Labour MP criticised for abortion vote
Scotland’s only Labour MP has been criticised this week for voting at Westminster to decriminalise abortion —despite it being a devolved matter.
Ian Murray was the only one of Scotland’s MPs not to abstain on the proposed law introduced by Diana Johnson, Labour MP for Kingston upon Hull North, which would decriminalise existing restrictions on abortion, allowing abortion on-demand for any reason, up to 28 weeks. It is also feared that it could scrap freedom of conscience protections for medical staff who do not want to carry out abortions.
Despite opposition from Catholic charities and other MPs, the House of Commons voted in favour, with 174 Ayes and 142 Noes. The Reproductive Health (Access to Terminations) Bill will progress to its first reading on March 24.
Mr Murray declined to explain to the SCO why he’d voted on a devolved matter and Mark Bhagwandin, of the charity Life, said it was an ‘irresponsible and unjust’ decision.
“It is vulnerable women in England and Wales whose health and safety would be put at risk if the abortion bill by Ms Johnson is successful,” he said. “Scotland would be unaffected as the Offences Against the Person Act does not extend to Scotland. It is not only strange but irresponsible and unjust when a politician can vote on laws which will have no effect whatsoever on his constituency but have severe damaging consequences for women elsewhere. At the very least Mr Murray should have felt morally compelled to abstain from yesterday’s vote.”
Dr Mary Neal, a senior lecturer in law at Strathclyde University and a specialist in medical law and ethics, warned that changing the law could have widespread consequences.
“Something which was not mentioned by either side in Monday’s debate, but which ought to be taken seriously by both sides as the bill moves to its second reading, is that one effect of decriminalising abortion up to 24 weeks would be to remove the statutory conscience right of healthcare professionals in England and Wales in relation to abortions that take place prior to 24 weeks,” she said. “Such abortions would no longer be ‘authorised’ by the 1967 Act, so would not be covered by the Act’s conscience provision.
“Any decriminalisation of abortion in Scotland would have the same effect for Scots professionals.
“GPs will continue to be covered by the conscience provision in their contracts with the NHS, at least for as long as that term remains in GP contracts, but these do not have the force of statute, and hospital staff have no such fallback.”
Conservative MP Maria Caulfield told the SCO that though the bill would not directly affect Scotland it could set a worrying trend.
“Although abortion is a devolved issue we do know that when a change in law happens in one of the devolved regions it does put pressure on the other parts of the UK to comply,” she said. “The smoking ban was a good example of this. So while the current bill does not apply to Scotland, if it became law it would put significant pressure on the Scottish Government to debate such a change in Scotland.”
The Bill was put forward under the Ten Minute Rule, where backbench MPs can raise a motion in a speech that does not exceed ten minutes. Few bills introduced this way become law, although the Abortion Act 1967 proved to be an exception.
This story ran in full in the March 17 edition print of the SCO, available in parishes.