No prosecution for doctors who agreed to sex-selective abortion in UK

Keir Starmer, Director of Public Prosecutions

Forty-six years after it was legalized in the UK, the legal status of abortion is still in a muddle. The Director of Public Prosecutions decided earlier this month not to prosecute two doctors who had agreed to do sex-selective abortions. Their conversations with a woman posing as a patient were filmed by The Telegraph. In a lengthy explanation of his stand, Keir Starmer says that justice would not be served by putting the doctors on trial when such levels of uncertainty exist about how abortions are handled in the UK.

There are basically two issues. First, is sex-selective abortion illegal? The spontaneous response of the British public, media and politicians was Yes. However, the abortion law is clear: if the birth poses a risk to the mother’s physical or psychological health, it is legal. Relying on criteria set down in 2007 by the British Medical Association, Mr Starmer suggested that while aborting girls because they are girls may be repugnant, it may be necessary to preserve a woman’s health.

Second, the paperwork. Two doctors are supposed to verify the risk. In practice, it turns out that many forms are pre-signed and that many doctors never see the woman. The media highlighted this omission. However, Mr Starmer points out that the Abortion Act does not state explicitly that either or both doctors must interview the woman to form an opinion of the risk.

With the law so loose, and the medical profession so vague, the DPP concluded that it would be impossible for a prosecution to succeed.

Abortion opponents were outraged. “So there we have it,” wrote Dr Peter Saunders, of the Christian Medical Fellowship. “The doctors betray their ethics and conspire to break the law on a massive scale. The DPP lacks the balls to prosecute, defers to the doctors and passes the buck to parliament. The police play poodle to the DPP. The attorney general washes his hands of the whole affair and parliament turns a blind eye. Meanwhile over seven million future British citizens are sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. A law that is not upheld – or is perhaps even unenforceable – is no law at all.

This article is published by Michael Cook and BioEdge.org under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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