An apparent dirty deal to keep abortion out of Northern Ireland has also led to the shelving of crucial reforms in Britain.
Polly Toynbee The Guardian, Tuesday October 21 2008
When pro-choice demonstrators gather outside parliament today, they really will have cause to protest. In an extraordinary stitch-up, the government has cheated its way out of the abortion debate that was scheduled to be part of tomorrow's human fertilisation and embryology bill. Campaigners are blistering with fury that procedural sleight of hand will deny the chance to reform the forty-year old abortion act.
The government has agreed to let all abortion amendments slip to the bottom, with no time to debate them. Their stated reason is a fear that if reforming abortion amendments are included when the bill goes to the Lords, the upper house may overturn them and instead of making progressive reforms, revert to a harsher time limit and other restrictions. The Lib Dem MP Evan Harris, a leading reformer, rejects this argument out of hand, with plenty of evidence that the Lords has repeatedly voted pro-abortion and strongly supports the whole bill.
What's behind this? A simple miscalculation about the nature of the Lords? Unlikely since it has in recent years voted eight times in favour of abortion and embryo issues. Harris accuses Labour of political cowardice and fearing to support pro-abortion reforms.
Here's the case for reform: the 1967 abortion law casts women as too morally unreliable to decide if they should become mothers. Two doctors must agree that a pregnancy can be terminated; women must plead psychological cause and attend a registered clinic. All that adds to cruel delays: some women still wait six weeks.
Doctors are not making a medical diagnosis, but giving or withholding their moral blessing. Not surprisingly, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists wants an end to this archaic hypocrisy. In these days of "choice" and "empowerment" for patients, doctors are not priests. How odd that women should be morally incapable of making this most important decision and yet might be compelled against their will to become mothers - presumably morally incompetent ones.
Tomorrow's debate was due to be a tug of war between pro- and anti-abortion amendments. Reformers wanted modest change: one doctor to sign instead of two; nurses able to administer pills for early abortions; and women allowed to take those pills at a GP clinic, to make it quicker and cheaper.
Maybe the government took fright at eye-popping anti-abortion propaganda, with the Daily Mail trumpeting "Girls aged 12 could get abortion drugs", and citing the MP Nadine Dorries' lurid images of 12-year-olds home alone "experiencing pain like they've never thought possible, bleeding like they never imagined and then flushing their own abortions down the toilet".
After failing to cut the abortion limit to 20 weeks, Dorries and others put down amendments demanding a signature from three doctors, including a psychiatrist; compulsory counselling on the merits of adoption; warnings of the "psychological risks" of abortion; and a seven-day "cooling-off period". Worst of all, they want to restrict the definition of a "seriously handicapped" foetus and ban all abortions after 24 weeks, even in the case of anencephaly, where there is no chance of survival.
But there is no reason to think any of these would have passed. The suspicion remains that the reason why the government dished the whole debate is Diane Abbott's crucial amendment to extend abortion to Northern Ireland, resisted ferociously by all Northern Ireland parties and by the government. When this bill was debated in May, ministers browbeat Labour MPs to drop it with extreme warnings that the Northern Ireland peace agreement would collapse. One MP described the pressure of being told that a secret tipping point in the peace process had been reached, and that very week was make or break. The MP broke. There has been no evidence of such a tipping point, but the frighteners behind the speaker's chair were highly effective.
Despite adamant denials, many are convinced that Labour made a dirty deal with the Democratic Unionists to keep abortion out of Northern Ireland in exchange for votes to squeak through Gordon Brown's 42-day detention bill.
Abortion is one issue that binds Sinn Féin, the DUP, SDLP and Ulster Unionists in an eternal blood brotherhood. Feminists in Northern Ireland refer to the power-sharing government as "the taliban". Some 50,000 Northern Irish women have had to come to England for abortions, costing about £2,500 each, while poorer women bear unwanted children or use back-street methods: over 10% of GPs admit to dealing with the aftermath of amateur abortions.
Denying fundamental rights to Northern Irish women fits uncomfortably well with the long dishonourable record of Westminster's regard for human rights in the province. Trade-offs have always meant different rules apply. The Commons could impose an abortion law on Northern Ireland, but once full powers are restored to Stormont, there will be nothing to stop the assembly repealing it. However, the brave and much-persecuted abortion campaigners in Northern Ireland think it unlikely the assembly would revert to the present outright ban on abortion. Attitudes are shifting: a Northern Ireland poll yesterday showed 62% would support abortion in cases of rape and incest.
However, opinion polls are consistently anti-abortion on other grounds in the province, so shouldn't they be allowed self-determination? Is this another kind of imperialism? Not if you believe individual women have an inalienable right over their own bodies. Not if you think the imposition of unwanted motherhood is as monstrous an intrusion on a woman's liberty as imprisonment without trial. This should not be a question of majority decision-making, but of as fundamental a human right as any in the UN charter, to be protected from the tyranny of the majority. No one is making anyone else have an abortion. Northern Ireland's politicians have no right to conspire across party lines against the minority rights of women citizens in need of abortions - 40 a week.
If underhand arrangements mean dropping the debate, it'll be yet another dirty Northern Ireland deal. Today at 5.30pm outside the Commons they will be shouting the old cry: "Not the church, not the state, women must decide their fate."