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Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations)

Volume 623: debated on Monday 13 March 2017

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to regulate the termination of pregnancies by medical practitioners and to repeal certain criminal offences relating to such terminations; and for connected purposes.

In England and Wales, women have a legal route to an abortion through the Abortion Act 1967, introduced by David Steel as a private Member’s Bill, but 50 years on it is right that the House has the chance to address one fundamental issue that the Act did not address. Abortion remains a criminal offence in this country, even if it is carried out early in the term, for the woman who has the abortion and anyone who assists her. Under sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 and other legislation, termination of a pregnancy carries the maximum sentence of life imprisonment. That is the harshest criminal penalty of any country in Europe, underpinned by a Victorian criminal law passed before women even had the right to vote, let alone sit in this place.

The Abortion Act 1967 did not change the fundamental fact: it merely set out circumstances under which abortion could be legal—for example, the need for two doctors’ signatures that specified conditions have been met, including a time limit now set at 24 weeks and, in exceptional circumstances, the conditions for abortions post-24 weeks. Unlike in other countries, that means that abortion remains illegal except in the limited circumstances in the Act. No other medical procedure is governed by legislation that old or that out of step with clinical developments and changing attitudes.

I want the House to reflect on the following comments from women who have sought help from online organisations to buy abortion tablets—something that no one would have imagined in 1967, let alone 1861—as, in so doing, they are committing criminal offences under the 1861 Act. The first woman says:

“I live in rural England and have no friends and the relatives I have I am not close to. I was hoping to have a termination in the comfort of my own home without judgmental eyes and without worrying about my husband knowing. I fear what would happen if he did. I have 3 children and my 3rd is 11 months old. I considered an abortion when he was conceived and had a terrible pregnancy and am still suffering from post natal depression. I will try to seek help, anonymously if possible. I’m in great need of help.”

Another woman says:

“I have visited my GP last week and he referred me to my local NHS service. They can only offer me a medical abortion with three visits to the hospital on separate days. On the second visit I am expected to stay there all day. I work full time and have two young sons so getting all that time off and childcare is going to be very difficult, probably impossible.”

Dr Rebecca Gomperts, the director of Women on Web, said about English women seeking help online:

“Yes, we get them all the time. We had an Islamic girl forbidden from leaving the house without a chaperone. How is she going to get to an abortion clinic? She can’t. For her, her only option might be that she could get the medicine sent to her by post.”

Due to the accessibility of medication now available online, women are more than ever before at risk of breaking the law, and a few prosecutions have already happened. I wonder if any of us truly believe that those women, in such difficult circumstances, really should be seen as criminals. Let me be clear that decriminalisation will not mean deregulation. Parliament can decide to retain existing safeguards within a decriminalised environment, including the existing time limit of 24 weeks. Abortion would remain subject to the same complex mass of general, criminal, civil, administrative and other legal provisions that govern all medical procedures.

I ask that hon. Members also consider the fact that Poland, a traditionally Catholic country, does not criminalise women for having an abortion, and even the United States has not criminalised women for having an abortion since the Supreme Court judgment in 1973. When the current US President suggested last year that women should be punished for having abortions, he was forced to backtrack after the public outcry.

In proposing the Bill, I want to thank the many individuals and organisations that have helped me along the way, including the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Abortion Rights and, particularly, Professor Sally Sheldon at the University of Kent law school.

I want to address specifically the concerns about decriminalisation. I want to be clear about what this Bill will and will not do. First, decriminalisation will not make it easier to access abortions post-24 weeks. Under the 1967 Act, abortions beyond 24 weeks are allowed only in exceptional circumstances—if, for example, the mother’s life is at risk. The decriminalisation can apply these exact same conditions, and we know from countries that have already decriminalised, such as Canada and parts of Australia, that there is no evidence of an increase in late-term abortions.

Secondly, decriminalisation will not lead to a free-for-all with unlicensed practitioners providing abortions; as now, there will be strict regulation and licensing of health professionals. For example, both of the pills most commonly used in medical abortions are prescription only. That means they are covered under the Human Medicines Regulations 2012, which make it illegal to supply such drugs without a prescription. So with decriminalisation, Parliament would need to have an evidence-based debate about what kind of abortion provision up to 24 weeks would be in the best interests of women and agree appropriate safeguards.

Finally, decriminalisation will not permit gender-selective or non-consensual abortions. Some opponents of decriminalisation argue that the only way we can restrict these practices is to apply criminal law to everyone. I hope that hon. Members will appreciate that it is well within the capacity of this House to find a better way forward that does not criminalise all women and all practitioners. Let me be clear that under current law, women cannot obtain an abortion on grounds of the gender of the child. With decriminalisation, professional bodies that are best placed to take action can continue to prohibit this as a ground for abortion. It is worth pointing out that the current law does nothing about those who try to coerce women in those circumstances. On the issue of non-consensual abortions, such as when a man assaults a pregnant woman, these would continue to be criminalised under other laws such as grievous bodily harm.

Now that all these potential objections are addressed, hon. Members can be left to ask themselves the fundamental question that gets to the heart of what my Bill is about: should abortion be an inherently criminal act, punishable by up to life imprisonment? In asking themselves this question, I hope hon. Members will bear in mind the vulnerable women who are ill served by our current laws and whether their care is now being compromised. There is also evidence that doctors are thinking twice about practising in this area of women’s healthcare because of the threat of criminalisation. We do not use these laws for any other medical practices, so why do we do it for abortion? This is one of the many reasons why a range of expert groups, including the Royal College of Midwives and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, support decriminalisation.

I hope that hon. Members will, like me, conclude that the criminalisation of abortion suits nobody. Women are poorly served by laws that state that even early-term abortions are inherently criminal, and doctors are poorly served by a criminal framework that does not apply to other areas of healthcare. We should create an environment in which the stigma of the criminal law is removed and in which women can come forward for advice and high-quality, woman-centred healthcare as early as possible in a pregnancy. I hope that hon. Members will join me in saying that in England and Wales in the 21st century, abortion should no longer be considered a criminal offence, and that the 1861 Act is now obsolete and no longer fit for purpose in this century.

In closing, I would like to repeat an observation on decriminalisation, which has, as I stated earlier, taken place in some Australian states. The quotation is this: the decriminalisation has resulted in

“a profound shift in the relationship between the state and its female citizens. It changes both nothing and everything. Nothing, because the number, rate and incidence of abortion will not change. And everything, because for the first time women will be recognised as the authors of our own lives. With that comes our full citizenship.”

Ten minutes is too short a time to cover the many and serious issues surrounding the premise, content and implications of this Bill. In the time available, I will outline some of the central problems with it. Far from being progressive, the Bill would be a charter for unsafe abortion practices, not dissimilar to the back-street abortions that the Abortion Act 1967 was supposedly meant to end.

I thank the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) for giving the House an opportunity to debate, briefly, an important area of policy. Too often today, debates about abortion—about the risks involved and the rights of the unborn child—are shut down; but I, and many colleagues who share my views, will not be silenced as we seek to be a voice for the voiceless, and as we argue for more modern and humane abortion law that upholds not only the dignity and rights of women but the dignity and rights of the unborn child.

I am against the Bill first because it is based on the false premise that women who seek ordinary abortions are living under the constant shadow of arrest. That is clearly not the case. The rhetoric surrounding the Bill may alarm Members, but let us look at the actual facts. Abortion is widely available under the terms of the Abortion Act. Prosecutions are exceptionally rare—in many years there have been none at all—and in the past two years there were just two convictions, both of them in extreme and disturbing scenarios. One involved a man who had attacked a pregnant woman and caused her to miscarry. That prosecution is an example of the current law seeking to stand up for a woman and punish someone who has committed a terrible crime against her and her unborn child. The Bill may make it harder to prosecute that man in the future. What an unjust and regressive change—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) was heard with courtesy. The hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) must also be heard, and with equal courtesy.

Thank you, Mr Speaker.

The hon. Lady cited the possibility of the growing availability of abortion pills as a reason to seek to liberalise the law, but if availability is increasing, that should motivate greater concern for women’s safety and health, and make us more wary of further liberalisation of the law. Abortion is still a major and often risky procedure for the woman involved. If abortion pills can be so easily bought over the internet—perhaps by an abusive boyfriend or husband—that should lead us to take steps to protect young and vulnerable women from those potentially dangerous products.

Take the young teenager, terrified to discover that she is pregnant, who googles “abortion pills” online. What she needs are not fewer legal safeguards but support and information, which the Bill would take away. By repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, on the basis of which the Abortion Act was constructed, it would make the Abortion Act, with its safeguards, obsolete and unenforceable. It would leave that young teenage girl less safe.

Take, for example, the requirement that two doctors must certify an abortion, which the Bill would remove. For a woman deciding what to do following an unplanned pregnancy, those conversations with a doctor can be important and safe opportunities to discuss the situation, and to make more informed decisions about the medical options and risks of a major and invasive procedure. What is more, they can give a woman in an abusive relationship what may be her only chance to speak to someone about the pressure that she has been put under to abort a child whom she may want to keep. Why should we take that opportunity away from women?

The campaign behind the Bill claims “We Trust Women”, but polling in 2014 showed that 92% of women believed that a pregnant woman should always be seen in person by a qualified doctor. Far from trusting women, the campaign seeks to change a central aspect of abortion provision in the United Kingdom, in direct opposition to the vast majority of British women’s views. Proponents of the Bill claim to be pro-choice, but, as has been the case again and again in recent years, they seem to be firmly against helping women to make informed choices. Regardless of the issue and regardless of the facts, the only answer that they have is to liberalise the law.

This Bill would not protect women. Instead, it would embolden those men who pressurise women into abortions that they do not wish to have. Whether it is a controlling relationship or wider communal discrimination and pressure that tell a woman that she must abort a child because it is a girl, because it has Down’s syndrome or because it has a disability, the Bill would make such women more vulnerable. One professor of medical law and ethics wrote to MPs last week saying that

“if section 58 were to be repealed, it is far from obvious that even the surreptitious administration of abortion pills to women would necessarily continue to constitute an offence.”

Indeed, by undermining all the safeguards and regulations on abortion up to 24 weeks, the Bill would become a charter for extreme abortion practices such as sex-selective abortions. Polling among women shows that 88% favour an explicit ban on sex-selective abortion, yet many of the organisations behind the Bill oppose that ban and the hon. Lady herself voted against a ban in 2015. So much for trusting women. One of the models mentioned today points to a Canadian law that has, according to the Canadian Medical Association Journal, turned Canada into

“a haven for parents who would terminate female fetuses in favour of having sons”.

Another model was mentioned—the law in Victoria, Australia, which has led to a reported 600% increase in late-term abortions in one hospital in just a two-year period. Is that something to celebrate or copy? Many UK midwives have spoken out against the Bill, with thousands joining the Not In Our Name campaign to stop it becoming law.

That brings me to the current state of the abortion industry in the UK. I am amazed that the Bill’s backers, including private abortion providers, have the gall to propose these changes, which would remove regulations at a time when the UK abortion industry is knee-deep in revelations of unethical, unsafe and unprofessional practices. In recent years, we have seen doctors pre-signing bulk abortion forms and offering sex-selective abortions. We have seen live babies being left to die following abortions that have gone wrong. We have seen children aborted just for possessing minor disabilities such as a cleft palate or a club foot. Last year, the Care Quality Commission had to step in to protect women from potential harm at Marie Stopes abortion facilities. The CQC’s subsequent report showed that women were left at risk of infection, staff were not trained in how to respond to deteriorating patients and post-surgery checks were completed before surgery had even started. Only last week, another exposé of Marie Stopes International revealed that abortions were being approved on the basis of telephone calls as short as 22 seconds with medically untrained call centre workers. No wonder these abortion providers are calling for a Bill that would get rid of the regulations and safeguards in the Abortion Act.

The Bill is a response to a non-existent threat. It would exacerbate the dangers posed by increased availability of abortion pills and it would remove some of the few protections and regulations in abortion law, fuelling unethical and unsafe practices in many UK abortion clinics and leaving women less safe and less informed.

A 21st-century approach to this area must be based on a fuller and richer understanding of human dignity and equality which does not treat a woman as a victim of her own body, which does not treat children as commodities and which does not treat marginalised people such as young girls or children with Down’s syndrome as burdens or inconveniences. On that count, the Bill fails. It is not a serious or positive proposal. It helps neither women nor unborn children, and this House should firmly reject it.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).


That Diana Johnson, Ms Harriet Harman, Barbara Keeley, Crispin Blunt, Norman Lamb, Caroline Lucas, Lyn Brown, Michael Fabricant, Andy Slaughter, Jo Stevens, Mrs Sharon Hodgson and Carolyn Harris present the Bill.

Diana Johnson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 24 March, and to be printed (Bill 153).