The Labour government has disgracefully blocked attempts to improve abortion law in Britain for the first time in 40 years.
The government’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill is being discussed in the House of Commons today.
Pro-choice amendments to the bill proposed improving abortion law – by extending the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, removing the requirement for women seeking abortion to obtain two doctors’ signatures and allowing nurses to carry out abortions.
Yesterday MPs were informed that they would not even be allowed to debate these amendments, as Labour shifted them to the end of the debate where they will fall due to lack of time.
The official reason for this given by Harriet Harman, leader of the Commons, is that discussing pro-choice amendments would open the door to anti-choice legislation, particularly in the House of Lords.
The logic of this position is to never put forward any progressive legislation at all.
It appears that Labour has prioritised placating the anti-abortion Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) above defending women’s rights.
Last June Labour only managed to pass legislation on 42-day detention without charge thanks to support from DUP MPs.
Labour is rumoured to have done a deal promising that abortion rights would not be extended to Northern Ireland in return for the DUP support for 42-day detention.
Every year around 2,000 women are forced to travel out of Northern Ireland to access abortion services.
Pro-choice activists reacted with anger to the news on Tuesday evening, when they held a lobby outside the House of Commons on the eve of the debate.
Women had travelled from Northern Ireland to join the lobby. Helen McGowan, from the Alliance for Choice in Belfast, told Socialist Worker, “It’s hard enough for women to make the decision to have an abortion.
“That women then have to raise the money to travel, arrange an abortion abroad and hide it from family and friends is despicable.
“Often people in Belfast say they are opposed to abortion. But that’s quite superficial.
“When you actually speak to people and explain that it should be a woman’s right to choose for herself – you find that people agree.”
Students and trade unionists joined the lobby. Katie Curtis, the NUS women’s officer, told Socialist Worker, “Extending the Act to Northern Ireland is really important. Although some women can pay for private abortions, lots of women just don’t have the means to do that.'
Diane Abbott MP, who had tabled pro-choice amendments, spoke at the lobby. “The government has let down women in Northern Ireland,” she said.
“How can they live with themselves? It means that women in Northern Ireland are treated as second class citizens.”
Unfortunately some MPs who backed the pro-choice amendments did not challenge the move. Labour MP Emily Thornberry’s reaction to the government's decision was, “It breaks your heart – but what do you do?”
For all those committed to abortion rights the answer is clear – continue to fight to defend and extend those rights.
For details of upcoming campaigns and events go to » www.abortionrights.org.uk