Offences Against the Person Act 1861

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:35 pm on 5th June 2018.

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Photo of Diana R. Johnson Diana R. Johnson Labour, Kingston upon Hull North 4:35 pm, 5th June 2018

Since I have been in Parliament, our debates about this issue have always been about restricting and reducing women’s right to abortion and right to choose. Three things have heartened me in the past 12 months, however. First, in March last year, we had a debate here on a ten-minute rule Bill, to which Maria Caulfield responded. It would have done what my hon. Friend Stella Creasy proposes: repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. The House listened carefully, and Parliament voted to support the idea. I was heartened by that: it was the first time that there had been any progressive step since the Abortion Act 1967 came in.

The second thing was, of course, the referendum in Ireland, which has now shone a spotlight on the position in Northern Ireland and the fact that we need to do something about it. The third thing is the court case on which we will have a judgment on Thursday. I think and hope that the Supreme Court will set out that the claims on human rights issues for women—the article 3 and article 8 claims—have been upheld. That would mean that the British Government would have to take action. Human rights are not devolved to the Assembly; they are something that this Parliament needs to deal with.

Dr Wollaston, the Chair of the Health Committee, said that times were changing and that we needed to prepare and get ready. I offer Members on the Treasury Bench something that I have been working on along with Gordon Nardell, QC, and Professor Sally Sheldon: a new abortion Act for England and Wales. It sets out clearly how abortion can be decriminalised, as has happened in one of the states in Australia, where there has not been an increase in late-term abortions. I say to the hon. Members for Lewes and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) that my proposals last year, and the ones I am supporting with my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, are about abortions up to 24 weeks; the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 would stay on the statute book and cover abortions post 24 weeks. It is important that we update our legislation on abortion, to make it woman-centred and about the health needs of women, and to reflect the medical changes since the 1967 Act was brought in.

I also want to bring into any new abortion law a specific new offence of coercing a woman into having an abortion. I hope that the hon. Member for Lewes will support me on that; she has made a lot of that issue and the issue of sex-selection abortion. I also want a specific offence of causing an abortion through use of force or violence or the non-consensual administration of abortion tablets. In any new Bill, we need to introduce measures to protect and support women. But I ask this fundamental question: why do countries such as Poland and the United States of America not criminalise their women, while we in this country still have on the statute book the offences under sections 58 and 59, criminalising women who seek an abortion?