Guest Blog: EU Attempts to Tackle Gendercide and Sex-selective Abortion

Guest Blog by Frances Trevena  @frankie_mj

On 8 October, the European Parliament voted to adopt a resolution for states to take steps to tackle “gendercide” which is manifested in a number of ways against women across the European Union. Gendercide is a gender neutral term that masks the unexpected and unaccounted for increase in ratio of men to women. The phenomena can only be explained through the termination of female foetuses, due to cultural and societal pressures that make having a female child undesirable. However, gendercide is part of a broader context which includes lack of equal opportunities for girls, gendered violence against women and girls and honour-based violence. While the EU is taking steps to tackle this gendercide, the issue has made news in the UK because of the decision of the Crown Prosecution Service and the DPP, Keir Starmer, not to prosecute two doctors who were found by the Daily Telegraph to be allegedly agreeing to arrange an abortion for pregnant women who stated they did not want a female child.

There is no universal right to abortion, either within international conventions or under any European law. Across Europe there is no uniformity regarding access to abortion or under which circumstances abortion is legally permitted. For the most part, any statement from European institutions regarding the availability of abortion has been brought about through attempts to end inequality between men and women. The Treaty on the Functioning of the EU establishes at Article 8 a commitment to ending inequality between the sexes and this commitment is also found in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. In 2008, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE) adopted the report of Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men entitled Access to Safe and Legal Abortion in Europe. The report set out the intention to allow women to access to abortion within reasonable gestational limits, and to guarantee effective access to safe abortion by removing barriers that women face when accessing legal abortion, such as waiting periods, counselling and other mechanisms that impede women’s access to a termination. The report contained recommendations that access to abortion and contraception allow women greater freedom of choice and affirmed:

The right of all human beings, in particular women, to respect for their physical integrity and to freedom to control their own bodies. 

Again, the right to abortion was couched in terms that suggested it tied in with other more widely recognised human rights, and that effective abortion access is linked to gender equality. The EU has also recognised that a failure to allow abortion in a certain member state acts to push women to travel to where they are permitted to access these services. PACE has reiterated the need for safe and affordable family planning for women. Abortion tourism means those least likely to be able to afford to have a child cannot easily access abortion. The limited availability of facilities in a country is also likely to have a disproportionately negative impact on those women who have fewer resources to travel. Therefore, the topic of accessing abortion can be viewed not only as an issue of equality between men and women, but also an issue of economic and social equality.

The Parliamentary Assembly set out a resolution on sex-selective abortion in 2011, in which it called on national governments to increase awareness among medical practitioners and to set out guidelines for them on sex-selection. This resolution was subject to some criticism from women’s rights groups because it lacked an awareness of the social and cultural context of sex-selective abortion. Women’s groups engaging with the issue of gender-based violence identify that sex-selective abortion comes from the same societal root as other forms of violence against women and girls; that is deep-seated attitudes around the value of women and inequality at every level of society.

The most recent resolution on sex-selective abortion was debated in the European Parliament rather than through PACE. The report and subsequent resolution were contentious because of the more in-depth understanding of the context in which sex-selective abortion occurs as well as the assertion that greater sexual health education was required. Some MEPs put forward amendments to the resolution, including a reiteration that there is no stated human right to an abortion, and to confirm and reinforce the right of conscientious objection. A further amendment related to confirming that the right to life begins at conception, based on the preamble to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child and despite the travaux préparatoires clarifying the intention that any statement of a child’s rights prior to birth relate to the nutrition and well-being of the mother, not an establishment of a right to life prior to birth. In addition, during last week’s debate, the resolution was supported by a number of pro-life MEPs; including Diane Dodds who stated that she:

would also fully support calls for stricter regulation in national legislation to tackle the horrors of abortion being used for financial gain.

Last week’s resolution is much more than a mere prohibition on sex-selection, it is a call to national governments to tackle the sexism and disadvantage experienced by women and girls at all levels. This is to act to research sex-selective abortion, to ensure that there is no financial gain in procuring a sex-selective abortion and to ensure comprehensive access to contraception.

When in England and Wales the DPP states that there is a lacuna in the law that allows sex-selective abortion, this is only through the maternal health gateway. The BMA’s paper on medical ethics advises that there may be circumstances in which a sex-selective abortion can be performed, particularly where specific conditions can only be passed through the male or female line. However, the paper, which has been available to doctors since 2007, also states that where a mother is going to suffer mental distress if the pregnancy is continued, then they may act to perform a termination.

Individuals and women’s rights organisations seek recourse in the European Court of Human Rights and to use the report and recommendation mechanism of the European Parliament.  The European institutions are not as vulnerable as individual state governments to party or religious politics. Women’s organisations are working to tackle the causes of sex-selection, rather than the promotion of a blanket ban such as that set out by PACE in 2011. The report and its adoption should be seen in light of the steps taken by all the institutions of Europe to tackle gender inequality, to improve opportunities for women and girls and to encourage their participation. The report put significant weight on the impact of sex-selection on other gender based violence. This is particularly important to abortion access in England and Wales, where the Prime Minister has signalled he would support a reduction in the time limit and the Health Secretary who stepped in over the prosecution of the two doctors who were not prosecuted for their role in a sex-selective abortion, has stated publicly that he believes the abortion time limit should be reduced to 12 weeks. There is considerable political mileage in the issue of sex-selective abortions, particularly where the perspective is one of reducing choice for all women.

If it is accepted that a woman may need to choose to terminate a pregnancy, then to try and eliminate a particular reason for that choice even where it may be repugnant is not only almost impossible but defeats the aim of the legalisation of abortion. Women who wish to abort will do so regardless of the legal status of termination. Last year, the Guttmacher Policy Review described the proposal to ban sex-selective abortion in certain US states as a disingenuous way to limit women’s access to safe abortion. This is because a ban on certain forms of abortion does nothing to tackle the root causes of why couples do not want female children. It acts by accepting a gender preference without tackling the fundamental inequality that leads a woman to seek a termination.


Frances Trevena is a Legal Officer at Rights of Women where she provides advice and training to women on a full range of family law, immigration and asylum and criminal law. She is a qualified barrister with experience working in these areas, with a particular focus on cases involving both family and immigration law. Frances has previously worked supporting victims of domestic abuse in a solicitor’s firm and for community organisations.