On Tuesday, I was proud to vote for Stella Creasy’s amendment to extend abortion access to Northern Ireland. It passed overwhelmingly, with 332 votes in favour and 99 against. This means that, unless a new Stormont executive is in place by October 21st (there hasn’t been one since January 2017), abortion rights in the region will be brought into line with the rest of the UK.
It was a historic day for equality and human rights. In particular, it was a victory for the thousands of Northern Irish women who spent decades campaigning for access to safe terminations. Let’s be clear: it is these activists who, first and foremost, deserve credit for Tuesday’s outcome. I am glad that their ally in parliament was Labour.
Abortion on demand – either in law or in practice – is the norm across most of Europe. However, there are unfortunately still exceptions. It is a disgrace that two EU countries still impose severe restrictions on women’s right to choose. In Malta, abortion is banned completely, with both the doctor and the patient facing imprisonment. Poland only allows it in extreme cases such as rape or a serious health risk – and even these limited rights are in danger under the ultra-conservative Law and Justice government. Recent years have seen at least two serious attempts to pass even stricter laws, in both cases blocked by mass protests. As a result, tens of thousands of European women every year rely on illegal abortions, risking their safety, and often paying exorbitant sums for what should be a basic healthcare service.
The European Union has the power to end their ordeal. The Party of European Socialists, which Labour is part of, stood in the recent EU elections on a manifesto that pledged to “ensure that every individual has access to their full sexual and reproductive rights”. This policy cannot be discarded and forgotten: I hope Labour MEPs use their positions to actively campaign for abortion rights to be enshrined in EU law. Bodily autonomy is a human right, and must be protected as such.
The EU already guarantees a set of basic rights that member states are not allowed to breach. It bans the death penalty; forbids discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation, disability, race, age or religion; limits the working week; sets minimum requirements for annual and parental leave, to name just a few. These rights and protections are easily taken for granted, especially in Western European countries like the UK. However, given the wave of right-wing populism and neofascism spreading across much of the continent and the world, including in formerly stable democracies, these regulations might yet turn out to be vital. With the Tories set to take a sharp turn to the right, I am reluctant to trust the government with the rights of workers, women or minority groups.
This is why I am campaigning to stop Brexit – both to safeguard the rights we already have, and to transform the EU to make sure it actively levels them up across the continent. The right to safe, free and legal abortions for all who need them should be at the forefront of Labour’s feminist agenda for Europe. Whether they’re born in Northern Ireland, in Poland or anywhere else, all women must have the right to choose.
Love Socialism Hate Brexit is a group of radical and socialist Labour MPs fighting to stop Brexit. We will be writing a column for LabourList every week until the Brexit crisis is over. You can find out more about us here, and follow us on Twitter here.