It is an honour to be a co-signatory with Stella Creasy in securing this debate.
The Offences Against the Person Act 1861 is a Victorian consolidation statute kept workable only by means of regular reinterpretations and case law; it is a creaking legislative machine held together by bolt-on updates. Unalloyed, this Act makes criminals of both desperate women and compassionate doctors. The decision to decriminalise abortion is a human rights question and thus a reserved matter for Westminster. If the decision were made to decriminalise abortion—if it were no longer a crime with exemptions—it would become a devolved healthcare competency, and Wales, where criminal justice is not devolved, would have greater powers than is currently the case.
What could we do with such powers in Wales? First, we could consider the need for two doctors’ signatures. In an area like rural Dwyfor Meirionnydd, this means either two visits to different GPs or a visit to a GP and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service clinic in Llandudno. In much of Wales, there is only the option of two GPs, with all the fear of being recognised and of being talked about and the stigma this entails in close communities. We must remember that these are places where a person’s mother will know the GPs and everyone is afraid that the receptionist knows everybody’s business and will be talking about it. Across much of Wales, there is a shortage of accessible GPs, too, so much so that 12% of women in Cardiff who seek the procedure attend private abortion clinics because they are afraid that the NHS will be too slow for them.
If this area was truly devolved, the National Assembly for Wales could also move ahead with confidence with powers to allow women to undertake the second stage of a medical abortion at home, rather than having to be seen by medics at a clinic twice. I ask Members to think about the fact that as things stand they would have to travel either in a car or by public transport back home from the clinic with the effects of a medical abortion starting on them as they travel. I ask Members to think, too, about the recommendation that they should not drive themselves to and from the clinic and all that means in terms of confidentiality; do they tell their mother or grandmother—should they come with them, or should their best friend come with them?
That is what the contemporary law means for women in Wales, because of a piece of legislation that was patched together 157 years ago. Repealing sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Act would allow devolution to change this, and arguing that devolution for Stormont is a reason to deny this for Wales is ironic considering clause 11 of the EU withdrawal Bill and the power-grab implicit in it.
The criminalisation of abortion does not prevent abortion. The Guttmacher Institute publishes figures showing that abortion rates in countries with prohibition stand at 37 per 1,000 women as opposed to 34 per 1,000 in countries where abortion is not restricted; they are virtually identical. Highly restrictive laws do not eliminate the practice of abortion, but they reduce women’s safety and increase the distress of undertaking the procedure.
Let us face it: no one wants an abortion, but our control of our own lives must not be at the mercy of biology. Deciding whether to have children, and when and how many children to have, is a fundamental human right.