DoH report refutes Indy’s “Lost Girls” Sex-Selective Abortion Exposé

Sometimes it’s not so much what newspapers print as what they don’t print that matters.

Last week, for example, the Department of Health published what was supposedly “new” guidance on sex-selective abortion, if a simple restatement of the existing legal position, which remains entirely unchanged, can actually be called “new”.

The Telegraph, which has been pushing the issue of sex-selective abortion for quite some time, made a bit of a show of reporting the story and, of course, complaining bitterly that their own ‘sting’ operation on two doctors who were allegedly willing to carry out sex-selective abortions, when they were approached by an undercover journalist working for the newspaper, failed to result in any kind of prosecution.

However, as I noted here, what the Telegraph neglected to mention to its readers was that, to considerable extent, the Crown Prosecution Services’ decision not to prosecute these cases hinged on the Telegraph’s own journalist having completely botched their investigation:

“In order to make the sting work, the undercover team asked for an abortion based on gender, but then immediately mixed in other reasons. So in both cases, there was reference to previous failed female pregnancies. Chromosomal defects were referenced. In one of the cases, the doctor was told there was a test in France.

“She said, ‘What is this test? And how pregnant were you?’ And the journalist said, ‘I was in France. I was eight weeks’ pregnant.’ When the doctor was then arrested, she said, ‘I didn’t believe her. I don’t think there is a test at that point of gestation. I just assumed she was lying and wanted an abortion for some other reason’.”


Now, as we’re back on to the subject of sex-selective abortion, it would entirely remiss of me not to mention that on the same that the Department of Health published its ‘new’ guidance it also published an updated analysis of male to female birth ratios in England and Wales covering the five year period from 2008 to 2012.

This is something you are highly unlikely to have read anything about in the press, least of all in The Independent which, as you may well recall, devoted three days of coverage in January this year to an exposé of Britain’s “Lost Girls”, running a series of linked stories predicated on an analysis of data from the 2011 Census, which the newspaper claimed provided clear evidence that sex-selective abortion was being widely widely practised within several minority communities living in the UK. According to the Indy, their figures showed that there were “thousands of ‘missing’ girls” and that significant anomalies existed in the data for several South Asian communities, including those originating in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan where they had previously been no evidence to show that sex-selective abortion was being widely practised in those countries let alone in the UK.

Unfortunately for the Indy, when I took a look at their claims, the data on which they were based and manner in which their science editor, Steve Connor, had gone about his analysis it quickly became apparent that far from being based on a “rigorous analysis of official data”, as the newspaper claimed, the entire story was based on some of the most incompetently executed amateur stat mangling I’d seen in a very long time.

The Indy has, of course, had nothing whatsoever to say about the new figures released by the Department of Health, which seems a little churlish given that the DoH’s statisticians had plenty to say about the Indy’s “Lost Girls” story:

Discussion on relationship with the analysis by The Independent

23. In January 2014, The Independent published an article summarising its analysis of household data from the 2011 Census in England and Wales. The analysis focussed on households where the mother was born in one of a handful of particular countries and where the oldest usually-resident dependent child was female. The analysis looked at the gender mix of the younger dependent children living in the household. Figures for the number of boys per 100 girls that were significantly higher than the England and Wales average were presented as evidence that sex selection had taken place within some of those households.

24. There are a number of factors other than sex selection that may affect the gender mix of dependent children within households, such as differences in:

– Mortality rates between boys and girls (both before and after migration)

– The extent to which parents are accompanied by their male and female offspring when emigrating

– The proportion of boys and girls staying on in education after the age of 16

– The proportion of boys and girls leaving the household to live elsewhere in England and Wales or overseas (for example, because of marriage or living with family)

25. These and other factors could account for the observed household gender mix. It cannot therefore be concluded from the results that sex selection has taken place and, more specifically, that it has taken place within the UK.

26. The results presented in this report are therefore not at odds with the household data. Births data have considerably greater utility in assessing whether or not sex selection is taking place in England and Wales, as they are not affected by a wide range of events that occur after birth.

In short, what the DoH is doing here is confirming my own analysis and findings, which were that the Indy had royally screwed up their own analysis because they simply didn’t understand what they were doing and, particularly, both the limitations of the dataset they were trying to work with and the analytical methods they were attempting to copy from a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2010.

How badly did they screw up?

Well, according to the Indy, their analysis of the male to female “birth” ratio for families living in the UK in which the mother had been born in Afghanistan gave a range of between 107 and 123 male births for every 100 female births.

The DoH figures for the same community for the period from 2008 to 2013 show a ratio of 104.7 male to 100 female for all live births and ratios of 99.9-100, 107-100 and 106.9-100 for the first, second and third (or more) births, so there is no evidence of any ‘missing’ girls there.

For the Bangladeshi community in the UK, the Indy claimed a male to female ratio of 106-113 to 100. The DoH figures show an overall ratio of 102.9 to 100 and ratios of 103.8-100, 99.6-100 and 104.2-100 for the first, second and third (or more) births. Again this is all perfectly normal.

And for the Pakistani community, where the Indy reported a male to female ratio of 108-113 to 100, the DoH also gives an overall ratio of 102.9 to 100, although the breakdown by birth order is a little different being 105.3 to 100 for the first birth, 102.7 to 100 for the second birth and 101.6 for higher birth orders.

What we do have in the DoH is a somewhat elevated ratio for families where the mother was born in India at higher (3+) birth orders of 112.1 males to 100 female, which is in line with the research published by Dubuc and Coleman but even here the figure is not statistically significant. That doesn’t entirely rule out the possibility of this ratio having been influenced by sex-selective abortion – Dubuc and Coleman’s analysis relies on looking at long terms trends rather taking a single snapshot, as the DoH has done with it’s analysis – but it does support the view that if sex-selective abortion is indeed taking place within that community then it only to a very limited extent equivalent to maybe 60 missing births a year on current birth rates.

It’s not something to be ignored but nor is it grounds for having CQC inspectors crawling all over abortion service providers or for treating women from minority communities who inquire about an abortion with immediate and unjustified suspicion. There is work to be done at grass roots level in communities where this problem may exist, identifying and supporting women who may be at risk of being pressured or coerced into abortion a female foetus for ‘cultural’ reasons which is best carried out by targeting resources to support organisations working on the ground and by working with doctors and counselling staff to raise awareness of the issue and to ensure that should they suspect that a patient may be being coerced into having an abortion then an appropriate offer of a referral for further support is made.

Not, of course, that the Independent’s readers would be the least bit aware of any of this because it’s now almost a week since the DoH published its report and the newspaper has not even acknowledged its existence let alone noted that its contents completely overturn then entire premise of the Indy’s “Lost Girls” stories…

…but then when did newspapers even let inconvenient stuff like facts and evidence get in the way of an established narrative.

  • Dubious

    Two things:
    This is all true, but gives the indication that sex-selective abortion is not happening in the UK. That’s not quite right. A growing body of anecdotal evidence is building up, collected by charities like Jeena International, which proves that, at the very least, a small number of women claim to have obtained gender abortions in the UK. I have met with a few such women.

    Second, there is a crucial omission on the part of the DH’s stats here. There is no breakdown by region. If the best way to establish gender imbalances is through birth-data, the best way to show it is happening in the UK (if the sociological speculation is accurate), would be through a breakdown by ethnicty and region. It may be that the requisite statistical significance could not be reached on a smaller scale. This should have been explained in the document.