Female Foeticide: is it happening in the UK?

Dr Jagbir Jhutti-Johal


It is clear that female foeticide happens in India; however, there is much debate over whether the practice that is prevalent in India has migrated to the UK.  Abortions in the UK for non-medical reasons are legal until 24 weeks, but terminations on grounds of sex of the foetus are illegal under the 1967 Abortion Act.  However, an undercover investigation by The Telegraph reveals that it does happen. The investigation disclosed how doctors were providing women from certain ethnic communities’ sex-selective abortions in the UK and supports a study by Dr Dubuc who suggests that Indian women in the United Kingdom are aborting unborn daughters so they can have more boys. Dr Dubuc suggests 1,500 girls are ‘missing’ from English and Welsh 1990 to 2005 birth statistics. The report also highlighted that the proportion of boys born to Indian-born mothers compared with girls has increased since the 1970s and this could be due to ‘sex selective abortion’ (2007).

What this confirms is that sons continue to be valued more than daughters in the Sikh community. The male is viewed as an asset while the female is perceived as a liability. A son is viewed as the inheritor of the family name and wealth, and is able to provide for their families, care for elderly relatives and continue the family line. Whereas a daughter is a drain on family resources due to education and dowry and will eventually belong to the family of her future husband (Menski 1998). There is immense emotional pressure to have a male child and this is ingrained in the psyche from an early age. Today, if the first child born to a married couple is a girl, while most of the family will be happy to receive a healthy child, the pressure increases further for the next baby to be a boy. Remarks such as ‘having a mixed family would have been nice’ on the birth of another girl disguises the preference for boys. No one says this if the married ­couple had had two boys. Observing recent research, the younger generation seems far less worried about the sex of their children, however, they are still confronted by pressure from the older generation of the extended family However, it needs to be questioned whether younger ­couples use the argument that the ‘older generation are pressuring them’ as a cover for their own preference for a male child. Or are we really seeing a shift in mentality? Current research (Sen 2003, Jha Prabhat 2006) seems to suggest that growing economic prosperity and education levels has not led to a corresponding mitigation as far as reducing female foeticide is concerned.

What is clear is that the cultural preference for boys is creating an artificial disparity between the number of boys and girls. Terminating female foetuses will eventually lead to a shortage in the number of marriageable Sikh women and this will inevitably lead to people marrying out of their religion and caste. The lack of Sikh women of marriageable age will mean that in 10 to 15 years parents will not be able to find brides for their sons. The consequence of this is that the bloodline of the Sikhs will become diluted and this is what the Sikh community wants to prevent through the enforcement of marrying within one’s religion and caste.

In turn parents of girls of marriageable age will be able to pick and choose the groom and there may even be a scenario where the boy’s family has to pay the girls family a ‘reverse dowry ‘. Thus, the long-term consequence of female foeticide may inadvertently help improve the quality of life for women and bring boys and girls to an equal footing. However, only time will tell.

What is clear though is that the goal is to protect women but in the process, researchers need to question whether what we are looking at is the actions of a small number of women, whose actions stigmatize the whole community.  We also need to ascertain if this is happening in the community; if it is amongst which specific groups (eg. low education level, caste) why and in which generation, new migrants or old established migrants.  By gathering data which cannot be challenged we may be able to start to curtail the problem.


Dubuc, S., and D. Coleman (2007), ‘An increase in the sex ratio of births to India-born mothers in England and Wales: Evidence for sex-selective abortion’, Population and Development Review, 33, 383–400.

Jha, P., R. Kumar, P. Vasa, N. Dhingra, D. Thiruchelvam, and R. Moineddin (2006), ‘Low male-to-female sex ratio of children born in India: national survey of 1.1 million households’. The Lancet, 367 (9506), 211–18.

Sen, A. K. (2003), ‘Missing women – revisited : reduction in female mortality has beencounter balanced by sex selective abortions’. British Medical Journal, 327 (6 December), 1297–8.

Please have a look at the following useful links regarding sex selection abortions:

British babies killed in the womb just for being girls

The lost girls: Department of Health to launch investigation into reports of illegal abortions

Harrowing revelations show unwanted girls are aborted

Gender selective abortions This Morning 7 Feb 2014 

From The Beginning launched International Women’s Day 2010 Houses of Parliament

Abortion investigation: doctors filmed agreeing illegal abortions ‘no questions asked’

Abortion clinics warned over gender selection  New guidance to warn abortion clinics that gender selection is illegal  By Laura Donnelly, Health Correspondent 12 Feb 2014

Image source: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/8/8f/Female_foeticide.jpg

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