The abortion of unwanted girls taking place in the UK
Illegal abortion on the grounds of gender may be taking place in Britain within immigrant communities, ministers have admitted for the first time after an official analysis of birth statistics.
The Government was last night urged to open an inquiry after officials found signs that birth rates for girls and boys vary noticeably according to where their mothers were born. Photo: ALAMY
The Government was on Thursday night urged to open an inquiry after officials found signs that birth rates for girls and boys vary noticeably according to where their mothers were born.
A health minister said that these differences in rates of male and female births among mothers of certain nationalities may “fall outside the range considered possible without intervention”.
It forms the first official statistical evidence potentially backing up concerns that sex-selection abortions are being carried out in Britain.
Andrew Lansley, the former health secretary, last year criticised the “illegal and morally wrong” practice following a Daily Telegraph investigation into the issue.
After this newspaper received information that the procedures were becoming increasingly common for cultural and social reasons, undercover reporters filmed doctors offering women terminations based on gender.
As a result of the investigation, the Crown Prosecution Service is considering criminal charges against doctors in three cases.
The practice of aborting unborn babies on the basis of sex has long been considered a problem in areas of India and China, where boys are sometimes considered favourable for cultural or economic reasons.
There has been little official research on whether the practice is carried out in some of Britain’s immigrant communities. The Government said its new analysis was undertaken after the Council of Europe demanded statistics on the issue of whether more boys than girls are born to mothers of certain nationalities.
Earl Howe, a health minister, disclosed the Government’s preliminary statistics in answer to a parliamentary question by Lord Alton of Liverpool, a crossbench peer and former MP who campaigns against abortion.
“While the overall United Kingdom birth ratio is within normal limits, analysis of birth data for the calendar years from 2007 to 2011 has found the gender ratios at birth vary by mothers’ country of birth,” the Tory minister said.
“For the majority of groups, this variation is the result of small numbers of births and does not persist between years. However, for a very small number of countries of birth there are indications that birth ratios may differ from the UK as a whole and potentially fall outside of the range considered possible without intervention.”
The evidence is preliminary and, therefore, it is still possible that the differing birth ratios are the result of “natural variation”. Lord Howe said officials will continue to “monitor” the issue and analyse the data.
He rejected Lord Alton’s request for data to be collected on the sex of unborn babies at the time of abortion. The minister said recording the gender of foetuses “raises ethical and clinical issues”.
Last night, Lord Alton said the presence of sex-selective abortion in the UK could be a product of terminations becoming too “routine”.
“Abortion has become so routine in Britain with 600 taking place every day that people have accepted the mantra that it’s just a matter of choice but that’s not what the law says,” he said. “There is a fundamental debate to take place here.”
He said the practice may have been imported from areas of the world where it is more common, including India and China “where sex-selective abortions have taken place on an industrial scale”.
A Department of Health spokesman said any abortion based on sex selection is “illegal and morally wrong”.
“UK birth ratios are within normal limits,” he said. “However, we continue to closely monitor ratios and we are in the process of analysing preliminary data. If anyone has evidence of sex-selection abortions being performed in specific cases, we will refer them to the police to investigate.”
A study by Oxford University academics has previously found evidence that suggested Indian women giving birth in Britain were terminating more female than male unborn babies between 1990 and 2005.
In Canada, Dr Rajendra Kale, the editor of a medical journal, last year called for doctors to withhold the sex of unborn babies from their mothers until 30 weeks into pregnancy to stop “female feticide”.
He cited a study suggesting “evidence of a clear son preference among south-east Asian immigrants to Canada”, with male-biased birth ratios among Chinese, Korean and Indian parents.
Last year, the Council of Europe recommended that member states, including Britain, stop telling parents the gender of their baby because of concerns that this was encouraging sex-selection abortions.
Many hospitals have stopped giving parents information on the gender of their babies until late in the pregnancy.
However, blood tests that disclose the sex of a foetus are widely available on the internet or abroad.
Abortions for non-medical reasons are legal until 24 weeks, but terminations on grounds of sex of the foetus are illegal under the 1967 Abortion Act.
In 2010 there were 189,574 terminations in England and Wales, an eight per cent increase in the past decade.