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Volume 648: debated on Tuesday 23 October 2018

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 amend the law relating to abortion in England and Wales, and Northern Ireland; to remove criminal liability in respect of abortion performed with the consent of the pregnant woman up to the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy; to repeal sections 59 and 60 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861; to create offences of termination of a pregnancy after its twenty-fourth week and non-consensual termination of a pregnancy; to amend the law relating to conscientious objection to participation in abortion treatment; and for connected purposes.

I thank Gordon Nardell QC and Professor Sally Sheldon for drafting the Bill. It is supported by the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives, the Faculty of Sexual and Reproductive Healthcare, Amnesty International, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the Family Planning Association, Marie Stopes International, the End Violence against Women Coalition, Women’s Aid and the TUC.

Abortion in our country is underpinned by the oldest legal framework for any healthcare treatment, with the harshest criminal sentences in the developed world for women having an illegal abortion. Poland, the USA, Canada and parts of Australia do not criminalise women. The law needs to be updated to deal with the advances in women’s healthcare and sex and relationships education, and with the role of the internet—all of which have occurred alongside the changing attitudes in society.

Our current abortion laws date back to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861—back to a time when Queen Victoria was on the throne and women were still decades away from getting the right to vote. Under the 1861 Act, any woman procuring her own miscarriage and anyone assisting her can go to prison for life. In 1967, Parliament voted for the Abortion Act, which gave a route for women in England and Wales to access abortion legally, by setting out specific exemptions and conditions, including the need for signatures from two doctors agreeing that, for example, a termination is necessary to prevent permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman. Women’s lives have been saved in their thousands by David Steel’s 1967 Act, which meant that women no longer had to seek out unsafe, unregulated backstreet abortionists.

So, what are the facts about abortion today? One in three women will have an abortion in their lifetime. These days, 80% of abortions take place in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy and are medically induced by taking tablets, not by surgical procedures. It is the only medical procedure that requires the agreement of two doctors. In 2007, the Science and Technology Committee found no evidence that this requirement

“serves to safeguard women or doctors”.

The 1967 Act has never applied to Northern Ireland, and the chilling effect of the 1861 Act means that abortion hardly ever takes places in Northern Ireland. It is one of the harshest abortion regimes in the world, with no abortion available in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality. This is what a woman from Northern Ireland says:

“I spent Christmas Day in casualty with my two children. My husband had beaten me to a pulp…He had repeatedly raped me…Six weeks later I discovered I was pregnant, I could not continue with the pregnancy. Knowing my husband would carry out his threats to kill me if he found out, I went to my GP who told me abortion was illegal in Northern Ireland and refused to help.”

Or let us consider Denise’s story. She was told midway through her pregnancy that her baby had Edwards syndrome and would not survive. Very ill and unable to travel, Denise was forced to continue with her pregnancy because she lived in Northern Ireland. She was repeatedly asked about her baby and that, she said, left her feeling tortured. She said:

“Every minute, every second of the day—you have to live with the knowledge that the child inside you is going to die.”

Or imagine being 18-year-old Emma, who found out at 20 weeks that her baby had anencephaly and would not survive. She could not face traveling to England for an abortion because she wanted to be surrounded by her loving family. She had to continue the pregnancy to term because she lived in Northern Ireland, and she was eventually induced to give birth to her stillborn daughter.

Then there was the mother who found out that her 15-year-old daughter was pregnant and that her abusive partner has threatened to

“kick the baby out and stab it if it is born.”

Feeling that she had no other option, she bought her daughter abortion tablets online. Seeking support for her daughter from their family doctor concerning the abusive relationship—not the abortion—she now faces a potential prison sentence for trying to help her daughter access medical care denied to her by their Government.

Then there is the heartbreaking account this week on Twitter from a Northern Ireland woman who has been live-tweeting at @ratherbehome her experience of having to travel to England for an abortion. She says this:

“I should be at home, in the privacy of my own home. Instead I’m trying to discreetly bleed in a shitty hotel. There’s no dignity. There’s no privacy.”

These are real-life examples of what women in Northern Ireland face under the current abortion law. Consider for a moment the morality of laws that mean that women in Northern Ireland seeking an abortion after being impregnated through a sexual crime, rape or incest, could face a heavier criminal punishment than the perpetrators—the real criminals.

This June, the Supreme Court found that Northern Ireland’s current abortion laws breach women’s human rights in Northern Ireland. In February 2018, the United Nations found that thousands of women and girls in Northern Ireland are subject to grave and systematic violations of their rights, being compelled either to travel outside Northern Ireland for a legal abortion or to carry their pregnancy to term. With the Northern Ireland Assembly not sitting since January 2017, UK politicians can no longer look away while vulnerable women in Northern Ireland, often suffering in desperate circumstances, have their human rights breached. As Hillary Clinton said:

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

Let there be no hard borders in the Irish sea over human rights.

Polling research released on 10 October 2018 by Amnesty International shows that 65% of people in Northern Ireland believe that

“having an abortion should not be a crime”,

while 66% supported the view that in the absence of devolved government,

“Westminster should legislate to reform the law”.

If Westminster does decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland, it will then be for the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide what abortion provision should look like there.

Meanwhile, even in England and Wales, a woman using abortion tablets bought online is committing a criminal offence punishable by life imprisonment—and it is often the most vulnerable women, finding it difficult to access termination services, who turn to the internet. Women on Web, a doctor-led online medical service, says that 16% of women cite domestic or “honour” violence, and 8% intimate partner violence, as reasons to seek tablets online. Whether in Birmingham, Belfast or Bangor, women need a modern, supportive, humane, properly regulated medical regime that encourages them to come forward for the best professional advice and treatment, not drives them, isolated and scared, into the unregulated internet pills market. 

Therefore, my Bill ensures that up to 24 weeks’ foetal gestation, women and clinicians would no longer be subject to the criminal law for consensual abortion. The 24-week time limit remains, and decriminalisation does not mean the deregulation of abortion: safeguards stay in place. My aim is for effective regulation fit for purpose in the 21st century. The existing body of law and professional standards governing medical procedures would stay. It would remain a crime to offer abortion services without being registered to do so, while anyone supplying medication without a legal prescription would breach the Human Medicines Regulations 2012. Clinics would continue to be registered and subject to Care Quality Commission oversight.

Very importantly, my Bill would also strengthen protection for women and target the criminal law on the real criminals. Anyone—an abusive partner, for example —who ends a pregnancy against a woman’s wishes through violence, or by administering abortion pills without the woman’s knowledge, would be subject to a life sentence. My Bill also protects doctors and nurses who conscientiously object to abortion, extending this as a statutory right to Northern Ireland.

It is time to remove Victorian, misogynistic stigma from our abortion laws. My aim is simple—women able to choose what happens to their own bodies: confident, not criminalised, supported, not stigmatised; women able to access professional advice and medical care that is regulated effectively; and an Act of Parliament that is fit for now, not for 51 years ago, and certainly not for 157 years ago.

Whatever Members’ differing views on abortion, if we respect devolution, we should vote against this motion. It proposes far-reaching changes in abortion law, not only for England and Wales but for Northern Ireland, where abortion has been respected as a devolved matter since 1921. Indeed, it would set a dangerous constitutional precedent of interference.

It is not only unconstitutional. It is untimely, at such a sensitive time in relations between the Westminster Government and the Northern Ireland Administration. It would completely undermine the substance and spirit of the Good Friday agreement, and it is unwanted. Northern Ireland is the most recent part of the UK to vote on abortion law, in 2016, and it voted by a clear majority to retain its law as it stands. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Diana Johnson) quoted statistics in her support, but let us hear what the people of Northern Ireland said just last week when asked. Some 66% of women and 70% of 18 to 30-year-olds there said that Westminster should not dictate this change to them.

If, however, the Province in time decides to change its law, that is for them, not for us here as MPs in Westminster to decide. Colleagues will no doubt recall the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland saying in the House recently:

“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.”—[Official Report, 5 June 2018; Vol. 642, c. 220.]

That was specifically in respect of abortion. She has also said that

“it would not be right for the UK Government to undermine the devolution settlement by trying to force on the people of Northern Ireland something that we in Westminster think is right”.—[Official Report, 9 May 2018; Vol. 640, c. 661.]

Those sentiments were reinforced by the Prime Minister, when she said:

“Our focus is restoring a democratically accountable devolved government in Northern Ireland”.

In that clear respect, this motion is contrary to Government policy and should be voted down.

Can we in all conscience vote on the one hand tomorrow on a Bill to

“Facilitate the formation of an Executive in Northern Ireland”,

as its long title commences, respecting the authority of that Executive to make decisions on such issues as roads and infrastructure, and then on the other hand today seek to deny Northern Ireland that authority on a matter of such fundamental social significance as abortion? We cannot, and we must not.

Whatever the views of Members across the House on abortion, they should hear what a number of Northern Irish women who wrote to me said:

“Changing the law in Northern Ireland at this sensitive political moment on this sensitive political issue is bad for devolution everywhere.”

The hon. Member for Edinburgh North and Leith (Deidre Brock) has said from the Scottish National party Benches:

“The decisions of devolved Administrations are taken for reasons that people in those devolved nations understand from their point of view”—[Official Report, 5 June 2018; Vol. 642, c. 228.]

Or, as Ruth Davidson, who is in favour of changing the law on this issue, more bluntly puts it:

“as someone who operates in a devolved administration, I know how angry I would be if the House of Commons legislated on a domestic Scottish issue over the head of Holyrood”.

This motion is an ignoble endeavour to take advantage of a temporary Executive lacuna and to foist legislation unconstitutionally on to the people of Northern Ireland. In so doing, it would radically alter our own abortion laws here in England and Wales.

Although the Bill has yet to be published, let us look at what it would do. It seeks to permit a woman up to 24 weeks pregnant to obtain an abortion for any or no reason at all—abortion on demand up to five months of pregnancy. We already have some of the most extreme abortion laws in the world, but this would make them even more so. There is no public call or appetite for this whatsoever. Indeed, it is the opposite; there is clearly grave public concern. Apart from Brexit, I have had more cards from constituents asking me to vote against this ten-minute rule Bill than on any other issue in this Parliament. Only 21% of women in England and Wales want an extension to our abortion laws, and less than 2% of them are in favour of sex-selective abortion, which the Bill would legalise up to 24 weeks. It is no good the hon. Lady arguing, as she has, that clinicians’ regulations or practice could cover that issue. The fact is that if her proposals go through, sex-selective abortion will not be illegal in this country up to 24 weeks. Do we want to go the way of Canada, which is now described as

“a haven for parents who would terminate female foetuses in favour of having sons”?

Do we really want to support a Bill—[Interruption.]

Order. The hon. Lady must be heard. If she wishes to put the matter to the vote, which I believe she does and which is entirely proper, the House will then cast its judgment, but she must be heard with courtesy.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I do want to put the matter to a vote.

Do we really want to support a Bill that could remove the only opportunity that many women have, often at the most vulnerable stage, to speak confidentially and one-to-one with a doctor about their concerns on abortion and what their alternatives might be? If we really trust women and want them to make the most informed decision and give them the best support we can, surely we should not take away this important legal safeguard. The bottom line is that if there is an abusive relationship, and there is no legal requirement for a doctor’s involvement and no need for a reason to be given for an abortion, it is far more likely that a vulnerable woman will be pressurised into having an abortion by an abusive partner. This Bill does not improve protection for vulnerable women. It reduces it.

The hon. Lady talked about the legislation being out of date, but should we reinforce, as this motion proposes, an outdated 24-week time limit when babies are consistently surviving now at 22 weeks, and some even at 21 weeks and a few days? The Bill is out of step with scientific progress and public opinion. Some 70% of women want this time limit lowered.

In recent weeks, lobbyists supporting this motion, as the hon. Lady said, have said that the UN has called for this change. The UN has done no such thing. The lobbyists for this change cite a report by a minor UN sub-committee, which does not have any standing to rule on the UK’s legal obligations in this respect. As for the non-binding judgment of the Supreme Court, which has also been used to justify this motion, there is nothing in that judgment that could remotely be said to give rise to anything approaching a requirement for the Bill. As Lady Hale said there, we in this place do not have to act.

We should not act, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland, on this issue—not only because it would be unconstitutional, though that is enough, but because the complex ramifications of this proposal, which have clearly not been thought through, would result in contradictory and inconsistent results in different parts of the UK. Those are too detailed to be debated here, but Northern Ireland would in fact be left with a total legal void, with no law covering, for example, the place where an abortion could occur and no legal requirement for abortions to be restricted to legally approved hospitals or clinical settings—abortions for any reason or no reason in any place.

The permanent secretary of the Department of Health in Northern Ireland was asked this year,

“What is the situation if the 1861 Act was to be repealed in the UK?”

His answer was:

“This scenario would leave abortion unregulated in Northern Ireland.”

The best people could hope for there would be some guidance from the Department of Health. The hon. Lady places great reliance on regulators, but regulators do not have the standing of law, as we have recently seen in cases of regulatory failure by the Care Quality Commission. Regulation cannot replace legislation. Taking the responsibility for abortion out of the hands of elected representatives and putting it in the hands of unaccountable medical bodies would be a derogation of our responsibility as Members of Parliament.

To close, I repeat that as Members of Parliament, we must respect our devolution settlements, and particularly in this instance that of Northern Ireland. Whatever Members’ views on abortion, we must vote against this proposal. It is unconstitutional, legally incoherent, untimely and unwanted.

Question put (Standing Order No. 23).


That Diana Johnson, Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods, Dr Sarah Wollaston, Stella Creasy, Nicky Morgan, Liz Saville Roberts, Norman Lamb, Jo Stevens, Anna Soubry, Christine Jardine, Crispin Blunt and Caroline Lucas present the Bill.

Diana Johnson accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 23 November, and to be printed (Bill 276).