Abortion debate: MPs say 'we are not criminals' as they share stories about their terminations

Lizzy Buchan
Political Correspondent
Tuesday 05 June 2018 19:55 BST
Conservative MP Heidi Allen shares personal story of abortion during Commons debate

Two MPs have spoken out about their personal experiences of having a termination, in an emotional parliamentary debate on liberalising abortion laws in Northern Ireland.

Fighting back tears, Conservative MP Heidi Allen said it was an “incredibly hard decision” to seek an abortion but explained she had been very ill, having daily seizures that left her scarcely able to control her own body.

MPs listened in silence as she urged them to seize a “window of opportunity” to reform the province’s tough abortion laws, brought on by the recent pro-choice referendum victory in Ireland.

The South Cambridgeshire MP said: “I was ill when I made the incredibly hard decision to have a termination. I was having seizures every day, I wasn’t even able to control my own body, let alone care for a new life.”

Ms Allen said: “Northern Ireland is a devolved administration, so is it our business?”

She added: ”As a woman who believes passionately in equality, in choice and an individual’s right to determine their own destiny, and as a woman elected to be the MP for South Cambridgeshire in the 21st century, who stood yesterday to support [Stella Creasy’s] request for this debate, because she is standing up for all the women in the UK, but mostly because I have been there, I am making it my business.”

Labour’s Jess Phillips said women like herself and Ms Allen “are not criminals”, as she recalled how the last satnav journey of a hire car she recently collected at Birmingham Airport was to a clinic where she herself had sought an abortion a decade previously.

She said: “I shuddered at the thought of the woman who had hired the car before me, not to go about her working life but to go and do something I took completely for granted – myself and [Heidi Allen] are not criminals.”

Their testimonies came during an emergency debate tabled by influential Labour backbencher Stella Creasy, who wanted to make the case for repealing sections of the Offences Against the Peoples Act 1861, which makes it a criminal offence for women to end their pregnancies in almost all circumstances.

Exemptions are in place in England and Wales but Northern Ireland has some of the strictest laws in Europe, forbidding terminations even in cases of rape or incest.

Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland secretary, expressed her personal support for reform but said Westminster risked disenfranchising 1.8 million voters in Northern Ireland if it acted, because abortion is a devolved matter.

However, her cabinet colleague Penny Mordaunt went further, saying the Commons had given a clear signal that it would intervene if the Northern Ireland Assembly did not.

The issue is a political minefield for Theresa May because any move to change the law would infuriate her conservative DUP backers while alienating Northern Irish parties by imposing the will of Westminster on the province.

Ms Creasy, opening the Commons debate, 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.”

Pointing to the recent Irish referendum result, she added: “It is now time for us to offer our hands to the women of Northern Ireland in the same way.”

However, DUP chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said there were 100,000 people alive in Northern Ireland today because the law had not been reformed.

“I am proud of that pro-life position, I am proud of the fact that there are so many people alive in Northern Ireland today because we have a law that respects the rights of both women and of the unborn child and we will maintain that position,” he said.

Sir Jeffrey added: “There are strong voices on both sides of this debate, this is a devolved issue – it should be left to the people of Northern Ireland to decide.”

DUP leader Arlene Foster has said that abortion is a devolved matter and should only be dealt with by the Northern Ireland Assembly, which is currently suspended.

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill also welcomed the move as a “first step” on the road to abortion reform in Northern Ireland.

Speaking in the Commons, Ms Bradley said: “This is a matter of conscience: a free vote on this issue in this House would be afforded if the matter of abortion comes before the House again, and the same applies in Northern Ireland.

“That is why the government, like its predecessors, believes that the best forum to debate and resolve these and many other matters is a locally elected Northern Ireland Assembly, so the government’s priority remains to urgently re-establish strong, inclusive, devolved government at the earliest opportunity.”

She promised a free vote if the matter came before the Commons because abortion is regarded as a matter of conscience for MPs.

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