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Travelling for Treatment

A BBC report today suggests that “many” UK couples are going overseas to choose the sex of their children. What seems most odd about this is that in some cases they go to places where sex selection is illegal.

What is interesting here is the fascination with what people do when they go overseas or why they go overseas. There are a whole range of stories about Britons going overseas to get things that they cannot get in the UK – or cannot get in the UK as cheaply. The obvious examples are sex selection, assisted suicide or treatments not available on the NHS.

Of course perhaps the largest part of this fascination relates to the fact that these practices or treatments are banned in the UK. Discussion (whether sensationalist or not) tends be about drawing attention to the controversial nature of these bans, usually with an underlying view of suggesting that such bans are problematic and should be rectified  – ‘so that these people do not have to leave home, to go to all this trouble, to get what is after all a quite reasonable request.’

Now quite clearly the fact that people have to go overseas to get some treatment is not an argument for that treatment being permitted in the UK. Similarly, the fact that they go to Turkey for sex selection, where it is also illegal, is no reason for it to be legal in the UK. As unfortunate as it sounds, the kinds of issues that are at stake (in sex selection, assisted suicide and treatments not funded on the NHS) are not the kind of issues for which the fact that those who disagree with the current arrangement have to go offshore is an overwhelmingly important consideration.

States, nations and regions will all vary in the way they approach the regulation of controversial medical and other technologies. This is a simple product of evaluative, historical and circumstantial differences. The difference itself is not a reason for conformity.

The main thing to take a hit when these treatments are forbidden in the UK (and not elsewhere) is equality of access. If an individual can afford to travel and pay then these laws and rulings are much less of a barrier. With the exception of the lack of protection from prosecution to those accompanying an individual travelling to Dignitas in Switzerland, this would seem to hold of those seeking assisted suicide. If a drug is available in the US but not in the UK (or not on the NHS) those who can afford it will pay for it. Those who can afford it will be able to pay to determine the sex of their child – perhaps even if they go to Turkey. 

But how much stock are we to place on this denial of equality of access when so much of our society is built around precisely such a denial? Of course whether this denial matters depends on the arguments, given internal to the UK context, on the specific issues in question not on the fact of travelling for treatment.

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