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Women’s Rights to Reproductive Healthcare: United States

Volume 717: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2022

(Urgent Question): To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs if she will make representations to the Government of the United States of America about ensuring that women’s rights to access reproductive healthcare are protected as part of her Department’s work on promoting human rights internationally.

Access to abortion services in the United States is a matter for the US Supreme Court and for authorities in individual states. The US Supreme Court opinion of 24 June in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organisation does not make abortion illegal across America. Rather, it removes federal protection for abortions, hence allowing individual states to determine their own laws. Thirteen states have so-called “trigger laws” that will automatically outlaw abortion, seven of which are already active. We understand that in total 26 states are likely to ban or restrict abortion, or have bans that predate Roe still technically on the books. As the Prime Minister has said, this is not our court, it is another jurisdiction, but this is a big step backwards—I share his view. The UK’s position is that women and girls in the UK should have the right to access essential health services, including those relating to sexual and reproductive health, which includes safe abortion care. More broadly, the UK’s approach is to support sexual and reproductive health and rights, including safe abortion for women and girls around the world.

I thank the Minister for her reply. It is because of our special relationship with America and the domestic and international importance of the Supreme Court decision that I made the application for an urgent question. I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for allowing it.

The United States of America leads the world in promoting human rights. Hillary Clinton famously said:

“Human rights are women’s rights, and women’s rights are human rights.”

America’s leadership around the world means that the overturning of Roe v. Wade sends a stark message that women’s reproductive rights, which are fundamental to their physical, psychological and social wellbeing, are not worth protecting. In effect, the state has taken control of women’s bodies and denied them bodily autonomy. As we all know, restricting access to abortion does not remove the need to end a pregnancy. One in four women in the United States will need an abortion in their lifetime. The decision will result in more dangerous abortions, a rise in maternal deaths and the criminalisation of women and clinicians. Those from marginalised communities will be most affected, as many will not be able to travel to states that will continue to provide that essential reproductive healthcare.

It is also clear that there is growing concern that the decision may lead to the overturning of rights in other areas, including access to contraception and same-sex relationships. Does the Minister believe that the decision is consistent with the declaration on the elimination of violence against women, of which the US is a signatory? Can the Minister confirm that the Government will continue to support and fund reproductive healthcare programmes, including access to terminations, around the world in light of the decision? With far-right American groups already organising on rolling back the Abortion Act 1967 in this country, the decision will give their work renewed impetus. Will the Government look again at protecting women attending abortion clinics through the introduction of buffer zones, as proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing Central and Acton (Dr Huq)? Finally, will the Government confirm their commitment to women’s rights to access reproductive healthcare, including abortion? If the Government plan to change human rights legislation in the UK, will they completely safeguard the rights of women to bodily autonomy?

I reiterate the point that I made in my reply: the decision was made not by our court but by one in another jurisdiction. As the Prime Minister said at the weekend—and I share his view—it is a big step backwards. The UK is proud to defend and promote universal and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights, including safe abortion, which are fundamental to unlock the potential agency and freedom of women and girls. We will continue to press for strong and supportive language in the UN and other international forums.

Experts have denounced the US Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Roe v. Wade as a dangerous roll-back of human rights and a monumental setback for the rule of law and gender equality. As we are co-signatories to the UN convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, which includes sexual and reproductive health, can my right hon. Friend outline what she plans to do to hold the US Government to account at the UN, and can she confirm that the UK Government would view any change as a breach of its inalienable international obligations?

The judgment will be distressing for women in the US. As the Prime Minister set out, and as I have said, we also see this as a big step backwards. We are proud to promote and defend universal comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights, and we will continue to push for supportive language in international forums.

I am sure the whole House is grateful to my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) for asking the urgent question and to you, Mr Speaker, for granting the application.

The great story of the 20th century is how different groups, who were historically denied their rights, won those rights for the first time through protest, organisation and democracy. Those groups included working people, and our party is partly a consequence of that; ethnic minorities, which brings me to the Chamber today; LGBTQ people, in the week in which we celebrate Pride; and women. Heroic leaders of the feminist movement, such as Emmeline Pankhurst, secured women’s right to vote after two major concessions, in 1918 and 1928. For decades, women could choose which political party to support, but did not have the freedom to choose what to do with their own bodies. It was a story of women criminalised, back alleys and a black market, illegal abortions, dirty implements, disease, prison and death. It is a plight that affected women across the globe, certainly in our own country, and it affected poor women particularly, including my late mother.

It was not until 1967 that women in Britain won the right to a safe and legal abortion. In 1973, the United States followed. It is an abomination that, almost 50 years later, 36 million women in 26 American states were stripped of their right when Roe v. Wade was overturned. In America, an organised hard-right and global political movement is seeking to overturn rights hard won in the 20th century. That is happening in our country too. In 2019, 99 Westminster MPs voted to keep abortion illegal in Northern Ireland, and the Minister for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency, the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) says he is “completely opposed” to abortion.

Will the Minister confirm that the UK will make representations at the United Nations? The UK is a signatory to the universal declaration on human rights, so why has the Foreign Secretary said nothing about this issue? Will the Minister confirm that as the United States Agency for International Development surely departs—

Order. I allowed the UQ, because I thought it was important, but the right hon. Member should not take advantage of the rules. Two minutes means two minutes. I keep telling both sides, but Front Benchers get carried away. I have all these Back Benchers, who matter to me, that I need to get in. I remind the shadow Secretary of State that I expect him to stick to two minutes, and just ignoring me does not help.

The Prime Minister was clear about his view at the weekend, including in an interview on CNN. It is clear where we stand on this. In terms of Northern Ireland legislation, the issue is a matter of conscience, and colleagues have an opportunity to vote based on that. The Prime Minister’s view is clear, and it is one that I share.

It is a failure of politics in the United States that, after all these years, it still relied on Roe v. Wade to guarantee abortion rights. The failure is to continue to allow the debate to be seen as an ideological pro-choice or pro-life position. We are not in a strong position to lecture the United States on that point, because we have done much the same ourselves. Is it not time that we led by example and reviewed our abortion laws, which are now more than 50 years old, and based them on a safe framework for terminating pregnancy in the interests of women, rather than their being characterised by absurd moral extremes?

In terms of our domestic policy on abortion, legislation in this House is a matter of conscience. Our policy is to ensure that women can access health services in a safe and secure way. That remains a key priority. We will work closely with abortion providers and other stakeholders on the provision of those services.

I despair at the overturning of Roe v. Wade, because the undermining of women’s reproductive rights anywhere is a threat to women everywhere. The truth is that we cannot ban abortions—only safe abortions. I welcome the abortion care summit held by the First Minister earlier this week, and I pay tribute to Back Off Scotland, to Green MSP Gillian Mackay and to COSLA for their work in securing buffer zones to protect everyone accessing healthcare and staff from the hostile anti-abortion activists who have been causing such distress outside healthcare facilities, such as the Sandyford and the Royal Infirmary in my constituency.

What is the Minister specifically doing to prevent the creeping influence on these islands of US-based extremist groups, such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, which has been described by the Southern Policy Law Centre as a hate group, but which was shockingly given a platform by BBC Scotland on several occasions this week?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. As we have said, it is important that legislation is in place enabling women to have an abortion. Women should have control over their own bodies. That is why we have the legislation we have in this country.

I recognise the degree of distress and concern felt by many Members in the House over the Supreme Court’s decision. The fact is, though, that I probably disagree with most Members who have spoken so far on this matter. They think that women have an absolute right to bodily autonomy in this matter. However, I think that, in the case of abortion, that right is qualified by the fact that another body is involved. [Interruption.] We can disagree on that question. [Interruption.] We can disagree on that question, but I offer to Members who are trying to talk me down that this is a proper topic for political debate. My point to the Minister on the Front Bench is that I do not understand why we are lecturing the United States on a judgment to return the power of decision over this political question to the states—to democratic decision-makers—rather than leaving it in the hands of the courts.

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. As I say, this is a matter for the US. It is not within our jurisdiction, but the point is that we can rightly have a debate in this House and vote according to our own conscience.

The hon. Member for Devizes (Danny Kruger) asks why we are discussing this decision, as it is a political debate. Fundamentally, for many of us, this is a human rights issue. Roe v. Wade gave American women a constitutional right to have an abortion. Currently, here in the UK, only women in Northern Ireland have their constitutional right to an abortion protected as a human right. But we can change that, and that is what this place and this urgent question can do today. I ask the Minister a direct and simple question. If an amendment is tabled to the forthcoming Bill of Rights to protect a woman’s right to choose for every single woman in the United Kingdom—by those of us who recognise that it will be a conscience issue, and therefore a free vote—will she join me in voting for it?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question. Actually, I wish to pay tribute to her for everything that she does to promote women’s rights, and for the work that she has done in relation to abortion services and the right to have an abortion. I will not pre-empt what will be in future legislation, but I will say that, as she well knows and as we have discussed, these are matters for our conscience.

For me, the former First Lady, Michelle Obama summed this up in her open letter when she said that, when we do not understand our history, we are doomed to repeat its mistakes. As ever, it will be the young, the poor and the vulnerable who will be the biggest victims of this terrible, terrible decision. Our Prime Minister has said that it is a backward step, but to me it is a case of actions speaking louder than words. Surely there is more that we can do to use our so-called special relationship with the United States to push back against this decision, which is against reproductive rights, against women’s rights and against human rights.

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question. As I have said on numerous occasions and, indeed, as the Prime Minister has said, and as she rightly pointed out, this is a backward step. Over the weekend, the Prime Minister also said that it was a matter for the US courts and for individual states. None the less, at the same time, our personal views on this matter will have been heard loudly and clearly.

I politely say to my right hon. Friend that this decision will not stop abortions. All it will do is make it very unsafe for women to go through that process, and we will end up with more deaths. Will she please tell the House what conversations she has had with international colleagues on this matter and on women’s rights to reproductive healthcare in general?

My hon. Friend raises an important point around safety and the importance of safe abortions. I can reassure her that we push for strong supportive language in relation to sexual and reproductive health and rights at the UN and in other international forums.

I know the Minister will be aware that abortion is not and has not ever been deemed a human right in any binding international law. In fact, almost the opposite is the case. Some internationally binding treaties reference a right to life, such as article 6 of the international covenant on civil and political rights, which states:

“Every human being has the inherent right to life. This right shall be protected by law.”

Part 5 of the same article specifically excludes pregnant women from the death penalty. Does the Minister not agree that giving legal protection to the unborn is, arguably, a clear recognition of the unborn life? America has done just that, and I welcome the bold and courageous decision.

I am grateful to the hon. Lady for her question, but I am afraid that I do not agree with the decision that the US courts have made, and I share the Prime Minister’s view that it is a step backwards. However, importantly, in this place, we have a debate on these matters and we are able to vote according to our conscience.

We are all agreed, as we have just heard, that actions speak louder than words. Can the Minister explain how Britain can continue to stand up practically for the rights of women and girls globally in light of the £1.9 billion cut to women’s aid programmes, or will she commit to reversing that cut today?

We have had many debates about our official development assistance spend. I can reassure the hon. Lady that, as she will be aware, the issue of women and girls is a key priority for the Foreign Secretary, as set out in the international development strategy last month, and sexual and reproductive health and rights are a key priority within that.

The decision over Roe v. Wade is deeply distressing to women in America and throughout the world. The health consequences are absolutely appalling. It is an attack on human rights and an attack on women’s reproductive rights. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to speak with our friends in America to put forward our very strong views as a Government that this decision is not acceptable, and what more can we do to support women’s rights across the world?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question. The Prime Minister was pretty clear over the weekend about our views on the matter. He recognises that this is a matter for the US courts, which is not our jurisdiction, but is very clear about his view, which I share, that the move is a step backwards. I reassure the House that the UK has a long-standing commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights across the globe. We also have a proud record in terms of defending and promoting universal and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights.

The House will know that 50 new clinics have been targeted by protesters in England and Wales since 2018. Will the Minister commit to speaking to her counterparts in the Home Office to legislate for the protection of those visiting an abortion clinic?

As I said earlier, here in the UK we as women have the choice over our own bodies, should we want or need to have an abortion—often in very difficult circumstances. It is important that women are able to access those clinics.

In the past seven years that I have been in Parliament, I have joined with many across the House to ensure that a woman’s right to choose is not just protected but stands alone as a right rather than a defence to a criminal conviction. I agree with the Minister that this House stopped scrutinising the United States of America back in 1776, and to those who are trying to give oxygen to this debate, I would say that my daughters have asked me whether it could happen in this Parliament; whether there is a danger that we will reopen the debate. That gives the message that somehow we are going down the same path as the United States. We are not going to do that. Can the Minister remind this House that we have had majorities in the hundreds not only to protect a woman’s right to choose but to liberalise it further, and that we will not give up on that matter?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who is absolutely right. We have had many debates and many votes in this House on this matter. This is about a woman’s right to choose, and that is something that this House has supported on numerous occasions with large majorities, as he says. This place has been clear that women should have the right to choose in this country.

Many women on the Labour Benches have worked with our sister parties across the world for many years to advance women’s reproductive rights, because they are fundamental to our economic rights. May I press the Minister on her response to my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Rosie Duffield)? The £1.9 billion-worth of cuts do indicate the Government’s approach to those rights and to women’s programmes, so will the Minister seriously urge her colleagues to look again at those cuts? This is a globally financed attack on women’s rights, and we need to respond in kind.

We have had many debates in this House about ODA. It was the impact of the pandemic that forced us to make tough but necessary decisions. I remind the hon. Lady and the House that in the international development strategy, women and girls are a key priority for the Foreign Secretary and sexual and reproductive health and rights are an important area.

The decision by the Supreme Court is utterly woeful. It is a disgracefully retrograde ruling. Unfortunately, we do live in a world where we can no longer legislate for other parts of the world—we have not done that for several hundred years—but we can use our influence. As my right hon. Friend the Minister pointed out, the position in this country is that women and girls should have full access to sexual and reproductive health. What are we going to do to ensure that the rest of the world knows that our position is the one that should be available to the majority of women and that the one taken by the United States is an outlier of the worst kind?

As my hon. Friend rightly says, we do not have the ability to legislate for other countries or jurisdictions, but I can reassure the House that this is an incredibly important matter and SRHR is something that we continue to promote and defend, particularly at the United Nations and in other international forums.

Diolch yn fawr, Dirprwy Lefarydd. Yesterday, the UK Government confirmed that they would undermine both devolution and Welsh workers’ rights by scrapping the Trade Union (Wales) Act 2017. We in Wales have taken steps to protect women’s access to healthcare by making permanent the covid measures that allowed women to take early medical abortion tablets at home. In England, women’s access to such services has been reduced by allowing such provisions to expire. Will the Minister guarantee that this Government will never interfere with women’s reproductive rights in Wales?

I think the right hon. Lady will find that Parliament voted in favour of the amendment to the Health and Care Bill to make the temporary approval of home use of those pills for early medical abortions permanent across England and Wales.

I thank Mr Speaker for allowing this urgent debate and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) for securing it. I want to follow up on the question about buffer zones, which the Minister failed to answer; given that they are about to be introduced in Scotland, could she say what the Government’s position is on that?

Like many, I feel personally targeted by this attack on women’s bodily autonomy and deeply distressed by the impact it will have on women’s health in the United States. It is in part the consequence of a right-wing Government politicising women’s bodies in the pursuit of so-called culture wars, and I hope the Minister will take note. The ruling also means that whether a woman is pregnant becomes a matter of criminal liability. Therefore, insight into that, through health data, location data, what a woman buys, where she shops and who she visits, may become evidence for the prosecution. Yet that data is freely trafficked by multinational companies. Will the Minister set out how she will address that and the conversations she will have with her American counterparts to prevent that from happening? She looks confused, but this is a real issue for women, who will now be criminalised if they are pregnant and miscarry.

Let me be clear: I understand the distress about this decision, but it is a matter for the US courts and individual US states. We have no jurisdiction over them. However, we see this as a backwards step and both the Prime Minister and I have been clear about that.

My absolute solidarity is with women across America as their rights are stripped from them, but this is a wake-up call to women across the world that our rights are under attack—including the rights of victims of rape and sexual assault. As many more millions of women feel oppressed and marginalised, can the Minister confirm that she will prevent moves to replicate that decision here and instead seek to protect and enhance access to abortions across the UK and elsewhere, so that all women can make their own free choice?

As I have set out, here in the UK we are able to make choices around our own bodies, but let me be clear: the UK is proud to defend and promote universal and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights. We promote that and push for strong language at the UN and in other international forums. I am proud of our record in this area.

Does the Minister agree that our special relationship with the United States of America does not give us special interference rights to tell American people when they can or cannot terminate life in the womb of American women? Does she agree that the extreme abortion laws in the United States of America have seen the end of 62 million lives, and that they are now subject to state democratic controls and not to one single group of judges?

The key point is that this is a matter for the US court and for individual US states. I have been clear on my own position in seeing this as a backward move, but it is a matter for the US.

I hear the comments that it is not for us to interfere in US affairs, but thank God the US interfered in our situation with Ireland. This decision is relevant because it sends an important message to women and girls across the world. Women’s rights and human rights are under attack. I understand the Minister saying that she thinks it is a backward step, but will she be absolutely clear? Does she condemn the decision?

As I have said on several occasions—I am not sure how many different ways I can make the point—this is not a matter for us and we have no jurisdiction. However, I have been clear that it is not a decision that I agree with. I see it as a backward step. The Prime Minister was clear on that at the weekend as well.

I agree with the Minister that this is a backward—a retrograde—step. Perhaps it is an opportunity for us to take a forward step and show leadership by looking at our own laws. At the moment, abortion is legislated for under a law that was brought in 50 years before women even had the vote—the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. What conversations is she having with her colleagues in Government about decriminalising abortions in this country?

We have a proud record in this country of being able to stand up for women’s rights and of having debates on all matters relating to abortion. As we have heard, we have debated, and voted, on a number of occasions in relation to abortion legislation in this country.

I thank the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) for co-ordinating this urgent question and echo the solidarity with women in the US, particularly those with trigger laws who are worried about the consequences for their own lives and where the ideology of the Supreme Court goes next. It is not often that I commend this Government, but I want to acknowledge the positive action to address the lack of access to abortion services in Northern Ireland after MLAs—I was one of them—failed to address this issue in meeting the needs of women and failed to address consistent legal rulings. Will the Minister commit the Government to continuing to end the postcode lottery that exists for services in Northern Ireland?

As the hon. Lady will be aware, in July last year the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland directed Northern Ireland’s Department of Health to ensure the full provision of abortion services by no later than March this year.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) for securing this UQ and the Speaker for granting it. Constituents have written to me to deplore the treatment of women in the United States who need an abortion and with concerns about the fact that laws banning abortion also impact the safe obstetric and gynaecological care needed by pregnant women with some complications. In the UK, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists guidelines on miscarriage and ectopic pregnancy are based only on medical need. That will not be the case in the US states that ban abortions. My constituents ask that FCDO travel advice be updated to include advice regarding abortion and women’s health for pregnant women from the UK who might be affected if they travel to the States when their healthcare might now be compromised by the change in law on abortion.

The striking down of Roe v. Wade is a tragedy with a global impact for women and girls seeking abortions and reproductive healthcare. It cannot be sane or sensible that in the US women’s reproductive organs are more heavily governed than guns. The creep of the religious right, its funding and its misinformation is seeping into other areas across the world in terms of equalities, same-sex relationships and trans healthcare. Instead of a Prime Minister who panders to their rhetoric, will the Minister and her Government do as our First Minister has done and be outspoken by joining groups such as Back Off Scotland to challenge this right-wing creep and put in buffer zones?

As I mentioned in a previous answer, this is a matter for the Home Office and it keeps it under review.

I am heartbroken and furious at the backward decision in overturning Roe v. Wade in the US. As the Minister says, it is a decision for the United States of America, but it is an attack on women’s rights, an attack on human rights, and an attack on all our rights. I stand in solidarity with the women and girls in the US, in Northern Ireland and across the globe who are fighting for access to reproductive and sexual healthcare. With that in mind, what impact assessment has she made of what global funding streams will be impacted as regards accessing healthcare for women all over the world?

There are a couple of points in the international development strategy that specifically focus on women and girls—that is one of the four key priorities—but also on global health, and SRHR is a key part of that.

I would defend the rights of the woman but especially the rights of the unborn child. Some in this House tend to disregard that. Will the Minister outline whether she has any discussions regarding the provision of healthcare in terms of funded IVF, funded endometriosis treatment and funded access to birth control, or does she consider these to be outside the scope of the FCDO Minister dealing with one of our closest allies? Will she join me in condemning the acts of violence and death threats that have been made in the United States of America?

The FCDO’s remit in this regard is international, and we have a very proud record in terms of universal and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we pay a lot of attention to this and raise it in international forums.

Rape victims, women facing a life-threatening ectopic pregnancy and children who are victims of sexual abuse are all among the women who will now be forced to carry a child to full term. This Government are never slow to condemn religious fundamentalism when it is among those countries that we consider to be hostile to us. Would it not be all the more powerful if the Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and indeed the Minister at the Dispatch Box were to condemn in far stronger language to one of our allies the rise in religious fundamentalism and the impact it will have on people many, many miles away who desperately want to know that they have someone on their side?

I have been pretty clear on my own personal opinion on this court judgment, but it is a court judgment in the US, which is not within our jurisdiction. The Prime Minister was very clear at the weekend on his view in seeing it as a backward step. One of the interviews that he gave was on CNN, so I think he has been pretty clear on our views.

One consequence of the US Supreme Court decision is that more women will have to travel from one state to another to access an abortion. Here in the UK, due to the absence of fully commissioned services in Northern Ireland, we still have women having to travel from Northern Ireland to England and Wales to access their reproductive rights. This has a particularly serious effect on people who are in poverty or in coercive relationships. In that respect, will the Minister work with the Northern Ireland Secretary to ensure that these services are properly commissioned by no later than the end of July?

As I said in answer to an earlier question, in July last year the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland directed the Health Department in Northern Ireland to ensure full provision of abortion services there.