I beg to move,
That this House has considered e-petition 619334, relating to legal rights to access abortion.
Thank you, Sir Graham, for being in the Chair today. It is very interesting being a member of the Petitions Committee. I have had the opportunity to lead e-petition debates in Westminster Hall on subjects where we have a culture war and different opinions. After the last debate that I spoke in, on assisted dying, I feel strongly that across the House we have so much in common, so we need debate that is sensitive but importantly does not leave us in our echo chambers. I was brought up with a Catholic education. I feel strongly about some of these issues, but I also feel that we need to discuss them. I would like to set the tone—perhaps naively, though I hope not—for today’s debate, because it means so much to so many, regardless of their beliefs.
I thank Caitlin, who started the petition that we are discussing—she is with us today. In a climate where many are cynical about political institutions and the impact that individuals can make, the fact that this petition from one woman gained over 150,000 signatures is an incredible feat. To make that happen shows what a great democracy we have in this place. I had the pleasure of sitting down with Caitlin to discuss why she created the petition, and why for her it is incredibly important to be proactive when it comes to a woman’s right to choose. Caitlin is a dual national—a UK and US citizen—who was moved to start her petition by the recent overturning of Roe v. Wade in the United States, which, due to various state-level trigger laws, has overnight stripped millions of women of access to reproductive healthcare, criminalising healthcare providers and snatching away rights that were seen as settled for a generation. Roe v. Wade has shown in the starkest of ways the fragility of rights that are not preserved through a positive legislative statement but, like our own Abortion Act 1967, drawn from exceptions and interpretations of the law. It is impossible to think of any other basic health services that are accessed like that, particularly in the United Kingdom where free-at-the-point-of-use healthcare, accessed through the national health service, is a matter of pride.
For Caitlin, abortion as essential healthcare has particularly resonance; her grandmother suffered a late partial miscarriage and required a late-in-pregnancy abortion—a procedure that not only kept her alive but enabled her to have further children. We have all seen the horrific stories emanating from the USA since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade. A woman in Wisconsin, left bleeding for more than 10 days after an incomplete miscarriage. A doctor in Texas, told not to treat an ectopic pregnancy until it ruptured. A 10-year-old pregnant with her rapist’s child, forced to travel across state lines to get an abortion. Those stories seem a world away from us but, much like the USA in the Roe era, abortion in England and Wales is not a legal right.
The hon. Member is making an important and powerful speech. Does she agree that it is extremely worrying that a member of public should feel that our rights are so under threat, and there is such a danger of us going down the same route as America, that they felt moved to present the petition? It illustrates just how serious the situation is at the moment.
That is so true, and I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. This is what is so brilliant about petitions and about Caitlin wanting to make a difference and have her voice and those of over 150,000 heard, because we do not want that to happen here.
I am confused. The reality is that the conditions under which abortions are permitted are set out in statute law. They would require primary legislation to alter them. The petition appears to wish to hand the decisions to judges by establishing a right that will be interpreted by judges in exactly the way that Roe v. Wade has been reversed by judges. It is much better to stick with the position that we have, based on democratic provisions in this House and statute law.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his contribution. I am not presenting my views per se; I am presenting the views of the petitioner, and I will go on to discuss how things would work. That is what we have to discuss. The petition presents a particular view and, although I agree with much of that view—not that that is relevant—it is how it would work, as he rightly points out, that we are discussing. It is therefore important that we sit in this Chamber and discuss it, but I thank him for his contribution.
I thank the hon. Lady for giving way. Is there not something fundamentally naive about a petition that attempts to juxtapose the legal system of the United Kingdom with the very different constitutional and legal system in the United States of America on the basis of fear, misinformation and media reportage, rather than on the basis of fact?
I fundamentally disagree with those comments. As a woman, to see what has happened in America does give me fear. I do not believe that there is a great amount of misinformation, but I do believe that where we get our information from—the hon. Gentleman raises a valid point—is very, very important. We must not stay in the echo chambers that I spoke of at the beginning of my speech. We must discuss and debate, which is what is so good about this opportunity and the petition.
The hon. Lady is incredibly generous in giving way. I applaud the tone in which she is presenting this case. The problem that some of us are grappling with is that, in America, what appears to have happened is that the Supreme Court had its political complexion changed and therefore came to a different decision. I, for one, regret the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
Having said that, it therefore seems strange, as my neighbour, my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), has said, to suggest that we should move away from the system that we have where Parliament decides what should and should not happen on a matter of policy of this sort, and hand it over to judges for whatever interpretation of the law they may choose to come up with.
Again, that is a valid point that we can debate and discuss today. Does the policy being enshrined in a Bill of Rights actually work? Is that the political lever that is necessary? I do not necessarily believe that that is the case.
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I am very interested to hear what she has to say next. It is not the Opposition who are bringing forward a Bill of Rights, or claiming to do so—I am sure we will get into the issue of whether or not the legislation presented does represent that—but the concept of a Bill of Rights has been brought into British politics. It is absolutely right that we discuss what should be enshrined in that legislation and whether that includes a woman’s right to choose to have an abortion, which many of us feel is a human rights issue. It is that piece of legislation—I know she is about to start the debate —that means we need to have this conversation.
I thank my hon. Friend for her comments. It is the Bill of Rights that is being discussed and brought forward that triggered Caitlin into wanting to protect women in this country, whether that happens or not. That is what I wish to discuss.
Abortion in Great Britain is still a criminal offence; the Abortion Act 1967 simply made abortion legal in certain, fixed circumstances. It is a product of its time, enacted in part to ensure that women no longer suffered serious health problems, or even death, because they were too afraid to seek medical help after an abortion. It is therefore ironic that its requirements, designed to pass Parliament more than half a century ago, risk women’s health. As we know, the Abortion Act requires that two doctors approve each request for a termination—a legal requirement that serves no clinical or safety purpose and often delays the process, despite abortion being safer the earlier that it is performed.
The fact that abortion continues to sit in criminal law has a chilling effect on medical practice and the willingness of doctors to authorise abortions. In a conversation earlier with a dear colleague, we discussed whether we actually knew somebody who was unable to access these services. Through conversations that I have had, I have found that there are such cases—that is what we need to discuss and look at.
In this crucial debate, what about women’s aftercare? We are talking about changing the law, and a number of my constituents are concerned that that would lead to abortion up until birth. We know that about 80% of women want the time limit reduced. Beyond that, what about the mental health of women who have had an abortion—where is the care for them? Where does this address things that have never been properly addressed for years and years?
My hon. Friend makes a valid point about the aftercare of women who choose or choose not to have a termination. That is something that I feel strongly about—it may be years down the line that someone needs that support, and that support is lacking. I agree with her on that point, and it is something that we need to discuss further.
The threat of prosecution is a real fear; it is a fear that also deters doctors from wanting to enter this fundamental area of women’s healthcare. We are pleased to see early medical abortions being safely offered by GPs in other community settings, as it is in other countries. The fact that all non-hospital-based services must be specifically licensed and approved by the Secretary of State can be a barrier to improving access. Women who are unable to travel to clinics because of distance, personal circumstances —maybe coercive relationships—and medical conditions are poorly served by the current framework. If they take matters into their own hands by accessing pills online, they risk prosecution and prison. To talk of prosecution in these circumstances might seem laughable to some, but a recent Sunday Times investigation found that 52 women since 2015 have been reported to the police for allegedly breaking abortion laws.
I spoke to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, and it is aware of multiple instances where the existing law criminalising abortion has been used against women who have ended their own pregnancy. Some of the examples given include a migrant woman in Oxford in 2021 who obtained and self-administered medication in a failed attempt to end her own pregnancy. When she was taken to hospital, the doctors performed a successful emergency C-section. Seemingly, they then reported her to the police because they found the remnants of medication in her vagina. She is now a parent to a toddler but is still being prosecuted for the attempted procurement of a miscarriage.
In London last year, a woman was admitted to hospital in need of a surgical procedure to empty her uterus after a stillbirth at 24 weeks as a result of abortion care sought within the formal healthcare system. While she was on the ward post procedure, she was arrested by the police. She was taken to a police station and kept in a police cell for 36 hours.
I cannot imagine any woman or girl ever wanting to be in this situation. When a little girl is growing up, she thinks about her lovely family and the children she is going to have. She says, “By the time I am 24, I am going to be married and have 2.3 children. I am going to live this life.” Women have hopes and dreams, and when they find themselves in this situation it is devastating to them, because they do not want to be in the situation and to be treated like that. I feel very strongly that it is really important to have this debate.
I actually think the hon. Member is absolutely right about the sheer compassion that this issue has to command. There were something like 800,000 pregnancies in the United Kingdom last year. I think that in the past seven or eight years 17 people have been brought up on the issue the hon. Member has identified, and only two have been charged. We are dealing with such a limited, narrow area—it is not widespread—and we need to keep that sense of proportion. It is important that the hon. Member has put those matters on the agenda.
To be frank, we should have decriminalisation. I do not believe there should be one or two or that any woman should be made to feel like that—
It is very difficult. [Interruption.] The hon. Member knows that we will disagree but, fundamentally, the fact that we can have this debate is the most important thing. I have to move on because we just will not agree, but it is important that everybody’s views are heard.
A 15-year-old girl was investigated by the police after a stillbirth at 28 weeks and accused of having an illegal abortion. Her phone and laptop were confiscated during her GCSE exams and she was driven to self-harm by the year-long investigation. Those are moments in a person’s life—in a woman’s life—that have been really impacted. The investigation concluded only when the coroner found that the pregnancy had ended as a result of natural causes. Imagine someone going through that while going through their GCSEs, with their whole life ahead of them.
This is the reality of criminalisation for the women investigated: their lives are being picked apart, they are being treated like criminals and it causes huge disruption. They do not feel safe in accessing medical services and their trust in the health service is undermined. These are often vulnerable women—even children—in desperate situations and with complicated medical histories or mental health problems. Because of the approach of the Crown Prosecution Service, rather than being provided with support in the moment these women face a terrifying journey of criminalisation.
We talk about choice when it comes to abortion, but those who are currently empowered to make choices are not the women who need the services but the police, who chose to investigate, and the CPS, which decides to prosecute. The current law takes fundamental decisions about an individual’s healthcare and hands it to the state. What is most concerning is that the law as it stands could be overturned by the Government of the day without a vote in Parliament.
This is where we perhaps need to look at the position of the current Cabinet and their views on a woman’s ability to access reproductive healthcare, because we can see that the issue is far from settled. I just want to point this out for the record. The Prime Minister has abstained on all votes relating to abortion in England since becoming an MP. That includes the votes on buffer zones and early medical abortion at home—the telemedicine we saw this year.
The Chancellor has been vocal about his desire to halve the time limit in which women can have abortions from 24 weeks to 12 weeks, even breaking the Whip. We say it is a matter of conscience, so I understand. The Home Secretary also voted against telemedicine being made permanent and the legal enforcement of buffer zones in 2022. We need to think about these views. It is right that Caitlin and the more than 150,000 other signatories to the petition are concerned, because if we look at our Parliament, we see that there is a risk of it happening. I totally understand Caitlin’s point of view.
If this legal right to an abortion were to be introduced, would it allow a legal right to a sex-selective abortion as well?
I do not read it like that. I think there is a better way forward. That is my personal opinion.
The motivation would be determined in advance?
I do not see it that way, but I thank the hon. Gentleman for bringing up that viewpoint.
It is incredibly important that we do not shy away from these debates. If there is something we can learn from the United States, it is how not to discuss women’s reproductive health. We cannot allow something so important to become yet another salvo in the culture war. This is down to us. Women deserve much better. I would like to end on that note, and I would like to thank everybody for their interventions. It is very important that we discuss the way forward. Decriminalisation is very, very important, because no woman or young girl should feel worry about their future.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I apologise that I cannot stay until the end of this debate, but I have to chair a meeting upstairs.
MPs who want even wider laws on abortion recently hijacked the Government’s Public Order Bill in an attempt to introduce buffer or censorship zones, the aim of which is to restrict the fundamental freedoms of speech and expression. They are against people’s human rights and would deny and criminalise those volunteers who offer support to women going to abortion clinics who do not really want to have an abortion but are forced to, perhaps by abusive partners.
Now, many of the same MPs are seeking to hijack the Government’s Bill of Rights, also on the issue of abortion. The Government are introducing the Bill of Rights as they seek to remedy one of the worst mistakes made by previous Governments—namely, that on the undemocratic reach of European human rights laws. The Bill of Rights is intended to deal with situations such as illegal cross-channel migrants using human rights laws to evade justice, or terrorists hiding behind laws that were never meant to shield them from justice and scrutiny in the way that they have.
The Bill, which was in the manifesto that I and my Conservative colleagues stood on in 2019, will give supremacy to the UK Supreme Court—that is all it does—and make it explicit that courts in this country can disregard rulings from the European Court of Human Rights. By the way, those who favour more abortion should note that actually, whatever may be the letter of the law, in practice we have some of the most liberal abortion rights in Europe. I wonder just how many of those people would like to be under the control of the European Court of Human Rights, when many other countries in Europe have far more restrictive abortion laws. I think they may be shooting themselves in the foot.
For many women it is not about what happens anywhere else in the world. It is about protecting not a right for us personally—because I do not think that many of us would have an abortion—but the ability of other women, young women, to make that decision if necessary and if they feel it is right. The problem with a Bill of Rights Bill that does not include the right to an abortion is that those women are excluded from having that right.
The hon. Lady mentions a worry about what is happening in the rest of the world. We have heard a lot about the United States of America, but we are in an entirely different situation here: if anybody wants to change the effective right to abortion, they have to come to Parliament. Parliament is supreme in this matter, so I am not sure that women need to worry about what is happening in the United States. There is no way in which I or anybody else, or anybody in any court of law in this country, can restrict their effective right to abortion—a Bill has to go through Parliament.
It is disappointing that there are Members of this House, including even those who do not support the intentions behind the Bill of Rights, who see it as yet another opportunity to hijack flagship Government legislation to further weaken the few laws and safeguards that exist in the governance of abortion. It is up to Members of this House to vote to change the law on abortion, which we have a perfect right to do. Those of us who think the sheer scale of abortions represents a failure in how we treat women and how we value life at least know that the law was made by Parliament and so can be changed by Parliament. By making abortion a “right”, in contrast, the present laws would likely be enshrined, and so would be beyond correcting even when plainly needed.
Let me give one widely accepted example. The law was changed in 1990 because the previous limit of 28 weeks was considered too late a limit, given that the science on viability had changed. Now, science shows that babies can survive at 22 weeks or earlier, and there are a lot of people who believe that the present limit of 24 weeks is therefore too high. It is possible for an abortion to be taking place in one ward of a hospital while, in the next ward, huge amounts of public resources are quite rightly being used to save a baby of 22 weeks’ gestation. However, if a right were enshrined, the necessary change to stop the practice of late-term abortions would likely not be possible.
A very interesting point has also been made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) about gender selection. How would that issue be dealt with by Parliament through a Bill of Rights? The trouble is that we cannot frame legislation to cover every eventuality in a Bill of Rights. It is much better that Parliament considers every practice, every change of a law, and every advance of science on its merits.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the hijacking of Bills just makes bad law? In Northern Ireland, we have seen just that: the law has been hijacked, and we have seen a change from life-affirming laws that the people of Northern Ireland support to some of the most liberal abortion laws in all of Europe.
I agree with the hon. Lady. It is a very dangerous parliamentary and legal practice for anyone to try to achieve their aims by piggybacking them on a Bill that is designed to deal with a completely different eventuality.
As we know, the law as it stands effectively allows abortion on demand. We have a record 200,000-plus abortions per year in this country—perhaps one in four pregnancies. That is beyond doubt, and in reality every woman who wants to have an abortion can attain one. We do not need to include it in a Bill of Rights; instead, we need to look at how the state has failed so many women that they feel abortion is the only option available to them, and to look at alternative modes of support. There is no real appetite to make abortion a right, aside from a vocal minority and various lobby groups, including the abortion providers themselves.
A right to abortion would be a very strange thing indeed. It would be the only right that we would regret using, and the only right that we would, ideally, actively seek to minimise. Nobody thinks that abortion is a good thing and wants more abortions—they may think it is necessary in certain circumstances, but it is not the sort of right that we want to extend. That stands in contrast to other fundamental rights that we do not seek to minimise, including freedom of speech, freedom of association and the right to privacy, to name a few. We cherish and value those rights and want to enframe them in a Bill of Rights. I hope that colleagues who want to drag this Bill to a very different place rethink their plans.
The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous in giving way. Could he clarify something for me? He talks passionately about the human right of freedom of speech, and I agree with him; I feel very strongly about defending it, and I notice that this Bill of Rights talks about protecting that right from interference. Can he explain how that is different from interfering in somebody’s womb, which is what the human right to have an abortion would address? Why is it that this legislation is right to protect one right, but not to protect another right? Why is it right that this legislation would bring in judges and give direction to courts on one issue, but not another issue?
That is an interesting point, but is the freedom to have an abortion at 24 weeks rather than 22 weeks the kind of fundamental right that we believe should be protected in a Bill of Rights? This is a matter for argument. A Bill of Rights is an unbelievably blunt instrument to deal with this particularly sensitive issue. I say to the hon. Lady that if any of us are dissatisfied with this law—and there are probably more Government Members than Opposition Members who are dissatisfied with the present law—we at least have to come to Parliament and convince our colleagues to change the law. I do not believe, and nor do many other people, that the Bill of Rights is the right way to do it.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I hope that this important debate will generate light, not heat—perhaps in the past we have had too few such debates. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) in setting that out so powerfully and making that argument. I also congratulate Caitlin on her incredibly powerful petition, which I think reflects the growing view—indeed, it is the majority view among women in this country—that in the 21st century, their right to healthcare needs to be not just protected but clarified.
Let me start by stating something that it is important for us all to recognise. When you ban abortion, you don’t stop abortion; you simply stop access to safe abortion. When we talk about having a human right to abortion, the alternative is not no abortion—it is unsafe abortion. There is no pro-life perspective on this. There are only those who recognise the need to ensure safe access in order to save lives by preventing those unsafe abortions, and those who are more comfortable with the risks that may come from not offering such a service.
Secondly, let me provide some clarification. I do not believe that the Government have put before us—perhaps the Minister will tell us whether alternative wording will be brought forward—a Bill of Rights, because it does not lay out a set of rights. I am sure that the right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) will regale us with his stories about the American constitution—I am sure that he is more of a scholar on that than I am—but that sets out a series of rights. This Bill does not do that. As the right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) very clearly stated, it sets out which place of law should be supreme. That is a different argument from that on whether there are laws to protect our rights. Let us be very clear: we are talking not about a Bill of Rights, but about a Bill of clarity about where rights rest and who has the right to interpret them.
I wish to disappoint the right hon. Member for Gainsborough: we are still part of the European Court of Human Rights. We might have left the European Union but the European Court of Human Rights still applies in the UK. Some of us agree with Winston Churchill that that is quite a good thing and we should uphold it. Indeed, I believe that that is the Government’s current view.
Let us also put to bed the idea that passing a Bill of Rights—or a Bill clarifying where rights are being determined—would somehow mean that a particular right would be subject to judicial intervention and other rights would not. All rights set out in this piece of legislation would be subject to the courts, just like freedom of speech and the rights of those people seeking asylum in our country. Abortion would be no different in this legislation. It would simply be another right where we clarified where the balance of rights—
Does the hon. Member agree that is very little disagreement on the right to protect freedom of speech? On the right to protect freedom of expression and freedom of religion, people can practice whatever they want. Does she agree, however, that the subject of abortion is much more nuanced? There are some people who would never take away a woman’s right for an abortion, but it is not a black and white issue and therefore cannot be compared to the right to freedom of speech, expression or religion. It simply cannot be compared to that.
I disagree with the hon. Lady, and I invite her to talk to campaigners in my community who feel very passionately about where the line about the right to religious freedom is drawn, or the right to freedom of speech. Those are not uncontested subjects. We all passionately believe that human rights are important, but how they are applied and what they mean in practice can often be a very different thing. I argue that a woman’s right to choose is something that the majority of people in this country—multiple public opinion surveys now back this up—believe should be a right for women. Right now, it is not a right for women. A woman does not have the right to choose to have an abortion in this country—we need to be very clear about that, because that is where this debate is coming from.
It is also why I agree with the right hon. Member for Gainsborough when he says that this should be a parliamentary matter. That is exactly what the petition is calling on us to do, as are those conversations about whether or not the Bill should include that. I simply say to the right hon. Gentleman that I do not know who in this place he means to be a hijacker, but I have never believed that the role of the Opposition is to sit on the sidelines for five years, cheering on the Government’s work. The role of the Opposition is to make progress on the issues that we are concerned about. If we can make progress on this very issue, I wager it will make a difference in many ways that he has not yet realised.
We do not have the right to an abortion. Even those women seeking abortions do not have a right to an abortion. They have to secure the support of two doctors who have to act in good faith to agree that a woman should have an abortion because the alternative would cause her mental distress or a physical threat to her life. That is not a right.
I am interested to hear what the hon. Lady thinks the effect would be of having a general right to abortion in statute, because that would not set aside the provisions of the existing statute. Judges would be constrained by statute law. They cannot set it aside. It would merely be gesture politics.
I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman raises that question, because he need not look far for an exact example of what does happen we have a human right to an abortion. Let us be clear: it is women in England, Scotland and Wales in this nation state who do not have the right to an abortion. Women in Northern Ireland do. We now have legislation on our statute book that directly gives women in Northern Ireland a human right to an abortion, which means—
Without an Act.
Well, there was an Act. The right hon. Gentleman is shouting—I guess he missed out on the debates we had on this issue in 2019, when this place did indeed pass legislation. That is a very interesting mechanism for this Bill of Rights. It is why this Bill could be the right vehicle and why a human rights perspective is important. Those of us who believe the time has come to say that abortion is healthcare and to remove the criminal element recognise that removing the criminal element requires us to replace it with an alternative foundation for those rights. Those of us who believe we should make abortion a human right in this country argue that a human rights perspective should be that alternative. We see Northern Ireland, where that has now happened, as an opportunity to learn from that.
Let me preface my statement by saying that just because we have a human right to abortion in Northern Ireland does not mean, as yet, that we have satisfactory legal, local and safe abortion services. Those who are hostile to abortion have used their position to prevent access. However, what is different and so powerful about having that human rights approach is that it is the Secretary of State who has to drive change in Northern Ireland, because he has to defend the human rights of women in Northern Ireland as a reflection of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women protocol.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will happily give way, but before I do, I will just clarify for the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) that changing the foundation of that legislation would not change the regulations as to whether sex-selective abortion would ever be legal or the time limits. It would simply be about the fundamental principle. Right now, his female constituents do not have a right to an abortion. They may be able to go and request one, but somebody else makes that decision.
I think the hon. Lady does clarify the point to a certain extent, but in that clarification she also highlights that some people—women, families—choose to have a sex-selective abortion, which is in contrast to the argument being made about abortion necessarily always being about healthcare. There are other factors as well.
I gently say to the hon. Gentleman that if he is dealing with families where that is a possibility, prosecuting a woman who is being asked to have a sex-selective abortion, rather than supporting her or recognising what is happening, is not the way forward. The cases set out so powerfully by my hon. Friend the Member for Gower show why decriminalisation is a very live issue. Although it is the 21st century, this country is still prosecuting women for having miscarriages and threatening them with investigation for a healthcare issue. Rather than recognising what other pressures might be in their lives and supporting them, we are criminalising those women, as women were criminalised in the 1800s with the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. I wager that the hon. Gentleman would not want to be on the side of arguing that a piece of legislation that put abortion at the same level as setting fire to this place or indeed murder would be the right way forward.
Right now, the penalty under that legislation is lifetime imprisonment. There may be some people who are comfortable with that, but many of us, who believe that when a woman is seeking healthcare, she deserves our support, compassion and tolerance, are not. For those of us who believe that we should be equals under the law, the question is whether the hon. Gentleman would accept being denied the basic right to decide what happens to his body in a particular circumstance, and for that decision to be taken by two other people who could give him that option only if they agreed that he would go mad or lose his life if he did not have it. I wager that he would not find that acceptable if it was perhaps about having a vasectomy.
Under the new dispensation that the hon. Member is arguing for, how would she propose to deal with, say, a very difficult case, such as the one brought to prosecution, namely that of Sarah Catt? The judge in that case said that it was not involuntary manslaughter or indeed an offence save murder. How would the hon. Member propose to deal under the new dispensation with a difficult case that the law would ultimately throw up?
The hon. Gentleman suggests that difficult cases are the unique preserve of abortion provision; there are difficult cases when it comes to freedom of speech and people’s motivation. What I do recognise is that right now there are women on trial for having a miscarriage or potentially being accused of seeking an abortion perhaps when they were further along in their pregnancy than they realised, and it is not right to see these cases as criminal matters when we are talking about a healthcare provision, in which case what we need to do is set out an alternative foundation for the law.
Many of us recognise that the Bill of Rights is not a good piece of legislation and that the things that it does will not achieve the outcomes that the Government hope for. However, it opens the door to a conversation about what rights women in this country should have. If the Government are determined that nobody from Europe should interfere with somebody’s freedom of speech, why do they deny the role of protecting women’s wombs from being interfered with and why not let women choose for themselves whether or not to have an abortion?
We would not be unique in making that choice; countless nations around the world already do it. Indeed, in the current criminal basis for abortion access, we are behind other countries such as Russia, Australia, South Africa, Vietnam, Germany and Argentina. Countries such as Canada have explicitly classified abortion as a human right; lawmakers in France have just agreed to write it into their constitution. Belgium, Denmark and Sweden are also considering constitutional amendments—
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I will just finish my sentence, if I may. I am desperate to hear what the right hon. Gentleman has to say, but I want to be very clear that this is a debate that is happening around the world.
Roe v. Wade was the spark that reaffirmed that that fire needed to burn, because many of us have known that, even though we have access to abortion in this country, that access is not secure; it can be challenged. Indeed, I have spent 12 years in this place listening to people chipping away at that access and using the fact that abortion is not a legal right to do so.
The right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) and I are on different sides of this debate. I would love to hear why he believes he has a right to choose for a woman what happens to her body.
I would quite like to ask my own question, if the hon. Lady will forgive me. If the right to abortion is so restrictive in this country, why do we have one of the highest abortion rates in the world?
I did not say that it was restrictive; I said that it was patchy, because it is patchy. What we understand is that those who live in rural areas find it much harder to find the two doctors required to secure an abortion, and that is one of the reasons why many of us have fought for telemedicine to help with that process and to ensure that during the pandemic women’s rights were not left behind.
The right hon. Gentleman misses a fundamental point—a woman should be able to choose what happens to her body. If we have a Bill of Rights, surely it sets out those most fundamental basic rights.
Will the hon. Lady give way?
I was coming to a close, but I will happily take the right hon. Gentleman’s question.
The answer to the question that the hon. Lady asked my right hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) is that we take this caveat to an absolute right because there has to be a balance of rights, and there is another life involved in the question of abortion. That is why we constrain it by the proper means of parliamentary legislation, rather than handing that decision to an unaccountable judge.
On this side, I hope to hand that decision to a very accountable woman, because I trust women to make the right choices for their own bodies. When the right hon. Member says “we”, I hope he is not talking about men, because the majority of men and women across this country recognise that they should trust each other to make these very difficult, sensitive decisions, and not deny women that basic human right.
If the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) wishes to look at the example of Northern Ireland—from what he says, I suspect he has not done so yet—he will see that adding a human rights foundation to the legislation does not remove any of the regulations around time limits, any of the importance placed on medical professionals or any of the safety requirements, nor does it introduce sex selection. It sets a foundation that is based in healthcare, not criminal legislation, and—crucially, for many of us—in equality. Were we to say that the right hon. Member could not have basic bodily autonomy, I would venture that he would be as furious and concerned about what that meant for him as we are about what it means for women.
The previous Justice Secretary and the current Justice Secretary have both argued that we do not need to include the right to abortion in the Bill of Rights because that right is settled, but Conservative Members have just shown that it is not; this is a very live debate. It is absolutely right that our constituents have an opportunity to lobby us and that Parliament has an opportunity to look at where we can make progress.
The decision to overturn Roe v. Wade caused shockwaves, but it also highlighted the fact that that right was written into the legislation in terms of liberty and privacy, not as a basic human right. Including abortion in our legislation, as set out in the petition, would write it in as a basic human right. Many of us do not agree with the Government’s piece of legislation; nevertheless, we will not be deterred from seeing how we can make progress to defend and uphold these rights, because what Roe v. Wade teaches us is that we cannot be complacent. Indeed, when we have a Government who, as part of an international conference, chose to remove a commitment to the human rights of women around the developing world to access sexual and reproductive services, I know that that concern is merited.
Will the Minister clarify why the sauce is good for the goose, but not for the gander? Why do we have a piece of legislation that will set limits on interference in free speech and on deportations, but the Government can somehow say it would be wrong for the courts to be involved in upholding a woman’s right to choose?
The hon. Lady is making a powerful speech, although I fundamentally disagree with most of her points. For clarity, will she explain at what point she feels the unborn child gains human rights? Is it at 16 weeks, 24 weeks, 28 weeks—or never, until it is born?
I recognise the debate that the hon. Gentleman is trying to tempt me into. I have no problem with our existing legislation, except the fact that it is rooted in a criminal foundation. For me, decriminalisation is of paramount importance and urgency. My point is simply that when we remove the criminal foundation from which all abortion legislation follows, we create a lacuna. I am arguing that entering human rights into that lacuna, as we have done in Northern Ireland, is the right thing to do, because I wish my constituents in Walthamstow to have the same rights as women in Belfast; and right now they do not.
The Bill of Rights—and, I would wager, this petition—is about the 21st century and how those rights are exercised. That does not mean that we would not have controls on how abortion is accessed or that there would not be a right to discussion about time limits; it means that there would not be criminal prosecutions—not just of the women, but of the doctors and medical people involved—and that the legislation would come from a healthcare perspective. We do not have these debates when it comes to vasectomies or ankle injuries, yet somehow when it comes to a woman’s body we have determined, as the right hon. Member for New Forest West has said, that Parliament should be involved.
Did the hon. Lady really compare a vasectomy with an abortion? Does she see those procedures of equal and like standing, when one involves, as has been described by other Members, a second life, and she herself recognises that there is a point during a pregnancy at which those rights are conferred on the unborn?
The hon. Member should turn the question around. Why does she believe that it is acceptable for men to be able to choose to have a vasectomy, but a woman cannot choose what happens to her own body? Why do we deny women choice over their bodies, but we do not deny men? Forgive me, but I did biology at school, so I know that there are often two people involved in the creation of a baby. Surely we should hold men equally accountable, yet somehow we do not deny men rights to their bodies and bodily autonomy.
I will come to a conclusion, because I know that Members who have different views from mine wish to make their points. My point is simply thus: to argue that the Bill of Rights is the wrong vehicle for the right to abortion is to miss the point, because this right does not yet exist for women across Scotland, Wales and England. It does exist in Northern Ireland, and if we trust women in Northern Ireland, we should trust women in England, Scotland and Wales. If we recognise a human right in one part of the United Kingdom, surely we should recognise it in all.
I do not wish to be called a hijacker; I think that is slightly disrespectful towards parliamentary democracy. I recognise that there are people here who will never agree with a woman’s right to choose, and I believe they should be honest about that, because it would not matter whether it was a Bill of Rights, this Bill of Rights or any piece of legislation—they would not support it. But for those of us who do support women and who do recognise that the case for decriminalisation is long overdue, we have a responsibility to set out what comes next. I believe it is a human rights proposal, and I believe that all our constituents would benefit from that perspective and that approach to a healthcare issue. I hope that the Minister will clarify why this piece of legislation is acceptable for some freedoms and some rights, and whether the Government do not believe that a woman has a right to an abortion. If she does have a right to choose an abortion, they need to legislate for it.
It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham. I commend the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for the way in which set out the debate. It is a difficult thing to do for the Petitions Committee, and she did an excellent job.
I very much welcome the debate, because legal access to abortion needs to be looked at in this place, and today’s debate has demonstrated the pent-up demand to have a clear plan and a clear way forward. However, I want to add a different perspective, which perhaps demonstrates that there is a real need for this issue to be looked at in more detail, because I am yet to be convinced that the change that is needed will be achieved by enshrining the right to abortion in the Bill of Rights, probably because it is far more complicated than that would allow. Change is needed, however, and I commend the petitioners for giving us the opportunity to bring this issue forward. I hope the Government take away the debate not just as a three-hour sitting in Westminster Hall, hearing from people who have a lot of conflicting views, but as a real cry for help. We need a Government who are prepared to put their head above the parapet and come forward with a plan of action on abortion rights.
Change is needed. I believe the change needs to be decriminalisation, but I do not believe it necessarily needs to be done through a Bill of Rights. I believe the debate is driven by real frustration, not just among people in this room, but among the many people who supported a number of the other issues that the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) brought forward. Yes, she did so in a slightly haphazard way, but she has had no choice, because there has not been a way to do it more coherently.
Our abortion law is completely out of date. UK access to abortion is an exemption from prosecution under criminal law, which is well behind other countries in the world. Right hon. and hon. Members need to acknowledge that our legislation is out of date and is governed by offences that date back to the 18th century and which need urgent change, because abortions are criminalised in a way that no other healthcare provision is. The 1967 Act gave a very limited number of exemptions. Other than that, the law even predates when women were able to stand for election to this place.
The right hon. Member mentions the 1967 Act. From what my mother told me at the time—I was too young to know about it—the Act sparked a huge feeling of social revolution in this country and a belief in the rights of women, which many women now feel are under threat. Although Roe v. Wade may have happened in the United States, the sentiment that it reflects is something that women in this country feel very strongly is a threat to their rights. In decriminalising abortion, and including it in the Bill of Rights—one or the other, perhaps—we would be re-establishing that social change and that revolution in the position of women in society.
I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention. She is right to say that it could be one or the other but, currently, we have no clear path to understanding how and when we will have that discussion.
On other point relating to the 1967 Act, too often, when this issue is raised, we are told, “These are issues that are brought up by Back Benchers.” Indeed, the hon. Member for Walthamstow has done that on many occasions—brought up issues from the Back Benches—but that has left us with an incredibly piecemeal approach to reform in this area. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister does not say, “This is a matter for Back Benchers,” because it no longer is, for the reasons that the hon. Member for Edinburgh West (Christine Jardine) gave. This is a complicated issue, and it needs to be dealt with by Government in a comprehensive way.
I believe that, as a result of phenomenal change in the way in which women access abortion in this country, the law is lagging well behind the reality for most of our constituents. Some 87% of abortions are now medical abortions. They are not surgical; they are completely different from abortions when the law was put in place. We may agree or disagree with abortion, but the way that the law regulates it is inconsistent with the reality of the medical procedures. Before even contemplating enshrining abortion as a right in the Bill of Rights—which may or may not be the right thing to do—we must completely re-examine our approach to how abortion is dealt with in the law.
As has been said, 52 women have been reported to the police under the abortion law since 2015. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) mentioned, I think, 800,000 births a year, but if you were one those 52 women reported to the police for a procedure that you thought was a medical procedure, that is something that would be quite shocking, and would be to many of the people that we represent. Yes, only 17 of those women have been subject to criminal investigations, but how many other medical procedures have been subject to criminal investigations—not many, I think.
The Women and Equalities Committee, when I chaired it, held an inquiry into abortion in Northern Ireland, which identified the chilling effect of the law on medical practice, in some circumstances, leaving vulnerable women without the help that they needed. I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Walthamstow for really building on that and bringing forward measures that meant that we were able, in a piecemeal way, to change the situation for that particular group of women.
I understand why the situation in the US has excited extreme concern in this country. The Supreme Court ruling was extremely worrying, and there will be much discussion on that on the other side of the Atlantic. I can understand why that would trigger a debate today. However, if the motivation is to put abortion on a firmer footing, we must consider carefully a different approach from just attaching it to the Bill of Rights, which may not give us the opportunity to discuss it in the depth that we need to.
As well as listening to the very principled views of colleagues here today, we must listen to medical practitioners. The British Medical Association is very clear that abortion should be regulated in the same way as other clinical procedures, which are already subject to an extensive range of professional standards, regulations, and criminal and civil laws. Rather than criminalising women, we must ensure that we have the right medical help in place, and that they are not afraid of accessing it. I fear that debates such as today’s could unintentionally create more fear among those who need to, for whatever reason, access abortions. I absolutely defend the right of hon. Members and right hon. Members to completely disagree with the idea of choosing an abortion, but every woman in this country must have the right to make that choice for themselves. That is the country that we live in today.
There is no need for that right to be in the Bill of Rights, in the same way that there is no need to put other medical procedures into a Bill of Rights. Changing the basic law has the overwhelming support of the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives and the BMA, so why do we put our views ahead of those of medical professionals on this issue and no others?
In this place we have, I believe, made real progress in a piecemeal way. People failed to see the level of support for buffer zones when that amendment went through the House. I fear that perhaps the voices in the debate today are not entirely representative of our broader group of colleagues, because not only have buffer zones been agreed to but telemedicine and decriminalisation in Northern Ireland have been agreed to. Let us be really careful. The Minister needs to be really careful that he senses the proper mood of the House when he considers such issues because sometimes these smaller debates do not reflect that mood.
In closing, I ask the Minister to shed a little more light on what the Government are planning in this area. It is clear they do not see it as an issue in the Bill of Rights, but what will be done instead? When I probed the Health Secretary on the issue during departmental questions, I received a written ministerial correction clarifying that a sexual and reproductive health action plan is currently being drafted by the Department. I was assured in a letter in August that abortion would be part of that, so the Minister might want to update Members on the progress. We do not need another set of piecemeal proposals; we need a Government who will grasp this difficult issue and put together a proper plan that enables our constituents to see their experience of this very difficult area reflected and heeds the very clear concerns of the medical profession.
I thank the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for setting the scene. Although in all honesty the hon. Lady and I have two very different points of view, I respect her right to have that point of view. I hope she will respect my right to have a different point of view—I want to make that point today if I can. It is always a pleasure to see the Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, the right hon. Member for Charnwood (Edward Argar) in his place. I hold him in high regard; I think we all do, to be fair. I look forward to his comments and also to hearing from the right hon. and hon. Members who will make their views known.
In my time in the House, I do not think there has been a debate in which I have not made the effort to speak and express views on behalf of my constituents. With respect to the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller), who referred to Northern Ireland, my understanding is that it is very clear in the polls in Northern Ireland that the majority of people are absolutely opposed to abortion on demand and the system of abortion in Northern Ireland. That system was imposed by this House—I will refer to that, of course, but I just want to put it on the record that that is the case.
I have received literally hundreds of emails, as I know others have, on the debate from my constituents of all ages, both genders, of all political opinions and of all religious persuasions on the importance of speaking up for life and, furthermore, the importance of speaking up for the lives of both the woman and the unborn child. The debates always seem to focus—for some anyway—on the rights of the woman, but the rights of the unborn child are disregarded as though they did not matter.
I want to put my position on the record: it is important to protect the lives of both the ladies and the unborn child. I will refer to that later on, too. I will always be a voice for the unborn child. I believe totally in the right of life and I thank Right To Life UK for its help in preparing evidence-wise for the debate and for some of the things it has made me aware of. I will continue to do this; it is the right thing to do.
I want to address an important point that is often misunderstood in the debate. It is fundamental to what we are talking about. There is no right to abortion in international law. The House has come under intense pressure to change the UK’s abortion laws so that they conform with international law, but let me be clear—let us all be clear—that the European convention on human rights does not recognise a right to abortion. The UK is under no obligation, as was mentioned by the right hon. Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) in an intervention, to change this law to conform to international law.
Members should not take my word for it, of course. They should look at the evidential base. The European Court of Human Rights has confirmed that there is no right to abortion in international law. It has maintained that position for the last 30-plus years. The USA, which others have referred to, cannot and should not influence the law in the UK. I am glad to say that the UK retains its own jurisdiction to make its own laws, and there is neither the need nor the demand to change those laws to recognise a right to abortion.
We in Northern Ireland have the jurisdiction to make our own laws on most occasions. On other occasions, we do not have jurisdiction, because other Members think it is better for them to make the decision here rather than the elected representatives back home in Northern Ireland. As my party’s spokesperson for health, I want to get across that points on behalf not just of my constituents but of all those in Northern Ireland, a vast majority of whom feel that their democracy has been overruled. The decision could be made in Scotland, Wales and here in England, but somehow not in Northern Ireland. I want to speak for women in my constituency and Northern Ireland who oppose abortion and do not agree with the legislation that has been imposed on them by Westminster.
I ask the Justice Minister how and why it should be right that legislation on abortion should be passed in Westminster that disrespects the animosity and opposition of those in Northern Ireland. It was in the paper last week that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland could not find a way to ensure the money for energy price increases would be available in Northern Ireland, but guess what? He could find the money to finance abortions in Northern Ireland. With great respect to the Secretary of State, how can he do one thing but not another?
With the recent introduction of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 and the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020, women can now obtain abortions in Northern Ireland. Abortion is available de facto on demand up to 24 weeks’ gestation. That was opposed in this House by us and by others, many of whom are here tonight. I find it shocking and very saddening.
I have a constituent who had her daughter at 26 weeks. I have met that lady, and I think others have referred to her. When her daughter was born, she could fit in the palm of her daddy’s hand. That is how big that wee morsel was. She is now a full-grown lady. She has a job, drives and lives as happily as anyone else. She is alive today because of the NHS and the system we have. In many years past, a premature baby would not have lived. The point I am making is that if she can survive being born at 26 weeks, why are terminations available at 24 weeks? Allowing on-demand abortions up to 24 weeks does not give the baby a right to life.
In Northern Ireland, 100,000 people are alive today because abortion was not available in Northern Ireland. Those 100,000 people have made a significant contribution to society, have married and have jobs, and they have a positive attitude to life because of that. Those people are alive today. I say again that I believe what has happened to us in Northern Ireland is totally outrageous.
Many people on the other side of the debate, particularly those who take a more globalist view—for want of a better description—try to claim a right to abortion in international law, but the European Court of Human Rights has been crystal clear. Its decisions confirm that article 8 of the European convention on human rights, the right to a private and family life, does not confer a right to abortion. The Court has also ruled that countries can pass laws that ban or restrict abortion, even where the health and wellbeing of the woman is at risk. Such laws would and could not offend article 8.
There is a claim that the public and medical professionals overwhelmingly support decriminalisation. That is simply not the case. Evidence shows that 91% of women agree that sex-selective abortion should be explicitly banned by the law. The support of the Royal College of Midwives for the BPAS campaign on abortion up to birth saw a backlash from over 1,000 midwives protesting the RCM position and faced national opposition. In his two interventions, the hon. Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) mentioned that very case of selective abortion. He and I share the same concern over the potential for that in the future and the impact it will have.
This is a sensitive subject, and there are many strong and emotive views. One issue I set out to put on the record is the matter of coerced abortions from home and the issue of easy access to abortion pills. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and others expressed concern directly to the Minister, and we met on a number of occasions to activate that point of view. As became more noticeable throughout the pandemic, women were subjected to phone calls to discuss their options and were sent pills, often without requesting them and usually under duress. Our concern was—it always was—that that approach is being used maliciously and wrongly. No face-to-face discussion or assessment is a step backward, not forward.
It was not and never should have been the position of Westminster to take any decision on abortion for the Northern Ireland Assembly and my constituents in Strangford, who overwhelmingly oppose this legislation and change. They did not want to see the abortion on demand that we have in Northern Ireland; they stand clearly for the right to life of the unborn child. There must be an element of respect for the thousands of my constituents who said that they do not want abortion on demand up to 24 weeks.
I and many others in this debate, I am glad to say, will stand up on every given occasion and speak up for those constituents and the life of the unborn child. I will also speak up for the constitutional value of Northern Ireland in this United Kingdom, and its place as a legislative body where any decisions on abortion should have taken place in any case. I look forward to the Minister’s response, ever mindful that we must protect the woman and the unborn child equally—not to the detriment of one against the other, which is what some Members have proposed today.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Graham, and to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I thank the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for the gracious tone in which she introduced the debate—it is so right, on such a sensitive issue. It is encouraging to note how many colleagues are in the Chamber today to express concern about the wording of this petition, and I join them. The idea of a right to abortion not only conflicts with the established position of international law on the right to life, but would cause huge complications for our domestic law. Including abortion in a Bill of Rights is inappropriate, and likely to result in extensive litigation to establish the extent of such a right. Whatever our views on abortion, the petition is therefore misguided from a legal perspective. I agree with the response of the former Justice Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), who said that there is no strong case for change.
Let me refer to one point made by the hon. Member for Gower, who mentioned just one woman bringing forward this petition. It is true that the petition has been brought in the name of one person, but let us be under no illusion: the move to classify abortion as a human right is part of a well co-ordinated national and international campaign to do so.
First, let me comment on the subject from the international perspective and make a few points about the robust protection of the right to life in international law, and the explicit rejection of the so-called right to abortion. It is important to start with that perspective, because we have heard it said that the UK must adopt more expansive abortion laws because of international law—but why should we? We are not under any obligation to liberalise abortion laws from international legal texts. None of the nine core treaties recognised by the UN have recognised abortion as a human right. By common definition, human rights are inherent or inalienable rights or freedoms afforded to every person without discrimination. They must be upheld and protected by Governments, and I am sure that any new Bill of Rights in this country will seek to robustly uphold those fundamental rights, but international texts on human rights have never included abortion. I shall reference that with four points.
First, the international covenant on civil and political rights affirms the inherent right to life. It contains a provision explicitly to protect the life of a pregnant woman. In the preparatory texts, or travaux préparatoires —I think I have nearly got the French right—it is explained that that is to
“save the life of an innocent unborn child”.
Secondly, the declaration of the rights of the child states that
“the child, by reason of his physical and mental immaturity, needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before as well as after birth…the need for such special safeguards has been…recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights”.
That quote from the declaration of the rights of the child was confirmed by the convention on the rights of the child.
The UK has ratified all three of those treaties. Indeed, the preamble to the convention on the rights of the child was very much the impetus behind our landmark Children Act 1989. Under that convention, all countries are obligated to
“ensure to the maximum extent possible the survival and development of the child”,
including the unborn child.
I have been listening to both sides here and I am not hearing an answer to one question that seems to me fundamental: at what point does a fertilised egg become a viable human being with rights? From one side, I am not hearing any recognition that a baby about to be born is actually viable and has rights; and from the other side, I am not hearing that a newly fertilised egg is not yet a viable human being and therefore does not have the same rights as a human being. It is going to be a dialogue of the deaf until both sides recognise that this is a spectrum and not an either/or.
That discussion has been ongoing for a long time. Many in this room hold different views on the subject. I happen to believe that life begins at conception, but I know that others take a different view.
Thirdly, the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, CEDAW, also does not advance any concept of a right to abortion. Nowhere in the text does it reference terms such as “reproductive rights”, “pregnancy termination” or “abortion”. Instead, it requires states to provide suitable care and services for women during pregnancy. Fourthly, the former UN special rapporteur for health has told the UN General Assembly that there is no international law on the matter of abortion.
It is also important for us to note that the European Court of Human Rights has never ruled that countries in the Council of Europe need to consider abortion as a human right, even though it has considered the matter several times over the past 20 years. Three points are relevant here. First, the Court has affirmed that article 8 of the European convention on human rights, the right to a private and family life, cannot be interpreted as conferring a right to abortion. I will quote from a 2010 case:
“The woman’s right to respect for her private life must be weighed against other competing rights and freedoms…including those of the unborn child”.
Secondly, the Court has ruled that forced abortions are a breach of article 3—the prohibition on torture—noting that forced abortions can have
“long-lasting negative physical and psychological effects”
on women. Thirdly, the Court has reaffirmed that there is no actual right to abortion, even in the—I accept—tragic case of rape.
The UK really is under no pressure from the UN or from the European Court of Human Rights to reform its abortion law by classifying abortion as a human right. I would now like to consider the issue from the domestic perspective. I know that we have already had a lengthy discussion of the subject during today’s debate, but I would like us to acknowledge how chaotic it would make our laws here if we included abortion as a right—as a human right.
We have already had the discussion, and there are different views on what a right to abortion would mean. Would it equate to the wholesale decriminalisation of abortion? Would it create an absolute right to abortion? Could it mean the removal of gestational limits, allowing abortion up to birth? Could it mean abortion based on the gender of the foetus or the removal of medical safeguards, including the involvement of doctors? Would it mean the erosion of conscience rights for medical professionals? All of those questions would be thrown up.
I genuinely thank the hon. Lady for giving way. One of the things I try to grapple with is knowing how women feel. When I was on the Women and Equalities Committee—the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) knows this, because she was the Chair—I listened to the women. Does the hon. Member for Congleton really believe they should be criminalised?
I have the utmost compassion for any woman put in the position of having to make a decision about abortion. I hope that nothing I have said in all my years in this House, when I have stood as the chair and now co-chair of the all-party parliamentary pro-life group, has ever given a different impression. I would never want to do that.
The proposal risks entirely removing safeguards in our country that relate to abortion, and which I believe are right and proper.
My hon. Friend is making an important case that she believes has a great deal of strength in terms of the matter not being viewed as part of a human rights argument, but does she not share my concern that every single royal college of doctors—experts in this area—want to see a change in the law? Does she not think that, even if it is not possible to do it through a Bill of Rights, some other piece of Government work is needed to make sure the law is fit for purpose, or does she think they are all wrong?
It is very interesting that a large number of organisations, as my right hon. Friend has mentioned, are joining together in what I referred to earlier as a national and, indeed, international campaign to see the law changed on abortion. It is all part of a co-ordinated move to reduce the protection that already exists in our country today for the unborn child.
I fully support what the hon. Lady is saying. In my contribution I referred to the Royal College of Midwives and the 1,000 midwives who expressed concern the direction this is going. Opinion is divided between those in favour of abortion and those who are against. Clearly, we cannot move forward when there is division among the doctors and nurses themselves.
I thank the hon. Member for that intervention. In this country we already allow abortions to term where the unborn child has a relatively minor and correctable physical condition. I have spoken about that many times before in the House because I have a son who was born with a club foot. Some 90% of babies with Down’s syndrome are aborted. A right to abortion would open the door to even more abortions after 24 weeks —a period of time inconsistent with medical advances that now enable babies prematurely born before that time to survive to 22, and in some cases even 21, weeks.
Notwithstanding my hon. Friend’s principled view, which I respect, that life begins at conception, she has now addressed the question that my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) asked: when do rights come to the child? The answer is: on the basis of viability outside the womb. Whether we have got the dates right or not, I do not know, but that is the answer to his question.
[Sir Charles Walker in the Chair.]
I am relieved that it is for this House to make a decision on when we review those weeks. I am hopeful that we will continue to be in a position to do so for a long time to come. We now need to look at that issue again, and see a reduction in the number of weeks from 24.
We know that late-term abortions are unsafe for women. Most European countries have abortion gestation limits of 12 to 14 weeks—half of ours—and research shows that late-term abortions are distressing. Finally, polling shows that women do not want a time limit increase. All that would be thrown into the mix if abortion were classed as a human right.
In conclusion, there are many other things I could say against this petition, but I will just ask the House a simple question: what type of society do we want to create for our country? Surely it is one that promotes a culture that upholds and respects life, including unborn life. I am so grateful to live in an age where I know there is science behind me to say that a beating heart can be detected at six weeks’ gestation, that the ability to feel pain can be evidenced from as early as 12 weeks, and that the sucking of thumbs can be seen at 15 weeks. I stand for the rights of the unborn because it is undeniable that they have life. As the campaign slogan states, “Both lives matter.” Let us develop laws that better protect the life of the unborn child, alongside the lives of women.
It is a privilege to speak in this timely debate, which we greatly need. I want to put on record my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi), who is my good friend, for the tone in which she has led this debate. It is incredibly important and powerful, and she has led it with a great deal of respect and dignity. I also thank our petitioner Caitlin and everyone who signed the petition to bring forward the debate. I will keep my comments brief, mostly because I have already spoken at length about the need to keep abortion services available for all women.
Let us be clear: abortion is a basic healthcare right that must be available to all who seek it. We are extremely fortunate in this country to have an incredible NHS at the heart of our communities. Although it may be under severe strain at the moment—that is definitely a debate for another day—it is important that services such as abortion remain properly funded and fully accessible. As others have said, we only have to turn our eye to what is happening across the world, particularly in the United States of America and Poland, to see how easily the fundamental right of what is essentially healthcare can be rapidly dismantled.
We must also acknowledge that abortion is an extremely sensitive and emotive issue that engenders passionate views on both sides. It is vital that anyone considering an abortion receives impartial, non-directive and clinical information on pregnancy in order to make an informed choice. That is why I share the concerns of many signatories of this e-petition.
As the Government consider their position on all our civil liberties in the Bill of Rights, they must consider whether abortion rights are appropriate in that legislation. We all know the many reasons why an abortion might be sought; I do not need to list them. However, we must remind ourselves that behind every abortion is a woman with a story—often a complicated one, at that—and a choice. It is that choice that we are seeking to protect. That is why we cannot bring politics or judgment of any kind into decisions over healthcare availability.
Like colleagues from across the House, I am keen to hear from the Minister about his plans to enshrine abortion rights in UK law. If the Government decide not to bring forward this Bill, where would be the best legislative fit for us to enshrine those rights? We have discussed the need for it to happen. If this Bill is not the appropriate place, will the Minister clarify where exactly would be the best place for Members—hijackers—to settle this once and for all? We need to push for change. I also want to push the Minister to discuss with his Cabinet colleagues in the Department of Health when we can expect the women’s health strategy, because it is vital to ensure that women have access to safe abortions.
We are in the very sad position of needing to have our rights placed on the statute book in order for them to be valid. It should not have to be that way. I wish abortion was an option readily available to everyone everywhere who is seeking support, no matter their circumstances. I hope that the Minister can alleviate my concerns today. I look forward to working constructively with him and other Members across the House to ensure that abortion remains a top healthcare priority for this Government, and a human right. All women should be protected and ensured access to safe abortion.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles.
Clearly, those on the opposite side in this debate want to make it seem as if the woman’s right to choose is under threat and perhaps becoming increasingly difficult, but when we look at the evidence the reality is that it has never been easier to access an abortion in this country, in particular since the decision to allow medical abortions to happen at home. According to The Times, one in four pregnancies in Great Britain ends in abortion. Last year, 214,000 terminations were carried out in England and Wales—the highest number since records began—and nearly half were repeat abortions.
Those who wish, in essence, to decriminalise abortion often make the claim that they have overwhelming public support in their favour, in particular among women. The evidence, however, does not bear that out; in fact, it points in totally the opposite direction. Removing all legal restrictions would risk opening the door to late-term abortions on demand right up until birth and for any reason whatever. Polling by Savanta ComRes paints a clear picture of how out of step that is with public opinion: only 1% of women wanted the 24-week gestational time limit to be extended, while 70% favoured a reduction in time limits.
In talking about decriminalisation, we now have a model in Northern Ireland that brings the idea into practice. Does my hon. Friend have any evidence that end-of-term abortions are happening in Northern Ireland? I am not aware of any. It appears to be a way of shaping our law in a modern way, rather than a way that replicates Victorian times.
The point I was trying to make was that, in practice, decriminalisation means no specific law regulating abortion up until birth. That is the problem we are grappling with.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I shall make some progress. She spoke for just over 20 minutes. I will take an intervention at a later point.
The EU median time limit for abortion is 12 weeks. Since the point at which a baby is viable outside the womb is now closer to 22 weeks, far from discarding our time limits, it is clear that we should look to reduce them.
Briefly, I will turn to same-sex selective abortion, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton West (Chris Green) alluded. Unfortunately, there is growing evidence for, and first-hand testimony of, women in this country who have been coerced by their partner or family into obtaining a sex-selective abortion. That disproportionately targets baby girls. As regressive as that may seem, sex-selective abortion would become entirely permissible under the decriminalisation that some would like to see. We must think about the message that that sends to women and girls, the chief victims of such an abhorrent practice. Allowing sex-selective abortion does not empower or advance women’s rights; we need to show girls that we will not allow sex-selective discrimination, because they contribute to and are valued by society every bit as much as boys.
Those women who have been coerced—would the hon. Gentleman criminalise them?
I thank the hon. Lady for her contribution. I think she is merging two very different matters. I reiterate my point: decriminalisation in effect allows abortion up until any point.
If the hon. Lady will forgive me, I will make some progress.
On a point of order, Sir Charles. The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 set out incredibly clearly what the requirements are—
Order. That is not a point of order. The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled not to take interventions.
Additionally, decriminalisation risks paving the way for abortion on request for a baby that has a minor disability or a particular genetic trait—as just alluded to by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). Abortion of babies with disabilities is sadly already present in our society. Babies have been aborted because they have minor conditions such as a club foot, even though that can be completely corrected through surgery. That is clear discrimination on the basis of disability, as brave campaigners such as Heidi Crowter have shown.
Babies with disabilities will grow up to contribute to and enrich our society. They must be treated and valued equally. With this and everything else I have mentioned, removing the few existing safeguards to the law, which decriminalisation would do, would send a signal to society that discrimination against babies with disabilities and sex-selective abortions are morally acceptable. This petition is simply not a serious proposal, and, as the polling shows, its goals are not supported by the general population, especially the women of this country. The evidence shows that they want more sensible and humane limits to abortion that respect the fundamental dignity and equality that each human being has, regardless of their characteristics.
I thank you, Sir Charles, for calling me to speak, and the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for the way in which she introduced the petition. It was obvious to most that the hon. Member may not have agreed with everything in the petition—and that places a person in a difficult circumstance when introducing a petition—but I thank her none the less for the gracious way in which she introduced it.
This debate is about the right to an abortion being uniquely enshrined in law in the United Kingdom via a Bill of Rights. It is so unique that something that destroys, not protects, should be put in a Bill of Rights. We need to see this in that light, because we normally bring in laws that have a declaratory positive framework. This has a negative framework. I say that with all true compassion because, as was said in the House, no one wants to see a situation where a woman feels she has to have an abortion or that an abortion is her only way out, but having something enshrined in a Bill of Rights and framed in that new constitutional dispensation would be totally abhorrent to how law should be made in the United Kingdom.
Many of my constituents who have spoken to me about this matter in advance of the debate see it as fundamentally wrong and many have expressed that it is fundamentally evil to create law on the issue of life because it is such a fraught matter, and it is important that that point of view is listened to. Many have talked about the international legal position. The European convention on human rights, which, at best, will be the main template on which a UK Bill of Rights—if it is ever drawn up—will be based, does not enshrine the right to an abortion or to give an abortion. It does not touch on that matter at all for the obvious reasons I have already stated: it is not its place to do so. This is a matter of domestic law, and for the rights that many people on the other side of the argument are seeking to protect, I would go as far as to say that those rights are stronger under our British constitutional system of domestic law than they would be under a rights-based type of law on the matter.
The debate has been shrouded from time to time—not in this Chamber, but outside it in arriving at this petition—in misinformation. We saw the social media issues. In fact, TikTok had to take down some comments. People were being falsely driven to sign the petition on the basis of misinformation. Of course, I still think the debate would have come about, and we should not run away from the issue. I agree with hon. Members, for all different sorts of reasons, that it is important that the debate takes place, but it should not be brought to the House because of misinformation, by a social media campaign, or as a result of a vanity project by someone who wants to clutch to a moment of fame on this matter. That is not the reason we should be doing this; we should be doing it for the right reasons.
The whole ethos of the Petitions Committee, and the intent of the petitioner—she is sitting in Public Gallery behind the hon. Member, if he would like to speak to her after the debate—is not about that. When we had the debate on assisted dying, there were accusations against groups and organisations. That is not what the Petitions Committee is about. It is not misinformation; it is about where people choose to get their information from. The fact that we are here shows that the Petitions Committee is working, and that a person’s voice can be heard in Parliament.
I think the hon. Member maybe misheard me, because I was not challenging the right to have the debate. I was challenging the misinformation on social media that encouraged people to falsely sign the petition. If the debate is so positive, there should be no negativity behind encouraging people to sign it. The word “ethos” is very interesting; its Greek origins show that it should actually be about an ethic. It should be something that has character to it, not something that is denuded of character and strength. I think the hon. Member misheard what I was getting at and the point I was making.
This lays bare how wrong it is—and the falsehood and naivety involved—to bring a debate to this House and try to shape our laws based on experiences of the American legal constitutional system. If we juxtapose them, it just does not work. We have a parliamentary democracy and statute law, versus the written constitution of the United States of America and all the issues that flow from that.
There is then another layer set upon that juxtaposition in saying that this is about fear because of what happened with Roe v. Wade—a completely separate issue again. It is naive to say that we should try to change our whole system to embrace and address that issue because of what has happened in the United States of America. It would be far better having a much more open and honest debate, rather than one that is based on fear of something that might happen.
The hon. Gentleman is making an important point about not having misinformation. Would he agree with me that we have to be very careful not to conflate deregulation with decriminalisation? I think that happened in a couple of the earlier contributions. The hon. Gentleman will know from Northern Ireland that although we have introduced decriminalisation, that has not deregulated the controls that are there for abortion. That is a really important point.
That is an important point that I will come to later when I touch on the matter of decriminalisation.
There were 214,869 abortions in 2021. I looked that up. That is about 40,000 people short of the population of Walthamstow. Just think of the number, if we were to line them up. Do you know what that says to me, Sir Charles? It speaks to the utter, abysmal failure of abortion regulations. Why so many? Why, after so many years—decades and decades of this regulation—is that necessary? There were 214,869 women who felt it was necessary to have an abortion.
I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman, but he is not going to carry the House with an argument that says that the number of abortions is equivalent to the human population of a city when a vast proportion of those abortions will have been at a very early stage—barely fertilised eggs. Although I see Members on the Opposition Benches nodding in agreement with me, I say to them that the demand for an absolute right to abortion similarly but in reverse fails to recognise that a very late-term abortion is killing an embryo that is viable. That is why this is a dialogue of the deaf.
I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman feels it is a dialogue of the deaf; I do not think that is the case. It is important that we are, for the first time in a long time, actually having a sensible debate on this matter, because in numerous debates on abortion in the past, people—principally male Members of the House—have been silenced. They have been called out, heckled and told not to speak on an issue that does not concern them. Indeed, we heard the comment earlier in the debate that behind every abortion is a woman—full stop. No, no, no: behind every pregnancy is not only a woman but the life of the unborn and the male who was involved in that pregnancy. Until we have full engagement and an educational process that addresses those issues and gets this nation into a proper debate on this matter—not in a climate of fear and of, “I’d better not speak out because we’re not allowed to say these things any more; they are too difficult to say if you’re a man”—I am afraid this will be a debate of the deaf, but it does not have to be. That is the point.
My hon. Friend is making a powerful speech. Men do matter and he is absolutely right to say so. Some 82% of all abortions last year were for women whose marital status was given as single. I commend the men who support their partners and children, and we need more men to do the same. This House is at risk of silencing those men who do stand up and take responsibility for pregnancies.
I thank my hon. Friend for that point.
In 2022, there were double the number of abortions in Northern Ireland than there were in the previous year. The number doubles each year, and will continue to double, because of the very liberal legislation that is now in place in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) put on the record that one in four of all pregnancies in the United Kingdom end in abortion. In England and Wales, abortions can take place up to the extreme limit of six months, whereas the European median time limit is three months. We need to have a debate about why we have an extreme time limit and why some people wish to drive it even further, to the point of birth, as a right. I just think that is wrong.
We certainly need to have a debate about why there is so much abortion in the United Kingdom. To go back to the point made by the right hon. Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis), why are second and third-time pregnancies leading to abortion? Why are older women having abortions? Those questions need to be asked. It cannot all be ectopic, it cannot all be rape, it cannot all be incest and it cannot all be miscarriage.
I give way to the hon. Member for Gower.
The hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time. He is right to say that no one should be silenced, which is what I wanted to achieve with this debate. Everybody has a choice, but it is ultimately the woman’s body and it is ultimately her choice. We must not conflate that, because it is really important to women and girls everywhere, and not all have the privilege, as we do, to have the comfort of bringing up a child.
I understand the hon. Member’s point, but of course there are two sets of DNA, two bloodstreams, two lives and two heartbeats. It is more than just the woman’s body. While I accept that women have a very difficult choice to make and are sometimes put in a horrible position by irresponsible and selfish men, women are sometimes talked out of the choice to protect a life. I have seen and heard it, and I want to make sure that there is a choice to allow the life to flourish and to grow, and that there are other opportunities beyond the womb. That is something that we should of course be dwelling on.
The hon. Gentleman and I have debated this issue in many different ways, and I know he does not mean to sound like he is suggesting that it is okay if a man tells a woman that she has to have the baby but not okay if he supports her choice to have an abortion. That would be the corollary of what he is saying.
Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that when it comes to legalisation in Northern Ireland, we did not just have decriminalisation and we did not just take away the Offences Against the Person Act 1861? We also brought in laws to regulate how a woman can access an abortion. There is no late-term abortion or sex selection in Northern Ireland. The Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 cover precisely those issues, so it is not that enshrining a human rights perspective leads to no regulation; it removes the criminal element of our old regulation and allows us to have these debates.
Of course, the issue is that the hon. Member cannot say that there is no late termination, because she does not know; she cannot say that there is no sex selection, because she cannot know. The law now masks that and does not allow us to know that, because it is a right to have it as of a right, not because there is a reason. That is the issue. Indeed, I know it is an issue that the hon. Member would like to have here—I know she would like to have termination right up to the point of birth, for whatever reason. It is an issue—
That is a misrepresentation.
Maybe the hon. Member does not want it right up to the point of birth, but she certainly wants the most liberal interpretation of the law that is possible. We will disagree on that, but the attempt to silence people from having the conversation on this matter is of course morally wrong. I hope we never get to that position.
I said that I wanted to touch on the issue of decriminalisation, because that has been an important point in this debate and there are difficult cases. Of course, we are talking about such a small number, which was touched on earlier: 17 cases in seven or eight years, I think, in the United Kingdom. Yes, it was difficult for the 17 people who have been questioned on this matter, and more difficult for the two people who have been charged.
Let us deal with one of the cases in which a charge was brought: that of Sarah Catt in 2010. The examples of women who were prosecuted following late-term abortions include Sarah Catt in 2010, who took abortion pills at a 38 or 39-week gestation and then buried the body of the child. The judge in the case said that
“all right-thinking people would consider this more serious than involuntary manslaughter or indeed any offence save murder.”
The judge also said that no remorse was detected. How would that case be dealt with under a new dispensation where there is no criminalisation? Would we create a gap in the law that would allow for people to, quite frankly, get away with murder? That is the unfortunate circumstance.
We also have circumstances in which men wrongly try to enforce or encourage an abortion on a partner who is pregnant by hiding tablets, by putting tablets into a drink to spike it, or by trying to encourage them to have a miscarriage and forcing that. With decriminalisation, how would a clever lawyer get those people off that particular charge? It would happen.
We could enter into this new dispensation of a rights base—putting this into the Bill of Rights in the United Kingdom—that would be abhorrent in terms of the law, because there are people who, unfortunately, do commit criminal offences and do commit them around pregnant women, and there are women who are pregnant and commit such offences, and the law should try to deal with it. Yes, the law should deal with it sensitively, but it should deal with it proportionately. I think 17 cases in seven years is proportionate, given that we have about 900,000 pregnancies in the United Kingdom annually.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles, and to speak in this debate, which was so elegantly introduced by the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi).
There are two things to look at. First, there is the question of the Bill of Rights, which the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) said I might mention, because this issue is about trying to impose an American construction on the British constitution and I do not think that in that sense it actually works. For example, it is much forgotten that the British Bill of Rights has a right to bear arms for the maintenance of a Protestant militia, which may be more welcome among some Opposition Members than it is for me personally. I see the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) is nodding in favour of having a Protestant militia. The second amendment to the similar US Bill of Rights—the US constitution—maintains the right to bear arms, again for the purpose of a militia, and that has become an absolute in the US constitution, whereas our right to bear arms has been gradually changed by Parliament over the centuries, so that it is completely controlled.
I do not, then, really see what the petitioners are trying to achieve in what they ask for. They want the right to abortion to be particularly protected, but what they are talking about is not a protection: it is protection protectionless, because any subsequent Act of Parliament could automatically change it in whatever way Parliament decided. As my right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne) correctly pointed out, there is no greater protection than something being in an Act of Parliament, and that is already the situation that exists. There is not a majority in Parliament to change that. Whether there is a majority in the country at large—we have heard about some opinion polling—who would like to see it changed is another matter, and a matter for debate. However, the law is as solid as it can be from the point of view of those who are in favour of abortion legislation as it is.
The petition therefore misfires on those grounds alone. It would make no sense to introduce this matter into the Bill of Rights that the Government are bringing forward. The Bill actually deals with the relationship between the Executive, the legislature and the courts, rather than trying to move to a codified constitution which, as far as I am aware, is not the policy of His Majesty’s Government. If it were, I am not sure I would support it. The Bill of Rights, as proposed, is a sensible step towards establishing how the Executive and the judiciary relate now that we no longer have the European Court of Justice sitting above us. The Bill is not right for the particular proposition brought forward by the petitioner.
There is then the issue of abortion itself, which obviously underlies this whole debate. To me, it is the greatest sadness that the number of abortions that take place each year take place. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) pointed out that there were 214,869 last year. I think all sides would agree that this is a matter of the deepest sadness. There is nobody who welcomes abortion or wants there to be this very high level of abortion. Think of it over the period since the Abortion Act came in: more than 10 million babies have been aborted. We know that there are more than 100,000 people alive today in Northern Ireland who would not otherwise be alive had Northern Ireland had the Abortion Act like the rest of the United Kingdom. We know this to be true because pro-abortionists complained about this claim to the Advertising Standards Authority. As I understand it, the Advertising Standards Authority said that the number being claimed was actually lower than the reality, instead of being overstated.
My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East (Dr Lewis) said that we cannot look at it in terms of numbers of cities and people like that, but we can. There are more than 100,000 people in Northern Ireland who are alive today who would not be alive had Northern Ireland had the abortion rules that we have in England, Wales and Scotland. That seems to be a modern tragedy: this number of people had no opportunity for a life because they were ripped untimely from their mother’s womb. Think of that number: 214,869. In a four-year period, the destruction of life is as a great as it was in the four-year period of the first world war. Those are the numbers we are dealing with. That is the tragedy of abortion.
May I slightly correct what my right hon. Friend has just said? It is not the destruction of life, in many cases, but the destruction of potential life—unless one agrees, as I think my right hon. Friend would, with our hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce), that life begins at the moment of conception. However, most people do not agree with that: they believe that life develops during the course of gestation. That is why my right hon. Friend and constituency neighbour, the Member for New Forest West (Sir Desmond Swayne), is right when he says that the embryo acquires rights along the way, not from the outset.
My right hon. Friend raises the question of the viability of life. The viability of life—when does that start, Sir Charles? When do you think a life becomes a fully independent created life? Perhaps my right hon. Friend thinks we should be like the ancient Romans in their treatment of the newborn baby. St Macrina rescued newborn babies who had been exposed in ancient Rome because their life was not viable without intervention and support. They were allowed to die, until the early Christians, who were thought to be peculiar for doing so, went and saved them. It was particularly the case, as it happens, with disabled babies. We know that the abortion laws we have allow for the full-term abortion of babies with minor disabilities, as my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) pointed out. This is the tragedy of abortion and its destruction of life. My right hon. Friend the Member for New Forest East wants to quibble about when life begins. I accept that this is perhaps more a theological question about what is the start of life, but that new embryo has the potential for life. It has been formed as a separate being that is separate and different from the parents from which it came.
Does the right hon. Member agree that in cases such as fatal foetal abnormality syndrome or ectopic pregnancies, where the life of the woman would be put at risk, abortion is acceptable, or do those lives not matter?
The job of doctors is to save life. It is quite clear that an ectopic pregnancy that may threaten the life of the woman carrying the baby is a case where an intervention may be made to save the life of the woman. That is a perfectly traditional and acceptable understanding of how to maximise the saving of life, while not pretending that there is not life, because there is. There are two lives.
I will not keep intervening, but I take slight objection to the use of the word “quibble”. I readily acknowledge that there is vast uncertainty and a grey area about the point, or at least the part of the spectrum, at which potential life becomes a viable human being. Just because we cannot identify an exact point in the process does not preclude that, at the beginning of the process, the fertilised egg is only a potential human being without the same rights as the viable human being at the end of the process.
The viable point is one that my right hon. Friend admits he cannot define, but there is a clear point of conception where there is a new genetic entity. It is unbelievably clear and straightforward. To say that there is some later date—it may be 21, 22 or 24 weeks—is not the heart of the argument. The heart of the argument is actually that this new life started at the point of conception. The tragedy is the 214,869 lives lost last year.
The right hon. Gentleman is being very generous with his time. Given the train of thought he is coming up with, would he support the right of women to choose to have an abortion were they a victim of rape or incest?
I think the destruction of life is wrong. I do not believe that we should say that a new life should be destroyed. I do not believe that that is the right of the state. I do not believe we can put it into a Bill of Rights, even if we were the United States and had a Bill of Rights of the same constitutional standing as theirs. The hon. Member for North Antrim is right. He said that Bills of Rights are usually about protecting and preserving and ensuring that people are able to get on with their life. This is about destroying life. This is the cult of death. It is the great tragedy of abortion, and it is considered normal.
The extraordinarily high number of babies that are destroyed is something that should sadden us all to the depths of our souls. The idea that we would protect something that is so wrong and ignores that second life, and that we should say that it is an absolute right on par with free elections, seems to me to be an absolute tragedy. I think this petition misfires. I think it is wrong constitutionally and much more wrong morally, because it prefers death to life.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I would like to begin by making the following observation. Over the debate, it has become very clear that Members lobbying to repeal the UK’s abortion laws say that they speak for all women, and that they are on their side. Of course, I want to make it very clear that they do not speak for all women, and they certainly do not speak for the unborn. In fact, we hear little to no mention of the unborn. If not for those of us who are champions of both lives in pregnancies, we would hear nothing of the unborn from the lips of those who pursue their pro-choice agenda.
Will the hon. Member give way?
I have just started, so I am going to continue. I will give way later.
I want to make it clear that those Members do not speak for all women. I will focus on the women who I do not believe they speak for. One young woman, Malorie Bantala, refused to have an abortion and was violently assaulted by her ex-boyfriend, Kevin Wilson. When she returned home from her baby shower, she suffered life-threatening injuries, and her son was stillborn as a result.
Caroline Craft had been in a relationship with Matthew Cherry, a former police officer, but they broke up when she refused to have an abortion. When she was six months pregnant, Miss Craft opened her front door to find an attacker—who turned out to be Mr Cherry—who punched her repeatedly in her stomach and back, in a way that targeted her unborn baby to cause miscarriage. At sentencing, the judge remarked that it was an “evil attack” involving
“a high degree of planning”.
Fortunately, Caroline recovered from her injuries and gave birth to a healthy baby boy. A jury convicted Mr Cherry of attempting to cause grievous bodily harm, with intent, and he was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment.
Finally, when Lauren Oliver was 34 weeks pregnant, her ex-partner, Nicholas Leaning, a professional cage fighter, stabbed her five times in the stomach in an attempt to kill her unborn child. Again, the details of the case are chilling. Ms Oliver and Mr Leaning had just broken up when Ms Oliver learned she was pregnant with his child. When she refused to get an abortion, he said he would kick it out of her if he had to—he did not wanting anything to do with the baby. An emergency caesarean section delivered her baby six weeks early, who, astonishingly, was unharmed in the attack. A jury found Mr Leaning guilty of wounding Ms Oliver and attempting to destroy the life of a child. He was sentenced to 19 years’ imprisonment.
As those cases demonstrate, the laws in place are being used to prosecute often violent men and protect women from serious forms of violence. This new dispensation would take away those protections for Caroline, Lauren and Malorie, which ensure that the Kevin Wilsons, the Matthew Cherrys and the Nicholas Leanings of the world are punished for their despicable crimes. How can Members who seek to repeal the UK’s abortion laws claim to be on the side of women, yet stand in opposition to those women who have suffered life-threatening injuries at the hands of those violent men?
According to the charity Best Beginnings, over a third of domestic violence starts or gets worse when a woman is pregnant. Some 40% to 60% of women experiencing domestic violence are abused while pregnant, while 15% of women report violence during their pregnancy. Those are worrying figures. If we contemplate removing legal protections for those women, we would be profoundly letting them down when they are at their most vulnerable. We cannot let rhetoric replace the real protections in place for women.
Throughout the debate, we have heard many people mention Northern Ireland and the laws that were forced on the people of Northern Ireland. Those laws do not represent the people and the views of Northern Ireland
The hon. Lady will understand that, in this debate, it has been important to choose one’s words carefully. We do think about all women, including the women in Northern Ireland. The Women and Equalities Committee heard evidence from them in the last Parliament. We must choose our words more carefully, because we are responsible—we are legislators—and we need to realise that we all care for all women. That is why we are here.
Certainly, I can relate to that. I do care for all women, and I want to see a society that helps women to choose life. I want to see a society that wraps its arms around women who find themselves in a situation where they feel they have no other option. I want to see services improved for women who find themselves in that situation, but the laws that have been forced on the people of Northern Ireland are not what people in Northern Ireland want. The consultation results were very clear: 79% of respondents to the consultation on the legislation opposed the introduction of these laws, which are some of the most liberal abortion laws in all of Europe, so it is just wrong to say that the people of Northern Ireland support them. It has absolutely undermined the devolution process that is in place. Health is a devolved issue and should therefore be left to the people of Northern Ireland.
I do choose my words carefully. I am from Northern Ireland, so I know exactly where people are at, and I know the views and the concerns that have been expressed about those abortion laws. We see continual attempts to interfere in Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, and we are going to see that again tomorrow through the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill. I say respectfully that the legislators in Northern Ireland should be allowed to do what they need to do on this issue, because it is a devolved issue.
When talking about statistics, it is important to note the ComRes data, which has been mentioned a couple of times in the debate. Only 1% of people surveyed want the abortion time limit raised to birth; 70% of women would like the current abortion time limit to be reduced; and 59% of women would like that time limit lowered to 16 weeks. It is wrong to say that the overwhelming view of women in Northern Ireland is in favour of this decriminalisation, which basically allows for abortion until birth for any reason.
In relation to the decriminalisation of abortion, murder—I term it as murder—has been an issue. We had the Omagh bombing, where the lives of the two unborn are included in the numbers of those who were killed, and those who will be convicted will be charged with the murder of the two unborn babies as well.
That is a very powerful point well made by my hon. Friend.
We have heard in today’s debate that behind every abortion is a woman who deserves a choice. I think those were the words used; I may be paraphrasing, but it was something to that effect. Respectfully, I say that behind every abortion, there are two lives: the life of the woman, and the life of the unborn. Unfortunately, the unborn does not have a voice. They cannot speak up for themselves; they cannot articulate the fact that they would choose life—I know the unborn would choose life, because ultimately, life is precious. I respectfully ask all of those who are involved in this debate, and those who will be involved in tomorrow’s debate, to respect the unborn. I will continue to be a voice for the voiceless, as many in the Chamber today have articulated. In every pregnancy, the most basic human right is the right to life.
It is a pleasure to again serve under your chairmanship, Sir Charles. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) for presenting this petition, and particularly for the sensitivity with which she did so, outlining the complexities thrown up by the petition and the role that a Bill of Rights could—or, perhaps, could not—play in furthering women’s rights over their own bodies. I also thank Caitlin, who is in the Public Gallery, for the petition itself. Whether there are bigger campaigns in play around the world or around the country, it is a great thing for democracy that an individual citizen can hold all of us in this place to account through hard work and dedication to their own particular cause.
I completely understand and recognise the very real anxieties that have prompted this debate. It is an outrage that 36 million women in 26 American states were stripped of their right to a safe and legal abortion when Roe v. Wade was overturned earlier this year; it was a devastating setback for women’s rights in the United States. It reminds us that we must be vigilant in the protection of our hard-won rights, especially in the face of organised far-right campaigners who seek to roll them back.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
No, not at the moment. It was not until 1967 that women in Britain won the right to a safe and legal abortion, and it was just three years ago that 99 MPs voted to keep abortion illegal in Northern Ireland, including the current Secretary of State for Justice. I will begin by affirming the Labour party’s commitment to a woman’s right to choose. We believe that access to a safe, legal abortion should be available throughout the UK, and we will always protect and safeguard that right.
We have had many contributions today. The right hon. Member for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh) pressed the opinion that Parliament should remain sovereign in abortion policy, so perhaps he will also support decriminalisation.
My hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) and I have had a few conversations and exchanged emails in the last 24 hours or so. She talked about the need for clarity on any rights under a Bill of Rights, and stressed how it would still be subject to challenge. She talked about variable rights in different parts of the UK and the need for a consistent approach, but ultimately about the need for a woman to have the right to determine what happens to their own body.
The right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Mrs Miller) was supportive of the work to give women autonomy over their own bodies. I am not surprised—I have heard her speak on many occasions. She also summarised current legislation and queried the investigation of medical abortions. Like so many people she, of course, supports decriminalisation.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) had a very different opinion, but he spoke of the need to respect each other’s views and explained what he saw as the view of the Northern Irish people and why legislators should be mindful of that. The hon. Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) took the usual robust approach in defining her view. She relied on international legislation and various treaties in support of opposition to abortion in all its forms, but it was good to hear her say, in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Gower, that she did not believe that women seeking an abortion should be criminalised.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypridd (Alex Davies-Jones) spoke about a healthcare right and a properly funded and available service, and I agree with that. She stressed that behind every abortion was a woman with a decision to make.
The hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton) questioned the evidence of overwhelming public approval to decriminalise abortion, but I did not hear why he actually believed that. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) stressed that men should be involved in any abortion decision, rather than it being a woman’s decision alone, but he also raised the rights of a woman who a man may try to force to have an abortion against her will.
The right hon. Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) spoke on what he believed was a “cult of death”. He then said that he would rule out abortion in all circumstances, including rape and incest.
The hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) spoke of the need for women to be protected from men, and stressed the horrific figures of domestic violence in her area. It has been a robust debate, with lots of contributions.
The hon. Member began his excellent summing up of the debate by quoting, I think, that 126 million women had lost their right to abortion. I do not want to get involved in the detail of US politics, but the reality is that many of those women will retain their rights under state legislation. It was simply a question of the federal right being removed.
I do not disagree with the right hon. Member, but the fact remains that there are lessons for us to learn from what is happening in America.
The introduction of the Human Rights Act 1998 is one of the proudest achievements of our Labour party. We are deeply concerned about the Government’s attacks on it. I have a number of reservations about the mechanism proposed by the petition. First, the Government’s rights removal Bill—they call it a Bill of Rights—is shambolic. It would divide the nations of the UK, weaken the rule of law and create additional barriers to British people seeking justice.
The End Violence Against Women Coalition described the Bill as
“a major step backwards for victims and survivors’ ability to seek justice and a direct attack on women’s rights.
We have long called on the government to save our Human Rights Act, which is an essential tool for upholding women’s rights to live free from violence. It provides victims and survivors with essential legal protections, as well as vital tools to challenge the state and its institutions for failing to protect us from gender-based violence.”
UK in a Changing Europe, a UK-based network of academics and researchers, has also expressed concerns:
“The Bill of Rights Bill would prevent UK judges from interpreting Convention rights in ways that create positive obligations on public authorities…Many landmark cases under the HRA have relied on positive obligations: for example, the Act allowed bereaved families and survivors of the Hillsborough disaster to expose the negligence of state officials, using the positive obligation to investigate alleged breaches of the right to life….Not only does the Bill of Rights preclude new interpretations of rights that impose positive obligations on public bodies, it also discourages courts from applying positive obligations that have already been identified in previous cases. This could lead to legal uncertainty, and to divergence from the case law of”
the European Court of Human Rights,
“since positive obligations are an important principle applied by the Court to ensure practical and effective protection of rights, particularly for people whose rights are most vulnerable to abuse (such as children, victims of sexual violence and people seeking asylum).”
Everyone in the Chamber will be familiar with the case of John Worboys, the black cab rapist, who raped and sexually assaulted more than 100 women over the course of six years. Relying on the positive right under article 3 to not be subjected to inhumane or degrading treatment, two of his victims challenged the Metropolitan police’s failures to stop that horrific course of offending. A UK court held that, because of our obligations under the Human Rights Act, the police were under a legal duty to take reasonable steps to investigate credible allegations of serious crime.
Labour will oppose the rights removal Bill, under which victims of serious sexual assault will lose the right to force the police to investigate crimes committed against them. The Bill is not about giving people extra rights; it is about taking our hard-won rights away. We cannot lose sight of that fact.
My second concern about the petition is that we cannot trust this Government to safeguard such an important right properly in their proposed legislation. The rights removal Bill is the pet project of the Secretary of State for Justice. It was brought back only when he was reappointed to his former position. As I mentioned, in 2019 he voted with 98 other MPs to keep abortion illegal in Northern Ireland. He has described the Government Equalities Office as “pointless” and suggested it be abolished. He even called feminists “obnoxious bigots”, and defended that remark just a couple of years ago on “The Andrew Marr Show” during his failed prime ministerial bid. This is not a Secretary of State who has women’s interests at heart.
The final reason why I do not think that the rights removal Bill is an appropriate mechanism for the reform of UK abortion law is its scope. Labour has committed to decriminalising abortion—to removing it from the scope of UK criminal law. In two cases next year, women will stand trial for accessing abortions in the UK. If found guilty, the maximum sentence is life imprisonment, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow said. A coalition of organisations, including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Amnesty International, Southall Black Sisters and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions, requesting that the prosecutions be dropped, and noting that over the past eight years at least 17 women have been investigated by police for ending their own pregnancies, although it believes that the actual number is likely to be a lot higher. As we heard, last year a 15-year-old girl was investigated by the police after an unexplained stillbirth at 28 weeks. She was accused of illegal abortion and reportedly driven to self-harm by the year-long investigation. Police stopped pursuing the case after a coroner concluded that the pregnancy had ended because of natural causes.
As Clare Murphy, chief executive of BPAS, put it:
“What kind of society treats women in this way?...It is abhorrent that 160 years later vulnerable women should suffer from legislation drawn up in a world which is unrecognisable to us now, and”
“punished for making decisions about their own bodies.”
It is not clear to us that the scope of the Bill will allow for the reforms that we need in order to update our abortion laws, so that they represent the values of our modern Britain, but I want to underline once again that the Labour party supports women’s right to choose, and I also want answers from the Government on how they plan to make UK abortion law fit for the 21st century. The Tories are taking the UK backwards with this so-called Bill of Rights. Labour will fight tooth and nail to uphold the rights of British citizens by defending the Human Rights Act. We saw the previous Lord Chancellor commit this Bill to a very slow back burner in the hope that everyone would forget about it. No one can defend the indefensible. The Tory Government and Lord Chancellor have got their priorities all wrong with a Bill that is about taking away our rights, rather than being the vehicle for enshrining new ones. Instead of bringing forward the much-awaited victims Bill, the Lord Chancellor seems to be determined to press on with his divisive rights removal Bill, which will make life tougher for our citizens, not better.
What is clear from this petition and the ensuing debate, however, is that the Government must do more to support women’s rights, so I will be very interested to hear the Minister’s thoughts on how the Government will engage more with women and women’s groups in order to address their concerns and ensure that their right to choose is protected.
It is a pleasure to be back in the Ministry of Justice after an absence of three and a half years, and to return to issues that I dealt with when I was last a Minister there. I pay tribute to and thank the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) and the Petitions Committee, both for bringing this debate before us and, as other right hon. and hon. Members have said, for the very measured and thoughtful tone in which the hon. Lady made her opening remarks. Indeed, I am grateful to all Members for their attendance and contributions.
I am always conscious in debates of this sort that I am speaking as a Minister and necessarily reflecting the position of His Majesty’s Government rather than my personal views. I will always seek to tread that line carefully.
I congratulate the creator of this petition, Caitlin, whom I had the pleasure of being introduced to this afternoon, on what she has done, and the 150,000 people who have signed it. There are different views; we have heard them expressed in this Chamber. She and those who signed the petition have done us all a service, through the Petitions Committee, in allowing this issue to be debated today. It is an issue on which there are strong views in the country and among our constituents—and indeed among right hon. and hon. Members. The views are strongly and sincerely held, and it is right that all views be listened to with care and respect in this place.
The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) set out very clearly his perspective, and the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy) set out hers. We also heard my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) and my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce). They all gave very different perspectives on the issue, but they are all important perspectives, reflecting different strands of opinion in our country. It is right that this Chamber, this House, hears those different perspectives and debates them properly.
Let me emphasise at the outset that the Government are committed to ensuring access to safe, regulated abortion. All women in England and Wales have access to regulated abortion services on the NHS under our current laws, including taking both abortion pills at home where eligible. I gently say that it is important that right hon. and hon. Members show a degree of caution in interpreting the motivation behind Members’ votes on some of the issues that we have talked about. In some cases, they will have voted against, for example, the changes around abortion at home for reasons reflecting the process by which the changes were made, and their preference for a medical review and the Secretary of State taking the decision. Those people may then have voted in favour of buffer zones around abortion clinics. We need to be careful, and perhaps not go down the route that some websites and online platforms go down of extrapolating from a particular vote what the Member must think about the whole issue. Votes in this House, as all Members know, are often on complex, detailed questions, and complex procedural or constitutional points. We need to be cautious in those interpretations.
Access to abortion in England and Wales has been settled in law by Parliament, and we do not intend to change that. It takes nothing away from our commitment to ensuring access to safe, regulated abortion to say that the Government do not intend to include a right to abortion in the Bill of Rights. I will set out why we do not consider that the appropriate approach. We have heard different reasons; indeed, right hon. and hon. Members have spoken strongly in favour of changes while recognising that the Bill may not be the best mechanism for them.
The petition references the recent judgment of the Supreme Court of the United States in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organisation, in which the court overruled its own 1973 judgment in Roe v. Wade, which found that the US constitution confers a right to have an abortion. While I hesitate to stray into US politics, I understand and appreciate the concern that the ruling has given rise to around the world. We have heard it expressed, and see an element of it in the genesis of the petition. My first point in response to the petition is that the context in the United Kingdom is very different from that in the United States. What has happened in the United States does not affect how abortions can and do occur in the UK. Indeed, we seek to avoid finding ourselves in a potentially analogous situation to that of the US.
I was going to make a point about the different historical evolution of the concept of a Bill of Rights in the American context and in the English or United Kingdom context, but my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) has done so rather more eloquently, and probably with a degree more erudition and knowledge, than I would have. However, it is worth highlighting the different democratic and legislative traditions of our two countries. In the United States, the Bill of Rights is essentially an amendment and adjunct to the constitution, which is the founding document of the United States. In this country, we had the 1689 Bill of Rights, alluded to by my right hon. Friend, but we also have the parliamentary tradition, and the very clear protocol that no Parliament may bind its successors. We are therefore looking at two very different things.
Once again, we need a degree of caution about conflating our Bill of Rights, and how our legislation works, with —for want of a better way of putting it—the inalienable constitutional rights conferred by the US constitution and Bill of Rights. [Interruption.] Did the hon. Member for Walthamstow want to intervene on that point?
I may be tempting the hon. Lady. I am grateful to her, although I suspect that I will hear from her in a moment. [Interruption.] I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Strangford for his kind words about me. We will see when I finish my speech whether he wishes to reiterate them.
Access to abortion in the United Kingdom is not founded on a court ruling. Instead it has been clearly and specifically prescribed in legislation set out by Parliament, in the context that my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset set out.
Hon. Members—including the shadow Minister, to a degree—set out the context of abortion in England and Wales, but I will briefly reiterate it. Before doing so, I should highlight that responsibility for the legal status of abortion was devolved to the Scottish Parliament in the Scotland Act 2016. We have heard from various hon. Members from Northern Ireland; abortion was also devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 (Amendment of Schedule 3) Order 2010, and the treatment of abortion in criminal law was devolved to the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2010 following the agreement. I should therefore make it clear that when I refer to matters concerning the law on abortion, I am speaking to its application in England and Wales.
The Abortion Act 1967 amended and built on two pieces of legislation: the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, and the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, which updated it. I think my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke referred to the age of that legislation. The 1967 Act allows for safe and lawful abortion in England and Wales. It defines the criteria under which abortions or terminations can legally take place. In effect, lawful abortions can be carried out in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy when two doctors agree that the abortion is necessary as it falls within one or more of four grounds. I will not set them out in detail now, but in essence they concern, as we have heard from right hon. and hon. Members, the risks to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman, or risks that the child would suffer from significant physical or mental abnormalities. There are strong views in this Chamber, as we have heard, on those tests. There are also strong views—I should have said this at the beginning when I highlighted the strength of opinion—on the rights of a woman to choose, and also very strongly held beliefs about the rights of an unborn child. Again, I emphasise that I respect the sincerity and strength with which those views are held.
The Minister is making a really important case. Underlying all our legislation is regulation, which ultimately is how the law works. That regulation is not, I think, under debate at this point. What I was talking about was the fundamental framework of the law. Are the Government comfortable with the fact that English women are treated as potentially criminal when they access abortions, when the Government have legislated to ensure that women in Northern Ireland are not treated as criminals? Does he think that that is fair?
If my right hon. Friend will give me a little space, I was going to come to her remarks on that, and also on the position of the Department of Health and Social Care. The recent legislation in Northern Ireland was implementing the will of Parliament rather than Government, and I will come to that. She tempts me on the issue of the Government taking a particular view on the issue. I will turn to that in a moment if she will let me make a little progress, but I will of course address her points.
In practice, the framework means that access to an abortion is available to those who need and want it. Abortions at above 24 weeks are also possible in more limited circumstances, and it is of course open to Parliament to change the law if it so desires. As was mentioned, abortion law is devolved to both the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly. I would usually not set out the position of a devolved Administration on any matter, but due to the relevance of those positions to this debate, I will speak briefly about the recent changes in Northern Ireland that my right hon. Friend alluded to just now.
The Abortion Act 1967 did not extend to Northern Ireland. Instead, abortion law there was provided under section 25 of the Criminal Justice Act (Northern Ireland) 1945, which was equivalent to section 1 of the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 in the rest of the UK. The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 decriminalised abortion, and repealed sections 59 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Following that, the Abortion (Northern Ireland) Regulations 2020 came into force, which meant that those in Northern Ireland who wish to can access an abortion on demand in the first 12 weeks of their pregnancy, and can conditionally access an abortion up to the 24th week—and beyond that in more limited circumstances.
Those changes were made because of the very specific context in Northern Ireland, and an amendment, I believe it was, was brought forward on abortion. It was felt that the will of Parliament was that women across the UK should have safe and legal access to abortion, and that the will of the House should be respected.
Before I address abortion in the context of the Bill of Rights, I will turn to the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke—and then I will give way to the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I agree with my right hon. Friend that this is a very complex area—she highlighted that in her remarks. She called for the Government to set out a clear, full and complete framework for moving forward. It remains the Government’s position that this is a matter for Parliament, and that it remains a matter for the consciences and decisions of individual Members of Parliament. I do not like to disappoint my right hon. Friend and I seek not to do so—but I fear I must do on this occasion.
My right hon. Friend raised another question about the Department of Health and Social Care action plan. It has been three or four months since I was last in the Department, but my memory is not entirely rusty. I know that this is something that the Department has been thinking about. In the past three years, sexual and reproductive health services have faced numerous new challenges, including those arising from the covid-19 pandemic. We saw some of that in the recent amendment on abortion and pills at home.
I am advised that Ministers in the Department are taking the time to fully engage with stakeholders from across the system, to understand the impact of that new context in any plan they bring forward. I know from previous conversations with my right hon. Friend her strength of feeling on that, and I will ensure that it is conveyed to the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, my right hon. Friend the Member for North East Cambridgeshire (Steve Barclay) with the imprimatur from her, if I may, that speed is of the essence and that she looks forward to seeing that plan.
I know that the Minister is an honourable man; I have always had that opinion of him, as has everyone in the House. But the Government consulted with the people of Northern Ireland on the abortion changes, and 79% of respondents were against any changes. If there is no intention to acknowledge or take on board the opinion of the people of Northern Ireland, when they are very much against the changes, why bother?
I appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s strength of feeling on this issue. I know that several right hon. and hon. Members who voted against the amendment when it was brought to the House, not because they did not support access to safe abortion services but because of concerns about the devolution settlement and the nature of how it operated. The House expressed a very clear view, and it is right that that view is respected. That is why the Government have moved forward with the regulations we have seen enacted.
The Minister indicated that he will speak with his colleague, the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, about views raised on the sexual and reproductive health rights issues that are being considered by the Department. Would he also convey, when he conveys the points made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller), that the majority of colleagues who have spoken and stayed in this three-hour debate have expressed considerable concern about any extension of abortion rights in this country?
Order. I remind the Minister to sit down promptly at 7.28 pm to give the hon. Member for Gower (Tonia Antoniazzi) her two minutes at the end.
I am very grateful, Sir Charles. It is my intention to sit down sooner than that to give the hon. Member for Gower plenty of time for her remarks.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton for her point. The issue I was going to raise with the Secretary of State was the very specific point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke, which was about the delay in bringing forward that action plan that had been spoken about prior to the pandemic. I will ensure that he is made aware of this debate and the transcript of it. I encourage any Member from either side of the House to take the time to read the transcript of the debate because there have been very thoughtful speeches on both sides of the debate.
The Government believe that it is right the position on abortion remains something that is settled by legislatures and by elected Members of this House, as it is now, without necessitating the creation of a specific right. My right hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Mr Rees-Mogg) is correct in shorthand, if I may—I am not sure if shorthand is necessarily one of his fortes or natural styles—but he is right when he highlights what the Bill of Rights is about. It is about clarifying the balance of rights and the balance between the executive, legislature and the courts, and ensuring we update that framework in a way that reflects the current circumstances and ensures that it remains effective. As this debate has demonstrated, it is the legislature, rather than the courts, that is directly accountable to our citizens and to the very strong views that our constituents have on this matter on both sides of the debate.
We continue to take action to ensure access to safe, legal abortion. For example, on 30 August, following the vote in the House, new provisions came into force that permit home use of both pills for early medical abortion on a permanent basis for women in England and Wales. On 24 October, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced that the UK Government will be commissioning abortion services for Northern Ireland, recognising as he did that it is “unacceptable” that women are still travelling to the rest of the UK to access healthcare to which they are legally entitled following the decision by this Parliament. Including a specific right to abortion in the Bill of Rights would, we fear, mean that challenges involving courts could potentially be brought in measuring the compatibility of that legislation with this specific new right. It risks taking us down the route of moving debate around abortion from Parliament to the courtroom. I know that hon. Members may take a different interpretation of that.
Will the Minister give way?
I did promise the hon. Lady and I will honour that promise. I may regret it but I will honour it.
I note that we have not yet had a satisfactory answer to the question posed by the right hon. Member for Basingstoke (Dame Maria Miller) about why it is acceptable that our constituents in Walthamstow and Basingstoke face a criminal foundation in securing an abortion they do not have a right to, but women in Northern Ireland have a human rights foundation to that healthcare. I just challenge his point that, if we were to include these rights in this Bill of Rights, it would somehow lead to litigation. He will of course note that there is already repeated litigation about abortion rights and the balance of rights around abortion anyway. Why is abortion any different from freedom of speech? He will recognise that people have very strong views about the application of freedom of speech, so much so that this Government have introduced its own Bill on freedom of speech in higher education, for example. Why is it that, when it comes to women’s rights, these matters are considered complicated and can only be dealt with by judges, but when it comes to freedom of speech, for example, we accept that there should be a parliamentary process and a piece of legislation whereby these matters can be resolved?
There are two points in there. I will address the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Basingstoke more explicitly than I did previously. We have been clear throughout this that the decision taken in Northern Ireland was a decision by this House. It is open to the House, if it wishes, to change the position in respect to England or Wales. We do not believe that is something the Government should do. We believe it is, as ever, a matter of conscience for individual Members.
What happened in the case of Northern Ireland reflected the vote of the House on a particular amendment. I will not use the word “hijacking” because I think that right hon. and hon. Members are entirely able to use the procedures of this House to advance the causes that they or their constituents wish to promote. That is how the rules and Standing Orders of this House are written. I may or may not be happy with that on occasions, but it is a legitimate use of the Standing Orders of the House of Commons if something is within scope.
Will the Minister give way?
Let me briefly finish answering the hon. Lady. On her second point about rights, I come back to the point that it is entirely open for the House to legislate in primary legislation. She talked about free speech and the Bill currently going through. Just as with the 1967 legislation, which I believe was a private Member’s Bill by the now Lord Steel, it is entirely open to the House, through private Member’s legislation and the usual processes that are followed for such legislation, to seek to legislate.
I will make a final point before I give way to the shadow Minister, on the changes to the Bill of Rights, which links neatly to what the shadow Minister was talking about. Schedule 1 of the draft Bill of Rights includes the rights contained in the ECHR, which are set out in the HRA 1998. Although there is a focus on ensuring that the right balance is struck between the legislature, the courts and the Executive, there should be a little caution about suggesting that this is anything other than updating and clarifying some of those balances.
I may be more blunt than my hon. Friend for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). Does the Minister foresee an early opportunity for the House to make a decision on whether abortion should be decriminalised?
There are many opportunities in front of hon. Members. They may wish to submit a private Member’s Bill. When the new Session starts there will be a new ballot. I may take a view on whether amendments should be included in particular pieces of legislation, but if they are ruled to be in order by the Speaker, Members will be able to explore their options. I do not believe that the Bill of Rights is the right approach to take to secure this issue, if that is the desire of right hon. and hon. Members. There are other mechanisms in Parliament for them to advance that debate and propose legislation, should they wish to do so.
Let me conclude by reiterating that this Government remain committed to ensuring access to safe, regulated abortions. It is right that women have this choice at their disposal. I am sure that I speak for the whole Chamber when I say that I do not want a return to unsafe, unregulated abortions that put women’s lives at risk, or to women feeling unable to escape a situation they find themselves in or to have an alternative.
As I said, the debate has been thoughtful on both sides of the argument. I believe it has been respectful and reflects the depth of sincerely and strongly held views on both sides of the debate. I have sought to address the specific point in the context of the Bill of Rights. I slightly sidestepped the broader points of the Bill of Rights, and I suspect that the shadow Minister and I will have an opportunity in the coming weeks or months to debate those. I have sought to keep my remarks to the matter in hand in the petition. I am grateful for the opportunity to have spoken on this issue, and I look forward to hearing the winding up comments from the hon. Member for Gower.
Ms Antoniazzi has, at most, two minutes.
Thank you, Sir Charles. I thank the petitioner and the people who signed the petition for their interest in the need to address the Bill of Rights and abortion. In the context of the Bill of Rights, I thank the Minister for his comments. I thank all Members who participated in the debate. We have a long way to go and I believe that we can continue to have the debate and engage with more Members across the House.
When it comes to such debates as assisted dying, sex and gender, and abortion, where such differing views are held and shared, it is our responsibility as legislators to discuss them and to move forward for the benefit of everyone who lives in the United Kingdom.
Thank you for that concise bit of winding up.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered e-petition 619334, relating to legal rights to access abortion.