Abortion (Sex-Selection): Ten Minute Rule Bill

As predicted in the media, Fiona Bruce (Congleton) (Con) was today given leave under the Ten Minute Rule (SO No. 23) in the Commons to bring in her Bill “to clarify the law relating to abortion on the basis of sex-selection; and for connected purposes”, [HC Hansard 4 Nov 2014 Vol 587 (55) Col 677).  Ms Bruce spoke in favour of her motion and no-one spoke against – but there was a division on the motion for leave, which was agreed by 181 votes to 1.

Clause 1 of her intended Bill (which has not yet been published)

“… would send a clear signal that abortion for gender is not permissible under UK law, clearing up considerable confusion. Subsection (2) would make it clear that the clarification relates only to sex-selective abortions, therefore putting the Bill squarely in line with the Government’s interpretation of the Abortion Act. Clause 2 obliges the Secretary of State for Health to ensure that the law is being upheld. That will enable the Government to think about ways to help such women”.

The overall purpose is to make plain the will of Parliament in response to the DPP’s conclusion that gender-selective abortion is not illegal under the law as it currently stands. In October 2013 the Crown Prosecution Service blogged on the issue and the key point was that:

“Procuring a miscarriage is an offence contrary to section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. However, section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967 provides that a person should not be guilty of an offence when a pregnancy is terminated by a registered medical practitioner if two registered medical practitioners are of the opinion, formed in good faith, inter alia, that “the pregnancy has not exceeded its 24th week and that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family.

Thus the law does not, in terms, expressly prohibit gender-specific abortions; rather, it prohibits any abortion carried out without two medical practitioners having formed a view, in good faith, that the health risks (mental or physical) of continuance outweigh those of termination. This gives a wide discretion to doctors in assessing the health risks of a pregnant patient” [emphasis added].

Some media reports in advance of today’s short debate suggested that a vote in favour of the motion would send out a signal about the stance of the House of Commons on the matter. Perhaps it will: but a Ten Minute Rule motion doesn’t change the law and there is a long way to go before Ms Bruce’s Bill could get on to the statute book – and not much time left of the present Parliament to get it there.

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