Abortion is rightly a very emotional issue and people have very strong personal views. This is not the first time in my life that I have been asked to vote on abortion. During my eight years in the European Parliament, I found that Members of the European Parliament vote on abortion nearly every month. Every time that that Parliament considers foreign policy in another part of the world, there is a detailed statement about human rights, birth control and abortion. I have voted on abortion policy in countries as far afield as Russia, China and India, and all over the world. If people check my voting record, they will see that I always support the woman’s right to choose. I always support the woman’s right to access contraception, and I never support the death penalty.
The debate in Ireland shone a light. The people of the Republic of Ireland voted for reform, and we, as their nearest neighbours, should support their decision. But the debate today is about whether we should repeal parts of our UK abortion law—specifically, the sections that make it a crime for a woman to try to cause her own abortion, or for anyone to help her or to supply anything that causes that abortion. This type of criminalisation is out of line with most other western countries and I understand the calls to modernise the law. But repealing those two sections would not solve the issue. If they are repealed, there would need to be new safeguards to protect women and a new legal framework.
In my many votes in the European Parliament, I was acutely aware of how challenging it is when politicians in one part of the world try to tell others what to do, especially on moral issues. The detailed legal framework must be a matter for locally accountable politicians. In Northern Ireland, there are deeply held views. Polls suggest that the majority want reform, but there is no agreement on the detail. Some say abortion should be permitted in the case of life-limiting conditions, others say for rape or incest, and others say they want the same law that side of the water as we have this side of the water. These issues need to be considered.
As someone who was born and went to Sunday school in Northern Ireland, I see the huge sensitivities that could arise if we in Westminster try to legislate over the heads of the devolved Government—it is a devolved issue—but for over a year the parties in Northern Ireland have not taken up their seats. The Members have taken their salaries but not their responsibilities, and that has left people in many areas facing uncertainty. Decisions need to be made. If the Supreme Court decides that the Northern Irish abortion laws breach the ECHR, this Government will have to take action. The UK is a champion of human rights all over the world. We cannot turn a blind eye and will be forced to act.
I do not want this House to have to take action on matters that should be decided locally. I think it is right, therefore, that the Secretary of State has gone over there to kick-start the restoration of the Assembly. It is time for the Assembly. It is time to redouble those efforts. Assembly Members of Northern Ireland, I know you are listening. If you truly care about the women of Northern Ireland, if you truly care about the babies of the women of Northern Ireland, now is the time to show leadership, take up your seats and take these decisions. Otherwise I fear we may have to.