Offences Against the Person Act 1861

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:20 pm on 5th June 2018.

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Photo of Tracy Brabin Tracy Brabin Shadow Minister (Education) 4:20 pm, 5th June 2018

I thank my hon. Friend Stella Creasy for securing the debate and my hon. Friend Diana Johnson for her campaigning on this subject. I also thank Conservative Members—men and women—who stood yesterday to show their support for the debate.

During my short time in this place, one of my favourite roles has been as a member of the Women and Equalities Committee. There we discussed, on many occasions, the right of a woman to choose, and resisting the criminalisation of women, wherever they live, for taking control of their destinies and bodies. Working with the Equality and Human Rights Commission, the World Health Organisation and other organisations in many countries around the world, we have encouraged Governments to trust women with their bodies and to listen to women. I believe that Northern Ireland is the last piece in that global jigsaw.

The United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women found that abortion law in Northern Ireland constitutes a “grave and systematic” violation of rights—our rights—and recommended that the Government decriminalise abortion in the UK. It cannot be right to criminalise a woman for wanting an abortion for any of the myriad and complex reasons that women have when they choose the right to say, “I can’t have this child.”

Repealing sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act 1861 would mean that Stormont and the people of Northern Ireland could make their own decisions. The time is right. The Republic of Ireland has shown the way. As all those Irish women and men from far-flung places around the world descended on the Republic to demand change for themselves, and their sisters, daughters and mothers, I, like many in this House, felt proud to watch those scenes. I believe that what happened enhanced the global reputation of the Republic as a modern, progressive country determined to put a woman’s rights over her body at the front and centre of their political conversation.

The world is changing and we have to keep pace. With #MeToo, the new transparency around the gender pay gap and this transformation in Ireland, women’s voices are being heard, and it is time that we listened. I have no doubt that there are people in Northern Ireland watching this debate who are desperate to have a chance to engage with this conversation, such as members of Belfast City Council, which in 2018 passed a motion stating that abortion is a health issue, not a criminal issue. The only political party that opposed the motion was the DUP. I believe that resistance against this repeal is a decision of political cynicism. It is cruel and controlling, and lacking in humanity.

We all loved—and were terrified by—the last series, and the new one, of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Do not let women from Northern Ireland look back on this moment and say, “That’s when the Government turned back the clock, held us back, ignored our human rights, and treated us like criminals because we wanted the power to make our own decision about whether and when we have children.” It is time. We must—must—do the right thing.