LABOUR MP and shadow women and equalities minister Naz Shah has voiced her support for a ban on early foetal sex disclosure. The non-invasive prenatal test (NIPT) is a blood screen used to check for genetic abnormalities around the 10-week mark of pregnancy.

It’s offered on the NHS to screen for the likes of Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis and other serious conditions. The test can also determine the sex of a baby far earlier than amniocentesis or the routine 20-week scan, although it’s not offered for this alone. As the test is also provided privately, there is concern that some women are seeking it to establish whether to continue their pregnancy based on foetal sex.

The National Council for Bioethics recently published a report on the recommended uses of the NIPT. While supporting its use in the early diagnosis of life-limiting illness, the council recommends not revealing the sex of a foetus because it is not “medically useful” information. Be that as it may, is it right that our healthcare providers are privy to information about our bodies that we are not, for fear of what we might do with that information?

Why should the government get to decide what I’m allowed to know about my health? The idea of anything about my health or my body being kept from me makes me deeply uncomfortable. Women do not need to be coddled by state intervention in their health. If a doctor knows something about me, or about the nature of my pregnancy, I want equal access to that information. Not because I want to act upon it, but because I have a right to know what they do.

Labour’s call for a ban on revealing foetal sex early has received surprisingly little pushback. Part of this I think is due to the tension between being pro-choice and ardently in support of women’s bodily autonomy, and the difficulty in then expressing abortion views that could be seen as hypocritical. I take a different perspective.

It is not cognitively dissonant to critique one practice while being broadly supportive of abortion itself. We’re dealing with two linked, yes, but separate issues here. One is women’s health care, the other being structural inequality between the sexes that is heightened in some communities. Inequality that can manifest as a preference for a male baby. Abortion and sex-selective abortion are often conflated in this discussion, but there are significant differences.

Choosing whether or not to carry a child is a woman’s right. Control over her fertility is an essential component to her equal participation in society. Choosing what “type” of child to have, where one is preferable to another, is a different matter. In this instance, it’s not that a woman is choosing to end a pregnancy because she does not wish to continue this pregnancy full stop, but because she believes the potential of a foetus to meet certain expectations as determined by sex alone, as a result of the culture that we are living in.

There are certain cultures where there is a strong preference for male babies. People who are not predominantly white and British in origin are as much part of the rich tapestry of this country as we are. We cannot demonise women from particular ethnic and minority groups because we believe they’ll choose to selectively abort.

If we know that some women are still uncomfortable with the thought of giving birth to a girl, then that is the problem that must be addressed. Why are girls continually seen as less desirable, and what can be done to change that perception? How can women and communities be supported so that they do not act out of anything other than their own understanding and freedom to choose?

Don’t get me wrong – I think sex-selective abortion is a problem. Not because abortion is morally ambiguous, but because females are devalued to such a degree that girl babies are unwanted. But abortion is not the root of the issue, and preventing women from accessing information will not solve the deeper problem.

The point is that in a gender caste system we’re all subject to the suggestion that, in varying degrees of intensity, one sex is worth less than the other. That problem cannot be fixed with abortion, and sex-selective abortion cannot be eradicated by controlling what women are allowed to know about their bodies and the foetus they choose to carry.

The government, of course, must protect vulnerable groups. But that should not extend to withholding information about women from them. The answer here is to provide additional support, education and guidance to those most likely to be pressured to selectively abort – not to treat women as too irresponsible to know by default.