Emergency debate (Standing Order No. 24)
We now come to the emergency debate. Before I call the opening speaker, I should point out that no fewer than 22 Back-Bench Members are seeking to contribute, and there will have to be a time limit. How strict it is depends on the early part of the debate.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the role of the UK Parliament in repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.
I want to start by thanking you, Mr Speaker, for granting this debate and all the Members who have given their cross-party support. I have always believed that abortion is a non-partisan issue, and I want to pay tribute to the hon. Members for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson), for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) and for Brighton, Pavilion (Caroline Lucas) for their work on this issue, and in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), who has led the efforts on decriminalisation.
There are many issues ahead of us today: decriminalisation, devolution and domestic abuse, but above all, it is about a particular “d”—dignity: the dignity of women to be able to choose for themselves what to do with their own bodies. I am proud to have been able to work on this issue with the Alliance for Choice, the London Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the Family Planning Association, Marie Stopes and Amnesty International. We have not stopped planning for this since last year’s vote to secure access for Northern Irish women to abortion here on the NHS. The truth is that we knew that that solution did not answer the test that Arlene Foster herself has set, to ensure that the men and women of Northern Ireland are not treated differently by the United Kingdom Government.
But it is the impact of the Irish referendum that brings us here today. The Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar welcomed the yes vote in Ireland a week ago, saying that Ireland will no longer say to women, “Take the boat” or “Take the plane” when they need an abortion. Instead, he said, Ireland will say, “Take our hand.” It is now time for us to offer our hands to the women of Northern Ireland in the same way. They are women who face a situation where if they are raped and seek a termination, they will face a longer prison sentence than their attacker; women who, when they have a heartbreaking diagnosis of a fatal foetal abnormality, have to go abroad to seek treatment; and women who are currently on trial. Indeed, the mother of a 15-year-old girl who was in an abusive relationship is currently being prosecuted for buying her daughter misoprostol online.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way and for securing this very important debate. Does she agree that because abortion has not been decriminalised in Northern Ireland, women are still going for abortions, whether that involves travelling to the UK at great expense or, in the worst-case scenario, getting backstreet abortions, which I am sure we all want to avoid?
My hon. Friend makes a key point. Stopping the provision of abortion does not stop abortions happening; it simply increases the risk of a woman either having to make that degrading and lonely journey to another country or risk buying pills online and the problems that come with them, including the threat of prosecution if something goes wrong with the pills and she seeks medical help.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way and pay tribute to her for all her work in securing this important debate and much more besides. She will know that the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women has said that the situation in Northern Ireland constitutes “grave and systematic violations” of human rights. Does she agree that it is essential that we send a message from the Chamber today to any woman or girl in Northern Ireland, saying, “We are with you. We will continue to stand up for your human rights, and we won’t stop until you get them”?
I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention. Yes, the UN has criticised us. So too has the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which this week brought an appeal to the Supreme Court, so that it can rule on whether the situation in Northern Ireland breaches the European convention on human rights.
It is worth remembering when we talk about Northern Ireland that the UK committed alongside Ireland in the Good Friday agreement to uphold the human rights of all citizens in Northern Ireland. It is that commitment that we are asking the Government to honour. The Good Friday agreement was the basis for institutions being obliged to comply with those obligations under the Human Rights Act 1998, but without the institutions that exist in Northern Ireland, those rights are not being upheld.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way, and I too congratulate her on securing the debate. Does she agree that it is surprising but rather wonderful that the Republic of Ireland is leading the way on this and also on gay marriage, and that, notwithstanding devolution, Northern Ireland should look now to the south and say, “They are leading the way, and we should follow”?
I would like to join my colleague in his remarks. I hope he was a supporter, as I was, of the wonderful work that my hon. Friend the Member for St Helens North (Conor McGinn) did on making the case for equal marriage in Northern Ireland—a case that I wholeheartedly supported, and I hope the Government will too. Devolution, even when it is functioning, does not relieve this place of our responsibility to uphold human rights, whether in Northern Ireland or elsewhere.
My hon. Friend will know that, as a Welsh MP, I respect devolution more than most, having to live it every day of my life, but this issue and that of equal marriage in Northern Ireland deserve to be tackled in the here and now, and devolution should not be used as an excuse to deny women the right to abortion and to prevent equal marriage. This is 2018. Both these issues are contemporary, and they are about equality and basic human rights.
As ever, I agree completely with my Welsh comrade.
This outdated legislation is not just having an impact in Northern Ireland, and that is why this is a matter for the whole House. Women across England and Wales are also buying pills online rather than seeking repeated visits to doctors. One study showed that in a four-month period last year, 500 British women attempted to access abortion pills from one online supplier alone and so would be liable to prosecution under this archaic rule. This situation is not simply about Northern Ireland. It is about legislation that this House has passed, and that is why this House must act.
I want to be very specific today about what I am proposing, because I understand that there are concerns.
I am very grateful indeed to the hon. Lady for giving way. This is of course a very, very sensitive and controversial issue, particularly in Northern Ireland. I need to reflect to her the fact that I have received a large number of emails from constituents who feel that MPs at Westminster are usurping the powers and responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Assembly during a period when we have not had a functioning Assembly—I wish we did have one, and I look to my colleagues on the Democratic Unionist party Benches and urge them to get the Assembly up and running again. How can the hon. Lady reassure my constituents that today’s very important debate does not undermine the devolution settlement in Northern Ireland?
I thank the hon. Lady for her question and absolutely wish to take up the challenge that she presents, because I completely respect the point of view that she puts forward. Let me therefore make some progress and set out precisely what we are proposing.
The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 puts abortion in the same category as homicide, destroying or damaging a building with the use of gunpowder with the intent to murder, child stealing, rape, and defilement of women. Abortion might be the most common procedure that our constituents who are women of reproductive age undergo, but even today, in 2018, we do not let them make the choice themselves to have that procedure.
We would like to repeal sections 58 and 59 of OAPA. Letting sections 58 and 59 stay on the statute book does not address many of the challenges that we see today in abortion provision. For example, extending the Abortion Act 1967 does not address the impact of the pills I mentioned, or indeed the paternalism that says women are not to be trusted to make choices about their bodies.
I also want to be clear about what we are not doing in repealing those sections of OAPA. This is not an attempt to remove the criminal charges that come after 24 weeks —let me make that explicitly clear, because I have seen briefings from some anti-choice organisations that suggest otherwise. We are not intending to amend or repeal the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, which covers and still has the power to criminalise abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy. Decriminalising abortion up to 24 weeks of pregnancy would mean that the Abortion Act 1967 became redundant before 24 weeks of pregnancy. As abortion before 24 weeks of pregnancy would no longer be a crime, we would no longer need the 1967 Act to act as a defence for women who had sought such an abortion. However, the exemptions that the 1967 Act provides for termination post 24 weeks would remain, and the 1967 Act would provide exemptions to prosecution under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act—for example, in cases of severe foetal abnormality or where the mother’s life is at risk. That might seem complicated, so let me put it as simply as possible: the time limit would not change, nor would the important role of medics in this matter.
I respect and recognise that some people do not consider abortion a human right and so think a criminal approach is the right response. I recognise that for many more, it is not that that worries them, but the constitutional issues at stake. Even though the Good Friday agreement explicitly retained human rights responsibilities for this place, let me reassure those MPs who want to uphold the role of devolved Assemblies that repealing OAPA would not write a particular abortion law for anyone, but would require them to act. This proposal would respect devolution; it would not reject it.
I just want to be absolutely clear. I think the hon. Lady is suggesting that Northern Ireland has UK abortion at 24 weeks, not Republic of Ireland abortion at 12 weeks. Is that correct?
Let me reassure the hon. Gentleman: I am not proposing any particular law. What we are talking about is repealing the existing UK legislation that requires Northern Ireland law to act in a certain way. Doing so, unlike imposing a referendum or extending the 1967 Act, would be in line with our human rights responsibilities, which is why the United Nations has asked us to do this, and it would not impose a specific outcome on Northern Ireland.
Absolutely. The hon. Lady—my colleague in writing this proposal—is absolutely right. It simply means that the Northern Ireland Assembly, if it is reconstituted, cannot ignore this issue, because there would be a gap that then had to be filled by medical regulation.
If I may, I would like to make a little progress, because I realise some of this is quite technical.
I want to set out very clearly why a referendum would not be the right approach. Those who are suggesting it need to be clear about what the question would be. What would they consult the public on, and who would write the question? If the law were passed, who would then implement it? Indeed, if we had a referendum on bringing abortion rights or a particular form of abortion to Northern Ireland, would we also allow a referendum on other contested issues, such as the Union itself?
I may not share the views of my colleagues from the DUP about a woman’s right to choose, but I find myself in agreement with the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), who wrote to one of his constituents saying, “inevitably it is” Westminster
“politicians who have to make the call on this”.
He recognises that
“this law applies across the whole of the United Kingdom and not just Northern Ireland”,
so it is right for MPs in this House to consider whether repealing sections 58 and 59 of OAPA is the right thing to do. I also note that he recognises and acknowledges that
“there is no substantive support among the local political parties”—
in Northern Ireland—
“for extending the 1967 Abortion Act”,
because people would like to be able to write their own legislation. By repealing these provisions in OAPA, we will make that a possibility, and we will therefore make that a possibility in England and Wales as well.
Absolutely. Indeed, this is in line with respecting the work that has been done in the Northern Ireland Assembly, when it was constituted, on abortion rights. Working parties had started to look at the kind of medical regulation that might be required. Because there is no Assembly at the moment, those rules cannot be taken forward. However, even if there was an Assembly, OAPA—unless these provisions are repealed—would define that conversation.
The hon. Lady will of course know that when the Assembly debated this matter in 2016, it totally rejected the proposals she is making to the House. Does she agree with me that removing sections 58 and 59 means there would be no regulatory framework whatsoever in Northern Ireland to govern legal abortions. A massive hole would be left in the law in Northern Ireland, and there would be no right for medical practitioners to exercise their conscientious objections.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention because it is helpful for people to understand how the DUP interprets the situation. I obviously interpret it differently. I look to what happened in the Assembly, when the DUP argued that the idea, in relation to fatal foetal abnormality, required proper consideration—the DUP did not reject it—and, indeed, set up a working party, which has just issued a report on how conditions leading to access to a medical abortion may occur. I therefore do not think that the idea that this was rejected out of hand by the Assembly is fair.
I would gently highlight to the hon. Gentleman that there have been two Assembly elections since then, so there is no guarantee that the view of the Assembly would be the same as the view in 2016. The argument he is making is precisely for the Northern Ireland Assembly, or indeed for the civil servants, to fill the gap, rather than against the gap being created, by repealing this UK legislation.
Let me be clear to other Members in the Chamber who may have heard the suggestion that there would not be any safeguards—
Directly before entering the House, I actually worked for two years in gynaecology clinics, one of which was for terminations of pregnancy. If a doctor has a conscientious objection, they do not have to sign certificate A; they can come out of the process and not do so.
I thank my hon. Friend for her contribution to this debate, which is much welcomed.
Let me reassure Members that, as for every other medical procedure, there are safeguards that are not in OAPA or even in the Abortion Act, but in existing medical regulation. Therefore, these safeguards would not change with decriminalisation. Indeed, the 1967 Act, which is supposed to safeguard women, says nothing about informed consent and is entirely silent on these issues. Clinicians are required by law to obtain informed consent before performing any medical procedure, or risk criminal sanction. We are asking for abortion to be subject to exactly the same medical regulations as all other procedures. By repealing these provisions in OAPA we, as the UK Parliament, can show women across the UK that we trust them with their own healthcare, wherever they live. We can also show that we trust every legislature, including in Northern Ireland, to create modern abortion laws. The crucial issue for those of us who support decriminalisation is: when can we do this? For me, that is the question for Ministers today.
The hon. Lady has mentioned that this is very technical and that there is a lot of legislation to go through, but may I ask her one small question? In her aims and objectives in all this, where do the rights of the unborn child and the life of such a child come in?
If I may, I will happily come on to the question about rights and to the moral debate on abortion. I recognise that there are different opinions within the House and indeed within Northern Ireland on this issue, which is why this is not a partisan issue. If I may, I will finish my point and then come on to exactly that.
The Government are currently consulting on the domestic abuse legislation. Indeed, I previously met the former Home Secretary to discuss this and the opportunity that Bill presents for us to make progress. I understand Ministers’ concern to stop abortion being used to control women, so their interest in OAPA in relation to this legislation was perhaps different from mine. I would also highlight to Ministers that the Serious Crimes Act 2015 criminalises controlling or coercive behaviour in family or intimate relationships. I would argue that the men prosecuted under OAPA for intentionally causing the loss of a wanted pregnancy could well have been prosecuted under the existing assault law.
Furthermore, organisations like Women’s Aid and End Violence Against Women both support decriminalisation, because they recognise that current criminalisation puts vulnerable women at risk. A study has shown that one in five women who bought pills online did so because they were in a violent or controlling relationship. We do not protect women by criminalising them. That is why so many medical bodies are also calling for decriminalisation; the royal colleges and the British Medical Association are just some of them. Indeed, the president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has argued that the legal situation in Northern Ireland means its healthcare professionals “struggle to provide” the support they would like to give women who need an abortion or to manage any post-abortion complications safely. We also know that this is the view of the Northern Irish public. The majority—whether individuals from any particular political background, religious background, age or ethnicity—would like abortion to be managed as a medical rather than a criminal issue.
I have respect for people who hold a different view on abortion itself and the role that it plays in equality, but I see abortion as an equalities issue, because men and women will never truly be free while one cannot control what happens to their own body. Indeed, as the residents of Gilead have shown us, that is fundamental to human rights. I therefore make no apology for putting the safety and dignity of women first, as part of equality between the sexes.
I know I will get abuse online for saying so because, frankly, women get the blame whatever we do in such situations. Indeed, judging by the emails I have had today, it is either my or my mother’s fault. I made the mistake that many MPs make of actually reading my emails today:
“Your views are a disgrace to humanity and the betrayal of the truly innocent. Woman can always say no or keep their clothes on!!”
“You madame were once an Embryo, You madame were once a fetus in your mother’s womb; You were once a PRE-BORN baby.”
“I wonder what decision you would have wanted your mother to make about your life or death had she been given the opportunity in the months before you were born?”
I respect those who disagree with abortion on all grounds as a matter of faith, and I make this simple point to those who think only of the extremes: if they support access to abortion only in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality, in essence their concern is more about the manner in which a woman became pregnant than about abortion. Why does it matter if we trust women and give them the chance to control their own bodies rather than being forced to continue an unwanted pregnancy? Because it is about freedom. So shout at me all you want—this is not Gilead, and we should not be frightened to speak up for the equal rights of women. Not to do so is to put women’s lives and liberation at risk.
The truth is that, in 2018, we still do not trust our own women. This is the one healthcare decision that no UK woman can make on her own. That is why the UN has called on us to repeal these specific sections of law; no Assembly, nor indeed this place, can make any progressive law for itself on this subject without doing so. In supporting this proposal, every Member can send a message that, in 2018, all the women of the UK deserve to be treated as equal citizens.
I am just about to finish, so I will not.
One hundred and fifty years is a long time to wait for social justice, so let us not wait anymore. Today we ask the Minister to commit to a timetable for when the will of the House can be tested on this issue, so that rather than waiting 150 years, we wait at most 150 days before we see change—so that we truly get, in the 21st century, 21st century laws. The “d” today is for the debate, but we must have time for the other “d”: decision making, to bring dignity to all our constituents. I ask the Ministers: give us a date.
I apologise to the House for the fact that I have to leave this debate early, but I could not resist the impassioned call of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) for a debate yesterday and the opportunity to take part in it today.
The issue deserves a debate. We should never be afraid to say what we think in this place, particularly on issues of conscience. We need a change. In 2016, 724 women from Northern Ireland travelled from there to England for abortion care. I think that it is wrong that women in Northern Ireland do not have the same access to abortion as my constituents do. I would like to thank Annette Service, the manager at the British Pregnancy Advisory Service in Basingstoke, for writing to me with her impassioned plea for change in this area.
I believe that the situation should not exist. The fact that the same rights are not available in one of the four parts of the UK—not even when it comes to fatal foetal abnormalities, rape or incest—is difficult to understand. Why, oh why was it decided in 2003 to devolve this sensitive matter, which relates to international obligations, mentioned by the hon. Member for Walthamstow, such as the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women and the Istanbul convention? It is difficult to understand, even from the Hansard report, the rationale behind why that was done in this way. In many ways, it feels as though the rights of Northern Irish women were traded as part of the devolution settlement.
People in Northern Ireland want change. The Northern Ireland Assembly has acknowledged that and the Department of Justice report, issued in 2015, stated clearly that there was a pressing need to change the criminal law to provide terminations in clearly defined circumstances. The general public want change. The latest Amnesty International poll suggests that 68% of Northern Irish people feel that people should not be punished if they have an abortion. Professional bodies want change, including the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
My hon. Friend has brought up an important issue, to which I will come in a moment. There may be a way for people in Northern Ireland to express their views at a time when they do not have a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly.
I was talking about people who are calling for change—whether at the Northern Ireland Assembly, at the Department of Justice, among the general public or in professional bodies, or, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow mentioned, in the courts, which are also considering the need for change; a case before the Supreme Court will be decided shortly.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. I will come to that issue in the short time that I have left.
I commend the hon. Member for Walthamstow for bringing this issue before us today, but the House must understand—and she made this clearer today than during her intervention yesterday—that repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 would have profound impacts for the whole United Kingdom. I am not saying that those changes could not be strongly argued for, but I believe that today’s debate is about the situation facing women in Northern Ireland. We need to make sure that we are focusing on that in particular, because although decriminalisation is an option—the hon. Lady is right—it is not the only option for improving the situation for women in Northern Ireland. I want to draw on three particular issues.
First, is there a disconnect between public opinion and the policies being pursued in Northern Ireland? What progress has been made on the ground and what action, if any, can the Government take to make sure that, if progress is lacking, things can be done to rectify that? When I read the research—I also read the consultation, which was extensive and thorough—I thought that a strong argument could be made for a call for change to be inherent in the community in Northern Ireland. I do not represent that community; as I look at Northern Ireland Members, I hope that in their contributions they will explain why there is an apparent difference between the public opinion being offered to us and the approach being taken to date by the devolved Administration. I deliberately tread carefully and respectfully on this matter. I truly believe that we should not start any changes here that would make people feel disfranchised as part of this process.
Secondly, we have to recognise that a great deal of progress has already been made; there has not been much detail about that so far in this debate. There was the consultation in 2014 and the report in 2015 mentioned
“a pressing need”
“change to the criminal law…to provide for lawful termination of pregnancy…in…clearly defined circumstances”.
That has already been called for. In 2016, legislation was introduced by the then Minister for Justice to bring about some of those changes. In 2018, just last month, a report from a working group on fatal foetal abnormalities again recommended that change should come in.
Change is called for. What can we do today to try to make sure that the absence of an Executive and an Assembly does not stand in the way? There are clearly opportunities with the case that is going through the Supreme Court, and I hope that the Minister is able to share with us more about the Government’s feelings on that. Perhaps the Minister can also talk about the action that can be taken in the absence of an Executive, to continue the deliberations and the important detailed work needed in this place.
I will not, if the hon. and learned Lady will forgive me.
I simply do not believe that no action will be taken when the Northern Ireland Assembly is formed again, but if none is, what can the Government do to ensure that there are no potential breaches of international conventions such as the ones I have already talked about?
This place legislated to devolve powers on abortion to Northern Ireland. We cannot ride roughshod over that, and we have a responsibility to uphold the law. Equally, the lack of a functioning Assembly hampers progress. Westminster has a right to disagree with the Assembly and the actions that it has taken, and this debate should be a vigorous exploration of all those arguments. But we have clear international responsibilities to outlaw discrimination against women. We need to make sure that we, as Westminster parliamentarians, are doing for that for women in the four corners of the United Kingdom.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate as a Member of Parliament, having represented my constituency for 21 years. Listening to debates in this place, I sometimes think that when people look at me they think I have a disconnect with the people I represent. Frankly, I would not have been returned to this House for my sixth term in Parliament if I was so disconnected from the people I represent. I am their voice in this House and I respect the voices of others, but the voices of the elected representatives from Northern Ireland should be heard in this debate.
This issue is one of great sensitivity, which deeply divides opinion both in this House and beyond, including in Northern Ireland. The subject of abortion incites strong and passionate responses for understandable reasons. I take part in this debate with that reality firmly in mind. My party has been from its very inception a pro-life party. We believe that law and policy in Northern Ireland should affirm and uphold the rights of both mothers and unborn children.
We have not been alone in Northern Ireland in upholding that stance. Politicians across the political divide and religious spectrum in Northern Ireland—as in other parts of the United Kingdom—have, and continue to hold, a similar view to the DUP. This includes both Unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland, and people of all faiths and none. The nationalist parliamentarian, the former hon. Member for Foyle, Mark Durkan, spoke eloquently in this House in defence of the pro-life position. Some of the best proponents of the pro-life position in Northern Ireland have come from the republican tradition, such as Francie Brolly, a former Member of the Legislative Assembly, and his wife Anne, a former mayor of Limavady. Both are Sinn Féin representatives who hold a pro-life position. The idea therefore that the only party in Northern Ireland that is pro-life and holds this view is the DUP is a nonsense that betrays an ignorance of the political situation in Northern Ireland and of the views of political parties that I encourage Members to acquaint themselves with more closely.
Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in countries where abortion is legally restricted there are 37 abortions per 1,000 women and that where abortion is regularly available there are 34 abortions per 1,000 women? Restrictive abortion laws do not prevent women from seeking abortion; they only endanger women’s health and lives as they seek unsafe procedures. That is not pro-life.
I beg to differ with the hon. Lady. Research in Northern Ireland shows that since the introduction of the Abortion Act 1967 here, 100,000 people in Northern Ireland are alive today because we in Northern Ireland did not accept that law. That research has been backed up with proper scientific fact. I am proud of that pro-life position. I am proud of the fact that there are so many people alive in Northern Ireland today because we have a law that respects the rights of both women and the unborn child. We will maintain that position.
Contrary to some of the claims made by some in favour of liberalising the law in Northern Ireland, the law in Northern Ireland has been shown to reduce the number of abortions in our jurisdiction. That is a fact. The Both Lives Matter campaign, which has been very effective in Northern Ireland, demonstrated with its research that that is the case. For that reason, I am very thoughtful about any change in the law in Northern Ireland. Furthermore, we have long argued that it is for the people of Northern Ireland, through the Northern Ireland Assembly, to decide what the law on abortion should be. I very much respect the points made by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) in that regard and we thank her for that acknowledgement.
This House made a decision in 2008 to devolve to Northern Ireland policing and justice powers, as the right hon. Lady reminded us. This House took that decision, which included the power to decide what the law on abortion in Northern Ireland should be. The Labour party was in power at that time and took that decision. I remind Labour Members that they do not contest elections in Northern Ireland. If they want to test the waters on this issue, we invite them to come and put their views forward and to contest elections in Northern Ireland. We are a functioning democracy. I might point out that its sister party in Northern Ireland is a pro-life party.
For our part, the DUP stands ready to take its place in both the Assembly and Executive today and without preconditions. We are ready to take on responsibility for governing Northern Ireland. We stand ready to work with the other parties to take decisions on sensitive issues like abortion, to arrive at an outcome that reflects the will of the people of Northern Ireland, respecting the rights of both women and unborn children and upholding the principle that both lives matter.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that although there are deeply sensitive issues we must consider in Northern Ireland, such as life-limiting conditions also referred to as fatal foetal abnormality, this proposal would impose on the people of Northern Ireland one of the most liberal abortion regimes anywhere in the world: abortion on demand up to 24 weeks in the absence—this is a fact—of a regime or guidelines? Currently, they do not exist, and if this measure went ahead, there would be nothing there apart from legality and decriminalisation up to 24 weeks.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. In truth, if what is proposed under this motion was to actually happen, it would have dramatic consequences for Northern Ireland. That is absolutely clear and I think even the mover of the motion acknowledged there would be a very significant gap. We need to have this debate in Northern Ireland: a reasoned debate that engages the political parties and civil society, so we can collect the voices and come to a decision on how best to proceed with regard to the law on abortion. In the Northern Ireland Executive, the DUP supported the establishment of the expert working group, which has now published its report specifically on the question of unborn children diagnosed with a life-limiting condition. We are considering that report, which has recently been published, and the key recommendations it makes.
This is a very sensitive area and women in receipt of such devastating diagnoses deserve our utmost sympathy and our support. No one could fail to be moved by the harrowing cases of those who have found themselves in such tragic circumstances. We want to develop a new Northern Ireland-wide service for women in those circumstances to ensure that they receive the best information, advice and co-ordinated care and to ease their journey through our healthcare system. I am keen to ensure that we enhance our perinatal palliative care, with a view to Northern Ireland becoming an exemplar in this area.
We want to listen to the voices of civil society. We want to listen to what people have to say—the voices of women like Sarah Ewart, who has spoken passionately about her own experience of pregnancy and abortion in the most difficult of circumstances and has argued for change in cases involving unborn children with life-limiting conditions. I also refer to the voice of my own constituent who wrote to me last evening on hearing about this debate:
“Apparently there is to be a discussion in the Commons on our abortion laws. As the daughter of a rape victim and an unrepresented Catholic I would ask that you take a positive pro-life stance and protect the most vulnerable in our society.”
There are strong voices on both sides of this debate. This is a devolved issue. It should be left to the people of Northern Ireland.
Before I call the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I remind colleagues that inexorably the time limit on Back-Bench speeches will fall if there are huge numbers of interventions—there will inevitably be interventions; they are part of the debate—and if Front Benchers, not so constrained, were inadvertently to dilate at excessive length. I know that they will not, because that would be uncollegiate and they will not want to be uncollegiate.
I start by welcoming the opportunity to take part in a debate on this incredibly important issue. I pay tribute to all hon. Members who secured the debate, and particularly the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). She has campaigned on this issue for many years and I know that she will continue to do so. I always welcome the opportunity to hear her incredibly passionate and moving contributions.
I also apologise, Mr Speaker, because, as you know, I will need to leave the Chamber before the end of the debate. The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my hon. Friend the Member for North West Cambridgeshire (Mr Vara), will be here throughout the whole debate, as will Ministers from Departments that cover a whole spectrum of the issues that we are debating today. If specific points need a response, I will ensure that I respond personally to those Members who make them.
I—and you, Mr Speaker—have listened very carefully to all the different views on this matter that have been expressed today and previously. It is clear that there is a range of views across the House. I am also aware of the personal stories that lie behind this issue. Abortion is a very sensitive issue, regardless of where people’s views lie. It is therefore important for us to debate this issue with due care and sensitivity, and that was why I stood yesterday to support the hon. Member for Walthamstow in securing the debate.
It has long been the case that abortion has been a matter of conscience in this House. It has been, and will continue to be, subject to a free vote. While I appreciate that the recent referendum in Ireland has undoubtedly reinvigorated the debate in Northern Ireland and throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, we have to be careful not to react without careful consideration.
Is the Secretary of State travelling to the point in her speech at which she acknowledges that what we are debating is not about Northern Ireland, because what is in front of us is a proposal that would fundamentally change forever the rules governing abortion across the whole United Kingdom? That should not be done in the heat of the moment following something that happened in a foreign jurisdiction—the Republic of Ireland.
I am grateful for the tone that the Secretary of State is adopting.
In the previous Parliament—in March 2017—the repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 was debated after I brought in a ten-minute rule Bill. There was a vote in this Parliament, and it was successful—the proposal had the support of the House. This issue has therefore been around for some time; it is not something that we are rushing to in haste.
I pay tribute to the hon. Lady. I know she brought forward her ten-minute rule Bill and that she feels passionately about the issue. I am merely making the point that, as Northern Ireland Secretary, I am looking at this in the context of Northern Ireland. There is a wider debate—that is why Ministers from the Departments affected by the issue of abortion are in the Chamber—and it is extremely sensitive. There are many strongly held views across all sides of the debate, and particularly across all sides of the debate on abortion reform in Northern Ireland.
Let me turn to the referendum in Ireland. It was undoubtedly a significant moment in the history of that country, but its read-across to the situation in the United Kingdom has to be treated with care. On 25 May, Ireland voted to repeal the relevant article of its constitution, commonly known as the eighth amendment, which since 1983 has given unborn foetuses and pregnant women an equal right to life. The referendum followed many years of debate and discussion in Ireland, and the process is not yet over. Although a significant majority supported repeal, the proposal now needs to be debated and passed by both Houses of the Irish Parliament to determine what type of reform works best for Ireland. It is important to be clear that what we witnessed was specific to Ireland, where a change to its written constitution requires a referendum.
Is not the experience in Ireland a perfect example of what this proposal would do? It proposes removing the bar—the criminal offence—and then allowing a debate in this place and other devolved areas about how abortion could be regulated. Is that not where we should be going, rather than restricting?
Today’s debate is undoubtedly about whether that is the right approach, but I want to be clear that, in the Republic of Ireland, a referendum is required for constitutional change. That is not the situation in the United Kingdom, including in Northern Ireland. I want to be clear that there are very significant differences. We do not know what the Irish law will look like. That has to be debated and then taken through both Houses of the Irish Parliament. We cannot simply read across from the vote. The referendum was decided by the people of Ireland, and the process is now to be taken forward by the Irish Government. It is clearly a matter for the Irish, and it should not be implied that that should automatically extend to the people of Northern Ireland.
I am interested in the Secretary of State’s thoughts. She is of course right that the situation is very different in the Republic, but the situation across the island of Ireland is now very important. What has happened has massive implications for Northern Ireland. Has she spoken to the Irish Government about the implications of women travelling from the north to the south, and about the relationship now, in the spirit of the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, regarding this issue on the island of Ireland?
I have of course spoken to the Irish Government, as I do regularly, and as I do with all the main parties in Northern Ireland. However, let us be clear: this referendum was to allow a change in the law. The law has not changed in the Republic. In Ireland, there is still a prohibition on abortion, as there was previously, and it is now for both Houses of the Irish Parliament to debate what the law should look like. I make the point that this is not a simple process. It takes time, and the matter will need consideration in the Irish Parliament.
It is worth pointing out that we are talking about the repeal of OPA across the United Kingdom. We are not talking about getting rid of the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, which criminalises abortion after 24 weeks. Nobody is talking about changing the time limits in England and Wales, or imposing this in Northern Ireland. Clearly in this debate it is fact not fiction that matters.
I will now make some progress, but I did want to hear from the hon. Lady, given that she secured the debate.
Turning to the situation in Northern Ireland, I am aware that a number of voices are calling for reform, including those of the women and girls most affected, but it is clear to me that there is currently no consensus on what that reform should be, even among those who want to see change in Northern Ireland. For example, there are those in favour of extending abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, or of rape and incest, but others want to extend the laws that apply here to Northern Ireland. There are a number of views, and we have to consider them all respectfully. Of course, all sides in the debate need to be listened to with courtesy and respect.
Abortion has been a devolved matter in Northern Ireland since it was created in 1921, and it would not be appropriate for Westminster to seek to impose its will, or to be the arbiter of an issue that has long been devolved to the people of Northern Ireland. The Government believe that the question of any future reform in Northern Ireland must be debated and decided by the people of Northern Ireland and their locally elected, and therefore accountable, politicians.
I am listening attentively to the Secretary of State. She says that change takes time—it does—but I ask her to think carefully about the number of women who are compelled to leave Northern Ireland and to go to Scotland and England for an abortion, and who might in the future be able to go to the Republic of Ireland for an abortion. There are also women who access desperately dangerous pills online. What is she saying to those women? How long must we wait for change?
This is not a Scottish-specific point, but a point about the Supreme Court, which is due to rule on Thursday. My understanding is that if it rules that the situation in Northern Ireland is incompatible with the European convention on human rights, it will be the responsibility of the UK Government to act under section 26 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 because it is the UK Government who have the responsibility for fulfilling international treaty obligations. Is my understanding correct?
I apologise. I realise the right hon. Lady is not the only voice of Scotland—we will hear many others today. I will not prejudge the Supreme Court decision. We will receive the judgment on Thursday, we believe, and when we have it, we will consider it carefully.
I will return to the question of Northern Ireland. This is a matter of conscience. A free vote will be afforded if the matter of abortion comes before the House again, and the same applies in Northern Ireland. That is why this Government, like their predecessors, believe that the best forum in which to debate and resolve these and many other matters is the locally elected Northern Ireland Assembly. The Government’s priority therefore remains to urgently re-establish strong and inclusive devolved government at the earliest opportunity. As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I want to ensure that any future reform is handled with due care and consideration, with locally elected and locally accountable politicians having the opportunity to consider and debate the issues, and the people of Northern Ireland being able to contribute to the debate on the devolved issues that affect their lives.
As I have said, this is a matter that would affect the whole United Kingdom, so a debate should be had in the context of the whole of the United Kingdom, with all those matters looked at.
Just as we have debated in this House the laws that ought to apply here, so the democratically elected Assembly in Northern Ireland must continue to consider this fundamental issue, listening to the views of the people of Northern Ireland. Otherwise, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) suggested, we will be in danger of disfranchising 1.8 million citizens of the UK.
I am sorry, but I want to make some progress. Many Members wish to speak and I want to make sure that everyone has the chance to do so.
My focus is therefore on working closely with Northern Ireland’s political parties to restore the devolved government that the public want. That remains my top priority. I also want to continue to hear from those in civil society on all sides of the debate, as I am deeply sympathetic to the cases being made.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been clear in her support for women’s rights in respect of access to safe abortions. She welcomed the referendum result in Ireland. We agree that the best way forward for Northern Ireland is through locally accountable politicians making important decisions through devolution, and the people of Northern Ireland having their say on the devolved issues that affect their daily lives.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and other hon. Members on both sides of the House who sought this debate. I would also like to mention my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson), who has campaigned on this issue for many years.
Like the Secretary of State, I will concentrate on the situation in Northern Ireland. The referendum in the Republic 10 days ago has not altered the constitutional situation anywhere in the UK, including Northern Ireland, but it has most certainly changed the conversation, and we have to take that into account. One thing I want to establish is this: yes, we can discuss the legalese of sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Act and talk esoterically about human rights—I do not mean to trivialise those points—but in the end this is about people. It is about women such as Sarah Ewart, to whom the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) referred. She had the most immense difficulty on discovering that the baby she was carrying would be born with no skull and could not survive the birth. Having received chronically bad support from the medical profession in Northern Ireland, she had to travel to England in the most difficult circumstances for a safe and lawful abortion. Cases such as that ought to condition the way in which we see this issue. It is about people. It is about women in distress.
Like many other Members, I have seen the joy of happy pregnancy. I have seen it in my own family: one of my daughters gave birth earlier this year. What a great moment that is. However, I have also seen the downside—the tragedy of people who know that the foetus that they conceived in hope is born to die, and the situation of women who have become pregnant as a result of rape. We must take those elements on board and recognise the humanity involved. I do not doubt the legitimacy of the arguments that anyone else presents and wishes to pursue, but I am determined to stress that there is a human being behind every one of these situations. We must remember that as we debate these matters.
The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry) mentioned the Supreme Court’s decision. That decision will make a profound difference, but my party’s position has been very clear. In our manifesto at the last election, we said that we would seek to provide, in conjunction with the Northern Ireland Assembly, a legislative framework for safe, legal abortions for women in Northern Ireland who made that choice. That is where we want to see things happen—we want to see legislation introduced in the Stormont Assembly, and nothing that my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow said contradicted that. The legislation would demand change, but the Stormont Assembly would have the opportunity to create the necessary legislative framework for the people—particularly the women—of Northern Ireland.
That is important, but there is a challenge behind it. I think I heard the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley say that members of the Democratic Unionist party would return to the Assembly without precondition. I hope that that is the case, because there is now a real challenge for all the Assembly politicians. They must go back to the Stormont Assembly if they want to be taken seriously in this debate and on other issues. We cannot see a situation in which civil servants without an electoral mandate make decisions, so it is incumbent on the Northern Ireland Assembly Members to go back to the Assembly.
The hon. Gentleman is someone whom I hold in high esteem and for whom I have the greatest respect, but, as he knows—he does not have to hope; he knows—the Democratic Unionist party would go into government tomorrow on the basis of what we agreed previously, and I understand that the Ulster Unionists, the Social Democratic and Labour party and the Alliance party would do so as well. The members of Sinn Féin do not want to do that without a precondition, but there is no doubt about our commitment to going into government, having the Assembly up and running, and debating all these issues. We no longer have a petition of concern veto in the Assembly. Those who shout loudest about wanting this issue to be resolved should get the Assembly up and running. We agree with that—they should get on with it.
l am not sure whether the right hon. Gentleman has just undermined the “no precondition” point made by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley. However, I think that in that context it would be very helpful if the Secretary of State now said to all the parties in the Assembly, “Let us get around the table and discuss abortion law reform.” If this issue matters, it must transcend some of the other issues that have caused blockage in the recent past. That, I know, is a challenge for Northern Ireland Members, in this Westminster Parliament as well as in the Assembly, but it is a challenge that politicians must take up. We must see the Assembly up and running: that is fundamental.
I mentioned the case that is before the Supreme Court, and the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West was absolutely right to ask the question that she put to the Secretary of State. I cannot anticipate how the Supreme Court will respond to the case, but it turns on the question of whether it is compatible with our obligations under the European convention on human rights for women who are bearing children as a result of rape or incest, or children with fatal foetal abnormalities or extreme malformations, not to have access to legal, safe abortion in Northern Ireland. Depending on the direction the Supreme Court takes in its decision, I think the Secretary of State and her Cabinet colleagues will have to consider very seriously how we could begin to address that at the Westminster level; it will be a Westminster issue, not a Stormont issue.
Does that not identify a huge flaw in this entire debate? Some 98% of all abortions carried out in the United Kingdom are carried out on pregnancies that could continue to full term. They are not inconvenient—or rather, they are not foetal abnormality cases or crisis pregnancies. They are unwanted pregnancies, and the provision that the hon. Gentleman is now saying should be introduced to Northern Ireland is not about the minority of difficult cases; it is about opening up termination of life to all. That is the fatal flaw in his argument, because that was rejected out of hand by all the parties in Northern Ireland.
I am sorry, but I have to say to the hon. Gentleman that he was not listening to anything that I said. What I have said has been very clear: in the case of the Westminster Parliament having to respond to the Supreme Court, that would be in a very limited and restricted number of cases that are very clearly defined. I also said that it would be incumbent on the Stormont Assembly to legislate for the situation in Northern Ireland, and it would be up to the Assembly to decide the limitations on the law and its impact in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful speech and I agree with much of what he says. Does he agree that, especially in relation to the comment made by my hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley), it is important not to forget that this is actually about the right of a woman to choose? It is not confined merely to those who have foetal abnormalities or who have been raped or in some ghastly incestuous relationship; it is about women’s rights and our right to control what we do with our bodies.
I thought that the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) was going to say something about abortions being “convenient.” I worked in clinics and counselled women, and I tell him that they are not done for convenience. Some of those people are utterly desperate by the time they get to clinics, and it would be very wrong to think that people treat abortions as a matter of convenience.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right: this is not a matter of convenience. This is a heart-rending decision; many women whom I have spoken to over the years—I have represented many of them, but many others I have known in different ways—have had to go through the agonising decision as to whether abortion is the right choice for them. The decision should nevertheless lie with them, and laws should certainly not restrict that.
I want to emphasise what the Opposition and my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow are saying. The Labour party’s position—we are the Good Friday agreement party, we believe—is that we want to see devolved government work, but politicians in Northern Ireland have got to make it work on this issue. They cannot shy away from it; if this issue matters to the people they represent, they must be in the Assembly making laws on it for the people of Northern Ireland.
Many Members want to speak, so I do not intend to continue for much longer, but I want to conclude as I began. This is not, in the end, an issue about lawyers or even about the philosophy of abortion; it is about real people. It is about real women, very often in situations of distress, who are looking for the law to allow them to pursue something that is prevented in Northern Ireland at the moment. It ought to be unconscionable that a woman is made to continue bearing a child doomed to die. It ought to be unconscionable that a woman who provided her 15-year-old daughter with the capacity to terminate a pregnancy should still be facing criminal prosecution, as we have seen in a recent case. On that basis, humanity now cries out for a change in the law.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow again on securing this important debate. It is not the concluding debate—no change in the law can be passed today—but even if we pass legislation to put the wording of the motion into law, other legal changes will still be needed both UK-wide and most definitely in Northern Ireland. This is devolution-compatible, and the politicians in Northern Ireland must now make that devolution work.
I should like to start by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) for all the work that she has undertaken in this area, and for bringing this debate to the House. The result of the referendum in the Republic of Ireland has been a great victory for women’s rights to make decisions about their own bodies, but it has also thrown a stark spotlight on the situation of women in Northern Ireland. To my mind, it cannot be acceptable that in six counties of our United Kingdom, women are forced to make long, lonely journeys across the water or forced into the hands of the unscrupulous, or that they face criminal prosecution for making decisions that should be theirs by right. I believe that it is time for this House to act to protect their rights, as well as the rights of those everywhere else in the United Kingdom.
We heard earlier from the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) about the devolution of policing issues to Northern Ireland. Does the hon. Lady agree that the fact that we are talking about policing women’s bodies is part of the whole problem? That is not the right context for this debate. Supporting women to take these decisions is a health matter and a medical matter, and no woman takes this decision lightly.
Indeed. I could not agree more with the hon. Lady.
It is time for us to review the way in which we treat this issue and to move to a medical model. Since the 1967 Act, things have changed considerably, not only in social attitudes but in the availability of medical terminations of pregnancy. They were not available at the time of the Act. We have also moved on from the paternalistic attitudes that dictated that two doctors were the only ones who could be trusted to help a woman to take this decision. That completely negates the role of specialist nurse practitioners, who often undertake the role of counsellor in the clinics. It is an anachronism that we should still insist on two medical signatures.
On the matter of paternalism, does the hon. Lady agree that comments about women having abortions as a matter of convenience are deeply offensive, and that this debate must be characterised by decency and by respect for the views being expressed across the House? I have supported friends who have had an abortion, and I know that nothing about what they have chosen to do has been about convenience.
I thank the hon. Lady for making those points. If the House will forgive me, I am mindful that many Members wish to speak, so I will not take further interventions.
There is a further point about the impact of medical terminations of pregnancy using two medicines. Because of the restrictions of the Act, the second of those medicines currently has to be administered in the clinic, which means that women sometimes have to face the extreme indignity of travelling home with heavy bleeding and in considerable pain. It is time for the House to review the whole way in which this operates, and to shift to a medical model. We know that there is an opportunity to put this right with an amendment to the domestic violence Bill, and I say to Ministers that now is the time to plan ahead for that, rather than looking the other way and saying that this is purely a devolved matter. We know that a cross-party amendment will be tabled, and now is the time to be planning ahead and making the thoughtful, careful preparations that we need to make about the kind of medical regulations we wish to see in place.
Of course, there are those who say that repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 will lead to us being thrown into some kind of vacuum, but that is not the case. The hon. Member for Walthamstow pointed out that the term limit of 24 weeks would remain in place, and there are other protections. For example, it is already an offence to supply abortion pills under the Human Medicines Regulations 2012, and individuals can face up to two years in prison and a considerable fine for supplying such medications illegally. Equally, some say that there might be a free for all in people turning to back-street abortionists, with unqualified people carrying out surgical procedures—it has happened in the past—but that is not the case. That would still constitute actual bodily harm or grievous bodily harm, and unqualified people would not be able to rely on the victim’s consent to the procedure as a defence under sections 47 and 20 of the 1861 Act, which would remain in place. Such offences would carry a penalty of up to five years in a prison and a fine.
The point here is that it is highly unlikely that anyone would want to visit a back-street abortionist if free, safe, confidential and non-stigmatising help was available free of charge on the NHS. As many colleagues have pointed out, we do not stop abortions happening by criminalising them and making an abortion difficult to access; we just make them happen in a less safe context.
I ask Ministers to start preparing for the inevitable cross-party amendments. I hope that the Minister in summing up will be clear that there will be no delay in the domestic violence Bill for fear of a controversial amendment, because an amendment will be tabled, and now is the time to ensure that all the regulations we need are carefully and thoughtfully consulted upon. As someone mentioned earlier, this process would allow the devolved Assemblies to decide what is right for their areas. The time is right for us to move from a situation in which women are criminalised to one where women are treated with respect and dignity.
I welcome the speech that the Chair of the Health Committee is making and her point that this is an opportunity to prepare and to consider such things in detail in anticipation of future legislation. Does she agree that the moving thing about the “Home to Vote” movement in the Republic of Ireland’s referendum campaign was that so many women said that they were returning home to vote so that other women did not have to travel in future? They were making journeys so that other women would not have to do so.
I absolutely agree. We were all deeply moved by the “Home to Vote” campaign.
Although the change happened in the Republic of Ireland, there are implications across the entire United Kingdom, because it has given us the opportunity to review what is wrong with the existing legislation. It is now time for the Government to plan ahead and to have a thoughtful process of ensuring that the regulations are right. I hope that this House will decide collectively to protect and respect the rights of women, wherever they live in this United Kingdom.
In the aftermath of the vote in Ireland, I saw a quote from a woman in Northern Ireland to the effect that she had the right to hold both UK and Irish passports and to be citizens of either or both, but she now did not have the right to choose that women in either jurisdiction have. That quote was third or fourth-hand by the time I saw it, but it seems to be an indicator of where many women in Northern Ireland find themselves. “Stranded” might be the best description of how they see their plight. Their plight is my plight, and their fight is my fight. If they suffer, I suffer, too. I stand with the women who feel themselves shorn of the rights they see across the border in Ireland and across the Irish sea.
I wonder, though, why this should be seen as an emergency debate. The referendum in Ireland did not change the conditions in Northern Ireland. Nothing has changed for women in Northern Ireland in terms of access to health services, except that they now have another geographically close comparison. Nothing has improved for them; nothing, happily, has got worse for them. Nothing has changed for them, more is the pity.
Yes, this is a very sensitive issue. Our sisters therefore deserve a little more consideration than a rushed debate. Who here, other than Members serving constituencies on the other side of the Irish sea, has any real perception of the issues and possible consequences surrounding abortion in Northern Ireland? I stand with my sisters in Northern Ireland, and I absolutely endorse their right to choose, but I do not claim to know their situation better than they do. I endorse their right to help shape the legislation they live under, but it is not for me or for anyone here to tell them how to do that. Support I can offer and encouragement I will give, but legislation has to be with the agreement of the people. Government is only with the consent of the people.
I hear those who say this is a human rights issue, and I agree. That is why we must leave the judgment on that in the hands of the Supreme Court, which has a duty to examine the reference from the Court of Appeal in Northern Ireland and will give guidance that must be followed. As we know, the judgment will be handed down on Thursday. We have two days to wait.
A little look at how Ireland approached amending its constitution would be instructive for many in this Chamber and, indeed, in the Chamber next door. Ireland’s move to allow abortion to be legislated for—that being the substance of the constitutional amendment, as has been pointed out—began with a citizens’ assembly. It was the people who had their hands on the tiller. This was no political campaign or activist-led agitation; this was people power from the start, and it should be a lesson to anyone who wants to effect major change. The details of the assembly are online at citizensassembly.ie, which I recommend to anyone who would like to think a little more about how nations should change direction.
As we have heard, Ireland is now free to choose whether to legislate to allow terminations, and I understand legislation is currently being drafted. Ireland does not yet have that law in place and, as the Secretary of State mentioned, the debate is just getting started. I note that the Taoiseach has indicated that allowing women from Northern Ireland to access such services across the border is being considered, and he points out that women from Northern Ireland regularly access other health services in Ireland and that there is no reason why they should be denied any new services.
We should not, however, think that Ireland’s legislation is done and dusted. The drafting is not yet complete, never mind its passage, but that legislative process is a matter for Ireland, for the Irish people and for the people they have elected to serve them. Likewise, the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland is a devolved matter and is an issue for the people of Northern Ireland and the people they elect to the Assembly. It is a matter devolved and, frankly, it matters not a jot whether the decisions made at Stormont, when it is sitting, are agreeable to Members sitting here. That is the point of devolution, a point that some Members of this place have been spectacularly slow to appreciate at times. The decisions of devolved Administrations are taken for reasons that people in those devolved nations understand from their point of view, and they are taken using evidence that the people, politicians and policy makers of those devolved nations consider important. That principle stands, and it can be seen in the way in which Scotland has led on public health issues.
In order to allow the residents of Northern Ireland to craft their own abortion laws, and so for that devolution process to be respected, will the hon. Lady be joining me and colleagues on both sides of the House in supporting the repeal of UK legislation that prevents Northern Ireland from doing this? Will she support the repeal of sections 58 and 59? It would be helpful if she were clear about that.
What has been missed here today is that criminal justice is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Assembly has full power to repeal this in due course, if that is the decision of the Northern Ireland Assembly, in line with the new regulations. The Offences Against the Person Act does not act as a barrier. This can be done by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. I would also point out that the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945 still prevents abortion, with life imprisonment offered for those offering abortions. That is an added complication.
As we know, Stormont has not sat since January of last year, and I wish absolutely to condemn the cowardice of the politicians who cannot give enough ground, or cannot risk losing a little face, to get the show back on the road and start deciding on issues that affect the people they are paid to serve. I say that because this issue has been considered at Stormont; the need for legislation has been agreed at Stormont and a way forward has been laid out by a working group in Northern Ireland, as was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who is no longer in her place. In a debate on the consideration of a justice Bill in February 2016, amendments were tabled that would have allowed abortions to take place in Northern Ireland in specific circumstances. Those were tighter than the conditions in place under the Abortion Act 1967, but they represented movement none the less. This followed a deal of public consultation undertaken by Ministers on the issues of fatal foetal abnormality, incest and rape. It is clear from what has been said today and from reading the transcript of that debate that there was not exactly a consensus that day, and the amendments were defeated—not overwhelmingly, but substantially.
One telling contribution that day was made by the then Member of the Legislative Assembly for South Belfast, who is now the Member for Belfast South in this place. In her speech that day, she said she was speaking on behalf of the Democratic Unionist party on the issue and she urged the Assembly to reject the amendments in favour of the DUP plan. She said:
“the DUP is rejecting the amendment but outlining a road map to a sensible, informed and appropriate way forward. The Minister of Health has been asked to establish, by the end of February, a working group that will include clinicians in this field and legally qualified persons to make recommendations on how this issue can be addressed, including, if necessary, bringing forward draft legislation. We have asked that all interested parties should be consulted and that the group will be tasked to report within six months. We all need to hear more fully the views of the Royal College and others. We all need the opportunity to ask those vital questions to get the appropriate advice. That is why the working group is the best and most appropriate way forward.”
That working group has now reported and as the DUP is behind it, it surely has enough impetus to clear the hurdles of political impasse in Northern Ireland.
The report recommended a relaxation of the restrictions on abortion, citing the general duty of the Department of Health under the Health and Personal Social Services (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 to secure improvement in the physical and mental health of people living in Northern Ireland. The report pointed out, however, that legislative change is required for that to be done. The report is clear that
“the current practice results in inequality of outcomes for women in this particular patient population group when compared to the standards for treatment and care afforded to other pregnant women by Health and Social Care as required by the Department of Health’s Maternity Strategy”.
It recommends changes in the law to allow abortions to take place.
The changes suggested would not go as far as the legislation here or in Scotland. Examining that was not the remit of the working group; it was examining only what legislative change was needed. The changes would not bring legislation into line with the rights and protections we have here and would not end women having the trauma of travel to a foreign jurisdiction for health treatment. The changes would not be the changes I would like, but they are the changes that the politicians of Stormont agreed to support. We have an obligation to respect the fact that the debate on abortion has not perhaps yet been won in Northern Ireland, but this small step can be taken while the debate continues.
Stormont should be reconvened and it should consider legislation on abortion, along with all the other responsibilities it has, but this is a devolved responsibility. Legislating here on a matter that is the responsibility of a devolved Administration is invidious, and the idea that Members sitting here can make decisions without any regard to the consequences is foolhardy. Stormont has not sat for far too long and that looks set to continue. It is a disgraceful abdication of responsibility on the part of elected Members. It is not sitting, but it has made this decision, and there is no reason why this place should not legislate to put that decision into effect. Stormont could always decide how to proceed when MLAs return to work.
Legislating here for abortion in Northern Ireland without the consent of the Northern Ireland legislature is not tenable, but consent has already been given for some change and we should implement that. We should press ahead and deliver that; a comprehensive review of the legislation can then proceed, with the people who would be affected front and centre. Too often, the rights of women are ignored and women are belittled. There is a moral obligation on the politicians of Northern Ireland to get back to work, engage with the people and move on. They can look to Dublin’s example for a way in which to start. There are decisions to be made, and hopefully they will lead to a full and proper health service for women, but I argue that that is not our decision. By all means we should legislate to put into effect the changes that have been decided, but we should not make decisions here that should more properly be made in Belfast.
I stand by the women of Northern Ireland and I stand with those who campaign for a full service, including a proper abortion service. They should be able to influence such decisions and have them made in their own legislature. Too often, the conceit is that this place knows best, but the re-imposition of direct rule on Northern Ireland is in no one’s best interests, let alone those of the women who need support and a decent health service. The DUP supports the change in the law that was agreed by Stormont; let us help it to deliver that change.
Like many Members, I recognise just how important this debate on the incredibly sensitive and important topic of abortion is. It is obvious that there needs to be much broader debate about the various issues relating to abortion—not just about the people affected by the laws that are currently in place and some of the proposals that we are debating, but about the role of schools and of advice, education and support services and about some of the other hugely controversial but important issues that wrap around the broader challenge of debating any changes to abortion law, not just in Northern Ireland but more broadly throughout the United Kingdom.
I recognise that we have in place very long-standing laws, particularly in respect of England. In this debate, we should not lose sight of the fact that we have been brought to this point by a clear anomaly between the rights that women have in one part of our country, Northern Ireland, compared with the rights of women throughout the rest of the United Kingdom, and by that difference having been exacerbated by the result of the referendum in southern Ireland, which means that we now see Northern Ireland as an outlier on women’s rights in a way that I feel is unsustainable for the United Kingdom.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) for securing this emergency debate, which it is important to have in this Chamber. As she would recognise, this House has managed to achieve progress for women in Northern Ireland, not least by introducing the ability for them to travel to the UK—to England in particular—and to have free abortions in the same way as any English woman. That is true progress, but today we seek to talk about how we can further push forward on rights for women in Northern Ireland.
The question is how to push forward. I am open-minded about this debate. I very much recognise that ideally we would all like the people of Northern Ireland to put in place the changes we are discussing, but we also recognise the current absence of an Assembly and normally functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland. I am sure we will have further debate on how we can achieve change for the women of Northern Ireland, but handling this issue in the right way in respect of devolution does matter, and we in this House should be sensitive to that.
I am open-minded about the broader changes that we are debating. We need to recognise that they are somewhat complex and multifaceted, and they need to be understood by Members from all parties and, indeed, by our local communities, too. It is important to set out how wide—or, indeed, otherwise, as has been argued today—any changes to medical regulations might need to be, as well as the process of consulting our communities about changes that would affect how abortion is regulated in the United Kingdom.
I recognise the important case made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow and, indeed, the case made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller), who set out carefully and clearly the impact on women in Northern Ireland and throughout the United Kingdom, given the existing criminalisation of abortion. I support a continued debate in this House. [Interruption.] I recognise that many other Members wish to speak in this debate today. It is important that, in the coming weeks and months, Ministers listen very carefully to the debate that happens in this House and then clearly set out how the Government can play their role in helping us to take forward change for the women of Northern Ireland.
Does the right hon. Lady agree that respect and dignity are extremely important, but that we must remember that some women in these islands are governed by legislation that is 150 years old and that there is nobody left alive who can even remember that time and that is something that we must consider?
While we can all be very clear about the way in which the existing laws—long standing as they may be—work today in terms of the ability of women to have choice in our United Kingdom, the backdrop of the criminalisation of abortion is hard for anyone truly to defend in this House as a principle. I want us to have a measured debate. As I am about to finish, let me say that it is important that, over the coming weeks and months, Ministers clearly set out how they plan to respond to the crucial debate for women’s rights that will be taking place in this House.
For a very long time, in many societies and in many cultures, the state and organised religion have had a stranglehold over the lives of women. That was why it was so pleasing to see the landslide vote to repeal the eighth amendment in the Republic of Ireland. Women in Northern Ireland will soon be the only women in the UK and Ireland who cannot gain safe access to abortion. We know that hundreds of women in Northern Ireland either travel or take risks with their own health to have a termination. We cannot stand by here while women and girls in any part of the UK are criminalised or put at risk for accessing basic healthcare.
The hon. Lady alluded to the stranglehold that the state can have over people’s lives, and one of the biggest strangleholds that the state currently has over people’s lives in the UK is the reprehensible two-child policy. That policy should be changed to make sure that, when people have more than two children, they do indeed have the children’s allowance to help and support them with those children.
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. I was certainly in the Lobby when we failed to support that particular proposal.
It is high time that the House took action to end the treatment of Northern Irish women as second-class citizens. Let us look at the man, Leo Varadkar, who welcomed the resounding yes vote by saying that Ireland will no longer say to women, “Take the boat,” or, “Take the plane,” when they need an abortion. Instead, he said that Ireland will say, “Take our hand.” Is it not now time for us to offer our hand to the women of Northern Ireland and end the ban on abortion in Northern Ireland?
Does not the hon. Lady recognise that her statement is in fact inaccurate? There is access to abortion in Northern Ireland, but on more restricted grounds, such as for the health of the mother. She is therefore not being accurate when she says that there is no access to termination.
I think it is the word “restriction” that I have a problem with—I almost choke when I say it. In February this year, the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women stated that citizens of the UK resident in Northern Ireland
“faced grave and systematic violations of their rights”
because of the criminalisation of abortion. The report explicitly called for sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 to be repealed. I hope that, in the summing up, we will hear more substance from the Minister on the way forward so that we can respect both devolution and the fundamental human rights of every single woman in the British Isles.
I am aware that many Members wish to speak, so I will keep my remarks brief. However, I was pleased to hear the Chair of the Health Committee, the hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), mentioning the domestic abuse Bill and to see her already thinking ahead. We are living in such interesting times in this Parliament. I wish to encourage the Government to think ahead—not just suddenly to realise that there might be a problem with legislation the day before, but to look genuinely at the issue of women’s health and to think about whether that Bill will be a fitting opportunity for the House to remove the impediment to the decriminalisation of abortion. The Government will indeed bring forward their long-awaited domestic abuse Bill, and I urge them not to delay that legislation or to put it aside, because this is a question of fundamental human rights. We want this Parliament to have a vote and to put the rights of women at the forefront of all our thoughts.
I should just say for the benefit of the House and those attending to our proceedings that there is no ministerial or other Front-Bench winding-up speech in a Standing Order No. 24 debate. The Front-Bench speeches have been made and that is where things stand.
At the heart of this debate are women who are placed in what is often the most difficult situation of their lives. It is important that whenever we discuss this issue, we do so with as much compassion and understanding for them as possible. With that in mind, I shall endeavour to contribute to this debate without any animosity for those who hold distinctly different views from my own pro-life views. I believe that the unborn child has an equal place to be considered in this debate, but I also believe that it is vital that we endeavour to debate in an atmosphere of courtesy and respect.
The hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) said yesterday when applying for the debate:
“It is little wonder that the United Nations has said that we must act”.—[Official Report, 4 June 2018; Vol. 642, c. 90.]
That is a very powerful statement. If she based that statement on an inquiry report published in February this year by the UN committee, I would like to make some comments. Following this debate, I am sure that she will clarify whether her statement is based on a further authority.
The UN committee was considering the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women—CEDAW. The inquiry report has been cited by campaigners as one of the main justifications for reviewing Northern Irish abortion law yet, as I understand it, that committee has no capacity or standing to give a binding adjudication on the UK’s obligations under that convention, and nor does it have any authority to interpret that convention, as that is reserved to the International Court of Justice. Therefore, an invitation to the Home Secretary to treat that report as authoritative is, I understand—I am quoting the opinion of Mark Hill, QC —“flawed”.
It is interesting to note that the UK Government have commented on that report. After reviewing it and pointing out several factual inaccuracies, they said:
“For the reasons outlined above, the UK Government does not accept that women from Northern Ireland have been subject to grave and systematic violations of their rights under the Convention…The Committee’s findings and recommendations which focus on changes to the criminal law on abortion cannot be addressed in the absence of a legislature with authority to legislate on such matters in Northern Ireland.”
I am sure that the Ministers who will consider the situation are already aware of that statement. I profoundly disagree with the report, as it is disrespectful to the people of Northern Ireland, on such a sensitive issue, to suggest that this Parliament should consider changing laws that would affect abortion. Abortion has been a transferred matter, as have health and social services, equal opportunities and justice.
Let me turn to another comment made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow in relation to the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929. I ask Ministers to look into this and obtain a legal opinion for the House, because it is a very important matter. This issue is complex but, as I understand it, the 1929 Act and the Abortion Act 1967 were decoupled by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. This means that those two Acts bear no relation to each other anymore, so the Abortion Act’s safeguards would in fact be removed if the relevant sections of Offences Against the Person Act were repealed as proposed. As I say, this is such a complex issue, so given the advice I have had, I think it is worth asking Ministers to look into this very carefully.
The proposers of this debate clearly want to go further and decriminalise—remove the legislative safeguards that have been in place. We already have some of the most liberal abortion laws in the world, yet I believe that campaigners want to liberalise them further. Ann Furedi, the chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, has said, “I want to be very clear: there should be no legal upper limit.” Colleagues should be under no illusions. Repealing these sections of the 1861 Act would effectively pave the way to review comprehensively our current abortion legislation not just for Northern Ireland, but for England and Wales. We could see abortion on demand throughout pregnancy. That would be wrong and we should resist it.
I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) for securing the debate and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for her campaigning on this subject. I also thank Conservative Members—men and women—who stood yesterday to show their support for the debate.
During my short time in this place, one of my favourite roles has been as a member of the Women and Equalities Committee. There we discussed, on many occasions, the right of a woman to choose, and resisting the criminalisation of women, wherever they live, for taking control of their destinies and bodies. Working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the World Health Organisation and other organisations in many countries around the world, we have encouraged Governments to trust women with their bodies and to listen to women. I believe that Northern Ireland is the last piece in that global jigsaw.
The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women found that abortion law in Northern Ireland constitutes a “grave and systematic” violation of rights—our rights—and recommended that the Government decriminalise abortion in the UK. It cannot be right to criminalise a woman for wanting an abortion for any of the myriad and complex reasons that women have when they choose the right to say, “I can’t have this child.”
Repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 would mean that Stormont and the people of Northern Ireland could make their own decisions. The time is right. The Republic of Ireland has shown the way. As all those Irish women and men from far-flung places around the world descended on the Republic to demand change for themselves, and their sisters, daughters and mothers, I, like many in this House, felt proud to watch those scenes. I believe that what happened enhanced the global reputation of the Republic as a modern, progressive country determined to put a woman’s rights over her body at the front and centre of their political conversation.
The world is changing and we have to keep pace. With #MeToo, the new transparency around the gender pay gap and this transformation in Ireland, women’s voices are being heard, and it is time that we listened. I have no doubt that there are people in Northern Ireland watching this debate who are desperate to have a chance to engage with this conversation, such as members of Belfast City Council, which in 2018 passed a motion stating that abortion is a health issue, not a criminal issue. The only political party that opposed the motion was the DUP. I believe that resistance against this repeal is a decision of political cynicism. It is cruel and controlling, and lacking in humanity.
We all loved—and were terrified by—the last series, and the new one, of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Do not let women from Northern Ireland look back on this moment and say, “That’s when the Government turned back the clock, held us back, ignored our human rights, and treated us like criminals because we wanted the power to make our own decision about whether and when we have children.” It is time. We must—must—do the right thing.
I am proud to say that for as long as I can remember—probably since after it was first passed—I have been a proud supporter of the 1967 Act. I remember in the ’70s and ’80s marching many a mile in defence of the ’67 Act, and my views have not changed. The reason why I came to the conclusion that it was one of the greatest pieces of legislation ever passed in this place has already been identified by the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Tracy Brabin) and my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston). It is simply this: I recognise that, for myriad reasons, a woman or a young woman may find herself with an unwanted pregnancy, and I believe that she has a right to choose what happens next. I gently say to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) that I do not seek to impose my views on anybody. I seek to offer a choice. That is the distinction. I say to DUP Members, with respect, that they impose their views on not just women, but their extended families.
I will not take any interventions because Mr Speaker has been quite firm with me, and I am keen to curry favour with him—it would make a change.
There is an important point to make. Nobody happily, willingly skips into a clinic to terminate a pregnancy. Invariably, they do so after a heartrending, thoughtful process, often with a partner, a boyfriend or even their own parents. We must recognise that reality. As my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes said, the reality is that if we make abortions illegal, they do not stop. Members know that from the evidence in Northern Ireland: 724 women went overseas in 2016 to have terminations.
Before the ’67 Act was passed, women—living, breathing human beings—died in their hundreds of thousands at the hands of backstreet abortionists, or found themselves in a position where they were damaged and could never again have the child that they often longed for, but at a time that suited them and their circumstances. That is what that Act was all about, and those rights should now be extended to Northern Ireland. It is 2018, and I gently say to them: your laws are cruel and repressive. They do nothing for the advancement of women or for families, and they have to change.
What the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) is suggesting—I congratulate her on it—delivers exactly the thing that should happen. It is what the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) eloquently and properly advocated in her ten-minute rule Bill: getting rid of these ridiculous and ancient laws that criminalise abortion. That is the right thing to do. Let us get rid of them. The beauty in doing that is that it strengthens devolution, because the responsibility for sorting out what happens in Northern Ireland will go back to the Northern Ireland Assembly.
I thought that I was going to stand up and make a speech about the importance of devolution and why it is not the job of this Parliament to do what the hon. Member for Walthamstow suggests, but actually she has convinced me. She is absolutely right. What she suggests delivers the right thing to advance our abortion legislation and, secondly, strengthens devolution, because it hands this straight back to where it should be—the Northern Ireland Assembly. I gently say to them: get it sorted out, because this will not be tolerable any longer in our nation. We are a United Kingdom. We believe in the Union. Get that Assembly up and running. Do the right thing, not just by the people of Northern Ireland, and the women in particular, but for the security and furtherance of this great Union.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) on securing this emergency debate. I was proud to stand in solidarity with Members across the House yesterday to bring the debate forward.
It stuns me that the Government will pander further to the DUP to force their agenda through the House—as they will particularly next week, no doubt—by selling the rights of women in Northern Ireland down the river. Women are suffering and their human rights are being infringed while the House does not act. The Northern Ireland Assembly has not sat since January 2017 and shows little sign of being reconstituted. Shame on the Tories, shame on the DUP and shame on the politicians who stand in the way. I have met different groups from across Northern Ireland, and many say that they are not interested in politics. One of the expressions I have heard is that people are “politically agnostic”. What does that say about politics in Northern Ireland? Those politicians are turning people off politics. People are making their own way in life in Northern Ireland, despite the shambles around the power sharing discussions.
Unfortunately I am unable to.
In the absence of a Northern Ireland Assembly, Westminster has a duty to stand up for the women of Northern Ireland. Is waiting for the Assembly to uphold the rights of women in Northern Ireland not just a way of avoiding taking action altogether?
The roll-out of universal credit, as we have all heard, penalises women who decide to have a third child, even if that is as a result of rape or within an abusive relationship. Imagine not being able to afford to have a third child, and imagine having to make the agonising decision to continue a pregnancy when foetal abnormalities have been detected. How can any of us begin to imagine what it is like to have to make such a decision? It is ironic that the DUP gives the Government moral support on the two-child rule.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith), in his former role, wrote about this very issue to the Director of Public Prosecutions for Northern Ireland, who made it very clear that it is
“a potential offence to withhold information regarding an act of rape. The legislation does not distinguish between a victim and third parties to whom a disclosure is made; each is potentially liable to prosecution.”
Is it not therefore evident that women in Northern Ireland are getting the rough end of the stick? There is also the fact that the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 is archaic and Victorian.
It is my responsibility as a woman and as a Member of Parliament to defend the rights of women in Northern Ireland. While abortion law may be devolved to Stormont, human rights are not, and the UN has told the Government on more than one occasion that the rights of women in Northern Ireland are being violated. Moreover, the defence of those rights is the responsibility of every UK MP.
This is about the rights of women to do what they want with their bodies, and we have spoken about choice in the Chamber today. This is about giving women in Northern Ireland parity with their sisters in the United Kingdom and, now, those over the border in Ireland. This is about leading the way on women’s rights around the world. This is about fairness and justice. More than anything else, this is a crazy situation to be in in 2018, and I will be doing everything I can to stand up for women in Northern Ireland.
This is a hugely sensitive issue. Fundamentally, this debate should be about women’s choice on abortion in Northern Ireland. That is why I find it incredible that the one thing the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) does not ask for is for women in Northern Ireland to have a vote and a say on whether they actually want abortion in Northern Ireland. Yet in her interviews on Sunday, when talking about Brexit, it was clear that she is campaigning for a second referendum—a people’s vote—on whether Brexit should actually happen. Surely it is more key to fight for a referendum on abortion for women in Northern Ireland than for a second referendum on Brexit.
What that shows, as we have heard from several speakers, is that this issue is actually a Trojan horse for what is really wanted—the removal of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 would introduce abortion on demand, for any reason, up to 24 weeks. Crucially, that is what this debate is really about, and it is disrespectful to women in Northern Ireland to pretend it is about anything else. That is especially the case in the centenary year of suffrage, because while we celebrate 100 years of women getting the vote, it is only 50 years since the Catholic nationalist community in Northern Ireland got the vote. They had to have a civil rights movement and go through the years of the troubles to have their voice heard, yet in this debate we are actively saying that they cannot have a debate or a say on whether abortion is extended in Northern Ireland. [Interruption.]
The hon. Lady may laugh, but what do the Catholic nationalist community in Northern Ireland get now? They get no representation in this place, despite having a vote, because their elected representatives fail to show up. They get no representation in Stormont on this issue, because their elected representatives have failed to get around the table. Now we are saying to them that they will get no representation on abortion law changes, because we do not want them to have a referendum. We are saying to them that the women in Westminster know best. That is not only insulting, it is undemocratic and flies in the face of women’s rights and women’s choices.
I am very happy to have a debate in this place on all aspects of abortion, but if we are truly serious about having modern abortion laws, let us look at the time limit set in the UK. We have seen following the recent referendum there that the Republic of Ireland will just set its time limit at 12 weeks, as is the case in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Poland and Slovakia. In the Netherlands it is 13 weeks, in Portugal 16 weeks and in Romania 14 weeks. In a ComRes poll, 70% of women in the United Kingdom said they would like the time limit reduced. If we are going to have a modern-day abortion law, let us have an honest and genuine discussion, and let us not hide behind the pretence that this is about rights for women in Northern Ireland. If women want to change the situation, we should be promoting the idea that they should have the say.
If we are going to have a debate on abortion in the United Kingdom, we need to discuss explicitly banning sex-selective abortions, which proactively discriminate against female babies. We need to equalise the time limits for terminations between those with a disability and those who are able-bodied, and we need a debate about independent counselling. This is about women’s choice and women’s rights—but let us hear about the whole debate, rather than just selective messages from Labour Members.
Since I have been in Parliament, our debates about this issue have always been about restricting and reducing women’s right to abortion and right to choose. Three things have heartened me in the past 12 months, however. First, in March last year, we had a debate here on a ten-minute rule Bill, to which the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) responded. It would have done what my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) proposes: repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. The House listened carefully, and Parliament voted to support the idea. I was heartened by that: it was the first time that there had been any progressive step since the Abortion Act 1967 came in.
The second thing was, of course, the referendum in Ireland, which has now shone a spotlight on the position in Northern Ireland and the fact that we need to do something about it. The third thing is the court case on which we will have a judgment on Thursday. I think and hope that the Supreme Court will set out that the claims on human rights issues for women—the article 3 and article 8 claims—have been upheld. That would mean that the British Government would have to take action. Human rights are not devolved to the Assembly; they are something that this Parliament needs to deal with.
The hon. Member for Totnes (Dr Wollaston), the Chair of the Health Committee, said that times were changing and that we needed to prepare and get ready. I offer Members on the Treasury Bench something that I have been working on along with Gordon Nardell, QC, and Professor Sally Sheldon: a new abortion Act for England and Wales. It sets out clearly how abortion can be decriminalised, as has happened in one of the states in Australia, where there has not been an increase in late-term abortions. I say to the hon. Members for Lewes and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) that my proposals last year, and the ones I am supporting with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, are about abortions up to 24 weeks; the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 would stay on the statute book and cover abortions post 24 weeks. It is important that we update our legislation on abortion, to make it woman-centred and about the health needs of women, and to reflect the medical changes since the 1967 Act was brought in.
I also want to bring into any new abortion law a specific new offence of coercing a woman into having an abortion. I hope that the hon. Member for Lewes will support me on that; she has made a lot of that issue and the issue of sex-selection abortion. I also want a specific offence of causing an abortion through use of force or violence or the non-consensual administration of abortion tablets. In any new Bill, we need to introduce measures to protect and support women. But I ask this fundamental question: why do countries such as Poland and the United States of America not criminalise their women, while we in this country still have on the statute book the offences under sections 58 and 59, criminalising women who seek an abortion?
This is a hard and emotive topic. Northern Ireland is a devolved Administration, so is it our business? I am a modern, progressive woman and I am proud that this country is my home. As a woman who believes passionately in equality, choice and an individual’s right to determine their own destiny; as a woman elected to be the Member of Parliament for South Cambridgeshire in the 21st century who stood yesterday to support the request from the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) for this debate, because she is standing up for all the women in the UK; but mostly because as a woman I have been there, I am making it my business.
The Irish referendum result spoke volumes about how people in southern Ireland felt. They wanted change and they voted for it decisively. How can it be that Northern Ireland will soon be the only part of Great Britain and Ireland where terminations are to all intents and purposes outlawed? I was ill when I made the incredibly hard decision to have a termination. I was having seizures every day. I was not able to control my own body, let alone care for a new life. Are people seriously telling me that, in a civilised world, rape, incest or a foetus that is so sadly deformed it could never live are not sufficient grounds for a woman to have the power to decide for herself—that she should not make that decision? No. Enough.
Very suddenly and unexpectedly, we have a window of opportunity before us. Whether we feel that the window has opened as a consequence of the non-functioning of the devolved Administration in Northern Ireland, or because a neighbouring referendum was so close to us and so relevant as to be impossible to ignore, or simply because we feel the glaring light of equality and human rights illuminating the women of Northern Ireland, this has become their moment and they will have my unequivocal support.
The speech by the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) highlights the deeply sensitive nature of this debate. Many people watching it will empathise with the point she made. Equally, many people will feel that their deeply held values about the importance of preserving life also need to be reflected in this debate. We have heard much about the United Nations committee’s view on what is happening to women in Northern Ireland. If we want to look at what the United Nations says, the UN charter talks about the protection of the rights of the child, including the unborn child. It indicates that those rights are of equal importance.
This debate has two sides to it. It has of course reflected the views of those who wish to control their own bodies, but what about the unborn child? That side has been lacking in most of the speeches today. What rights and protections does the state afford to unborn children? Listening to this debate, one would imagine that in Northern Ireland no consideration has been given to the views of the population. We had a debate in the Northern Ireland Assembly—more recently than in this House—where it was decided, across the parties, that the current legislation should stand, albeit with the review outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson). I am not embarrassed about the legislation in Northern Ireland, which, by the way, is balanced because it does protect the physical and mental health of the woman while at the same time recognising the rights of the unborn child.
So what’s the right hon. Gentleman going to do about it? That’s what I would ask him. What about the 724 women who came to this country to have an abortion? What are you going to do? Make them stay in Northern Ireland to have children they do not want? What’s your solution?
Our solution is that since this is a devolved issue it will be decided by, and reflect the views of, the people of Northern Ireland. The shadow Scottish National party spokesman for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock), outlined it very well: there are reasons for devolving issues across the United Kingdom. Devolved Administrations are meant to reflect the views of the people in the areas that they represent, and I believe that the laws in Northern Ireland reflect the views of the people of Northern Ireland. That is why the Northern Ireland Assembly voted to maintain those laws.
Let me make a further point. This is why I am not embarrassed about the laws that we have, and why I do not believe that we have turned the clock back: as a result of not introducing the legislation that exists in the rest of the United Kingdom, thereby reflecting the views of the people of Northern Ireland, and of making both lives matter—that of the child and that of the parent—100,000 people are alive in Northern Ireland today who would otherwise have been killed before they were even born.
I know that that message is not liked—so much so, that the pro-abortion lobby tried to get the Advertising Standards Authority to challenge it, but it found that statistically that was a correct figure. We have people today in Northern Ireland who are rearing families, contributing to society, building their businesses, working in our factories, and sitting in our schools who otherwise, if we had had the legislation that exists in the rest of the United Kingdom, would have been discarded and put in a bin before they were ever born—[Interruption.] I have to say, that is one of the reasons why—[Interruption.] That is one of the reasons—[Interruption.]
That is one of the reasons why I believe that the legislation we have in Northern Ireland is balanced. It respects both the health of the woman and the rights of the unborn child—reflecting, by the way, what the United Nations says in its charter on the rights of unborn children. I believe that we have the correct balance, and if there are hard cases that have to be looked at, we have the process in place for doing it.
The one thing I would say to Members here is that the devolved settlement allows us to make those decisions. I believe that those decisions and the way in which people vote for parties in Northern Ireland reflect the fact that, by and large, they are content with that. Of course, it will not satisfy everyone. There are people who are opposed to the legislation, but I believe that the legislation we have reflects the views of the people of Northern Ireland. That is what devolution is all about. That is why the decision should not be made in this House and why we certainly should not have a change in the law that leaves no protection at all for people in Northern Ireland, because it would leave a legislative vacuum.
Abortion is rightly a very emotional issue and people have very strong personal views. This is not the first time in my life that I have been asked to vote on abortion. During my eight years in the European Parliament, I found that Members of the European Parliament vote on abortion nearly every month. Every time that that Parliament considers foreign policy in another part of the world, there is a detailed statement about human rights, birth control and abortion. I have voted on abortion policy in countries as far afield as Russia, China and India, and all over the world. If people check my voting record, they will see that I always support the woman’s right to choose. I always support the woman’s right to access contraception, and I never support the death penalty.
The debate in Ireland shone a light. The people of the Republic of Ireland voted for reform, and we, as their nearest neighbours, should support their decision. But the debate today is about whether we should repeal parts of our UK abortion law—specifically, the sections that make it a crime for a woman to try to cause her own abortion, or for anyone to help her or to supply anything that causes that abortion. This type of criminalisation is out of line with most other western countries and I understand the calls to modernise the law. But repealing those two sections would not solve the issue. If they are repealed, there would need to be new safeguards to protect women and a new legal framework.
In my many votes in the European Parliament, I was acutely aware of how challenging it is when politicians in one part of the world try to tell others what to do, especially on moral issues. The detailed legal framework must be a matter for locally accountable politicians. In Northern Ireland, there are deeply held views. Polls suggest that the majority want reform, but there is no agreement on the detail. Some say abortion should be permitted in the case of life-limiting conditions, others say for rape or incest, and others say they want the same law that side of the water as we have this side of the water. These issues need to be considered.
As someone who was born and went to Sunday school in Northern Ireland, I see the huge sensitivities that could arise if we in Westminster try to legislate over the heads of the devolved Government—it is a devolved issue—but for over a year the parties in Northern Ireland have not taken up their seats. The Members have taken their salaries but not their responsibilities, and that has left people in many areas facing uncertainty. Decisions need to be made. If the Supreme Court decides that the Northern Irish abortion laws breach the ECHR, this Government will have to take action. The UK is a champion of human rights all over the world. We cannot turn a blind eye and will be forced to act.
I do not want this House to have to take action on matters that should be decided locally. I think it is right, therefore, that the Secretary of State has gone over there to kick-start the restoration of the Assembly. It is time for the Assembly. It is time to redouble those efforts. Assembly Members of Northern Ireland, I know you are listening. If you truly care about the women of Northern Ireland, if you truly care about the babies of the women of Northern Ireland, now is the time to show leadership, take up your seats and take these decisions. Otherwise I fear we may have to.
Recently, I had to hire a car. It turned out that the cheapest and best option was to hire it from Birmingham airport. When I got in the car, I turned on the on-board sat-nav, and the last journey taken was to the Calthorpe clinic in Edgbaston—the place I myself had been for an abortion a decade previously. I shuddered at the thought of the woman who had hired the car before me, not to go about her working life but to do something that I had taken completely for granted. I and the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) are not criminals.
Last week, I asked the women of Northern Ireland to get in touch and tell me their stories of travelling to England, Scotland and Wales. Today I am them, and here are some extracts:
“It was Christmas Eve. I was with friends at a party and stepped outside for a breath of air and I was raped… My Mum had to book flights and booked me into a clinic. This all took money & I was from a working class family. We borrowed what we could and I left for London. Alone after I’d been Raped. I’d never travelled anywhere on my own.”
“I was in a relationship of sorts with”
an abusive man.
“I knew that had I carried on with this pregnancy I would not only lose my job but my home and the ability to look after the children I already had. My consultant told me that following legal advice medical staff were not allowed to provide any information that would help anyone to get an abortion.”
“I cried on the phone when I rang Marie Stopes in Belfast and they told me how much it would cost to book a medical abortion. I…considered taking too many of the antidepressants…not enough to kill myself but enough to induce a miscarriage”.
“I was 15, standing in McDonalds car park in the freezing December weather staring at a boy much older than me minutes after finding out I was pregnant. I was terrified…that someone would see me standing in my school uniform. I went to Liverpool two months before I turned 16, and 8 weeks after having sex with a boy who no longer wanted to know my name. The shame I felt lingered long after I had made the eight-hour boat journey back to Northern Ireland.”
I absolutely agree. I would also like to stick up for the women who are not the difficult cases, as well as those who are.
Let me return to the stories:
“The taxi driver who picked us up in Birmingham from the flight was kind, he drove right past protestors outside the clinic and called them ‘horrible people’. He wouldn’t accept mum’s money for the fare. I realised he saw many girls like me, I wasn’t alone…I did not want to travel on my own so had to wait till my friend got time off work…Leicester isn’t exactly easy to get to so we set off at 4 am for our flight, an hour’s bus journey into Leicester, and another 45 mins on another bus just to get to the clinic. After the procedure”,
she and her friend had to go and catch another flight.
“Again another two bus journeys that took near 3 hours this time to get back to the airport, another flight”.
They went back to the house,
“drained, exhausted, emotional and sore.”
“The night before I was due to fly to London I had some minor bleeding and by the time I boarded the plane I was in some discomfort. Immediately the plane took off I made my way to the toilet as I had started to bleed heavily. When a female steward eventually knocked at the door I told her I was unwell and suffered from heavy periods. Of course she must have known but she said nothing. I was first off the plane with the young steward who accompanied me to the public toilets in Heathrow airport. She tried to persuade me to see a doctor or nurse but I was terrified. I went into the cubicle, I passed everything into the toilet and flushed it. When I returned to Belfast I did see my GP who was horrified and told me I could have died.”
The final story in my speech sums up what each and every woman who got in touch was saying—and there were hundreds:
“Despite my mental health issues, despite an abusive partner, despite having no money and no real sense of where I was going, I was expected to have this baby. But I didn’t want to be pregnant. And that’s really why I went to England. Afterwards I felt sore, but mostly angry that I’d been made to board a plane because the government that laid claim to my country, demanded it, legislates better for its English citizens than its Northern Irish people. Because Westminster allows our women to be deprived of the basic human rights they give to their English citizens.”
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips), who always speaks powerfully and emotively about such subjects.
I have sat through the debate in silence, and I have heard many points being made. I have disagreed with some of them vehemently, but I think it important for us in the Chamber to listen with respect to every opinion and not to think that we have a monopoly, however much we may disagree with the opinions of others. If we do otherwise, we are setting a terrible example to the rest of the country.
I look particularly to my friends in Northern Ireland, who I know serve their community incredibly well. They know their community and they are from their community, and I do not think that some of the etiquette directed towards them befits this place. I say that having found myself in agreement with the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). I fundamentally believe in the right of women to choose what to do with their bodies, and I think that, if we are one United Kingdom, albeit with devolved parts, it is extremely important for us to have basic rights that everyone in the United Kingdom can enjoy. That is the issue that I have with the current law.
I would not be standing up and making these points if Northern Ireland truly had working devolution. If that were the case, this would be a matter for Northern Ireland, because in practice as well as by rule, these powers would be enacted there. However, it has been 18 months since powers ceased to exist there, and that is my difficulty. Although I am not a Northern Ireland representative, I must ask for how long the people of Northern Ireland must continue to experience circumstances in which they live in a democracy but there is an absolute impediment to their ability to reform rather than just carrying on, given that there is no functioning Executive and no Assembly.
Times change, and we have seen the move from the Republic, but a 1938 legal case, R v. Bourne, still largely governs the right of abortion in Northern Ireland: a woman has to become
“a physical or mental wreck”
until that right can be invoked. As a representative of this United Kingdom, I cannot stand by and see that occurring. I believe that it is a duty on every hon. Member to put their head above the parapet and say that if we believe that this is not right any longer, we have to make a stand for others in the United Kingdom to have the rights that my constituents have. That is what causes me to rise.
Of course I hope that the Northern Ireland people, led by their democrats, can form a functioning Administration, in which case they can take the powers back and make those decisions themselves, but the difficulty I have is that I cannot just sit behind a wall that says, “It’s nothing to do with me because there’s devolution,” when devolution is not functioning.
On that basis, I support the hon. Member for Walthamstow. I give her great credit for the courage with which she has led this debate. I also believe that there comes a point in time for the rest of the United Kingdom law to be updated. We should not have rights on the basis that there are exemptions. Those rights should be there for women and we should ensure they are kept up to date with medical advances as well. I am glad that we are having this debate today and I very much support the move that the hon. Lady has brought.
It is an honour to be a co-signatory with the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) in securing this debate.
The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 is a Victorian consolidation statute kept workable only by means of regular reinterpretations and case law; it is a creaking legislative machine held together by bolt-on updates. Unalloyed, this Act makes criminals of both desperate women and compassionate doctors. The decision to decriminalise abortion is a human rights question and thus a reserved matter for Westminster. If the decision were made to decriminalise abortion—if it were no longer a crime with exemptions—it would become a devolved healthcare competency, and Wales, where criminal justice is not devolved, would have greater powers than is currently the case.
What could we do with such powers in Wales? First, we could consider the need for two doctors’ signatures. In an area like rural Dwyfor Meirionnydd, this means either two visits to different GPs or a visit to a GP and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service clinic in Llandudno. In much of Wales, there is only the option of two GPs, with all the fear of being recognised and of being talked about and the stigma this entails in close communities. We must remember that these are places where a person’s mother will know the GPs and everyone is afraid that the receptionist knows everybody’s business and will be talking about it. Across much of Wales, there is a shortage of accessible GPs, too, so much so that 12% of women in Cardiff who seek the procedure attend private abortion clinics because they are afraid that the NHS will be too slow for them.
If this area was truly devolved, the National Assembly for Wales could also move ahead with confidence with powers to allow women to undertake the second stage of a medical abortion at home, rather than having to be seen by medics at a clinic twice. I ask Members to think about the fact that as things stand they would have to travel either in a car or by public transport back home from the clinic with the effects of a medical abortion starting on them as they travel. I ask Members to think, too, about the recommendation that they should not drive themselves to and from the clinic and all that that means in terms of confidentiality; do they tell their mother or grandmother—should they come with them, or should their best friend come with them?
That is what the contemporary law means for women in Wales, because of a piece of legislation that was patched together 157 years ago. Repealing sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Act would allow devolution to change this, and arguing that devolution for Stormont is a reason to deny this for Wales is ironic considering clause 11 of the EU withdrawal Bill and the power-grab implicit in it.
The criminalisation of abortion does not prevent abortion. The Guttmacher Institute publishes figures showing that abortion rates in countries with prohibition stand at 37 per 1,000 women as opposed to 34 per 1,000 in countries where abortion is not restricted; they are virtually identical. Highly restrictive laws do not eliminate the practice of abortion, but they reduce women’s safety and increase the distress of undertaking the procedure.
Let us face it: no one wants an abortion, but our control of our own lives must not be at the mercy of biology. Deciding whether to have children, and when and how many children to have, is a fundamental human right.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) on bringing this debate to the House today. She has made an eloquent and compelling case for the decriminalisation of abortion across the whole United Kingdom, but she should not have had to make that case, because it had already been made brilliantly by my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) last year. We should have enacted this change already. My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow also made an excellent case about the compatibility of her proposals with the devolution laws. That is an important point to make.
I speak as a former shadow Secretary of State for Wales and for Northern Ireland—I occupied those positions for fully half the time I have been in this place—and I believe that choice and compassion for women should trump all the constitutional concerns. That is what we should be deciding as a legislature, either here in this House or in Northern Ireland. I am a devolutionist, and I believe that we should respect the devolution settlement in all parts of the UK, but I am also someone who believes fundamentally in the universality of human rights, including the rights of women in all parts of the UK—indeed, in all parts of the world—to choose what happens to their bodies and to have legal and healthcare systems that respect their choices and look after their health and wellbeing.
The abortion laws in Northern Ireland—however they have been derived, however long-standing the conventions might be, and whatever the views of the politicians in Northern Ireland might be—do not respect or protect the human rights or the health and wellbeing of the women of Northern Ireland. That is why they should be changed. Ideally, that should happen in Stormont, but if Stormont is unable to rise to that challenge, it should be done in this place.
Every man in this Chamber has control and choice over their reproductive healthcare. Every man in this Chamber can have a vasectomy if they wish to do so, without the threat of prosecution. As a woman, I have no control or choice. Does my hon. Friend agree that, for all the complexities of the Northern Ireland political situation, this is a matter of equality and human rights?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that excellent intervention. Devolution necessarily means that there will be differences between the jurisdictions of the United Kingdom, but it should not mean that people in any one part of the UK should have a diminished set of rights. That is what we are dealing with in Northern Ireland.
I became utterly convinced of this case when I led a delegation of Labour MPs to Northern Ireland earlier this year to hear directly from the women of Northern Ireland about their experiences. One of the women who spoke to us has been mentioned several times in today’s debate. Sarah Ewart has become a great champion for the cause of reform in Northern Ireland, and her story is typical. At 19 weeks, she was diagnosed as having a foetus with anencephaly, a fatal neural tube defect. The baby was never going to live. She was unaware of the circumstances and went to her GP to ask for an abortion, only to be told that she could not have one. She ended up spending over £2,500 to come to England and undergo a not terribly satisfactory procedure, and being traumatised in the process. She is one of hundreds of women undertaking that journey, and one of thousands who have contemplated seeking, or have sought, medication on the internet to bring about an early termination. That cannot be right in 2018 in any part of the United Kingdom. It cannot be right that we endure circumstances in which the Victorian practice of backstreet abortions is growing in part of the United Kingdom. That should simply be unacceptable.
I want briefly to talk about the politics of this. Hon. Members from Northern Ireland have spoken with knowledge of their communities, but I do not think that we have heard a completely full account of where public opinion lies in Northern Ireland, or of the political situation there. One of the parties in Northern Ireland has changed its view recently—Sinn Féin has moved its position—and other political parties, notably the Ulster Unionist party, have previously stated that this would be a matter of conscience, were there to be a vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly. So it is not black and white that there is political opposition to this across the board in Northern Ireland. Nor is it right to say that there is public opposition, because some of the most recent polls have shown that up to 75% of people in Northern Ireland, of all faiths and none, believe that there should be decriminalisation there.
I am afraid that I will not give way.
I was pleased to hear the Secretary of State say that Conservative Members will have free vote if the matter comes before the House, so I hope that it comes before the House at the earliest opportunity and I look forward to voting with Conservative Members to change the law for Northern Ireland.
I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and all those who have been brave enough to speak in this debate. I also pay tribute to those in the women’s sector in Northern Ireland who are watching on. They are the most tremendous bunch of feminists, and I encourage everyone to meet them.
I will speak briefly about the impact of women not having the right to choose and what happens when their options are restricted. The restriction of child tax credits and the child element of universal credit to the first two children in a family is a cruel policy that I am well on record as opposing, but we do not often discuss the choices that that drives women to make. The benefits helpline Turn2us surveyed callers affected by the two-child policy, and 700 people said that it affected their decision to have another child. A number of women had opted for abortions of wanted babies rather than pursue a pregnancy that they felt they could not afford. Some with religious beliefs or whose pregnancies were too far along could not do the same. It is abhorrent, despicable and cruel that this UK Government policy is forcing women to terminate pregnancies, but the fact remains that, unlike women in Scotland, England and Wales, women in Northern Ireland are not afforded that choice.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) talked compassionately about the women who travel, but that option is not open to all. Those who are in poverty, those in abusive relationships, single parents and those with childcare issues, insecure immigration status or a disability often cannot travel. They cannot afford to or they practically cannot travel, and they may then take pills bought over the internet. The most marginalised women are now also the most likely to be criminalised. The situation is unsustainable and must be challenged.
For historical reasons, the average family size in Northern Ireland is higher than in the rest of the UK, and the two-child policy has a disproportionate effect. There is a certain irony that DUP Members are propping up the Tories and supporting social security cuts that will leave families less able to provide for their children, while opposing changes to abortion law. The two-child policy will put 250,000 more children into poverty by 2020, and families will lose out by at least £2,780.
Women in Northern Ireland are left in a trap. They are unable to access child tax credits or abortions, and women in particular circumstances of abuse cannot access contraception. The hon. Member for Walthamstow said that it is almost as though we are in Gilead, and some women find themselves with very little control over their reproductive rights. I trust women. I believe in their right to choose, and I hope that the Supreme Court does as well. Our sisters in Northern Ireland have been left behind and left out for far too long. I urge that progress is made on this issue as a matter of urgency.
Thank you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to speak on this issue. I ask all right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber to respect our hard-held and heartfelt views and opinions, which may be different from those held by some who have spoken, but may be in kilter with some who have not. This debate is an opportunistic move on the back of the so-called momentum of the Irish referendum to bring abortion on demand to the UK with no restrictions. That is my opinion. It may not be the opinion of everybody in this place, but that is how I feel about it. Let me be clear that the change would mean that babies could be removed from the womb and disposed of when their hearts are beating, and I am diametrically opposed to that for several reasons.
I have stood in this Chamber to speak to, and have written to, many people whom I think have power—Ministers, permanent secretaries and Secretaries of State—asking them to allocate and release funding to address the crisis point that our health and education services have reached. Devolution demands that Stormont makes major policy determinations, not Members of this place. Why are we debating this issue yet not taking the reins and addressing the A&E crisis and GP surgery closures? Other Members have referred to that. We are debating just one issue; we are not debating the critical issues of how health and education works.
As far as I am concerned, the referendum in Ireland has no bearing on the democratic process in Northern Ireland—full stop. Ireland had a referendum because its constitution demanded it, and we have no need for one; we simply need a working Assembly. Does this mean so much to Michelle O’Neill, with her “North is next” statement? No, it does not. Is Northern Ireland next? Bring it to the Assembly and see how many Members of the Legislative Assembly put their name to the change. The last time this was debated in the Assembly, the decision, by 59 votes to 40, was to leave the law as it is. The decision was supported cross party and cross community, and there was no petition of concern. People can ignore that if they want, but it is a fact of life.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if this is such an important issue for Northern Ireland, it had best get its Assembly up and running quickly, otherwise we will increasingly find that this Chamber decides issues on behalf of Northern Ireland that should legitimately be decided by the Assembly itself? My vote is that we should never put women in the position of seeking back-street abortions—many of us will have older relatives who were in that position. This goes back to the fact that Northern Ireland needs to get its Assembly running.
We have heard a couple of references to back-street abortions. Does my hon. Friend agree there is no evidence of any back-street abortion activity—never mind an increase—in Northern Ireland? There are issues, and we have indicated that we will deal with those issues compassionately, but back-street abortion is not an issue in Northern Ireland, as far as we are aware.
I thank my hon. Friend for her factual evidence.
It is my belief that a child is a child from conception, as can increasingly be seen through medical advances. A heartbeat can clearly be seen from three weeks. One lady in my office said, “If a doctor declares you dead when your heart stops beating, you must be declared alive whenever your heart is beating.” My opinion is determined by the women around me: women who are religious and those who are not; women who have grieved after losing a baby at 12 weeks; and women who have carried their babies full term—I know quite a lot who have done that.
My opinion is formed by the use of the Abortion Act on the mainland. The 1967 Act was enacted with conditions, rules and criteria, but the situation we ended up with was abortion on demand. What are the facts? In 2015, there were 697,852 live births and 185,824 abortions in England and Wales. For every three children born, one is aborted. If that is not abortion on demand, I need to know what is.
In the last 10 years in England and Wales, out of almost 2 million abortions, just four were recorded as being for the purpose of saving the mother’s life. The conditions in the Abortion Act are rightly there to protect young children, but have they done that? No, they have not. We have had approximately 50 abortions in Northern Ireland, so women can have an abortion in Northern Ireland if the conditions are met—two GPs have to agree that an abortion would protect the welfare, health and safety of an expectant mother. We have a system that works, and it is better than the legislation in the United Kingdom. It is better than the Republic of Ireland’s system, too. The Democratic Unionist party believes that both lives matter—the mother’s life and the child’s life—and, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) said, 100,000 people are alive today because of that.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Owen Smith) spoke about opinion polls, and there was the publication at the weekend of a national opinion poll that asked voters in Northern Ireland whether they supported abortion when a woman simply does not want the child. Only 34% said yes and 60% said no. There is no demand among the general public for abortion on demand, which Members would push through if they had the opportunity.
I am called to be a legislator, and I have to weigh up the number of the cases I mentioned against the number of those that abuse legislation as a means of birth control. I believe it is to the good of our nation to protect our babies in their mother’s womb and to support that woman. I believe it is wrong to ask doctors to take the life of a child within the womb. I believe that there is another way and we must advocate for that. I believe that the woman and her body matter, but so does the life of the child. Let us remember the child. People may disregard it, but let us not do so. I am not disregarding it and my party will not disregard it. Do not ask this place to impose on Northern Ireland a law that does not reflect the will of its elected representatives and, in my opinion, the overwhelming view of the people of every side of the political divide. Life is precious; both lives matter.
I, too, thank the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and everyone who supported her in securing this debate. It is of vital importance, not in a party political sense—or any political sense—but in a human rights sense. Two issues are involved here. The first is that it is simply appalling in 2018 that abortion is still treated as a criminal issue, rather than a medical one. More than 100 years—only just more—after women were given the vote, we are here debating an Act from 1861 when not only was it all men in the Chamber who decided, but it was all men who voted for all the men in the Chamber to decide. The other issue is that even now women in Northern Ireland are the only women in the UK who are denied a fundamental human right: the right to choose—the right to control their own bodies.
I have heard the debate about devolution. Even as someone who has campaigned consistently for devolution and whose party has campaigned tirelessly for it, I cannot find myself supporting that argument. I listened to what the hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) had to say, but then I listened to what the hon. Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Jess Phillips) said and thought, “If I were one of those women sitting at home listening to us today, what would matter to me more: devolution and a political principle; or my human rights?” The answer would be my human rights and my right to choose. It would be my daughter’s human rights, my niece’s human rights and the human rights of every woman I know above a political principle.
If that is not enough, perhaps we should look at what the legislation says, because human rights are not devolved. There is a precedent from 2007. When the DUP blocked the EU gender directive, Westminster stepped in and intervened. Legislation also gives the UK Parliament responsibility for meeting international obligations such as United Nations treaties ratified by the UK. UN bodies have found that Northern Ireland abortion law is incompatible with human rights treaties ratified by this Parliament. That is also the view of Amnesty International, which has said:
“Northern Ireland laws have been repeatedly found by UN treaty monitoring bodies to be in significant violation of the various human rights treaties the UK is state party to.”
We are not trying to usurp the rights of the Stormont Parliament; it is not sitting at the moment—
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not mind, but because of the time limitations, I am not going to give way.
We are not trying to usurp the rights of that Parliament; we are simply trying to establish the rights of women throughout the UK, to put those rights on an equal footing, and to give every woman the choice. If we repealed sections 58 and 59, the Parliament in Northern Ireland would, as we have heard, be able to decide for itself how to proceed. I give my complete support to today’s debate, not just for myself, but for those women who have a right—a human right—and for our children throughout the UK. I want them all to be on an equal footing.
I am a strong supporter of the right of women to autonomy and choice, and it is right that in this place we highlight the appalling treatment of women in Northern Ireland, as we would highlight discrimination in any other part of the world. Given that the 1861 Act is a UK law, it is also right that this Parliament debates—and, I hope, in time repeals—the relevant sections. I do however, wish to use the brief time available to utter a few words of caution about the next political steps we take to make the change that we want to see.
I am vice-chair of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, and our Committee D, many members of which are present, is in the middle of an inquiry into abortion across all jurisdictions of Britain and Ireland, including the Isle of Man, which I do not think has been mentioned today. We paused our work to allow for the Irish referendum, but we will continue our debate following this weekend and in the coming months.
The Republic of Ireland vote on the eighth amendment is transformative, not just for women in the Republic, but for women around the world whose politicians have not heeded the need for change in respect of votes of what has been termed conscience. The referendum result will have major implications, not only for Northern Ireland in terms of the debate on the rights and wrongs of abortions, but for the practical realities. The referendum vote is transformative for all people across the island of Ireland. Women from Northern Ireland will now have the ability to travel into the Republic for abortion services, once those are up and running. They will not have to get on a plane or a boat; they will be able to walk into Cavan, Monaghan or Donegal at any point and probably access abortion services. They will be able to take a short bus ride.
Will women have to apply for funding, as agreed by this Parliament, to travel into the Republic of Ireland? Will the reciprocal healthcare rights apply to terminations? Do they apply as part of the European Union? Do they apply under the spirit of, and the rules that govern, the Good Friday/Belfast agreement? Has the Secretary of State discussed implementation with the Irish Government? There is merit in an all-island view of this issue. There is a debate in Northern Ireland about whether abortion is an issue of human rights or healthcare, with one of those subjects within our purview and the other not. It is not a binary issue.
This debate is helping to spotlight the scandal that is the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly. If the politicians cannot agree, how are we going to get them to make some kind of future Act? There is discussion about whether a civic forum is the way forward for Northern Ireland, but I am not entirely sure how that would be made a reality, given that the Assembly is not in place.
We have heard a lot of assertions about what people think. Members from Northern Ireland are quite right to say that they have a mandate to be here and say what they have said; others have a mandate not to be here. We do not know what people in Northern Ireland think because we have not asked them directly. That is the political reality. There is unlikely to be any change in the electoral mathematics in Northern Ireland at any time soon. The law is complex in this policy area, and it is no good pretending it is not.
The Government cannot now be let off the hook on this issue, and we need to understand how they will unblock this situation. I am not generally in favour of referendums —I think they do not go that way—but a referendum should be considered as a tool to unblock the political situation. What discussions have the Government had, or will they have, with the Irish Government about the all-island situation and implementation? What support will be given to women who travel to and access abortion services in the Republic of Ireland? What is stopping the Government going directly to the people of Northern Ireland for a view on this issue?
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I commend all the Members who have taken part and thank the organisations that have given us briefings, including Engender, Scottish Women’s Aid and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.
Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, from the UN’s expert Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, has said:
“The situation in Northern Ireland constitutes violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.
We have to bear that in mind in all these discussions. As I said in my interventions, we have to deploy respect for each other, and there have been a range of views and proposals from Members in different parts of the Chamber.
I congratulate and commend the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) for bringing this issue to the House in such a brave fashion. I must say that I have become more swayed by the arguments as the debate has gone on, but for DUP Members to suggest that women opt for abortions as a matter of convenience, or to talk about unborn children being thrown in the bin or babies being disposed of, are disgusting ways to describe the choices that women have to make anywhere in the UK but particularly in Northern Ireland. The fact that the legislation that governs some women’s reproductive rights was made at the time when Parliament passed the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868 to end public hanging shows that so little has been thought of women’s health in some areas that it is deemed appropriate for our bodies to be governed by a law that is so old that no one is left to remember it.
We must recognise the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves. The Republic has voted, and we must wait to see what legislation comes forward and what impact it will have on women who travel for an abortion and on services in the Republic. In November 2015, a High Court judge ruled that Northern Ireland’s almost outright ban on abortion breaches the human rights of women and girls, including rape victims. I have huge sympathy with the women of Northern Ireland—I stand with them. The stories of women travelling alone and scared to another country for an abortion when many of them have already endured a trauma strike at the very heart of why we are elected. We are here to stand up to injustice and to protect our citizens.
This is a hugely complex issue both constitutionally and in human rights terms. A report by a House of Lords Committee said that the issue of whether human rights are devolved or reserved is not as clearcut as it has been presented as being. I cannot give fuller details because of time constraints.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow Central (Alison Thewliss) highlighted, we are criminalising women in the most desperate of circumstances. There have been discussions about the notion of a referendum to ask for the views of the people of Northern Ireland. We must recognise the different constitutional situation between the north and the Republic, and I have some sympathy with the women’s organisations that are quite rightly saying that women’s rights are inherent and should not be up for popular vote.
Women in Ireland told their stories to convey the devastating impact of the eighth amendment. It took great emotional courage for those women to speak out, and we must pay tribute to them. Why would we subject the women of Northern Ireland to the same situation? I say to the hon. Member for Walthamstow and others that we have before us in the motion a statement of intent. I am not a constitutional expert, and I do not have a great legal brain, but I have some concerns about the practicalities of it. I also see merits in the argument, and I make this commitment to her and to the women of Northern Ireland: should she bring forward proposals on this issue in the Domestic Abuse Bill, or in another way, I will work with her, and meet and engage with others across parties, to look at those proposals. The Northern Ireland Assembly must reform itself as soon as possible—
My understanding is that if sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act are repealed, it will be necessary to have some other civil law both for England and Wales and for Northern Ireland. Clearly, the abolition of sections 58 and 59 will happen, as that is what the majority in the House wants to happen. That will then provide an opportunity to the devolved Assemblies and Administrations to bring forward the laws that they think are appropriate in their own parts of the United Kingdom. As I understand it, the Offences Against the Person Act does not apply in Scotland in this regard, and that does not cause a problem. The question is how and when, and then what.
I would like to know who is the most senior person in the DUP who supports what is, to use the shorthand, a woman’s right to choose; and whether any DUP candidates in the previous general election spoke up for a view that is held quite widely in other political parties. I am not sure that I know the answer to those questions.
There is no need to provide the answer now, but, at some stage, it would be interesting to know whether there is a debate and a variety of views in the DUP. That is important in Northern Ireland.
The second question is whether we can take out the idea that this is a rarity. I do not normally talk about personal circumstances, but I have been involved in about 10 conceptions, three of which brought children who were born alive. The other seven were aborted naturally—they were miscarriages. I have had people living in my house desperate to have children, who have gone through late miscarriages—incidentally, those who think that the heartbeat starts at three weeks are out by about 100%, because it is about six to eight weeks, but that is an unimportant detail. The question is clearly this: if there is going to be a deliberate termination, can it be as soon as possible rather than as late as it can be under the current procedures? That is one reason why we need to examine the need to have two doctors to approve a formal medical termination or whether one is sufficient, and what the protocols should be.
We need to approach this matter in this way: the world is not as we would like it to be. It is clearly wrong that, in this country, there are about 190,000 abortions a year. If we allow some people to come in from Spain, Ireland or Northern Ireland for abortions, that leaves about a 40% chance that someone in this country will be involved in a conception that is ended by a deliberate termination at some stage. It is common, and it is not something for the criminal law. It is about understanding how conception takes place, whether people want an extra child when they already have five children, whether they have conceived with someone to whom they have to say, “I’m sorry, what did you say your name was?”, or whether they say, “We have lived together for two years and we hadn’t planned this.” Those are the sorts of circumstances that require openness and open discussion.
Any legal circumstances where abortion was not in some way limited or restricted would certainly be a rarity. We have heard in this debate that abortions cannot take place from a much lower age in most countries of the world. Would my hon. Friend support that kind of reform?
My right hon. Friend will have heard me say that if a deliberate abortion is going to take place, the sooner it takes place the better. It is better that people do not face those circumstances, but when they do, the earlier the better. That is clearly right. The civil law will need to replace the criminal law.
Members who have contributed, on both sides of the House, have earned the respect of those outside. If those who oppose change can respect those who want it, we can have a better debate.
I thank every Member who has contributed to this debate. I hope, first and foremost, that the Government have heard what was said by the hon. Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley), who is my dear friend on this matter. This is a statement of intent. We want deeds, not just words. The women of Northern Ireland—indeed, the women of England and Wales—deserve modern abortion law, and we intend to work to give it to them.
I will repeat what I said in my opening speech to counter the scaremongering of the hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), who I am sad is no longer here. She said that our proposal could result in the country providing abortion up to birth. No. This is about repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. It is not about the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929.
I am disappointed that the Government sent to the debate a Minister from the Northern Ireland Office, who therefore claimed that she could not comment on UK legislation. Ultimately, what we want is a date on which the domestic abuse Bill will be brought to the House and on which the will of the House can be tested—a date not within the next 150 years but within the next 150 days.
I share the concern of the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) to hear the voices of the women and men of Northern Ireland. Indeed, I hope that she will go and listen to nationalist voices, particularly that of the vice-president of Sinn Féin, Michelle O’Neill, who has said that legislative change is required and backs this proposal. If the hon. Lady is speaking up for nationalist voices, she should be supporting this proposal.
I am so proud to serve in the House on this issue with the hon. Member for South Cambridgeshire (Heidi Allen) and the right hon. Members for Putney (Justine Greening) and for Broxtowe (Anna Soubry), who have made such a powerful case for change. But above all, I thank the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), who so beautifully illustrated why this change must happen in this House and why it matters. He took the floor to control this debate, because control came easily to him. That sensation of being in control and being able to make decisions about what happens is what we seek for all our constituents. I will stand up for his right as a Northern Irish man to have control over his body. All we are asking is that he stands up for the right of Northern Irish women to have control over their bodies too—not to be criminalised, but to be able to make a choice.
Let me be clear to all Members of this House—the members of the campaign, the MPs who already stand convinced and those who want to hear more arguments—that we will also make a choice: not to give up fighting for equality, not to give up fighting for the 21st century and not to give up fighting for choice for all. We trust all women. Now is the time for Northern Ireland.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the role of the UK Parliament in repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861.