Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland abortion reform 'about dignity,' says MP Stella Creasy

MPs are continuing to debate repealing sections of a 150-year-old law that criminalises abortion.

Labour MP Stella Creasy, opening the emergency debate in the Commons, said: "There are many issues ahead of us here today - decriminalisation, devolution, domestic abuse but above all I want to say it's about a particular 'D', dignity.

"The dignity of women to be able to choose for themselves what to do with their own bodies."

The Walthamstow MP, reflecting on the Irish referendum result to liberalise its termination laws, added: "It is now time for us to offer our hands to the women of Northern Ireland in the same way."

During the subsequent debate the Northern Ireland Secretary of State Karen Bradley said they while she herself wanted reform it would be "inappropriate" for Westminster to impose its will on what was a devolved matter.

She said her and Theresa May's "top priority" was to restore government in Northern Ireland but she said if there was any vote on the matter it would be a free vote for MPs.

Ms Creasy said the proposal to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) 1861 would respect devolution, telling MPs: "The time limit would not change, nor would the important role of medics in this matter.

"I respect and recognise that some people do not consider abortion a human right and so think a criminal approach is the right response, but I recognise many more agree it's not that that worries them but the constitutional issues that are stake.

"Even though the Good Friday Agreement explicitly retains human rights responsibilities for (Westminster), let me reassure those MPs who want to uphold the role of devolved assemblies that repealing OAPA would not write a particular abortion law for anyone, but it would require them to act."

Ms Creasy said she was not proposing any particular law but repealing existing UK legislation that then "requires Northern Irish law to act in a certain way".

She added: "In doing so, unlike imposing a referendum or extending the 1967 Act, it would be in line with both our human rights responsibilities - which is why the United Nations has asked us to do this - and it would not impose a specific outcome on Northern Ireland."

Plaid Cymru Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts said such a move would give "more power to devolution", to which Ms Creasy replied: "What it does is it simply means the Northern Irish Assembly, if it's reconstituted, cannot ignore this issue because there would be a gap that would then need to be filled by medical regulation."

DUP MP Ian Paisley (North Antrim) said the Assembly debated the matter in 2016 and "rejected totally" Ms Creasy's proposals, adding: "By removing sections 58 and 59, there'd be no regulatory framework in Northern Ireland whatsoever to govern legal abortions.

"There'd be a massive hole left in the law in Northern Ireland and no right by the medical practitioners to actually exercise their conscientious objection to this."

Ms Creasy dismissed Mr Paisley's characterisation of events in 2016, adding two assembly elections since then means there is no guarantee its view would be the same.

Ms Creasy went on to tell MPs that "women will never truly be free whilst one cannot control what happens to their own body".

The Labour backbencher continued by reading abusive emails she had been sent for standing up for that position.

She said: "Judging by the emails I've had today it's either mine or my mother's fault, I made the mistake that many MPs make of actually reading my emails today."

One email, which she read, said: "Your views are a disgrace to humanity and a betrayal of the truly innocent, women can always say no or keep their clothes on.

"You madam were once an embryo, you madam were once a fetus in your mother's womb, you were once a pre-born baby. I wonder what decision you would have wanted your mother to make about your life or death had she been given the opportunity in the months before you were born."

Independent Lady Hermon (North Down) earlier noted it was a "very, very sensitive and controversial issue", particularly in Northern Ireland, as she sought assurances for her constituents that the "important" debate did not undermine the devolution settlement.

She told Ms Creasy: "I have received a large number of emails from constituents who feel that MPs at Westminster are usurping the powers and responsibilities of the Northern Ireland Assembly during a period when we haven't had a functioning assembly, and I wish we did have one."

Conservative MP Michael Fabricant (Lichfield), in his own intervention, said: "It is surprising but rather wonderful actually that the Republic of Ireland is actually leading the way on this and, indeed, also on gay marriage."

He added: "Not withstanding the fact that Northern Ireland is devolved, they should look now to the south and say 'They are leading the way, and we should follow'."

Ms Creasy concluded her speech by calling on ministers to implement change in "at most 150 days".

She said: "150 years is a long time to wait for social justice, so let's not wait anymore.

"Today we ask the minister to commit to a timetable when the will of the House can be tested on this issue, were rather we wait 150 years, we wait at most 150 days before we see change."

Tory former culture secretary Maria Miller later stood to offer her support to Ms Creasy.

She said: "We need a change, in 2016 724 women from Northern Ireland travelled from Northern Ireland to England for abortion care. I think it's wrong that women in Northern Ireland don't have the same access to abortion as my constituents do."

Ms Miller added: "I believe that the situation should not exist, the fact that the same rights are not available to one in four parts of the UK is difficult to understand."

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