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15 July 2009 : Column 84WH—continued

I want to champion the cause of the minority: the unborn child-the child who has not the ability to speak in the House. We will hear a lot of talk about human rights and the right of the woman. I have never
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heard, of course, whenever we have talked about the rights in this debate, about the right of the unborn child. Somehow, they do not seem to have rights, or those rights seem to be lesser compared with others.

Mr. Gregory Campbell: Is not my hon. Friend touching on the very nub of the issue? The debate and resolution will be found only when all of us, as adult parliamentarians, balance the plight, needs and concerns of women who find themselves pregnant, whom we have got to have a concern for, and the plight of the unborn child, whom very few people appear to stand up for and speak for.

Dr. McCrea: I thank my hon. Friend for that point.

It is also interesting that out of the 18 Members of Parliament for Northern Ireland constituencies not one has signed the hon. Gentleman's early-day motion. Of course he pointed out that that was because we were political pygmies. That is a slur against pygmies, because I think that they are quite nice people, and to suggest that is rather insulting.

Of course, contradictory messages are coming out, as was rightly pointed out by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan). For example, the hon. Member for Reading, West suggested to us that we had not the guts to take the hard decisions, because we were behind our electorate: that our electorate were well ahead of us and wanted us to do it, but we were not willing. However, the hon. Member for Keighley (Mrs. Cryer) suggested that politicians were not doing so because it would affect their vote. With the greatest respect, Labour Members cannot have it both ways-they usually try to, but some of us here are not willing to let them. They should not try to bamboozle us with nonsense. [Interruption.] I was elected to the House to represent my constituents. I assure the House that when the Northern Ireland constituency representatives here today face their electorate, they will discover whether the electorate are backing them.

Martin Salter: I ask the hon. Gentleman a simple question: is he in favour of allowing an abortion for a woman who has been raped?

Dr. McCrea: It is interesting that, whenever we come to talk about the matter, an emotive example is always given. Let us be frank: the majority of people-

Martin Salter: Yes or no?

Dr. McCrea: With the greatest respect, the hon. Gentleman cannot expect me, as a parliamentarian, simply to answer the question as he wants it answered. I shall answer it in the way that I was elected to answer, which is what I stand for-and I make no apology for it.

Let me say this about rape. Does destroying the unborn baby eradicate the tragedy of the rape? Does an act of violence against the mother justify an act of violence against the unborn child?

Emily Thornberry: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. McCrea: No, I am sorry. If the hon. Lady catches your eye, Lady Winterton, I am sure that she will be called.

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The tragedy of the woman who has been raped is not eliminated by compounding it, by killing the baby. We have to lay some of these issues to rest. Another reason given for abortion is abnormality. Is the possible abnormality of an unborn child a justification for abortion? Whenever we talk about aborting babies because they may be handicapped, we are forced to make serious value judgments that I believe are reserved only for God and not for people sitting in this Chamber.

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? I have the right as an elected representative to speak on behalf of my people. When was Dr. Simpson elected? If she believes that she is right, she should put herself before the electorate. She should stand in a Northern Ireland constituency and find out whether she represents the people. I assure the House that she would find out that she does not represent them. She will not sit in this place.

Mrs. Cryer: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. McCrea: No; I am finishing my remarks, Lady Winterton, as you asked.

It is interesting to note that, when someone is planning to terminate the life of an unborn child and destroy the miracle of God's creation, they refer to the unborn as a foetus or the embryo. By contrast, when they plan to keep the child and cherish it, it is always known as "my baby" or "my child". We never hear anyone saying, "I'm going to have a little foetus." We never hear an abortionist saying, "We're going to kill the little baby." Our respect for the unborn seems to be strangely affected by the circumstances, and I was not elected to the House to support that position.

10.23 am

Emily Thornberry (Islington, South and Finsbury) (Lab): Many people feel very strongly about this matter, and I am one. Some may know that my family comes from Northern Ireland, and that some members of my family still live there.

The people of Northern Ireland have many strengths, but I do not understand why their politicians will not allow women to have access to abortion. The politicians may not agree with abortion themselves, and many of their constituents may not agree with it, but I tell them this: women in desperate circumstances will have an abortion. They may have one illegally, they may try to do it themselves, they may come to the mainland to have it or they may go to Holland; but they will have an abortion and we cannot stop them.

What we can do is make it fair. We should give women fair access to hospitals in Northern Ireland, where they can have the support of their mothers and where they can have the abortion quietly and discreetly.
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Please believe me, they will not have an abortion lightly. They will have an abortion only in desperate circumstances. Every abortion is a tragedy, and every woman who has had an abortion believes that. They will do it only if they absolutely have to do so.

Nadine Dorries (Mid-Bedfordshire) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Emily Thornberry: No.

There are good things about Northern Ireland, and many good things have happened there. Its economy is booming, and it is becoming much more liberal socially. There are now gay pride marches in Northern Ireland. There is a growing group of people there who come from a socially liberal background and are still not adequately represented by their elected representatives. The 21st century is coming to Northern Ireland, as it is coming to the rest of the world. It is important that that growing group should have some political representation.

Many who are socially liberal have chosen to move away from Northern Ireland, but some are now moving back. Changes are going on in Northern Ireland. Its politicians must change too. I deeply regret that the powers devolved to Northern Ireland under the Good Friday agreement included those relating to women and abortion. That was a mistake. We should have done the same with Northern Ireland as we did with Scotland and Wales: the issue should be a UK-wide one. I wish such authority had not been passed over, but it was.

I appreciate that I could be accused of opportunism, but I wish that we could grab the power back at the last minute, saying that we had made a mistake. I wish that we had not given Northern Ireland the authority over abortion. I do not believe that Northern Ireland politicians represent the views of the majority in Northern Ireland. They are behind the times. However, I believe strongly in the Good Friday agreement. I believe strongly in a peaceful Northern Ireland and in its growing prosperity, and letting it move on.

Martin Salter: Would my hon. Friend allow me to put on record that the reason for having this debate today is nothing to do with the legislative timetable? It is everything to do with a film showing women in a distressed state being harassed by Precious Life outside the FPA headquarters. That is why we are debating the subject today.

Emily Thornberry: I fully understand that, but I am speaking on my own behalf. I wish that we could go back on the mistake that we made when the Good Friday agreement started: power over abortion should not have been part of the devolution package.

Mark Durkan: My hon. Friend said that Northern Ireland is more socially liberal. She offered as evidence gay pride marches and so on. Does she appreciate that many of us are on what she would regard as the socially liberal side of those arguments, and that we have stood up for gay pride and participated in such events? Abortion, however, is different. It is not about the individual's sexual or other rights; it affects the rights of an innocent third party, namely the child.

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Emily Thornberry: I respect the hon. Gentleman, but I do not agree with him. I believe that individual women should be allowed to make individual decisions. However strongly the hon. Gentleman may feel about the matter, I believe that women should be trusted to make their own decisions about their lives. They will continue to do so, whether or not he stops them.

Bob Spink: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Emily Thornberry: No, because others wish to speak.

If we cannot grab back the power that we are about to devolve to Northern Ireland, the least that we can do is allow women from Northern Ireland to have access to abortion under the national health service. I do not want that smutty compromise; it is not right. I believe that women in Northern Ireland should be allowed to walk into a hospital as I could in London, and as a woman from Northern Ireland's sister could if she lived in my constituency. It is not right, but it is the best that we can offer. I wish that we could at least do that before handing over these powers in Northern Ireland to gentlemen such as the hon. Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea), whose views do not represent those of everyone in Northern Ireland. At the moment, such people do not have a voice.

Ann Winterton (in the Chair): I intend to call the Front-Bench spokesmen at 20 minutes to 11. Three speakers remain to speak before then. They can work out for themselves how long they have.

10.30 am

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell (Belfast, South) (SDLP): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Lady Winterton. I did not intend to speak, but I cannot let my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West (Martin Salter) get away with some of the crazy stuff that I heard earlier. He depicted me and my constituents as primitive savages who attack pregnant women in the streets. I live beside a Family Planning Association clinic, my constituency office is beside it, and for 30 years I have worked as a general practitioner beside it. Never, in that whole time, have I seen baying mobs attacking people at the clinic. Occasionally there are crazies-there are crazy people on the pro-life side of the argument-and some of these things can happen, but for God's sake please do not paint us as primitive savages.

Bob Spink: As a GP, does the hon. Gentleman share my utter revulsion at the number of late-term abortions due to supposed deformities-the child might be beautiful, but have a hare-lip or something else perfectly treatable? That is why people get terribly wound up.

Dr. McDonnell: The hon. Gentleman is right. 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
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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.

10.34 am

Ms Diane Abbott (Hackney, North and Stoke Newington) (Lab): Like all hon. Members in this Chamber-I think-I believe that any abortion is a tragedy. However, let me press a point on some of my male colleagues: they talk as though women take abortions lightly and that they do it for social convenience and without thought. I urge my male colleagues to have a little more respect for the women of Northern Ireland. Every woman whom I have known who has had, or contemplated, an abortion has gone through agony. So I should like to hear a little more respect for women who face that appalling decision.

Nadine Dorries: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Abbott: I am afraid that time is against me.

In July last year, I tabled an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 that would have extended the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. I did not do that because I wanted to override the will of the Assembly. We should bear in mind that that is permissive legislation. If it applied to Northern Ireland, it would not force a single woman there to have an abortion, which is why some of what I have heard is so wrong-headed. If women do not want to have abortions, and if they are not in positions in which they need to contemplate them, permissive legislation itself is not a problem. Unfortunately, my amendment never got debated on the Floor of the House. With the greatest respect to my colleagues on the Treasury Bench, I believe that the Government colluded in that, because they knew that, had it got to the Floor of the House, there was a very good chance that it would have got through, because there is a pro-choice majority on both sides of the House-thank goodness that this is not a party-political issue, as it is in the United States, where we see demonstrations outside abortion clinics.

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I have been struck by the number of letters that I have received from women in Northern Ireland who do not feel that the male politicians who have spoken today speak for them. As people who are currently part of Great Britain, they are looking to their British Parliament to give them relief and to stand up for their rights. Male politicians on both sides in Northern Ireland do not agree on many things, but they agree about abortion. That is what makes women, whether ordinary women, mothers, daughters or those in the FPA, so desperate for their Parliament-we are their Parliament, too-to come to their aid and stand up for their rights.

As colleagues have said, abortion is not a problem for middle-class girls and daughters-even of some politicians in the Assembly-with the necessary money, contacts, time and support. However, it is a problem for thousands of working-class women and girls in Northern Ireland who either have to find the money and so end up coming late in their pregnancy-a doctor has spoken about late abortions-without family support and facing a more dangerous abortion than would otherwise have been the case, or who cannot find the money at all and are forced to attempt a botched job at home.

I will not take lectures on morality from people who are willing to see defenceless, working-class girls frightened and alone attempting to induce an abortion in their back bedroom. Is that morality in the 21st century? This is a difficult issue, but people need to have more respect for women and the seriousness with which they regard this decision. People need to recognise that women in Northern Ireland deprived of their rights for so long look to us, the British Parliament. Somebody said, "What is the urgency? What is the pressing concern?" The pressing concern is that it is 40 years since women in the British isles got that right. We can argue about the parameters of our abortion law, but I do not believe that there is an argument for continuing to treat women in Northern Ireland as second-class citizens.

Finally, a colleague said that he would like the decision taken by an Irish national Parliament. As it happens, yesterday, I was privileged to chair a meeting addressed by the President of Sinn Fein, who was reopening the debate on a united Ireland. I, too, would like to see a decision taken by a Parliament of a united Ireland, but Northern Ireland is currently part of the British isles and this matter falls to the British Parliament. So I apologise to no one for speaking up for the rights of all women in the British isles.

10.39 am

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I have been involved in this debate for more than 40 years, and we have heard today all the arguments made throughout that time. If there is one plea, it is that we go to the barricades in the cause of toleration. Not many people do that. The compromise argument that the women in Northern Ireland who need and agonise over having an abortion should have it paid for in a hospital in Great Britain is perhaps the cause of toleration. Great congratulations should be paid to our Northern Ireland politicians for acquiring such toleration and creating an Assembly that represents a variety of opposing views. Let them please now apply that toleration to this issue as well.

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