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David Simpson (Upper Bann) (DUP):
I welcome you to the Chair, Lady Winterton. I congratulate the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) on obtaining
the debate. As he said himself, it is on an issue that is very controversial across the United Kingdom, including, of course, Northern Ireland.
Each time that the subject of abortion is debated or referenced in Parliament, I am struck by a number of things that quickly rise to the surface whenever it comes to those who style themselves as pro-choice. I am frequently struck by their thinly concealed anti-democratic, anti-libertarian and anti-human rights stance.
Why do I say "anti-democratic"? The answer is simple. On both sides of the House of Commons-on the Government and Opposition Benches-there is probably near unanimous agreement that Northern Ireland should have a devolved Assembly, with devolved powers, and that that should eventually include policing and justice powers, but of course for some hon. Members, the people of Northern Ireland are not to be trusted with the issue of abortion. Despite the fact that there is overwhelming agreement across the political divide, Northern Ireland, in the eyes of some hon. Members, is simply not grown up enough, mature enough, clever enough or modern enough to be trusted with that decision. The message being sent to Northern Ireland by some hon. Members could not be clearer: "We support devolution for you, but only in so far as you do what we like and what we want."
What I have described is an anti-democratic stance. Why did I use the term "anti-libertarian"? Again, whenever the subject of abortion comes up, it quickly becomes evident that if hon. Members speak against abortion, speak in favour of tightening up abortion provisions or express a principled anti-abortion and pro-life position, there are some who cannot listen to that message respectfully but feel compelled to resort to name calling and demonising the people who do that. We have seen that in the past in the House.
Why did I mention an anti-human rights approach? Some people take the view that the solution to what they describe as the denial of a person's right to choose is to deny a child's right to live. I do not believe that, if anyone in the House were to say that a black or coloured baby, a Jewish baby or a baby from the travelling community should have its life ended, there would be a single Member of the House who would not be rightly outraged, no matter what justification was given by that person. However, there are those who tell us that a baby not yet born should have its life ended for no other reason than another person's right to choose. I cannot and will not support that kind of cruelty being visited upon the innocent. Rather than making Northern Ireland like the rest of the UK on this issue, it would-
No, I will not; I shall be finished in 30 seconds. Rather than making Northern Ireland like the rest of the UK on this issue, it would be far better if hon. Members were to campaign for the reverse and to
show the same commitment to the life in the womb as they show for consumer parenthood and disposable babies. The abortion laws across the UK do need to be reviewed, updated and amended, but they need to be reviewed away from the current situation and the free-for-all that exists in many parts of the country. I urge hon. Members to go down that road, not the one that they are trying to map out for the people of Northern Ireland.
Mrs. Ann Cryer (Keighley) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) for raising this subject. It is a very difficult one and clearly this Chamber is very divided. The difficulties faced by young women in Northern Ireland came home to me when I went to a meeting in Portcullis House; I think that it was last week. Baroness Blood chaired the meeting. When I heard her talking about the situation of young women in Northern Ireland-women of child-bearing age-I was reminded of the arguments that I had to sustain alone, with almost no support whatever from other people, regarding the forced marriages of young women in my constituency 12 years ago. When I was elected 12 years ago, many people were coming to me for help to get a marriage annulled or to get divorced because they had been forced into a marriage in Pakistan. I had to do what I could. I also had to contact the Islamabad high commission to put a stop on entry clearance for the person coming in.
I got very little support on that, for the same reasons that women in Northern Ireland are not getting much support now-because the politicians in Northern Ireland know that it would affect their votes at the next election if they supported young girls asking for the right to have abortions there or asking for help to come here. Still to this day, the girls I helped in my constituency will not talk about that situation, for the same reason that the girls in Northern Ireland will not. In Northern Ireland, it is probably referred to as "What will the neighbours say?" In Keighley, it was family pride and family honour that was afflicting them. So I feel as though I am in the deep end with this. I understand very clearly what the girls in Northern Ireland are going through. People can tell by my voice that I am finding it quite difficult to talk about this. However, I am here this morning to maintain the position that women in the UK have the right to control their own fertility and their own child bearing.
At the moment, young women in Northern Ireland are denied a right that women in the rest of the UK are allowed to have. However, I want to go back a little. I will be 70 later this year and I was of child-bearing age during the period before David Steel's 1967 Act came in, so I know what the position was then. Many friends who had babies brought them up and were good mothers to them, but they had reservations about having them-they perhaps already had two or three children, so they had anxieties. At the time, women were not able to have a legal abortion.
Women have always been able to access safe abortions-the same must, and in fact does, apply as regards Northern Ireland-if they have the money and the wherewithal to find out where they are available, and David Steel simply ensured that there was a level playing field for all women. I suggest to Democratic Unionist Members that women in Northern Ireland today who want an abortion can get one if they have the money to come to this country for one. Those who do not have the money and who do not know how to get through the legal loopholes will not have an abortion. They will have to bring into the world a child that they do not want and that they will possibly have adopted at an early stage.
I have known women in such situations. In fact, I had a friend who performed an abortion on herself. She lost a great deal of blood and had to be taken into hospital. She had to put out all sorts of stories to explain why that happened. She had the beginnings of multiple sclerosis, and her condition deteriorated a great deal shortly after she performed the abortion. I am quite convinced that the two things were connected. Had she been able to have a legal, safe abortion, she would not have been forced into that situation.
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. The current situation is so wrong and so unfair on such girls, and I appeal to the Minister to look carefully at the issue to make sure that no one in the UK is denied an abortion simply because they do not have the money to catch a flight here.
The hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) said that we would be pygmy politicians if we did not do what we were sent here to do. What he advocates is certainly not something that I or my colleagues from other Northern Ireland constituencies feel that we were sent here to do. I hope that the implication of his reference to pygmy politicians was not that those of us from Northern Ireland are somehow less capable parliamentarians or legislators.
Martin Salter: Let me make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that I said that we would be pygmy politicians if we shied away from debating this issue. I respect his arguments and I am delighted that he has been given an opportunity to set them out.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that because many of us in Northern Ireland get a bit fed up with British politicians who seem to think that they are the political Gullivers while we are intellectual Lilliputians,
who cannot understand or deal with these issues ourselves and who need the wisdom and intervention of British politicians and international instruments.
I make no apology for standing here as, among other things, an Irish nationalist. As far as I am concerned, an Irish national Parliament should legislate on this issue for the whole of Ireland. I mentioned international instruments, and a protocol has been fully promulgated in the European Union making it clear that no European instrument or law will override the right of the Government and the Parliament of Ireland on abortion legislation. I speak from that very clear perspective and I make no apology for that.
My hon. Members for Reading, West and for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) made several points. I fully accept that there is conscience on both sides of the debate, and the sooner we all recognise that the better. That was strongly reflected in some of the remarks by the hon. Lady.
Reference was made to the call by the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland to introduce the same rights as in Britain. The Good Friday agreement, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, provides for strong equality measures. Section 75 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 names seven different grounds for equality protection, one of which is disability. Many groups representing disabled people fundamentally object to the amended 1967 Act precisely because it permits abortion practically right up to birth in the case of foetal abnormality. Foetal abnormality is used to cover a wide variety of issues and disabilities. In many cases, the Act sends the signal that those with disabilities would have been better off not being born. I know many disabled people, not only in Northern Ireland, who fundamentally object to that dimension of the Act.
The hon. Gentleman said that the law in Northern Ireland is one of the most restrictive pieces of such legislation in Europe, but the 1967 Act, which he advocates should be extended to Northern Ireland, is one of the most liberal, if not the most liberal, in Europe. Why should we resign ourselves to that?
The hon. Gentleman said that those of us who voted to amend the 1967 Act last year, when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 was going through the House, had sold the pass and did not have the right to object to the extension of the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. I simply point out to him that there was a full, clear and present threat to use the 2008 Act-this was the intent of many Members of the House-to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland Members faced that very real threat and we were within our rights to seek amendments to mitigate it.
However, if the hon. Gentleman was trying to suggest that there should be some new constitutional compact fully to declare that this Parliament will never attempt to extend the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland, while Northern Ireland Members will stay out of subsequent legislation, that is a separate debate that we need to have. He cannot, however, say that we do not have the right to vote on the 1967 Act while he and other Members reserve the right to say that they will extend it to Northern Ireland.
Let me make it clear that that was not the point that I was making. I was merely pre-empting an argument, which has been made in the past, that
Westminster politicians have no right to discuss the issue. I was pointing out that Northern Ireland politicians felt that they had the right to vote on legislation that affects my constituents. At no point in my contribution-the hon. Gentleman will be able to check the record-did I question their right to campaign against the 1967 Act.
Mark Durkan: I do not want to dwell on that, because I want to conclude, but I was taking up the hon. Gentleman's point. He said that those of us who had voted to amend the 1967 Act had sold the pass and therefore had no right any more to object to Westminster extending the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. Well, we do object to the 1967 Act as it stands and we object to its extension to Northern Ireland. If he wants to carry that argument, it brings us into the case for some new constitutional compact here, which may well be worth looking at.
The hon. Lady suggested that politicians in Northern Ireland do not want to deal with the issue because it would affect our vote. The politicians who are elected by people in Northern Ireland come here on the basis of clear and credible positions. The issue is much discussed and debated in Northern Ireland, in the Assembly, on the airwaves and elsewhere. The suggestion that there is total secrecy and radio silence is wrong. There are contradictions in the arguments that are being made by my hon. Members because on the one hand the hon. Gentleman says opinion polls show that well over 60 per cent. of people favour the extension of the Abortion Act, yet on the other hand the hon. Lady says that we are failing to legislate on the issue because we fear for our vote.
Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. I had the good fortune to grow up in a loving family and I speak as a father and grandfather, whose fourth grandchild is due in a month. I also speak as a Christian and I therefore believe that every cell of every human body is sacred. I support the stated position of my Church, the Church of England, which is strong opposition to abortion. For me, one abortion is one too many and represents a failure of all of us.
There are, however, many Christians and people of faith of other religions who balance their opposition in principle to abortion with the view that God is compassionate towards the needs and suffering of pregnant women and those around them. I respect the differences between the countries of the United Kingdom and see them as a strength, not a weakness. Therefore, I do not for a moment seek to undermine the perhaps more conservative traditional social attitudes in one part or another of the United Kingdom. I think that it is a shame that there are not more women in the debate, but that is a feature of our Parliament. I also think that we should recognise that we live in a male-dominated society with a male-dominated Parliament and Churches. I sometimes wonder whether men should vote at all, or even speak, on these issues in public. After all, all pregnancies are caused by men and it is women who take the grief.
I have never subscribed to the view of those who argue that abortion is a matter of a woman's right to choose, as if women had an exclusive right. To me it is a partnership between a woman, a man, a child and, indeed, God. However, it is the mother who is pregnant and who will give birth and raise the child. I believe that Parliament cannot wash its hands of the issue, any more than the issue of abortion itself can be wished away. We are talking about discrimination against half the population of Northern Ireland-the female half. That is institutional, financial discrimination by the British Government against women who have paid their taxes and national insurance contributions. I am therefore ashamed that in our United Kingdom we treat women in Northern Ireland differently and penalise them financially.
However, it is rather worse than that. The situation faced by women in Northern Ireland has become tainted by a very nasty atmosphere of punishment and revenge by those who think that they are morally superior. I do not know of any women taking the decision to have an abortion lightly. From the figures, it is not naughty schoolgirls who have most of the abortions; 70 per cent. of them involve women aged 20 to 34-years, one would have thought, of some discretion and common sense. Of course, 64 per cent. of all terminations in England take place at under nine weeks' gestation. However, the fact is that in 2008 1,173 women were forced to travel to England from Northern Ireland for termination of pregnancy. In parenthesis another 4,600 came from the Republic of Ireland.
There are far too many abortions in our country and we have all failed to find the answer. We continue to let down generations of young people of both sexes, and we need to address that. We should start by stopping the financial discrimination against women in Northern Ireland who face substantial costs of £2,000 and more when they have already paid their taxes. It is time that we stopped punishing women and started educating men.
I believe that when Members of Parliament dare speak about abortion on demand they will soon find themselves engulfed in something of a hostile environment. I remember the last debate that was held in the House on this subject, and I can assure hon. Members that anyone who either mentioned an opposite point of view or pro-life position or even happened to quote a verse from the scriptures was totally laughed at and mocked in that debate. I am delighted that this is a more sane and normal debate.
I appreciate the fact that the hon. Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) brought the issue up. I have no objection to the matter being discussed. The question is how it is resolved, which is a matter of the opinion of the people of Northern Ireland and their elected representatives, and should be left as that. However, when many people champion the cause of minorities across the United Kingdom, it is regarded as laudable.
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