London - Women should be able to have abortions simply because their unborn child is the "wrong" sex, a leading ethics expert at the British Medical Association has said.
In a highly provocative interview with The Mail on Sunday, Professor Wendy Savage called for the law banning such terminations to be scrapped. But pro-life campaigners immediately slammed her demands as "utterly abhorrent".
Her comments will cause shockwaves as Professor Savage is an influential member of the BMA’s 18-strong medical ethics committee.
She also courts controversy by saying women should be able to abort at any stage of pregnancy – even when the unborn child is developed enough to survive outside the womb – and that abortion pills should be available to women online, without them needing to see a doctor or nurse.
Her contentious comments come amid concerns that British parents are seeking abortions based on the gender of babies – which has led to some NHS hospitals refusing to tell parents-to-be that information. Prof Savage said not telling parents the sex of their babies was "outrageous".
But Conservative MP Mark Field said: "Suggesting that women should be able to abort babies solely because they happen to be either male or, much more usually, female, is utterly abhorrent.
"To have someone like Wendy Savage with her extreme views at the heart of the BMA is a very worrying sign. The majority of people in this country, even those who support abortion, think sex-selective abortion is a step too far."
Fears that British women are undergoing abortions based on the gender of their babies have grown since a 2014 study found that Britain had up to 4 700 fewer girls than would be statistically expected.
And undercover journalists have secretly filmed doctors appearing to agree to carry out abortions for reasons of gender alone. This led the Department of Health to issue new guidance clarifying the law, which stated: "Abortion on the grounds of gender alone is illegal."
Globally, sex-selective abortion is thought to have led to millions of girls being aborted, and both the United Nations and the World Health Organisation have campaigns to stamp it out. A UN report recently stated that around 117 million women are ‘missing’ from the expected population in Asia and Eastern Europe.
Despite this Prof Savage, a retired obstetrician and gynaecologist who performed 10 000 terminations, believes it is a "myth" that sex selective abortions happen in Britain or that women would choose to undergo a "sex-selection" abortion even if permitted to do so.
She said she had only been asked for such a termination once in her 35-year career – and pointed to a 2013 British government study that found no statistically valid evidence they were taking place.
However, many NHS hospitals have stopped telling parents the sex of their unborn child at their 12-week scan, instead waiting to 20 weeks, and "some hospitals have a policy of not telling patients the sex of their baby" altogether, according to the NHS Choices website. The 2014 study of census information suggested sex-selective abortions may be a particular issue in Britain’s South Asian communities, where there is a cultural preference for boys.
Prof Savage said: "Because of this sort of anxiety some places won’t tell the woman the sex of the foetus, which is outrageous. It’s her body and her foetus, so she should have that information... If a woman does not want to have a foetus who is one sex or the other, forcing her [to go through with the pregnancy] is not going to be good for the eventual child, and it’s not going to be good for [the mother’s] mental health."
She has previously signed a letter claiming sex-selective abortion is "not gender discrimination" as that term "applies only to living people".
Speaking in a personal capacity, Prof Savage also insisted a woman should have the legal right to demand an abortion at any stage of pregnancy, saying: "It is the woman’s right to decide.
"It’s her body. She is the one taking the risks.
"The foetus is a potential human life at that stage [in the womb]; it is not an actual human life... I think you’ve got to concentrate on the [rights of the] woman."
Currently abortion is legal up to 24 weeks if signed off by two doctors, but only allowed in exceptional circumstances after that. Prof Savage said women only very rarely asked for abortion after 24 weeks.
"In my career, I have only had a couple of cases over 24 weeks. So it’s not something that women tend to do.
"This is another myth propagated by the anti-abortion lobby, like women wanting sex selection."
Mail On Sunday