This afternoon in Westminster, MPs will debate the last stage of the Scotland Bill before the third reading and voting to pass the Bill to the House of Lords.
One of the recent amendments added to the Bill is from Fiona Bruce, a Conservative MP from an English constituency.
In the House of Commons there is an unfortunate concatenation of MPs who seek to ensure that UK healthcare outsources safe legal abortion overseas, and to subject women who cannot afford to travel to a forced pregnancy. Their excuse for doing so is that a human fetus is protected by “the sanctity of human life”, though a pregnant woman is apparently not so protected.
Fiona Bruce, Conservative MP for Congleton, is a member of this group and was the proposer of the last-minute amendment to the Serious Crimes Act which would have ensured doctors were banned from allowing an abortion if the abortion was sex-selective. This significant change to the 1967 Abortion Act was proposed as a late amendment which would be discussed and voted on only at the third reading of the Serious Crimes bill before it was voted into law.
No consultation on this amendment had been done with groups such as the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives, or the British Medical Association, all of which opposed the amendment.
The expectation of Fiona Bruce and her supporters was that MPs would vote for her amendment because they would not want to appear to support sex-selective abortion: there would be no time – they evidently hoped – for any consultation or explanation why it was a bad idea to vote for doctors to be criminalised if they could be accused of approving sex-selective abortions: how there is little to no evidence of any sex-selective abortions on social grounds in the UK (the key “evidence” was a sting operation run by a Daily Telegraph journalist who lied to doctors and clinic staff and secretly filmed their honest response to her lies).
(Incidentally, Fiona Bruce’s general support for the principle of the “sanctity of human life” is illuminated by her vote against investigating the rise in UK food banks and UK hunger. Denial of food and other support is killing people in the UK, and Fiona Bruce’s “sanctity of human life” principle doesn’t extend to wanting to prevent that. )
The same Fiona Bruce, supported by two other members of this anti-women parliamentary group, (John Pugh, Liberal Democrat MP for Southport, and Robert Flello, Labour MP for Stoke-on-Trent South) has now proposed a last-minute amendment to the Scotland Bill, which would devolve abortion to the Scottish Parliament and to NHS Scotland.
No consultation on this amendment has been done with NHS Scotland or with any women’s groups or health networks in Scotland.
There are arguments for and against devolving abortion to Scotland.
For: Abortion is healthcare. Healthcare is devolved. Abortion should be treated like all other aspects of Scottish healthcare and devolved to Scotland.
Against: Abortion is a human right. Everyone in the UK should have the same universal access to abortion: there shouldn’t be uneven access to this basic human right: everyone in Scotland, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland should have the same human rights. Rather than fighting to have abortion devolved to Scotland, we should be fighting to have the 1967 Abortion Act extended to Northern Ireland.
For: The Scottish Parliament is a more ethical, human-rights focussed body, more modern: more likely to pass legislation that would increase access to abortion. (This is an argument from hope rather than evidence, I have to say: the Scottish Green Party and the Scottish Labour party are the only two actively pro-choice parties in the Scottish Parliament, and they do not represent a majority.)
Against: Scottish MSPs can be strongly influenced by relatively small numbers of people, and the SNP in particular is apt to assume that the Scottish Catholic Parliamentary Office represents accurately the views of Catholic voters. (On issues such as protecting child abusers, same-sex marriage, contraception, and abortion, this is demonstrably not the case.)
With the support of SPUC Scotland, two midwives employed by NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde went to court against their employer, claiming their human rights had been violated because they were forced to provide care and support to all staff and patients on their ward, without regard for whether the patient was having an abortion or not, without regard for whether the staff were treating a patient who was having an abortion or not. Concepta Wood and Mary Doogan regarded it as part of their Catholic faith to deny their work of “delegate, supervise and support” to staff who were providing care to patients having abortions. Disturbingly, this viewpoint found a certain level of support at the Lallans Peat Worrier blog.
Scottish judges approved the SPUC Scotland/Glasgow midwives case on appeal: had abortion been devolved to Scotland, from 24th April 2013 NHS Scotland staff would have been able to deny any care or support either to patients having abortions or to staff providing care, support, and treatment to those patients. Fortunately, the case did not end at the Scottish courts: NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde appealled to the UK Supreme Court and won their case on 17th December 2014.
NHS Scotland’s failure to provide late-term abortions
Most abortions in Scotland – and UK-wide – are performed at under nine weeks gestation. For 2012, the Information Services Division of NHS Scotland noted that “the proportion of early terminations has been rising steadily in recent years, with 69.8% of all terminations performed at less than 9 weeks in 2012, compared to 62.2% in 2009”. The vast majority of abortions are carried out within the first 16 weeks of gestation.
Abortion is legal up to 24 weeks gestation in England, Scotlnd, and Wales. But, as noted in a study carried out by the MRC/CSO Social and Public Health Sciences Unit at the University of Glasgow: “Abortion for nonmedical reasons is not generally available after 20 weeks in Scotland” and people who need abortions after 18 weeks usually then have to travel to England.
Common reasons reported by the participants for seeking an abortion at a later stage included: women not recognizing they were pregnant; life circumstances having changed since they became pregnant; and conflicting emotions about whether to continue the pregnancy or seek abortion. For women with children, the key reason for seeking abortion was concern for the well-being of their family.
Lisa McDaid, the principal investigator on the study, reported:
“Although a relatively small study, this research has given Scottish women the opportunity to tell us about their experiences of later abortion for the first time. Most had not realised that they were pregnant and all found that they had to think through whether they could cope with the pregnancy and having a child. Although this was a difficult decision to make, all of the women we interviewed were clear that it was the right choice for them. Women who had to travel to England found this to be a particularly stressful and unpleasant experience and improving service provision could alleviate this.”
This is not directly a prolife amendment.
This amendment is not proposed directly as a prolife amendment, though the MPs proposing it are all part of that parliamentary group. This amendment may receive support from SNP MPs who believe that abortion should be devolved to Scotland because the Scottish Parliament will respect the human right of abortion better than the UK Parliament, as well as from MPs who believe abortion should devolved to Scotland because Holyrood is more likely to restrict access to abortion.
“We are already in the situation in the UK where different legal frameworks of abortion have resulted in a discriminatory impact against women and girls in Northern Ireland, for which the UK has been repeatedly criticised internationally.
“Our concern is that this strategy of hasty devolution is being used in order to argue for regressive measures and, in turn, a differential and discriminatory impact on women and girls in Scotland.
“Women across the UK have fought for women’s bodies to be their own and, to this day, fight opposition to a woman’s right to choose. We do not wish this amendment to open the doors to those who seek to undermine this right.”
Senior figures within the Catholic Church have in the past supported the idea of abortion being devolved to Scotland because they believe it would be easier to reduce abortion access and availability at Holyrood than at Westminster.
John Mason, SNP MSP for Glasgow Shettleston, a committed prolifer, certainly intends to take advantage of this Bruce amendment if he can:
“I absolutely welcome the opportunity to devolve abortion legislation to Scotland. The current abortion limit is way, way out of date.
“I suspect there is a reluctance in both Parliaments to tackle the issue, but feel confident that the Scottish Parliament is more in touch with public opinion on this and would respond in a way which reflects the fact that science has moved on in the 46 years since the Abortion Act was passed”.
(By “science has moved on” John Mason refers to the prolife hypothesis that it’s easier to argue against late-term abortions than early ones: that it’s easier to prevent safe legal access to abortion by the double strategy of both introducing artificial delays to ensure women can’t easily get early access to abortion, and by making the gestation limit for abortion earlier and earlier. American prolifers have pushed this strategy consistently and with troubling success for several years now.)
But this amendment is being introduced, typically for Fiona Bruce, at the last minute, without consultation, and with the clear intent of having it passed without too much scrutiny or opportunity for consultation. The Smith Commission debated devolving abortion to Scotland and came to a compromise agreement to set this specific issue aside for later consideration.
Fiona Bruce wants to override that cross-party Scottish compromise with her own amendment. This kind of parliamentary behaviour should not be rewarded: MPs should vote against it on principle, regardless of their personal views on abortion or on devolution.
On Monday, neither Fiona Bruce’s amendment nor Edward Leigh’s amendment were voted on: both were supported by pro-life MPs and by all SNP MPs, and opposed by Conservative and Labour leadership. (Edward Leigh is the Conservative MP for Gainsborough, and fears the Merciless Prism of Equality.)
Debate on Scotland Bill begins Column 62.