I have been asked to answer this question. As with other matters of conscience, abortion is an issue on which the Government adopt a neutral stance and allow Members to vote according to their moral, ethical or religious beliefs. As the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care has responsibility for abortion policy, I am an instrument of the House in that regard and I will discharge the instructions of the House in the best interests of patient safety.
The Government have a duty to see that the provisions of the Abortion Act 1967 are properly applied until, and unless, Parliament chooses further to amend that law. The hon. Lady will be aware that the Abortion Act—the legislation affecting England and Wales—is an amendment to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Notwithstanding the issues in Northern Ireland, the Government currently have no plans to amend sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Act in England and Wales.
Abortion is an extremely sensitive issue, and there are very strongly held views on all sides of the debate. Given this, any significant changes to the law require careful consideration and full consultation with the medical profession and others. Moreover, it is right that MPs and peers—or the devolved legislatures, as the case may be—have adequate opportunity to scrutinise any legislation fully. The Joint Committee on the draft Domestic Abuse Bill has also made it clear that abortion is not a matter for the Domestic Abuse Bill, which the House will consider shortly.
The question of potential reform to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws, through the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill if no restored Government are in place, should not be cause to reform the system in England and Wales. Abortion in England and Wales is already accessible and serves the needs of women seeking to access such services. The law also provides protection for the medical profession in carrying out its functions and duty of care to women.
As abortion is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, the Government’s preference remains that a restored Executive and a functioning Assembly take forward any reforms to the law and policy on this issue. It is our hope that devolved government will be restored at the earliest opportunity through the current talks process.
We do, however, recognise the strength of feeling expressed by the House in the amendments to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill, which place a duty on the Government to make regulations to reform Northern Ireland’s abortion laws if there is no restored Executive by
The Government will also work with service providers to ensure that, in the meantime, the scheme provided in England for women from Northern Ireland continues to be fully accessible and that appropriate information is provided to those seeking to access those services. It remains my priority to provide safe access to abortion services under the law, as set by Parliament.
I appreciate this is an emotive issue, on which there are strongly held views, and I am sure it is something we will continue to debate in Parliament over the coming months, but I end by reminding the House that, over the past 50 years, the Abortion Act has ensured that women have access to legal safe abortion, which has contributed to a significant reduction in maternal mortality and has helped to empower women to make informed choices at what can be a very sensitive and difficult time in their lives.