Government turns down compromise in swansong Westminster debate on NI abortion

For the first time ever and long overdue, MPs debated abortion rights in Northern Ireland last Wednesday in a side-debate in the alternative chamber in Westminster Hall. The argument of pro choice Labour MPs was two-pronged: that NI women should enjoy the same rights as GB women ; or if not, that a compromise should be reached whereby NI women should no longer be denied NHS funding to have an abortion in GB. The constitutional argument is hard to sustain if abortion continues to rate as a crime with the devolution of justice pending, but even as purely health matter which is already devolved. A slow human rights route through the courts might be the only answer, as is happening in an Irish landmark test case before the European Court of Human Rights. On the compromise route of funding an abortion in Great Britain the government takes refuge in an uncertain legal argument about which more needs to be heard. (see below from Paul Goggins) Would it not be possible to fund a NI abortion seeker to travel for a consultation with an English GP? I offer extracts from the debate, with brief linking commentary.

Martin Salter Labour MP moving the motion. I am afraid that anyone in this debate who trots out the argument that this is not a matter for Westminster has sold the pass…..Despite being UK taxpayers, women from Northern Ireland who travel to the mainland are unable to access abortion services that are available to women in the rest of the UK, free of charge through the NHS, which we all pay for, whether we are taxpayers in England, Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland. They have to pay for their own travel, accommodation and abortion procedures, which can amount to £2,000 or even more. That is not okay, although it is manageable if one has £2,000, but many people in Northern Ireland do not have access to such cash, so their choices are limited.

A myth surrounding abortion in Northern Ireland is that people there do not support a woman’s right to choose. A survey by the Family Planning Association in September 2008 showed that almost two thirds of people—62 per cent.—in Northern Ireland support abortion following rape and incest, but it seems that our politicians do not. Furthermore, in its submission to the UN committee on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland called for “the same access to reproductive health care services and rights in Northern Ireland as are available in Great Britain”.

Emily Thornberry : One way forward, which would not be popular with all of us—compromise is always required—might be to allow women from Northern Ireland to have a free abortion if they came to the mainland. In that way, abortion would remain illegal in Northern Ireland, but it would be legal for a Northern Irish woman to have an abortion in England. That would be illogical, but at least it would allow such women access to free abortions.

Anne Cryer I hope that the message that goes out from this Chamber is that the UK Parliament cannot go on in the present situation, with women in a small corner of the UK being denied the rights that are enjoyed by so many women in the rest of the UK. That is so unfair. I hope that Northern Ireland Members of Parliament will eventually change their attitudes. If we cannot achieve that, I hope that Ministers in this country will make available some facility to help girls who want to come to this country by ensuring that they can access abortions and that they have the money to travel here

Willie McCrea on the anti-abortion side of course made a shrewd point about the pro-abortion tactics in the debate when he asked: Why is there such haste? Let us get to the nub of the matter. The reason for the debate was made known by Dr. Audrey Simpson. She said that once the responsibility is transferred, as part of the handover of policing and justice powers, it will be very difficult to make a change. It is nothing to do with it being the right time to make a change; it is the right time to get one result—to force the Westminster Government’s hand. Indeed, she also said that the United Kingdom Government do not have the guts to stand up to Northern Ireland politicians.
Who does Dr. Simpson think she is?

As he told MPs Alistair McDonnell of the SLDP is unique in the Commons as he practiced as a GP close to a family planning clinic on the Ormeau Road. He wrestled with the issue of abortion in the debate rather than slapping it down. Some of us face a conundrum. For 30 years I have worked with women in stress—I might be unique in the Chamber in that sense—and I have dealt with them sympathetically, humanely and compassionately. However, there is a difficulty, to which I have yet to hear an answer.
We spend millions struggling to save babies of 22-week gestation, and putting them in incubators, and quite often those lives are preserved, even if they are not of a high quality—that is another issue—but we throw 24-week gestation babies in a bucket to die. Somebody must provide an answer. We have got to find a balance. Some revolting arguments were made during the debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. At that time, we ducked the issue, but it must be dealt with. We cannot throw a viable foetus—a viable infant—into a bucket to die at 24 weeks and say that it is right.
I do not think that 62 per cent. of people in Northern Ireland are in favour of abortion. In my estimation, the figure might be 30 per cent. Yes, by manipulating the 30 per cent. figure—if one picked only those who were in favour—one could get 62 per cent. However, it does not stand up to sense that if two-thirds of our population are in favour of abortion, suddenly politicians like me cower in front of the 30 or 33 per cent. who are not in favour.
It upsets me that there is no Government NHS support service for a young woman who wants to keep a child. Often the pressures are economic, and time and again, in such cases, I have had to revert to various faith-based groups to provide support—often across religious divides and all the rest—for somebody who is desperate to hold on to an infant, but unable to do so for economic reasons. We face a number of problems. Before we sort the debate once and for all, we need to start caring for people and young pregnant women, and not just seeing this as a disposable item.

Paul Goggins Minister of State. The pragmatic compromise would be that we would not change the law, but that we would somehow facilitate NHS treatment for legal abortions for women in Northern Ireland in England. However, first, it is not clear to me that GPs in Northern Ireland would have the power to refer a woman for treatment outside Northern Ireland that would be illegal in Northern Ireland. Some might argue that women should be able to leave Northern Ireland for assessment as well as treatment here, but I would argue that that would be a serious breach of the relationship between the woman and her GP. Secondly—this is crucial, and we have only seconds to go in the debate—we would either have to top-slice the Northern Ireland health budget to fund the compromise, which would undermine the devolution settlement, or taxpayers in England, Wales and Scotland would have to pay.

A weasel argument, and he knows it.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London