Those campaigning for a woman’s right to choose in the Republic of Ireland swept to victory in the referendum. But all eyes now turn to Northern Ireland. It has become the only part of the British Isles where women do not have that reproductive right.
Bodily autonomy and the right to choose has always seemed, to me, the fundamental feminist issue. So in 2008, when I was asked to try and extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland, I did not hesitate. The chosen vehicle was the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill.
The campaign had the support of the British Medical Association, the Family Planning Association, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and many others. Marge Berer, then the chairwoman of the lobby group Voice for Choice said: “This is an opportunity for the voices of the women of Northern Ireland to be heard. The UK parliament must stop ignoring the needs of its own citizens.”
Dr Audrey Simpson, then the director of the Family Planning Association Northern Ireland, said: “A Northern Irish woman in the 21st century who is the victim of rape or incest is expected to give birth, or find up to £2,000 to travel for treatment in England where women have the right to access safe abortion. These are a vulnerable group of women who need support – not to be forced to find money and travel long distances on their own.”
So I tabled an amendment supported by the Labour MPs John McDonnell and Katy Clark, the Tories Jacqui Lait and John Bercow and the Lib Democrat Evan Harris. I said at the time:
“In order to end this injustice, a group of MPs of all parties have come together to table an amendment to the human fertilisation and embryology bill that is currently going through parliament. Our amendment will finally extend the 1967 act to Northern Ireland.
“It has taken over 40 years to extend justice and equality to the women of Northern Ireland on this issue. There is no rational case for this unfairness. We hope that in the autumn, when parliament debates our new clause, fellow MPs will take the opportunity to right a wrong that has gone on for too long.”
We had the enthusiastic support of women and long-standing campaigners in Northern Ireland itself. But the mainstream political parties were adamantly against. A “pro-life” alliance backed by a coalition of Democratic Unionists, Protestant evangelicals and the Catholic Church was fiercely opposed to extending the 1967 act to Northern Ireland.
At the time, we were hopeful that, if parliament actually got to vote on the amendment, it would pass. First of all it was a ridiculous anomaly. If you believed in the union, why would you not support women throughout the United Kingdom having the same rights? Furthermore, on a free vote, parliament had a natural majority for a woman’s right to choose. But, the sustainability of the Good Friday Agreement was a big concern. And the then government did not want to take what they saw as the political risk, of Westminster extending the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland.
Back then, I was told privately by senior members of my government that they did not want to disrupt relationships with Northern Ireland’s mainstream political parties. It was a hostage situation similar to that a Tory government dependent on the Democratic Unionist Party might find themselves in. There were also rumours at the time of a private deal. So the then Leader of the House tabled a timetable motion that effectively curtailed debate. Under this timetable motion, MPs had just four and a half hours to debate a raft of amendments to the human fertilisation bill. My new clause on the law relating to abortion was at the end of the list and was never reached. I said at the time:
“It seems to me that this programme motion and particularly the order of discussion is a shabby manoeuvre by ministers to stop full debate on some very important matters.
“If we do not debate my new clause today, women in Northern Ireland will lose the opportunity to have the rights that women in the rest of the UK have enjoyed for 40 years. They will lose that right for a generation.“
But I was too pessimistic. The overwhelming victory for abortion rights in the Republic of Ireland has set the stage for extending reproductive rights to women in Northern Ireland. The rights of women in Northern Ireland have been subordinated to Westminster manoeuvrings for too long.
Women and feminists all across the British Isles will be pleased to know that the Labour Party is under new management. And this Labour Party is building on our manifesto commitment to work with the Northern Ireland Assembly to extend abortion rights to Northern Ireland. In the absence of devolved government in Northern Ireland, the UK government must act to uphold this human right.