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Offences Against the Person Act 1861

Volume 642: debated on Monday 4 June 2018

Application for emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)

I rise to propose that the House should debate a specific and important matter which should have urgent consideration, namely our role in repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. I make the application not just in my name, but in the names of the members of the cross-party group who agree that it is time to reform abortion laws: the hon. Members for Totnes (Dr Wollaston) and for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) and the hon. Members for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas).

The impact of the Irish referendum has been felt around the world. Of the 2.1 million people who voted, 1.4 million voted to repeal the eighth amendment of the Irish constitution, which prevents abortion. In doing so, however, they have thrown a spotlight on the situation in Northern Ireland, where a million people are affected. It is a situation in which, if a UK citizen is raped and seeks a termination as a result, she faces a longer prison sentence than her attacker; it is a situation in which the mother of a much-wanted child who is given a heart-breaking diagnosis of fatal foetal abnormality is forced to travel overseas for treatment; and it is a situation in which UK citizens are currently on trial, including the mother of a 15-year-old girl who is on trial for buying her abortion pills. That situation is a direct consequence of legislation passed here in the House of Commons, which is why the House of Commons must act.

The Offences Against the Person Act is more than 150 years old. It puts abortion in the same category as homicide, destroying or damaging a building with the use of gunpowder, child stealing, rape, and defilement of women. It is the most common procedure undergone by women of reproductive age in our constituencies, yet even in 2018 they are shaped by that criminal legislation, to their own detriment. Stopping abortion provision does not stop abortions; it simply increases the risk that a woman will have to make a degrading and lonely journey overseas, will be forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy, or—worse—will buy pills online that may not be safe, with the threat of prosecution if she seeks medical help. It is little wonder that the United Nations has said that we must act, and that the Supreme Court is ruling on our human rights obligations this week. Devolution—even if it is functioning—does not relieve this place of our responsibility to uphold human rights, whether in Northern Ireland or elsewhere.

We must be clear about the consequences of keeping sections 58 and 59. Extending the Abortion Act 1967 does not address the impact of those pills, or the paternalism that means that women are not trusted to make their own choices. Nor does it impose a particular rule on Northern Ireland; it will remove the impediment to Northern Ireland’s making its own legislation. Members who may agree that it is a woman’s right to choose, but who wish to see the Assembly choose, can be reassured. Repealing the 1861 Act gives us the opportunity both to respect devolution and to respect women. The people of Northern Ireland cannot be held hostage to the ups and downs of the Brexit negotiations, the deals done in a hung Parliament, or the stalling of talks in Stormont. By repealing the Act, we as the UK Parliament can show women across the United Kingdom that we trust them all with their own healthcare, wherever they live. I ask Members to stand up with me, and join me in saying that this is the 21st century.

I have listened carefully to the hon. Lady’s application. I am satisfied that it is proper for the matter to be raised, and indeed discussed, under Standing Order No. 24. Has the hon. Lady the leave of the House?

Application agreed to (not fewer than 40 Members standing in support).

The hon. Lady has clearly obtained the leave of the House. I can advise colleagues that the debate will be held tomorrow, Tuesday 5 June, as the first item of public business. The debate will last for up to three hours, and will arise on a motion that the House has considered the specified matter set out in the hon. Lady’s application. I am grateful to the hon. Lady, and to other colleagues.

The Clerk will now proceed to read the Orders of the Day. I said that with momentary hesitation, because earlier a Member beetled up to the Chair to indicate his intense interest in raising a point of order, but he is now disinclined to do so. So be it; we are most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the self-denying ordinance that he has applied.