It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I commend all the Members who have taken part and thank the organisations that have given us briefings, including Engender, Scottish Women’s Aid and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.
“The situation in Northern Ireland constitutes violence against women that may amount to torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment”.
We have to bear that in mind in all these discussions. As I said in my interventions, we have to deploy respect for each other, and there have been a range of views and proposals from Members in different parts of the Chamber.
I congratulate and commend Stella Creasy for bringing this issue to the House in such a brave fashion. I must say that I have become more swayed by the arguments as the debate has gone on, but for DUP Members to suggest that women opt for abortions as a matter of convenience, or to talk about unborn children being thrown in the bin or babies being disposed of, are disgusting ways to describe the choices that women have to make anywhere in the UK but particularly in Northern Ireland. The fact that the legislation that governs some women’s reproductive rights was made at the time when Parliament passed the Capital Punishment Amendment Act 1868 to end public hanging shows that so little has been thought of women’s health in some areas that it is deemed appropriate for our bodies to be governed by a law that is so old that no one is left to remember it.
We must recognise the extraordinary circumstances in which we find ourselves. The Republic has voted, and we must wait to see what legislation comes forward and what impact it will have on women who travel for an abortion and on services in the Republic. In November 2015, a High Court judge ruled that Northern Ireland’s almost outright ban on abortion breaches the human rights of women and girls, including rape victims. I have huge sympathy with the women of Northern Ireland—I stand with them. The stories of women travelling alone and scared to another country for an abortion when many of them have already endured a trauma strike at the very heart of why we are elected. We are here to stand up to injustice and to protect our citizens.
This is a hugely complex issue both constitutionally and in human rights terms. A report by a House of Lords Committee said that the issue of whether human rights are devolved or reserved is not as clearcut as it has been presented as being. I cannot give fuller details because of time constraints.
As my hon. Friend Alison Thewliss highlighted, we are criminalising women in the most desperate of circumstances. There have been discussions about the notion of a referendum to ask for the views of the people of Northern Ireland. We must recognise the different constitutional situation between the north and the Republic, and I have some sympathy with the women’s organisations that are quite rightly saying that women’s rights are inherent and should not be up for popular vote.
Women in Ireland told their stories to convey the devastating impact of the eighth amendment. It took great emotional courage for those women to speak out, and we must pay tribute to them. Why would we subject the women of Northern Ireland to the same situation? I say to the hon. Member for Walthamstow and others that we have before us in the motion a statement of intent. I am not a constitutional expert, and I do not have a great legal brain, but I have some concerns about the practicalities of it. I also see merits in the argument, and I make this commitment to her and to the women of Northern Ireland: should she bring forward proposals on this issue in the Domestic Abuse Bill, or in another way, I will work with her, and meet and engage with others across parties, to look at those proposals. The Northern Ireland Assembly must reform itself as soon as possible—