UK politicians call for action against sex-selective abortion

shutterstock 1177812817 Doctor reading test results of pregnant woman by ultrasound. | Rattiya Thongdumhyu_Shutterstock

British politicians have called for a review of the availability of early sex detection tests for pregnant women. The proposal was made by Labour Members of Parliament and prompted by concerns that the tests are leading to sex-selective abortions.

The MP's expressed particular concern that women, especially those in the UK's Asian communities, are being pressured or coerced into having an abortion if they are pregnant with a girl.

Labour MP Naz Shah said it was "morally wrong" that women are using the Non-Invasive Prenatal Test (NIPT) to determine whether or not they are pregnant with a girl, and then scheduling an abortion based on the result. Shah, the Shadow Secretary of State for Women and Equalities, called for a government investigation into the practice.

The call for government intervention against the practice comes almost 18 months after the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, a government-funded think tank, found that NIPT promoted sex-selective abortions.

The NIPT consists of a blood test given to the mother at the ninth week of pregnancy, at which time the baby's DNA is detectable in their mother's bloodstream.

The test is currently administered by the UK's National Health Service to screen for genetic conditions, such as Down syndrome. Pro-life advocates have already warned that the test is used to "screen out" children with Down's syndrome and other conditions. Currently in the UK, 90% of children with a prenatal diagnosis of Down's syndrome are aborted.

While the gender can be detected by the NIPT, the NHS does not share this information with parents unless there is a specific need to do so. While the test is not made available by the NHS expressly for gender screening, it is privately available to parents and can be purchased at a clinic for about £150-£200.

In the London suburb of Slough, which has a substantial South Asian population, roadside advertisements explicitly market the test as being able to determine the sex of the child. This, said Shah, is where the government should consider stepping in.

"NIPT screenings should be used for their intended purpose, to screen for serious conditions and Down's syndrome," said Shah.

"The government needs to look into this exploitative practice and enforce appropriate restrictions."

Slough's Labour MP Tan Dhesi agreed with Shah, and pointed out that some Asian countries have "made huge strides in tackling this social evil," particularly when the government has banned prenatal gender tests.
"In the UK I think we need to be doing likewise, with regards to the private sector as well," said Dhesi.

Prenatal sex detection has been illegal in India since 1994.

The calls follow a BBC has report on online forums where women have discussed how NIPT results will directly inform their decision to continue with their pregnancy or to have an abortion.

"I need a son to heal me…," wrote one woman. "My only bet is NIPT followed by continuation, only if it's a boy."

Clare McCarthy, spokesperson for Right To Life UK, told CNA that she agrees with the need for government action to address the problem of sex-selective abortion.

"This BBC investigation adds to a growing body of evidence that we have a sex-selective abortion problem here in the UK," said McCarthy.

"It's time for the Government to stop denying there is a problem here and take urgent action to put in place a ban on sex-selective abortion."

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McCarthy, however, said it was "seriously concerning" that the same Labour MPs who are opposed to sex-selective abortion also are in favor of removing all legal restrictions on abortion, "under the guise of 'decriminalisation.'"

If this were happen, McCarthy told CNA that "the evidence from overseas shows that this could make our sex-selective abortion problem even worse."

While sex-selection abortion is technically illegal in the United Kingdom, women may give other reasons as for why they want to have an abortion.

In England, Scotland, and Wales, abortion must be signed off by two doctors and cannot be performed later than 24 weeks gestation. After 24 weeks of pregnancy the grounds upon which an abortion can be sought narrow significantly.

In Northern Ireland, abortion is illegal, but it is legal for a Northern Irish woman to travel to England, Scotland, or Wales for an abortion.

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