How Westminster's pro-life lobby sowed the seeds of its own destruction

Attempts to water down reproductive rights encouraged pro-choice MPs to organise.

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Discretion is the better part of valour, the government has decided. In order to avoid certain defeat on the Queen’s Speech, Philip Hammond has announced that the NHS in England will fund the abortions of women in Northern Ireland who travel in order to access help.

Northern Ireland was never included in the 1967 Abortion Act, and abortion is therefore unavailable in that part of the United Kingdom. This means women who want to end a pregnancy have to travel to access their reproductive rights.

The result is a big win for Stella Creasy, the Labour backbencher who brought the amendment. But it’s not only her victory – and, ironically, one of the reasons why the government knew they had to back down is because of Parliament’s anti-abortion lobby. Here’s why.

In recent years, Westminster’s pro-lifers have changed their tactics, moving from outright opposition, to attempts to water down reproductive rights rather than trying to overturn them en bloc.

That resulted in increasing organisation on the part of pro-choice – largely female – MPs across the House of Commons. When I first interviewed Liz Kendall in February of 2015 in her constituency, she was busy fielding phone calls from the Conservative MP for Totnes, Sarah Wollaston, as they worked to defeat an amendment brought by Fiona Bruce, the Conservative MP for Congleton and chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group.

This was sold as an attempt to end sex-selective abortions but was, in effect, a general erosion of reproductive rights. Working with others like Jo Swinson, the Liberal Democrat MP for East Dunbartonshire, and Yvette Cooper, later Kendall’s leadership rival, the pro-choice MPs were able to defeat the motion. (Theresa May, who has tended to abstain or vote with the pro-life lobby, voted on the losing side.)

Those earlier losses are one reason why the government knew that once Creasy’s amendment had been brought forward, they had no hope of avoiding defeat. There were simply too many Conservative MPs who would vote for the amendment, and who had already voted for similar amendments in the last two parliaments.

So today’s result is a big win for people in Northern Ireland, a big win for Stella Creasy and pro-choice MPs – but one that partly happened because of the Pro-Life APPG.

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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