Legal Rights to Access Abortion Debate

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Department: Ministry of Justice

Legal Rights to Access Abortion

Alex Cunningham Excerpts
Monday 28th November 2022

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Westminster Hall
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Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham (Stockton North) (Lab)
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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.

Desmond Swayne Portrait Sir Desmond Swayne
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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
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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.

Desmond Swayne Portrait Sir Desmond Swayne
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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.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
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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.

--- Later in debate ---
Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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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.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
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Will the Minister give way?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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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.

Alex Cunningham Portrait Alex Cunningham
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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?

Edward Argar Portrait Edward Argar
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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.