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Sex-selective abortions are discriminatory and should be banned

Human Rights Comment
headline Strasbourg 15/01/2014
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Sex-selective abortions are discriminatory and should be banned

Selective abortions of female foetuses are well known from China and India, but they are common in some parts of Europe, too. This deeply discriminatory practice springs from the disadvantaged status of women in society. It must be vigorously countered and banned in law.

In Council of Europe member states, skewed sex ratios at birth have been documented in Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia, but also in some countries in the Balkans, most commonly in Albania and to a lesser extent Montenegro, Kosovo*, and parts of “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”. They can also be found in certain immigrant communities in Western Europe. It is widely believed that this imbalance is due to selective abortions of female foetuses.

The normal sex ratio at birth ranges from 102-106 males to 100 females. In 2011 the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe highlighted alarming levels of skewed sex ratio at birth in several member countries. In Albania, Armenia, and Azerbaijan the rate stood at 112/100, while in Georgia it was 111/100.

Figures given in 2013 in a report commissioned by UNFPA were even worse, with a ratio of 114-115/100 in Armenia and 116/100 in Azerbaijan. In addition, the report noted levels above 110 in Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo, and parts of “the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia”.

Easy to learn the sex of the foetus

The practice of sex-selective abortions stems from a deeply rooted preference for sons in some societies. Ultrasound examination is a very important tool in order to determine the age of the foetus and to monitor its development, but at the same time it is the cheapest and the most affordable way to learn the sex of the foetus. Ultrasound equipment is now generally available, and sex-selective abortions have started to rise. At the same time it is hard to prove that an abortion has been done because the foetus was a girl.

The International framework gives weak protection

The European Court of Human Rights case law does not yet provide guidance on sex-selective abortion. However, there are some international bodies, which have taken a stand on the issue.

The Council of Europe Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine prohibits the use of techniques of medically assisted procreation “for the purpose of choosing a future child’s sex, except where serious hereditary sex-related disease is to be avoided.’’ However, out of 47 member states only 29 have joined and ratified the Convention. These include Albania and Georgia, but not Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The Fourth World Conference on Women held in Beijing in 1995, described prenatal sex-selection as an act of violence against women. Three years later the UN General Assembly resolution on the girl child concurred and urged States to “enact and enforce legislation”.

Both the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the Council of Europe Committee of Ministers have called upon governments to adopt national legislation prohibiting pre-natal sex selection.

The Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence (Istanbul Convention) does not contain any explicit reference to sex-selective abortion. However, it requires that state parties criminalise the performance of “an abortion on a woman without her prior and informed consent” (Article 39) as well as psychological violence, i.e. the intentional conduct of seriously impairing a person’s psychological integrity through coercion or threats (Article 33). Given that in many situations women are under psychological and sometimes physical pressure to undergo a sex-selective abortion, these provisions of the Convention can potentially provide some safeguards against sex-selective abortions.

Indeed, in its 2011 resolution on prenatal sex selection, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe stressed that “the social and family pressure placed on women not to pursue their pregnancy because of the sex of the embryo/foetus is to be considered as a form of psychological violence and that the practice of forced abortions is to be criminalised.”

This approach frames sex-selective abortions as a form of violence against the woman bearing the foetus rather than as violence against the unborn child.

What needs to be done?

Besides legislation, several UN bodies, such as UNICEF, UN Women and WHO, have listed a number of actions that governments and civil society need to engage in:

  • Reliable data needs to be collected.
  • Guidelines on the ethical use of the relevant technologies should be developed and promoted through associations of health professionals.
  • Support measures for girls and women should be put in place.
  • States should develop legislation and policy frameworks to address the root causes of the inequalities that drive sex-selection.
  • States should support the equal value of girls and boys.

New awareness and laws needed

It is hard to address the problem of sex-selective abortions without being drawn into debates on abortion as such. However, the practice is highly problematic from the standpoint of the principle of equality between men and women. Irrespective of one’s choice to view the problem either as violence against the foetus or the woman, sex-selective abortion is a clear case of discrimination with strong elements of physical and psychological violence.

Member States, within their wide margin of appreciation, should find ways to put in place laws, policies and practices that allow the different legitimate interests involved to be taken into account. In the vast majority of Council of Europe member states, where abortion is legal, this includes an adequate framework that reconciles the possibility to have an abortion with the fight against discrimination.

We need strong deterrents to eliminate this practice, which also reinforces and perpetuates a climate of violence against women. Sex-selective abortions must be criminalised.

Nils Muižnieks

*All reference to Kosovo, whether to the territory, institutions or population, in this text shall be understood in full compliance with United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 (1999) and without prejudice to the status of Kosovo.