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Parliamentary Debate on Abortion Law in Northern Ireland

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15 Jul 2009

Ms Diane Abbott: Like all hon. Members in this Chamber—I think—I believe that any abortion is a tragedy. However, let me press a point on some of my male colleagues: they talk as though women take abortions lightly and that they do it for social convenience and without thought. I urge my male colleagues to have a little more respect for the women of Northern Ireland. Every woman whom I have known who has had, or contemplated, an abortion has gone through agony. So I should like to hear a little more respect for women who face that appalling decision.

Nadine Dorries: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Ms Abbott: I am afraid that time is against me.

In July last year, I tabled an amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008 that would have extended the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland. I did not do that because I wanted to override the will of the Assembly. We should bear in mind that that is permissive legislation. If it applied to Northern Ireland, it would not force a single woman there to have an abortion, which is why some of what I have heard is so wrong-headed. If women do not want to have abortions, and if they are not in positions in which they need to contemplate them, permissive legislation itself is not a problem. Unfortunately, my amendment never got debated on the Floor of the House. With the greatest respect to my colleagues on the Treasury Bench, I believe that the Government colluded in that, because they knew that, had it got to the Floor of the House, there was a very good chance that it would have got through, because there is a pro-choice majority on both sides of the House—thank goodness that this is not a party-political issue, as it is in the United States, where we see demonstrations outside abortion clinics.

I have been struck by the number of letters that I have received from women in Northern Ireland who do not feel that the male politicians who have spoken today speak for them. As people who are currently part of Great Britain, they are looking to their British Parliament to give them relief and to stand up for their rights. Male politicians on both sides in Northern Ireland do not agree on many things, but they agree about abortion. That is what makes women, whether ordinary women, mothers, daughters or those in the FPA, so desperate for their Parliament—we are their Parliament, too—to come to their aid and stand up for their rights.

As colleagues have said, abortion is not a problem for middle-class girls and daughters—even of some politicians in the Assembly—with the necessary money, contacts, time and support. However, it is a problem for thousands of working-class women and girls in Northern Ireland who either have to find the money and so end up coming late in their pregnancy—a doctor has spoken about late abortions—without family support and facing a more dangerous abortion than would otherwise have been the case, or who cannot find the money at all and are forced to attempt a botched job at home.

I will not take lectures on morality from people who are willing to see defenceless, working-class girls frightened and alone attempting to induce an abortion in their back bedroom. Is that morality in the 21st century? This is a difficult issue, but people need to have more respect for women and the seriousness with which they regard this decision. People need to recognise that women in Northern Ireland deprived of their rights for so long look to us, the British Parliament. Somebody said, “What is the urgency? What is the pressing concern?” The pressing concern is that it is 40 years since women in the British isles got that right. We can argue about the parameters of our abortion law, but I do not believe that there is an argument for continuing to treat women in Northern Ireland as second-class citizens.

Finally, a colleague said that he would like the decision taken by an Irish national Parliament. As it happens, yesterday, I was privileged to chair a meeting addressed by the President of Sinn Fein, who was reopening the debate on a united Ireland. I, too, would like to see a decision taken by a Parliament of a united Ireland, but Northern Ireland is currently part of the British isles and this matter falls to the British Parliament. So I apologise to no one for speaking up for the rights of all women in the British isles.


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