Amendment 12

Part of Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill - Report – in the House of Lords at 7:15 pm on 17th July 2019.

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Photo of Lord Steel of Aikwood Lord Steel of Aikwood Liberal Democrat 7:15 pm, 17th July 2019

My Lords, I think the House knows that I was the person who piloted the Abortion Act 1967 through the other place. I begin by thanking the Government, and this Minister in particular, for their readiness to respect the overwhelming vote in the House of Commons recently to bring the law in Northern Ireland into line. I was slightly puzzled by the fact that although the Government made the commitment to put right what they saw as deficiencies in the drafting in the Commons, that has not happened, and we have no government amendments before us today. Perhaps the Minister will explain why that is so. I am assuming that we will now go forward and that after the consultation there will be effective introduction of a statutory instrument. Presumably that is what the Government have in mind to change the law in Northern Ireland.

It is worth reminding the House that the 1967 legislation started in 1966, here in the House of Lords. I drew a place in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills and picked up the Bill that had already been passed in this House—it was this House that pioneered the legislation, not the House of Commons. Although we made substantial changes to the Bill, it started here and it is worth reminding ourselves of that. I shall quote something that I have quoted very often. Dr John Marks, when he retired as the secretary to the British Medical Association in 1992 after 40 years, said:

“Looking back over these forty years, it seems to me that the event which has had the most beneficial effect on public health during that period was the passage of the Abortion Act”.

That is a remarkable thing for a senior medic to say, but it is a tribute to this House that that happened.

Three things have changed substantially since the 1967 legislation, which I want to draw to the attention of the House. The first is that in 1967, in terms of the European Union, we were the pioneers in legislating for abortion. Other countries had not done it. One outcome was that, immediately after our law was passed, we started to get some traffic from other European countries. People were coming into Britain and Britain was being portrayed as the abortion capital of Europe. The press was full of stories about taxis at Heathrow Airport bringing women here. This was a great embarrassment to the Government at the time and, frankly, an embarrassment to me as the author of the legislation, but that is what happened. What has changed since 1967 is that the rest of Europe has changed its legislation and has in fact gone ahead of the 1967 legislation. Most European countries have based their law on it being a woman’s right to choose up to the 12th or 13th week of pregnancy. That is very different from the Abortion Act 1967.

I want to stress that a very important document that influenced me and a lot of people at the time was the Church of England report Abortion—an Ethical Discussion, by far the best treatise on the morality of abortion that I have ever read. It influenced my own church, the Church of Scotland and the Methodist Church and I think it influenced opinion in European countries as well. Most of their legislation is based on the belief or doctrine that the Roman Catholic Church put forward right up until the late 19th century, which said that the soul entered the body at the time of animation or quickening. That was the fundamental reason that the European countries introduced this law making a distinction between abortion up to the 12th or 13th week of pregnancy and thereafter. It is very different from the Abortion Act 1967, but it is a fundamental change. Now, of course, the latest country to join in is the Republic of Ireland, so Northern Ireland stands out quite distinctly as having no abortion at all compared not just to the rest of the UK but to the rest of Europe.

The second thing that has changed since 1967 is the composition of the House of Commons. It is very difficult for us to remember that back in 1966-67, when we were debating this legislation, there were only a couple of dozen women MPs in the Commons. One of them was the noble Baroness, Lady Boothroyd, who was in her place earlier today. She gave great support to the legislation, but there were only a couple of dozen women. Now there are a couple of hundred women, and that is why we have had this overwhelming vote in favour of changing the law in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to the women MPs—Stella Creasy, Diana Johnson, Sarah Wollaston and Rupa Huq in particular—who have promoted this cause. It is a fundamental change since 1967.

The third change since 1967, perhaps the most significant, is the fact that in 1967 we were legislating on the only method of abortion, which was surgery. Now, of course, we have the two abortion pills and that has made fundamental difference to how abortion is treated. In Northern Ireland, because of the lack of law, we have had changes in the administration, first in Scotland and then in England and Wales, allowing women from Northern Ireland to come and use the NHS facilities on this side of the Irish Sea. More than 1,000 did so last year but, frankly, this is not satisfactory. We cannot expect every woman who requires or wants to consider an abortion to have the time and the money to travel across the Irish Sea to use facilities in Scotland or England and Wales, but 1,000 have done so. The fact that these pills are available on the internet but, as has been said, at some risk given the state of the law, has led to an appalling situation where people in Northern Ireland can buy the pills on the internet and run the risk of running counter to the law on abortion in Northern Ireland, which is the Offences against the Person Act 1861. That is why we are right to consider making this change now.

All the medical bodies support the change, including the Royal College of Obstetricians, the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Midwives. In recent weeks we have listened time and again to the fact that the people and politicians of Northern Ireland do not wish to see a statutory trade barrier down the middle of the Irish Sea, and they are surely right about that. However, what we have at the moment is a statutory social barrier down the middle of the Irish Sea, and that is why we are right to remove it.