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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 11:25 pm on 28th October 2019.

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Photo of Stella Creasy Stella Creasy Labour/Co-operative, Walthamstow 11:25 pm, 28th October 2019

I rise, as the Secretary of State might expect, to ask him another series of questions about the changes in the law regarding abortion in Northern Ireland, which he knows I feel very strongly about. This Act compelled the Secretary of State to act—from start to finish. A week ago, 50% of what the Act asked the Secretary of State to do came into law, which was to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. It has been mentioned already that there was a court case outstanding, and it is worth starting there and talking about the difference made by that 50% of the Act coming into law.

The case involved the mother of a then 15-year-old girl, who was in an abusive relationship. The mother bought her daughter abortion pills online to help her, but when she took her to the doctor was reported to the police under the legal duty to report. It is about removing that legal duty to report; it is not that people who continue to supply abortion pills and are not medically qualified will evade prosecution. It is worth reading into the record the words of that mother, who went into court the day after the legislation came into effect and saw the case against her, which had been hanging over her for so long, abandoned. She said:

“For the first time in six years I can go back to being the mother I was, without the weight of this hanging over me…every day…I am so thankful that the change in the law will allow other women and girls to deal with matters like this privately in their own family circle.”

She said that she could finally move on with her life.

We can debate all the technicalities of these issues, but fundamentally last week something of a magnitude beyond any of our individual comprehensions changed for so many people in Northern Ireland when that Bill became law—in that 50% repeal of the Offences Against the Person Act. And, yes, I think this place should welcome that, not least because the case of the mother I just spoke about shows the human impact of that piece of legislation from the 1800s hanging over the lives of women in Northern Ireland.

I am here this evening to ask the Secretary of State about his duty to finish the other 50% of this legislation, and to ask him what happens now. I share the concern that we need to clarify the regulations. I understand that there is scepticism from some about the existing regulations, and I pay tribute to the shadow Minister, who did a fantastic job of setting out all the existing regulations—and therefore the confidence that many people should have that this is not some free-for-all in Northern Ireland that has happened in the last week—but there is a case for clarifying what the regulations are. That case is being made not least by the doctors who have been writing to the Secretary of State asking for that clarification because, as of last Tuesday, they can prescribe abortion pills.

I think we would all recognise that had this place passed the 1967 legislation for abortion access in England and Wales by saying, “Well, we’re going to say that you can continue to have a back street abortion, but you won’t be prosecuted if you go to A&E”, none of us would have accepted that as a reasonable position. And yet, at this point in time—because it is not clear how doctors in Northern Ireland can prescribe abortion pills to women in Northern Ireland who wish to use them—we are risking saying to women, “Continue buying them online and not being clear about which providers are safe, but at least now you won’t be prosecuted”, as the mother I described had to deal with for many years.

I would really welcome clarification from the Secretary of State about what he is doing with regard to the doctors who are writing to him asking him where they get the prescriptions from and how they make sure they can give safe advice. To be honest, asking women to travel is not a solution. In the past week, the only message we have been able to give to women in Northern Ireland who now wish to access their right to a safe, legal and local abortion is that they have to travel. If they have family commitments, if they are in abusive relationships or if they do not have the relevant travel documentation, that is not a solution for them.