The Solicitor - The FindLaw UK Life, Family and Workplace Law Blog

Abortion: Chief prosecutor confirms sex-selection abortions are legal

The UK's chief prosecutor, Kier Starmer, has spoken out to reveal that sex-selective abortions are legal within UK law, and has notified doctors that they may carry out such abortions in limited circumstances, reports The Telegraph.

As the Director of Public Prosecutions, Mr Starmer was faced with an outcry last month, after it was revealed that the Crown Prosecution Service that he leads would not be pursuing criminal prosecutions against doctors who were shown to be conducting sex-selective abortions.

The doctors at the centre of the storm, Prabha Sivaraman and Palaniappan Rajmohan, were secretly filmed by The Telegraph newspaper agreeing to conduct sex-selective abortions.

The matter caused considerable public outcry, as the practice of conducting an abortion purely on the basis of the gender of a child was widely considered to be illegal.

However, the CPS decided that a prosecution was not in the 'public interest' and that instead it was an issue of professional conduct, which should rightly be referred to the General Medical Council (GMC), the body that regulates doctors.

The decision not to prosecute angered many and caused the Prime Minister David Cameron and the Attorney General Dominic Grieve to express their concern that the matter was not being handled appropriately.

However, after reviewing the law and the conduct of the doctors, the chief prosecutor in England and Wales has decided that there is nothing in UK law that prohibits abortions on the basis of gender.

The law on abortion in the UK allows a termination when continuation of the pregnancy would cause serious harm to the physical or mental health of the mother.

Outside of this, the law does not specify the circumstances under which terminations would be considered appropriate and it is left to the clinical judgement of two doctors to determine if the reasons for an abortion are consistent with the law.

"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 of continuing with a pregnancy outweigh those of termination," wrote Mr Starmer.

As a result Mr Starmer could envisage situations when continuing a pregnancy of an undesirable gender could cause serious harm to the psychological health of the mother, making a termination justified according to the law.

Lack of guidance

Mr Starmer concluded that in the absence of any clear guidance for doctors on the correct approach to take when deciding on the legality of an abortion, it would be very difficult to prove to a criminal standard that either of the doctors had acted outside of the law.

"The discretion afforded to doctors under the current law in assessing the risk to the mental or physical health of a patient is wide and, having consulted an experienced consultant in Obstetrics and Gynaecology, it appears that there is no generally accepted approach among the medical profession," he wrote in a letter to the Attorney-General Dominic Grieve.

Mr Starmer said that this could mean that two separate juries could reach two different decisions on exactly the same facts.

The Health Secretary had previously said that the Government's view was that such abortions were illegal, making the prospect of a change in the law tangible.