Women in Britain had a chance to win improved abortion rights for the first time in 18 years last week. But the plans were disgracefully scuppered by a diktat from New Labour that blocked MPs from even debating the measures.
The government’s Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill was discussed on Wednesday of last week.
Pro-choice MPs tabled amendments to the bill that sought to improve abortion law.
The proposals involved extending the 1967 Abortion Act to cover Northern Ireland, removing the requirement for women seeking abortion to obtain two doctors’ signatures and allowing nurses to carry out abortions.
But the government used a procedural manoeuvre to block the amendments. The official reason for this move, given by leader of the Commons Harriet Harman, is that discussing the pro-choice amendments would open the door to anti-choice legislation, particularly in the House of Lords.
The logic of this absurd position is that progressive legislation on abortion should never be put forward at all.
But many campaigners believe the real reason for the sell out lies elsewhere.
In June the government only managed to pass legislation on 42-day detention without charge thanks to support from the reactionary bigots of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
Labour is rumoured to have done a deal promising that abortion rights would not be extended to Northern Ireland in return for DUP support for 42-day detention.
Women seeking abortion face enough unnecessary obstacles and delays in accessing services as it is.
And in Northern Ireland, women have no right to abortion except if their life or long term health is in danger.
Every year around 2,000 women are forced to travel out of Northern Ireland to access abortion services. Those who can’t afford to do so are left with the “choice” of either raising an unwanted child or risking a dangerous illegal abortion.
Pro-choice activists reacted with anger to the news on Tuesday, when they held a lobby at the House of Commons on the eve of the debate.
Diane Abbott, one of the Labour MPs who had tabled the pro-choice amendments, spoke at the lobby. “The government has let down women in Northern Ireland,” she said. “How can they live with themselves?”
Unfortunately some MPs who backed the pro-choice amendments did not challenge the government’s 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. We must continue the fight to defend and extend those rights – and stand up to the anti-abortion bigots rather than pandering to their prejudices.