Will new technologies normalise sex selective abortion?

Philippa Brice

27 February 2012

The Department of Health has launched an inquiry after the Telegraph newspaper reported evidence that doctors at abortion clinics in the UK were prepared to terminate pregnancies on the grounds of foetal sex.

Undercover reporters went with women to clinics across the country requesting termination of pregnancy on the grounds that they did not want a child of that sex, and filmed some doctors agreeing to these requests. Sex selective abortion is illegal in the UK, with the exception of certain serious hereditary diseases that may affect only one sex, but doctors were apparently prepared to falsely claim legal grounds for termination (such as danger to the mother’s life, physical or mental health from continuation of pregnancy) despite being told the motive was sex selection.

Health Secretary Andrew Lansley MP said: "Sex selection is illegal and is morally wrong…I've asked my officials to investigate this as a matter of urgency". Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology president Dr Tony Falconer also emphasised the need for doctors to comply with the law, adding: "Anecdotally, there are social and cultural reasons for preferring one gender over another and we need to know more about why these occur”.


Comment: The advent of early non-invasive prenatal technologies, or NIPD (see previous news) will arguably exacerbate existing problems with respect to sex selective abortion, which is apparently active even in countries with strict legal prohibitions and without widespread cultural beliefs that might support the practice. Legal expert Professor Hank Greely of Stanford University said such tests will greatly increase the number of fetuses aborted for mainly medical reasons, and sometimes for nonmedical reasons, like sex because it is so much easier to find out. And you find out faster”.

Technologies that offer medical promise may also raise issues of social and ethical concern that need careful thought. A free PHG Foundation seminar and discussion on 8 March (International Women’s Day) will examine this particular issue, including special reference to birth preferences in Asian countries and the likely impact of NIPD.