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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 completely agree. What I am saying, therefore, is that the Secretary of State now has a responsibility to the women and girls in Northern Ireland who wish to be able to access this right to make sure that there is clarity about where they can get abortion pills prescribed by a medical professional. These changes were never about removing the medical component of abortion, but simply about recognising that it should be a medical rather than a criminal matter.

The Secretary of State will know from the letters that I have been writing to his Department that I am concerned that there has not been clarity for women and girls in Northern Ireland about their rights and how to access those rights in the past week. There needs to be more public information about how to access an abortion, alongside the work to make sure that they can access a safe abortion. He will know of the long-standing concerns that many of us have about the concept of public consultation. While he talks about both sides of the debate, he himself has been clear that what is up for debate is not whether abortion is available in Northern Ireland but how it happens. Many of us consider that to be a purely medical question. Indeed, the legislation required the Secretary of State to do this in line with the CEDAW––convention on the elimination of all forms of discrimination against women—principles.

A week ago, the Secretary of State’s junior Minister—I am sorry, but I am not quite sure of his role—said that the consultation would be published on the following day. We are now a week on. We do not have any of the details of that consultation—what the Government believe they should consult on that meant that any consultation would be in line with the CEDAW principles and would not undermine what this House decided, which is that women in Northern Ireland should be able to access an abortion equally. The Secretary of State talks about consulting the widest range of stakeholders, but he will understand the concern that many of us have about bringing non-medical professionals into the provision of medical services, and, indeed, as Emma Little Pengelly has highlighted, the importance of having proper medical engagement.

Let us be honest about this: there is no way a member of a Church community would have the same medical standing as, say, doctors or the royal colleges with regard to the specifics of how a medical procedure is provided. It is absolutely imperative that we have the details of what the Secretary of State thinks he is going to consult on and how he squares that with the CEDAW requirements, so that we can be confident that he is not opening a hornets’ nest when it comes to providing the other 50% of this legislation.

It is very important that we put to bed any suggestion that anything has changed in the time limits through what happened last week. The 1945 Act, which the shadow Minister mentioned, is still in place. That is very clear about not changing the viability provisions. People talk about abortions at five months, but that is not what is being talked about in Northern Ireland at all. If anything, modern medicine changes the concept of what viability is to perhaps something that people would consider to be even lower. But there is an issue when it comes to fatal foetal abnormalities and the Bourne judgment. Again, the CEDAW judgment called our attention to how that is interpreted in Northern Ireland, with the concern about how the concepts of the preservation of the life of the mother and of long-term damage were being interpreted. It is vital that the Government address this so that we can be sure that women in Northern Ireland are not being treated differently with regard to preservation of life from women in England and Wales.

We know that the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence clinical guidelines apply, but can the Secretary of State confirm that those will be used to deal with these sorts of issues? While the vast majority of abortions happen before 10 weeks, there are some very sad cases that involve late-term abortions, often for very good medical and health reasons. It is vital, in separating out these two issues and ensuring that people in Northern Ireland have confidence about what this legislation has done and the regulations that the Government will bring in, that those issues are addressed. We know that whether people can access a safe, legal abortion has no impact on the rate of abortion, but we also know that keeping people safe starts with ensuring that they are not criminalised for wanting to make a basic human right choice—to have control over their own body.

I urge the Secretary of State to address those issues. In this interim period, many women in Northern Ireland will need our help and support; I have been contacted by women who are not clear about how to access these services. They have seen that their human rights are finally being upheld, and now they need the Secretary of State to finish the job—which he alone can do, because the legislation was clear that it ultimately rests with him to protect their human rights—that the House asked him to do in July and that came to fruition last Monday.