Offences Against the Person Act 1861

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:04 pm on 5th June 2018.

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Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Labour, Pontypridd 5:04 pm, 5th June 2018

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that excellent intervention. Devolution necessarily means that there will be differences between the jurisdictions of the United Kingdom, but it should not mean that people in any one part of the UK should have a diminished set of rights. That is what we are dealing with in Northern Ireland.

I became utterly convinced of this case when I led a delegation of Labour MPs to Northern Ireland earlier this year to hear directly from the women of Northern Ireland about their experiences. One of the women who spoke to us has been mentioned several times in today’s debate. Sarah Ewart has become a great champion for the cause of reform in Northern Ireland, and her story is typical. At 19 weeks, she was diagnosed as having a foetus with anencephaly, a fatal neural tube defect. The baby was never going to live. She was unaware of the circumstances and went to her GP to ask for an abortion, only to be told that she could not have one. She ended up spending over £2,500 to come to England and undergo a not terribly satisfactory procedure, and being traumatised in the process. She is one of hundreds of women undertaking that journey, and one of thousands who have contemplated seeking, or have sought, medication on the internet to bring about an early termination. That cannot be right in 2018 in any part of the United Kingdom. It cannot be right that we endure circumstances in which the Victorian practice of backstreet abortions is growing in part of the United Kingdom. That should simply be unacceptable.

I want briefly to talk about the politics of this. Hon. Members from Northern Ireland have spoken with knowledge of their communities, but I do not think that we have heard a completely full account of where public opinion lies in Northern Ireland, or of the political situation there. One of the parties in Northern Ireland has changed its view recently—Sinn Féin has moved its position—and other political parties, notably the Ulster Unionist party, have previously stated that this would be a matter of conscience, were there to be a vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly. So it is not black and white that there is political opposition to this across the board in Northern Ireland. Nor is it right to say that there is public opposition, because some of the most recent polls have shown that up to 75% of people in Northern Ireland, of all faiths and none, believe that there should be decriminalisation there.