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Reproductive Rights

Volume 641: debated on Wednesday 16 May 2018

I beg to move,

That this House has considered access to reproductive rights around the world.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie, in a debate that should concern everybody in the country who is committed to equality. Abortion lies at the heart of equality for women, and men and women can never truly be equal until they have equal control over their own bodies. Abortion is the most common procedure that women of reproductive age undergo, and one in three women in Britain under the age of 45 have an abortion in their lifetime. In truth, those of us committed to equality and to ensuring that women are able to make choices about their own bodies can never be too vigilant, or think that the law in this country, let alone around the world, brings us equality and human rights. That is because there are continued attacks on that basic freedom for women, and that is what the debate is about.

I have seen and read the Minister’s words, and he knows that I am a fan of his persuasive abilities. However, I want to test whether the Government will learn the lesson of the suffragette movement, which is that it is deeds not words that matter, especially when it comes to equality. The Government must not simply say that they are committed to ensuring that women have the right to decide their own sexual and reproductive health; it matters that they act, including in response to any threats to that right.

There is a big variation around the world in access to abortion. Although 98% of countries permit abortion to save the life of a woman, only 62% allow it to preserve a woman’s mental health, and 63% to preserve a woman’s physical health. Only 27% of countries provide abortion on request. There has been some progress. For example, in recent years there has been a heated national debate in Bolivia when it was discovered that women were being turned in by their healthcare providers. A 16-year-old girl who arrived at hospital haemorrhaging was later apprehended and accused by hospital staff of having had an abortion. New legislation in Bolivia now allows abortion in the first eight weeks of pregnancy for a broad range of circumstances.

Canada decriminalised abortion in 1988. As a result, not only is Canada’s abortion rate lower than in the United Kingdom, but it enjoys the world’s lowest rate of maternal mortality from abortion. Abortion is legal in many parts of South Asia, including India, Nepal and Bangladesh, although it is not always accessible. In some African countries, for example, South Africa and Ethiopia, abortion is permissible and reasonably accessible.

Does the hon. Lady agree that sensitivity to African culture must be foremost when dealing in and with African nations, and that we must always take into account their belief systems regarding sexual health and reproduction?

First and foremost, we should listen to African women, and they are consistently clear that they would like control over their own bodies. Being forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy is no freedom or liberation at all.

For every country where there is progress, we also see the tightening grip of the anti-choice movement. Let us not call it “pro-life”; there is nothing pro-life about forcing a woman to continue an unwanted pregnancy. In Europe—our own continent—Poland now has some of the strictest rules on abortion in the world, and abortion is allowed only if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, if the woman’s life is in danger, or in cases of severe or fatal foetal abnormality. Consequently, 80,000 Polish women a year go abroad or seek illegal abortions at home.

America now has a President who says that women should be “punished” if they have an abortion, and a Vice-President who believes that women who have a miscarriage should report it and hold a funeral. One Governor signed a law that states that it is illegal to have an abortion once a foetal heartbeat has been detected. Given that heartbeats can be detected as early as six weeks into a pregnancy—sometimes before a women even realises she is pregnant—that is no freedom or liberation at all.

In El Salvador, abortion is illegal with no exceptions, and that horrendous ban violates the basic human rights of women in that country. At least 23 women and girls remain in prison as a result of the abortion ban, and one woman, Teodora del Carmen Vasquez, walked out of prison a few weeks ago after more than a decade of imprisonment. She was marked as a criminal because she began bleeding and suffered a stillbirth. She was sentenced to 30 years for aggravated homicide, and released only after the Supreme Court ruled that there was not enough evidence to show that she had killed her baby. Abortion may be permitted in Rwanda, but Rwandan police unjustly arrest and imprison hundreds of women on abortion-related charges—such women make up 25% of the female prison population.

The number of maternal deaths resulting from illegal abortions represents the truth: banning abortion does not stop abortion; it simply makes it unsafe. In Africa, a quarter of all those who have an unsafe abortion are adolescent girls. Indeed, about half of the 20,000 Nigerian women who die from unsafe abortions each year are adolescents. It is insulting to suggest that African women do not deserve the rights that we would fight for in our country and around the world. Africa shows us how vital international aid is, as is the job that the Minister is intended to do. Abortion is relatively legal in Zambia, but only 16% of women have access to abortion facilities—in Zambia’s Central Province, there is just one medical doctor for more than 110,000 patients.

Closer to home we see the impact of restrictions on access to healthcare services for women. In the Republic of Ireland, the Protection of Life during Pregnancy Act 2013 imposed an almost total criminalisation of abortion. Ireland is one of a few countries in Europe with such highly restrictive abortion laws. The Irish constitution currently affords equal rights to the life of a foetus and to the life of a woman. However, the 18,000 women from Ireland who have travelled to the UK since 2012 reflect the fact that stopping access to abortion does not stop abortion, it just puts people at risk, including—increasingly—at risk from taking pills they have bought online. At the end of this week the Irish will go to the polls. I plead for dignity, for compassion in a crisis, and to ensure that every Irish person can care for their own at home, that there will be a yes vote.

But who are we to lecture? We should not forget how we treat women in our own backyard, particularly in Northern Ireland, which has some of the harshest laws and punishments in Europe for women who undergo an abortion. A woman with an unwanted pregnancy in Northern Ireland must either travel to the mainland or procure abortion pills online. Since the Government agreed to fund those abortions on the NHS, more than 700 women have travelled to England or Scotland from Northern Ireland. However, those are the women who are able to travel and get away from family commitments, who are not in a coercive relationship, and who have their travel documents. Little wonder that the United Nations condemned the United Kingdom for its treatment of Northern Irish women, which it called cruel, degrading and inhuman.

The Minister might say that each of those examples is due to separate policy decisions in those countries, but I want to sound the alarm and call attention to the fact that that might not be the case. Increasingly, around the world, far-right organisations and extreme religious groups are co-ordinating and funding anti-abortion and anti-choice campaigns. We in this House are used to debating the impact of foreign countries interfering in our democracy—perhaps in referendums—and we should be alive to the fact that those foreign organisations and countries are interfering in a woman’s basic right to choose. The real “The Handmaid’s Tale” is now unfolding.

In 2013, American and European campaigners met in this capital city to plan their campaign. It is called Restoring the Natural Order: an Agenda for Europe, and it seeks to overturn basic laws on human rights related to sexuality and reproduction. Since that meeting, we have seen the impact of those organisations, and the funding they have provided. We have seen how they produced results in Poland with the ban on abortion, and with bans on equal marriage in several central European countries and action on LGBT rights. We have seen how they have targeted international aid in the UK, Europe and America.

In 2013-14 the European Citizens Initiative, One of Us, called on the European Commission to propose legislation that would ensure that EU funds could not be used to fund abortion. It garnered 1.7 million signatures, and although the EU rejected that petition, given the impact it would have on women’s healthcare, that was by no means a one-off. Such rhetoric is coming back.

I very much agree with my hon. Friend and commend her comments. Does she think that now is the moment for the Government to give enthusiastic backing to the SheDecides movement that has emerged since the decision by the American President, Donald Trump, to reimpose the global gag rule? In the light of her comments about anti-abortion campaigners coming together, that would be a powerful signal of Britain’s opposition to that movement.

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend and am extremely proud of the work that he did in government when the global gag rule was first introduced, standing up to what it represented as well as putting our money where our mouth is. We should recognise that the global gag rule under the present President is far worse than the original one. It states that no US funds will go to any organisation that provides for women to be referred for abortion, or advocates doing so. The policy may be called “protecting life in global health assistance”, but it is clear that it is leading to an increase in maternal deaths. Trump has expanded the rule that was in force under previous Republican Presidents to cover all US health assistance funds, whereas previously it was only about family planning.

Marie Stopes International estimates that its loss of US funding will result, between 2017 and 2020, in 6.5 million unintended pregnancies, 2.1 million unsafe abortions and 21,000 maternal deaths, let alone the impact on access to reproductive healthcare, including work on HIV, gender-based violence and sexually transmitted diseases. We can already see the impact. In Botswana, the prevalence of HIV is among the highest in the world at 18.5% of the general population. The Botswana Family Welfare Association provided a range of healthcare and family planning services, and 60% of its funding has been threatened, because America is—or was—the largest funder of overseas healthcare. In Swaziland, family planning, antenatal and post-natal services and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases are key services from the Family Life Association of Swaziland, and there has been a clear impact. US support accounted for 25% of its annual funding. That is why there is now a massive funding gap that needs to be filled.

I am sure that the Minister will tell us about a summit to be held in this country in June promoting the idea that abortion is part of the services that we provide around the world, but we have not, as a country, put our money where our mouth is. We have not put money into the SheDecides fund. That matters. It does not matter if we are funding other services: our approach matters because of what the global gag rule represents, what a co-ordinated attack on a woman’s basic right to choose means, and what that says about the world, and our commitment to equality. That is why it matters whether we contribute. It is about solidarity. It is also about saying that there should be no shame in seeking an abortion. I hope we would all want women to be safe, and abortion to be legal, and rare—but we do not want women to suffer in silence or to be oppressed as the network in question would want. That network brings together President Trump and his supporters, and Russian oligarchs, in funding organisations that claim to promote family values—but only the ones that they choose.

In Poland, the “stop abortion law” was drafted by ultra-conservative lawyers from an organisation called Ordo Iuris. Agenda Europe, an organisation that started here, in our country, was able to attract senior members of the Polish Government, including the Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs, Konrad Szymański, and the Polish Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, Aleksander Stępkowski, who was also president of Ordo Iuris. The same groups are now active in Ireland, in the referendum. It is little wonder that Google and Facebook have been so concerned about the impact of foreign organisations on the fairness of the Irish referendum that they have stopped all foreign-funded advertising about the Irish referendum on their platforms. Agenda Europe summits gather a veritable “Who’s Who” of anti-choice and anti-LGBT movements around the world, such as the architects of the Croatian traditional marriage referendum, the citizens’ initiative on traditional marriage in Romania, HazteOir in Spain, which has sought abortion restrictions, and the French organization Les Survivants, which claims that everyone in French society shares a collective trauma, potentially, because of the experience of abortion. The organisation even developed a Pokémon app where the aim of the game is to save Pikachu from abortionists.

Such rhetoric and funding are clearly having an impact on our democracies and on women; they are having an effect. Indeed, Agenda Europe has targeted the Council of Europe. It would be useful to know who it works with in this country, because it is not transparent about it. If the Minister recognises the danger of the rhetoric and of a lack of solidarity over women’s basic rights, will he investigate the links between organisations such as the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, Christian Action Research and Education, which funds an all-party parliamentary group in this place, and Agenda Europe? Those groups do not just mobilise and target politicians; they also spread lies such as abortion causes breast cancer, and claim that Planned Parenthood is involved in the illegal selling of foetal tissue. In developing countries, they spread rumours that the west is trying to impose western women’s human rights. Internationally, they have promoted and supported the intimidation of women seeking abortions, as has happened in this country with pickets outside abortion clinics.

There have been such protests at 42 clinics already. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq), who has done sterling work on the issue, has pointed out, that is not protest in the usual sense. The protesters are not seeking to change the law. They want to harass and target women who have come to a difficult decision and who seek access to lawful healthcare. Indeed, when the former Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for Hastings and Rye (Amber Rudd), reviewed the matter last year, she said that it was

“completely unacceptable that anyone should feel harassed or intimidated”

for exercising the legal right in question. Less than two weeks ago such protesters took part in a “march for life” through the capital city. I note that there are links with our political organisations. One person at the London meeting was Oliver Hylton, the asset manager for a UK Conservative party donor, Sir Michael Hintze. The new Conservative party vice-chair has called for a reduction in the time limit for abortion, arguing that we need to debate the issue. That is a classic tactic set out in the Agenda Europe campaign bible. That is despite evidence that 92% of abortions are carried out at less than 13 weeks’ gestation in this country.

In addition, women are being criminalised for obtaining abortion pills, reflecting how our legislation and legislation around the world is cripplingly out of date: 5,650 women from the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland accessed pills online, to create an abortion, from Women on Web. Twenty-six per cent. were aged between 30 and 34. The majority were mothers. They were women making their own choice about how their own body should be treated. Without legal access to the pills, they risk problems. There is currently a judicial review in Northern Ireland of the case of a 15-year-old girl, whose mother procured abortion pills for her online. The girl’s case was referred to social services as she was in an abusive relationship, and somehow the GP notes were turned over to the police. Even with a suspended sentence, that young girl will have a criminal conviction. This country must not leave her in that situation. We must act to protect young women around the world making choices about their bodies. Women deserve access to what is a basic healthcare procedure, and do not deserve to be shamed for making choices about their bodies. They deserve our trust, and do not deserve to have to fight for their rights every day against a shadowy organisation involving the collusion of religious and far-right groups. They deserve a Government who will stand up to that network and stand with them.

Will the Minister investigate whether any of his ministerial colleagues have met representatives of Agenda Europe, whether in a parliamentary or political capacity? Did they, for example, take part in the decision to give Life money from the tampon tax? Have Foreign Office ministers met Agenda Europe in their lobbying work in Europe? What action is the UK taking to assist Polish women who now face one of the most restrictive regimes in the world, or to fight for the rights of women in El Salvador? Will the Government change their mind and commit to putting money into the SheDecides fund to send a strong message that those who seek to make men and women unequal will not be tolerated? Will they ensure that the laws governing access to abortion in Northern Ireland fully comply with international human rights law, including the decriminalising of abortion? Will they act to give the idea of buffer zones legal status in the UK, and promote it elsewhere? To put it simply, I trust women and we are asking whether the Government do.

It is a pleasure, as always, to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hosie. I thank the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) for what she has said today and for her work in this area over a long period of time. I want to say at the outset that I am not sure that I or the Government are the targets of what she has been saying. She spoke about a variety of things in relation to campaigning, and set out a variety of attitudes with which the Government entirely agree. We are not in league with those who put a different case on abortion. Our abortion policy is clear and, as I will set out, it is clear in relation to other parts of the world. It is forward-looking. It is fully in favour of access to vital services. It is not a reluctant policy; it is a policy we advocate and are clear about.

A number of the matters that the hon. Lady raised are not within my remit, either in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office or in the Department for International Development, so let me start with as much agreement as possible with the general sense of where she was coming from, while making it clear that some of the issues she wishes to tackle do not fall within my ministerial remit. It might be helpful if I first set out what we do, and the money we put in, to support women right across the world to have access to safe abortion. If she is not aware of that, it will help her and her colleagues; being aware, it is something she can champion as part of her advocacy. That she has a Government and a country that want to do what I am setting out will, I hope, form part of her argument.

Every woman, regardless of where she lives, possesses the same reproductive rights. Every woman has the right to make decisions about her own body. Every woman has the right to decide whether, when, and how many children to have. Every woman has the right to make decisions that affect her own life. But the reality is that not all women are able to exercise those rights. That is why this Government, through the Department for International Development, are working tirelessly to be a loud and strong voice for access to sexual and reproductive health and rights services. We are working to enable women and girls to have sexual and reproductive choices, to avoid unwanted sexual contact, injury and infection, to make informed decisions about childbearing, and to face fewer risks in the course of pregnancy and childbirth.

The UK is the world’s largest donor to the United Nations Population Fund and the second-largest donor for family planning. Access to voluntary family planning information, services and supplies is fundamental to women’s and girls’ empowerment. It means they can avoid a life of early, multiple and frequently dangerous pregnancies and births, and instead complete their education and fulfil their potential. That is why we have driven global investment and innovation in family planning through major summits in London in 2012 and 2017. We have committed to spending an average of £225 million a year on family planning over the next five years, enabling nearly 20 million people to use contraception, preventing 6 million unwanted pregnancies and so preventing more than 3 million abortions, many of which would be unsafe.

The UK has a proud record of putting women’s and girls’ rights at the centre of its international development policy. Addressing gender inequality and empowering women and girls underpins all our work to promote sexual and reproductive health and rights. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for International Development recently launched the new “DFID Strategic Vision for Gender Equality”, which is a call to action to all our development partners to step up and act to address gender inequality in all its forms. Sexual and reproductive health and rights is one of five foundational areas in the new vision. We believe, and the evidence tells us, that that vision will work to transform the lives of women and girls, and we will continue to lead on and invest in it.

I am proud that the UK is leading the way on this. Leadership means not shying away from issues such as access to safe abortion, where the evidence shows that access to safe services saves women’s lives. We are clear that access to safe abortion is a crucial element in the full range of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights services. That is not a reluctant position, but a position that firmly focuses on rights, on saving lives and on amplifying women’s voices where some seek to deny them their voice and their rights. Our policy position paper sets out that approach in full.

Does the Minister recognise that by not being part of the SheDecides fund and by not putting some of the money he is talking about into working with other nations to send a clear message that those who seek to defund women’s rights and family planning organisations because of their objections to abortion, the Government are acting in a counterproductive way? The message that sends is that the people spreading an anti-abortion message, such as Agenda Europe—I hope he will check whether his Department has met with organisations involved in Agenda Europe—are winning. By putting the money he is talking about into the SheDecides fund, we could send a strong message about whose side we are really on. That should be women, because we trust them.

I do not think there is any message that we are not. I am pointing out the work we are doing. The hon. Lady called for deeds—not words or association with movements just for the sake of it and for the symbolism, but what we are actually doing. I will look at SheDecides. The position, as I think she knows, is that my hon. Friend the Member for Penrith and The Border (Rory Stewart), then a Minister in the Department, went to the launch of SheDecides. We support the objectives of SheDecides. We are putting support into a whole range of services. I understand the symbolism and the point she makes. I will look at that and see whether there is more to be done than simply supporting and putting money into what SheDecides does. If an attachment to SheDecides makes a difference, that may be something that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will want to do.

I urge the hon. Lady not to take our decision not to be formally involved in that, but to support that work, to mean that all the other work we are doing either does not matter or is not important enough. That is dancing on the head of a pin. It degrades all the work that all our colleagues are doing all over the world to defend women’s rights, promote women’s services and promote access to safe abortion, just because we are not doing one thing that she would like us to do. I am not sure I want to go down that route. I would rather defend what we do and how positive and forward-looking it is.

I do not think that anybody on the Opposition side questions the investment that the Government are making through the Department for International Development—I welcome that. The concern is that the Government have not had the courage to stand up to the American President over his reintroduction of the global gag rule and to show solidarity with all the other countries that have challenged him and are seeking to galvanise even greater investment in access to reproductive services, to plug the gap that the American decision on the global gag rule has left.

I take the point. Again, our work concentrates on advocating for the best services, and on getting individual states and people within those states to understand the purpose and importance of access to safe abortion. Being involved with political movements is a different question. We are keen to ensure that the work we do supports the policies behind something such as SheDecides, which is what we are doing.

I just want to clarify that Agenda Europe and the work that Donald Trump and Mike Pence are doing is a political movement.

SheDecides is an international aid initiative. It is a cross-country initiative by Governments in response to that political movement. Indeed, the point of this debate is to sound the alarm about that political movement around the world, whether it is interfering in the Irish referendum or in international aid. By not standing up to it, we are by default encouraging that political movement as it becomes stronger and therefore women are more oppressed by it.

I have already given a commitment to go back and look at the engagement with SheDecides. I will make it quite clear: we support the overarching principles of SheDecides; a Minister attended the launch; we work with all partners who are promoting universal access to sexual and reproductive health and rights; and we think that it is most sustainable to demonstrate our commitment to those issues through long-term, sustained support for sexual and reproductive health and rights. We face the consequences of US policy not just in this area, but in others. The response we have delivered so far is to put investment and support into the work that is done, and to say, “This is the best answer to those who wish to close it down.”

I take the point that the hon. Lady and colleagues have challenged me on in relation to the SheDecides movement, but I ask her not to be completely distracted by that. Our deeds in supporting and promoting services, the £1.25 billion that we are putting into this work through our support for family planning services, and the work we are doing in a variety of other areas—I can set them out in a letter to the hon. Lady, as we are running short of time—demonstrate our commitment to what is done.

I take the point about the political movement. I have no knowledge of or connection with the other movement she speaks about—I have never met Europe Now, or whoever they are. I am not aware of any contact in the Department, but I will check. But I would not want us to be pinned on this question in this debate, in which the hon. Lady has spoken about things that I believe in and I want to see. She has spoken about things that the Government are doing and delivering, and she seeks to pin me on one particular part of it, a political policy in relation to a particular movement that we already support and attended the launch of. In all fairness, she is trying to find a very small area of difference between us.

That is how it sounds. The message from this debate should be, “We support each other, and we support what we are trying to do.” If we campaign together, we might have even more success with this policy than we already have.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.