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Decriminalisation of Abortion

Volume 663: debated on Tuesday 23 July 2019

(Urgent Question): To ask the Home Secretary to make a statement on the repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 in England and Wales, in consequence of the decriminalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland.

I have been asked to answer this question. As with other matters of conscience, abortion is an issue on which the Government adopt a neutral stance and allow Members to vote according to their moral, ethical or religious beliefs. As the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has responsibility for abortion policy, I am an instrument of the House in that regard and I will discharge the instructions of the House in the best interests of patient safety.

The Government have a duty to see that the provisions of the Abortion Act 1967 are properly applied until, and unless, Parliament chooses further to amend that law. The hon. Lady will be aware that the Abortion Act—the legislation affecting England and Wales—is an amendment to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Notwithstanding the issues in Northern Ireland, the Government currently have no plans to amend sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Act in England and Wales.

Abortion is an extremely sensitive issue, and there are very strongly held views on all sides of the debate. Given this, any significant changes to the law require careful consideration and full consultation with the medical profession and others. Moreover, it is right that MPs and peers—or the devolved legislatures, as the case may be—have adequate opportunity to scrutinise any legislation fully. The Joint Committee on the draft Domestic Abuse Bill has also made it clear that abortion is not a matter for the Domestic Abuse Bill, which the House will consider shortly.

The question of potential reform to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, through the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, if no restored Government are in place, should not be cause to reform the system in England and Wales. Abortion in England and Wales is already accessible and serves the needs of women seeking to access such services. The law also provides protection for the medical profession in carrying out its functions and duty of care to women.

As abortion is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, the Government’s preference remains that a restored Executive and a functioning Assembly take forward any reforms to the law and policy on this issue. It is our hope that devolved government will be restored at the earliest opportunity through the current talks process.

We do, however, recognise the strength of feeling expressed by the House in the amendments to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, which place a duty on the Government to make regulations to reform Northern Ireland’s abortion laws if there is no restored Executive by 21 October 2019. The Government will work expeditiously to take forward this work, should that duty come into effect in the absence of devolved government.

The Government will also work with service providers to ensure that, in the meantime, the scheme provided in England for women from Northern Ireland continues to be fully accessible and that appropriate information is provided to those seeking to access those services. It remains my priority to provide safe access to abortion services under the law, as set by Parliament.

I appreciate this is an emotive issue, on which there are strongly held views, and I am sure it is something we will continue to debate in Parliament over the coming months, but I end by reminding the House that, over the past 50 years, the Abortion Act has ensured that women have access to legal safe abortion, which has contributed to a significant reduction in maternal mortality and has helped to empower women to make informed choices at what can be a very sensitive and difficult time in their lives.

I thank the Minister for her response, although it is a very disappointing response that does not address the subject of my question: England and Wales. I am also disappointed that we do not have a Minister from the Home Office, because this is a matter of criminal law.

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, which repeals sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 in Northern Ireland, completed its parliamentary passage yesterday, but those sections still apply in England and Wales, meaning that any woman who ends a pregnancy without the permission of two doctors faces up to life imprisonment. That includes women who obtain pills online, and they might be women in abusive, coercive or controlling relationships, women living in rural areas and women who have childcare responsibilities who cannot access services in clinics.

Despite legal access to abortion in Great Britain, two women a day seek online help on abortion from Women on Web. The Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency, the medicines watchdog, has over three years seized almost 10,000 sets of abortion pills headed to British addresses.

The House will be pleased to know that there are no arguments about jurisdiction on repealing these provisions for England and Wales, and we are the competent body to do so. We have voted to decriminalise abortion on two recent occasions, 13 March 2017 and 23 October 2018, which alongside last week’s vote on the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill clearly shows the will of this House that abortion should no longer be part of our criminal law but should be a regulated health decision between a woman and her doctor. I must stress again that decriminalisation does not mean deregulation, and a whole range of legal and professional regulation would still apply, just as it does to other healthcare procedures.

The situation in which we now find ourselves is unjust, irrational and confusing. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service released polling this morning showing that only 14% of people are aware of the current law and that 65% of British adults and 70% of women do not support the current criminal sanction.

Decriminalisation is supported by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Midwives, the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing, so I ask the Minister again. When will the Government act to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act, and will there be a moratorium on any prosecutions under these sections in the meantime?

I know I will disappoint the hon. Lady, and I know she has been a passionate campaigner on these issues for many years, with the welfare of women at her heart. I answer this question with great respect for her desire, but it remains the case that the Government are not minded to repeal the provisions of the 1861 Act in England and Wales, recognising that we have an Abortion Act that provides for access to abortion services.

From the perspective of the safety of women accessing abortion services, the issues raised by the hon. Lady do concern me. It is not good for the welfare of women that pills are being accessed online. I also observe that the Abortion Act is more than 50 years old and was the product of a very different time. Abortions were then entirely surgical, and the medical abortions to which we now have access are clearly far safer.

This is very much a personal view, and I am not speaking for the Government in advancing this view, but I think that making provision for early abortion and for recognising medical abortion in law will get us much further. We need to make sure we have a safe regime that enables women to access abortion services as safely as possible.

I supported decriminalisation, I supported the regularising of the abortion law in Northern Ireland last week, and on Friday I shall visit my local BPAS clinic. But changing the law is only part of it. Last year, I was out with an ambulance crew and we were called out to a woman who had been at an abortion clinic and taken the pills. She was bleeding heavily and had been taken very ill, and there was no out-of-hours service—this was on a Friday evening. Does the Minister agree, particularly in respect of the availability of do-it-yourself pills on the internet, that it is absolutely essential that, at a very difficult time for a woman who has taken that decision, the ongoing support is there 24 hours a day, seven days a week?

My hon. Friend reminds us that this is not always an easy process for women to go through. As with any medical procedure, full consent must be given, based on full information. As long as pills can be accessed via the internet rather than via medical professionals, it is clearly more likely that women will not be informed of the risks of taking the pills. Any medication can have risks and consequences, and women need to be fully advised so that they can manage what they are going through.

Thank you, Mr Speaker, for granting this urgent question. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for and congratulate her on securing this urgent question, and thank her for her tireless campaigning on this issue. I share her disappointment that no Home Office Minister was available to respond to this urgent question; waiting for a call is obviously more important. I thank the British Pregnancy Advisory Service for its excellent work on this issue, and for its new campaign, launched today, called #PunishedForPills.

Following the passage yesterday of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, we find ourselves with a discrepancy across the UK when it comes to abortion. As we have heard, sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 no longer apply in Northern Ireland, but still apply in England and Wales, which means that if a woman does not seek the permission of two doctors before having an abortion, she could face up to life imprisonment in Britain, but not in Northern Ireland. The same goes for women who access abortion pills online. There are a whole host of reasons why women may do that, including not being able to get an appointment at a clinic, which now happens more and more often; not having childcare; living in a rural area; or being in an abusive relationship. Although women in Northern Ireland will no longer be persecuted for accessing abortion pills, the same cannot be said for women in Britain. I know this issue does not fall under the Minister’s brief, but will she ensure that abortion will be decriminalised, but not deregulated, throughout the UK? That would increase access to and the safety of abortions for women throughout the UK.

No one takes abortion lightly—this is a very sensitive issue—but I am sure that we in the House can all agree that women deserve access to safe and legal health procedures, and that includes abortion. A woman’s right to choose is a human rights matter. We need to seize on the momentum of the great result in the Republic of Ireland and deliver equality of rights for women throughout the UK and equality of resources across the whole NHS. The Government need to make this a landmark year in which women’s reproductive rights are fully respected and realised. That is why I call on the Government to repeal sections 58 and 59 today, to make abortion rights equal throughout the UK.

I thank the hon. Lady for the characteristically constructive spirit in which she has engaged with this issue. The nub of the point she makes is that decriminalisation must not be met with deregulation. Whatever we do, we must make sure that in repealing those sections of the 1861 Act—if that is what Parliament chooses to do—the regime that replaces it must not only guarantee the rights of women to take decisions for themselves but protect them and keep them safe. That is my priority in addressing this issue.

My hon. Friend is aware—isn’t she?—that any proposal for repeal will be resisted as passionately in the country and on the Government Back Benches as it has just been advocated by those on the Opposition Benches?

I am very aware that this issue rouses passions on both sides of the argument, which is why I reassure the House that, from my perspective, I just want to make sure that I deliver Parliament’s instructions in a way that is safe. I should add that perhaps the way in which both sides of the argument have been debated in the House has not led to good lawmaking, because it has meant that the law has not been revisited in 50 years and has not kept pace with medical advancement.

The Minister herself just made exactly the case that my good and hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) made so powerfully about the need to make sure that the law works for the 21st century. The votes we had in this place in the past two weeks were to recognise that human rights are not a devolved matter and should be available to every UK citizen. Although I enjoy the irony that potentially we could end up with the most progressive abortion laws in Northern Ireland, my constituents in Walthamstow and, indeed, all our constituents in England and Wales deserve to be treated equally as an adult, able to make their own choices.

In reading out what I believe someone had given to her as the Government’s stated position on this legislation, which puts having an abortion on the same level as child stealing and using gunpowder to blow up a building, the Minister said that there would need to be a consultation with medical bodies “and others”. Will she tell us who the others are and why, when it comes to something medical, it is only women who seem to have non-medical professionals getting involved in deciding what their rights to access treatment might be?

As with any consultation, “others” would include all members of the public, and everyone here is a representative of members of the public. There are a number of ways that we can get to the outcome of legislation fit for the 21st century. It is the Government’s position that the simple repeal of those two aspects of the 1861 Act is not sufficient to guarantee safe legislation for women in this country. We have an Abortion Act that empowers women to take decisions themselves. Again, I come back to the fact that this is an issue of conscience. As Minister, I will implement the law as decided by Parliament.

I have great respect for the Minister, but I do not think there is any case at all for inviting amateurs to comment on what should be medical, clinical assessments. The criminal law always bears down most harshly on the most vulnerable and marginalised women: very young women, those with literacy or learning difficulties, those with poor language skills and those who may be in an abusive relationship. Will the Minister therefore consider again her stance—the Government’s stance—on the impact of encompassing this offence in our criminal law, and look at steps that can be taken urgently to repeal it?

The specific offences to which the hon. Lady refers are a matter for the Home Office. The Government’s position is that they should not be repealed for England and Wales at this point. I absolutely understand the issue she raises with regard to the most vulnerable, and she and I have had discussions on that basis, but that is also a reason why simple repeal is not necessarily the best tool. To have a safe regime in place is also to protect exactly the people she identified. As I have said, from a personal perspective I do not think that the current law is in any way satisfactory, and I hope that in future we can have sensible discussions about how we might modernise it.

In my role as a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, the committee on which I serve, which is chaired by the noble Lord Dubs, has for the past two years been looking at abortion policy across the whole of Ireland and Britain. Our report should have been available already, but there was some disagreement as to its final content. We will be updating it, hopefully for publishing in October. It would be helpful to discuss that report with the Government. As well as online medication, we have found other particularly concerning issues: we need to remember that there are no borders for healthcare for women across these islands, and there are no borders for how women across these islands will continue to support each other. We want to see more equality. Of real concern are the often very traumatic cases of late terminations. The workforce across our islands are not skilled—there are not enough of them and there are not enough good-quality skills. Does the Minister agree that the Government should at least look into those points regarding workforce?

Yes, absolutely. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Lady about her report. That there is difficulty in getting agreement comes as no surprise to me but, given the intentions of the people behind it, having that discussion would be useful. Yes, I have heard concerns expressed about skills levels, in particular to perform late-stage terminations, which are incredibly dangerous, as she is aware. I will endeavour to take that forward with the relevant bodies.

I sense that the Minister is genuinely trying to help. There is some irony in that we have been trying for so long to amend legislation in Northern Ireland to reflect what we have here, but now it has gone the other way—in the absence of any Executive, with the repeal of sections 58 and 59, Northern Ireland will in fact have more modernised legislation than we have. May I ask her explicitly what she thinks—personally, I suspect—would be the most effective tool to modernise abortion law right across the UK, which the majority of Members want?

That is a difficult question to answer given that the matter is now completely devolved. In respect of England and Wales, I think that the most effective method would be to revisit the Abortion Act, which is itself an amendment to the Offences Against the Person Act providing an exemption for women making that choice in those circumstances. My personal view—the Government do not have a view on such matters of conscience—is that, after 50 years, the Abortion Act does not reflect medical practice today, and therefore restricts the choices of women and their ability to exercise those choices in the safest way.

Other jurisdictions in Canada and Australia have already removed abortion from the criminal law without any increase in the rate of abortion or in late terminations. The Minister cloaks the issue in words such as “emotive” and “sensitive”, but this is actually a legal issue, and women in England and Wales deserve the same protection now afforded to women in Northern Ireland. Given that this is a legal issue, when will we get an answer from the Home Office, rather than the buck being passed to the Health Minister?

At the risk of being flippant, obviously I can only relay the policy given to me by the Home Office. I can give the hon. Lady my views on how we best keep patients safe, but clearly, when it comes down to it, how Parliament decides to manage such issues is a matter for Parliament; the Government and I as a Minister will do as instructed.

Will the Minister give us an example of any other medical procedure or treatment that is a human right that is criminalised by the law in England and Wales?

We need to look at exactly what the Offences Against the Person Act says, which is not in the context of a medical procedure. That is why we have the Abortion Act, which provides for a specific exemption by treating abortion as a medical procedure. The Offences Against the Person Act is in effect about foeticide; the Abortion Act amends that to decriminalise women seeking an abortion. That is the difference. If we make it about the Offences Against the Person Act, we are missing the point about England and Wales.


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Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 427).

Asylum Seekers (Accommodation Eviction Procedures) Bill

Presentation and First Reading (Standing Order No. 57)

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Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time tomorrow, and to be printed (Bill 428).

Suggestive of a busy “tomorrow”—we shall await the development of events. Meanwhile, we have an item of considerable parliamentary excitement, namely the ten-minute rule motion, which the hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton) has been patiently waiting to move.