Offences Against the Person Act 1861

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:15 pm on 5th June 2018.

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Photo of Fiona Bruce Fiona Bruce Conservative, Congleton 4:15 pm, 5th June 2018

At the heart of this debate are women who are placed in what is often the most difficult situation of their lives. It is important that whenever we discuss this issue, we do so with as much compassion and understanding for them as possible. With that in mind, I shall endeavour to contribute to this debate without any animosity for those who hold distinctly different views from my own pro-life views. I believe that the unborn child has an equal place to be considered in this debate, but I also believe that it is vital that we endeavour to debate in an atmosphere of courtesy and respect.

Stella Creasy said yesterday when applying for the debate:

“It is little wonder that the United Nations has said that we must act”.—[Official Report, 4 June 2018;
Vol. 642, c. 90.]

That is a very powerful statement. If she based that statement on an inquiry report published in February this year by the UN committee, I would like to make some comments. Following this debate, I am sure that she will clarify whether her statement is based on a further authority.

The UN committee was considering the convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women—CEDAW. The inquiry report has been cited by campaigners as one of the main justifications for reviewing Northern Irish abortion law yet, as I understand it, that committee has no capacity or standing to give a binding adjudication on the UK’s obligations under that convention, and nor does it have any authority to interpret that convention, as that is reserved to the International Court of Justice. Therefore, an invitation to the Home Secretary to treat that report as authoritative is, I understand—I am quoting the opinion of Mark Hill, QC —“flawed”.

It is interesting to note that the UK Government have commented on that report. After reviewing it and pointing out several factual inaccuracies, they said:

“For the reasons outlined above, the UK Government does not accept that women from Northern Ireland have been subject to grave and systematic violations of their rights under the Convention…The Committee’s findings and recommendations which focus on changes to the criminal law on abortion cannot be addressed in the absence of a legislature with authority to legislate on such matters in Northern Ireland.”

I am sure that the Ministers who will consider the situation are already aware of that statement. I profoundly disagree with the report, as it is disrespectful to the people of Northern Ireland, on such a sensitive issue, to suggest that this Parliament should consider changing laws that would affect abortion. Abortion has been a transferred matter, as have health and social services, equal opportunities and justice.

Let me turn to another comment made by the hon. Member for Walthamstow in relation to the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929. I ask Ministers to look into this and obtain a legal opinion for the House, because it is a very important matter. This issue is complex but, as I understand it, the 1929 Act and the Abortion Act 1967 were decoupled by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990. This means that those two Acts bear no relation to each other anymore, so the Abortion Act’s safeguards would in fact be removed if the relevant sections of Offences Against the Person Act were repealed as proposed. As I say, this is such a complex issue, so given the advice I have had, I think it is worth asking Ministers to look into this very carefully.

The proposers of this debate clearly want to go further and decriminalise—remove the legislative safeguards that have been in place. We already have some of the most liberal abortion laws in the world, yet I believe that campaigners want to liberalise them further. Ann Furedi, the chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, has said, “I want to be very clear: there should be no legal upper limit.” Colleagues should be under no illusions. Repealing these sections of the 1861 Act would effectively pave the way to review comprehensively our current abortion legislation not just for Northern Ireland, but for England and Wales. We could see abortion on demand throughout pregnancy. That would be wrong and we should resist it.