In 2008, the passage of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill through Parliament saw the most serious attempt to restrict abortion rights in Britain in the last two decades. Since then, apart from occasional shrieking headlines about levels of repeat abortions among teenage girls, abortion has generally fallen off the political radar. But this year, in the run up to the general election and beyond, the issue is again set to force its way up the agenda.
With over 100 MPs stepping down from Parliament, the make up of the House of Commons is set to change dramatically – and whichever party holds the balance of power after the election, the balance over abortion seems certain to shift.
Among those retiring are 71 MPs who voted in 2008 to maintain the current 24-week abortion time limit, and reports this week suggest that senior Tories are confident that a Conservative majority of just ten seats would give them enough votes to cut it to 20 weeks. Nadine Dorries, the Conservative backbencher who led the attack in 2008 and favours a 12-week abortion time limit, has declared her intention to re-open the issue adding that she “was always aware that the real opportunity for abortion law reform would arise with a Conservative government.”
But the time limit is not the only issue. A more anti-choice Commons could see the reprise of attempts to introduce mandatory cooling off periods and directive counselling sessions for women seeking abortions, both of which create further delays and obstacles to a process which can already take weeks.
Moves to restrict the availability of abortion on the grounds of foetal impairment could also become a major issue, particularly given current debates around assisted suicide and quality of life for those with severe disabilities. Trevor Phillips has indicated that the Equality and Human Rights Commission intends to consider the “implications of the law on abortion for the way we discharge our duty to disabled people”, opening the door to legal challenges on this basis.
In Northern Ireland, where access to abortion remains extremely limited even in cases of rape, incest and foetal abnormality, opportunities for reform are rapidly dwindling. The withdrawal last year of hard won guidelines on the legality of abortion in the province and the coming devolution of abortion law from Westminster to Stormont will place responsibility for reproductive rights entirely in the hands of local politicians who, whether nationalist or unionist, speak with one voice in their utter rejection of any improved access to abortion services.
In Scotland, Alex Salmond has made clear his desire for a similar devolution of abortion regulation away from Westminster. The SNP has capitalised on disaffection among some religious voters over Labour’s position on abortion and other ‘moral issues’ by emphasising a pro-life stance. Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy’s speech in Westminster last month, positioning Labour as the natural party of religious voters is seen as an attempt to win back Catholic and Muslim supporters, but risks jeopardising the party’s progressive reputation on social issues. So if the law was to change, what would be at stake for the thousands of British women who every year take the decision to terminate a pregnancy? If they live in Northern Ireland, it could mean joining the thousands of women making the expensive and distressing trip to the mainland for private sector treatment.
If they are among the 1.5% of women who need an abortion after 20 weeks – often facing the most exceptional and distressing personal circumstances, they may be forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term regardless of the impact on their lives. And if they are among the tiny number of families taking the often heart-breaking decision to terminate a pregnancy of a child with serious abnormalities, they could risk legal scrutiny and political interference in what is already a deeply distressing and personal situation.
With so much at stake it is vital for pro-choice supporters, who make up the vast majority of voters in the UK, to look carefully at the voting record of their MPs, the position of their local PPCs and the platform of their chosen party before entering the voting booth this year.