Diana Johnson's 10 Minute Rule Bill on Abortion - October 2018

A number of constituents have written to me regarding Diana Johnson’s Ten Minute Rule Bill on Abortion which came before the House of Commons on 23 October 2018. I have received correspondence both in support and against the bill.

This motion was passed albeit this does not lead to any change. The motion effectively requires the House to take note and gives the sponsor the opportunity to pursue legislation. 

I support this bill and voted for it. I am setting out my reasons below. As I believe the DUP MPs in Northern Ireland would attest, I am very respectful of those who oppose abortion. Just last week, I met a delegation from Northern Ireland who were seeking to change my mind. I think it important to respect all those with differing views and to listen. I have said the same thing in the House of Commons chamber, calling out those who seek to shut down MPs who oppose abortion in principle.

Under the current law, abortion remains a criminal office in the UK. It is embedded in the criminal code, under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. The Abortion Act 1967 added five categories or exemptions where abortion would be permissible in certain circumstances. Category C is the crucial exemption allowing abortion on the grounds that the pregnancy would damage the mental health of the mother. 98% of terminations are conducted under this exemption. Women must therefore prove to two doctors that carrying the child would be damaging to their mental health. In reality, doctors do not tend to use that test. In my view, this means the law is being flouted and I would like to see the concept of medical consent ended. In addition, the law has not kept pace with developments in medicine and science. Back in 1967, it was perfectly logical to require an abortion to be undertaken in an NHS hospital or clinic. With advances, medicinal treatment exists which would allow a woman to take pills at home and not face the indignity of a clinic. 

I believe that we need to remove abortion from the criminal code in the UK and have it treated like any other medical procedure, subject to regulation and ethical standards. Within that concept, I do not believe, in the 21st century, that women should require the authorisation of two doctors. Adults should be perfectly capable of making decisions about their own bodies.

This bill does not change the time limit. The title of the bill makes clear that the law would only be changed up to the current 24-week limit. After this point, existing criminal law provisions remain in place for both women and doctors. With a wider review of the law, there is something to be said to reviewing the 24-week limit. 

This bill would not remove safeguards for women. On the contrary, the bill would improve safeguards for pregnant women against violent partners who assault them and cause them to miscarry, by creating a new criminal offence of non-consensual abortion, carrying a life term. This is exactly the type of change that Women’s Aid has been campaigning for to improve the prosecution of abusive partners and ex-partners.

Decriminalising abortion does not mean deregulation; it means it is governed in the same way as all other women’s healthcare procedures (such as maternity care) in accordance with robust existing healthcare laws and regulations. There is absolutely no provision in the Abortion Act for safeguarding, counselling, informed consent, or clinical safety. These are all contained in entirely separate bodies of regulation which would remain in place were abortion decriminalised. 

Regarding Northern Ireland, decriminalising abortion would enable politicians and policymakers to establish their own framework for providing services. This bill would remove the underlying, Westminster-established criminalisation and allow Stormont, when reconstituted, to form their own law and provision in line with the wishes of their constituents. In Northern Ireland, as in the rest of the UK, any service providing abortion care would have to be registered and regulated in the same way as any other healthcare service, and providing abortion services outside of a regulated framework would remain a criminal offence.

Northern Ireland currently hosts one of the most stringent criminal regimes for abortion in the world. The UK Government have been asked repeatedly by UN bodies to decriminalise abortion by the repeal of sections 58 and 59 of the OAPA to ensure no woman or healthcare professional faces criminal sanction. Only this year, the Supreme Court ruled that the law in Northern Ireland was not compatible with legal requirements and called on lawmakers to take note and action.