make fundamental changes to the approach to abortion legislation, almost inadvertently, through what is being presented as a narrow debate on sex selection.

  1. The real concern here is not about the law, but about custom, practice and prejudice. Fiona Bruce’s amendment only deals with the law, but the amendment signed by Ann Coffey, Sarah Wollaston and Jenny Willotts addresses custom, practice and equality. 

Concerns have been raised that some women are put under intense pressure by their partners, families or communities to deliver male children. Government research has so far found no evidence of different birth ratios for different communities overall. However there is anecdotal evidence of some women facing significant pressure.

Fiona Bruce’s amendment will do little to alleviate the external pressures or coercion these women face, nor eradicate prejudices, customs and traditions which are based on the idea of the inferiority of women and which may amount to pressure to seek an abortion because of the sex of a fetus. Some organisations have raised concern that Bruce’s amendment would simply make vulnerable women less likely to have open and honest conversations with healthcare professionals about their circumstances, making it harder to get them support.

The cross-party amendment tabled by Ann Coffey provides for a thorough assessment of the evidence on sex selective abortion, a Government strategic plan to promote cultural change, ensure best practice to support vulnerable women and stronger guidance to health professionals and communities on the existing law. That is why we will be supporting it on Monday.

No one supports the idea that families should be able to have abortions of female fetuses because of the higher status accorded to men. That is why it is illegal. The best way to get to the heart of the real concerns about inequality in practice is through Ann Coffey’s amendment, rather than through the Bruce amendment, which would not tackle the problem, and would put at risk access to abortion for a much wider range of circumstances.

Please join us in voting for the cross-party amendment tabled by Anne Coffey and voting against Fiona Bruce’s amendment on Monday.

Yours,

Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP

Liz Kendall MP

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