Tag Archives: abortion

Should doctors be free to refuse patients an abortion on personal grounds?

A rise in the number of healthcare providers who refuse to provide abortion services based on their personal beliefs is having a devastating impact on women and girls around the world, a new study has claimed.

Over the past two decades, at least 30 countries – including, most recently, Ireland, Chile and Argentina – have taken steps to improve access to abortion through legislative changes.

Many medics have sought to exempt themselves from these new laws, however. As a result, doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists and even entire hospitals around the world have denied women access to abortion care in countries where the procedure is legal.

The report, Unconscionable: When Providers Deny Abortion Care, published by the International Women’s Health Coalition, is based on consultation with 45 experts in 22 countries, from Italy and Ghana to South Africa and Uruguay. It found that more than 70 jurisdictions have provisions allowing medics to refuse care based on their personal beliefs, a phenomenon known as “conscientious objection”.

South Africa has the most liberal abortion laws in Africa, but this has not resulted in the consistent availability of abortion care and fewer than 50% of licensed facilities provide services. Unsafe abortions outnumber official procedures by two to one in the country.

The Guardian spoke to two practising gynaecologists, based in Johannesburg, about conscientious objection.

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng

Tlaleng Mofokeng


Photograph: Michael Bonfigli/IWHC

Runs a women’s private health practice and is chairperson of the sexual and reproductive justice coalition, which campaigns for safe and legal abortion

“I’ve been an abortion provider for 10 years now and most of my experience has been in the public sector and in the past four years in the private sector.

While South Africa liberalised abortion in 1997, there hasn’t really been a political commitment from the leadership. Now the issue of medics refusing to give women the procedure they are requesting has increased so much that some of us feel the system itself has become an enabler of violence against women. First, it does not discipline health workers who are dishonourable in my view. Second, it doesn’t support providers in the system who are offering abortions.

In South Africa, we are starting to see younger medical students coming up who are interested in studying the procedure. They are finding their medical schools, their consultants, the head of departments of obstetrics, are not helping them in the learning process. A lot of clinical training around abortion is left as an optional extra.

Abortion is stigmatised by health professionals who won’t speak out and affirm the fact that women have a human right to autonomy, and that their rights should be respected. But it is further stigmatised by the system. There are instances where abortion clinics have been moved to the back of the hospital, where there is no signage to say that an abortion is something offered by core services.

Because so few medical doctors and nurses are doing the procedure they find they have a lot of patients to care for on a daily basis, often unsupported by management and with lack of proper medication or stock. Sometimes procedures are delayed, so you might have a patient who comes in at four weeks or six weeks pregnant and, by the time they get an abortion, they are in their second trimester.

A lot of abortion providers speak of being burned out or exhausted. People think this means we can’t do the work, or the work is too much. But what it really speaks to is the lack of support from the rest of our colleagues. So the stigma patients face, a lot of us as service providers are facing from those who do not want to offer abortions.

In rural areas, if one clinic does not offer an abortion a woman might have to travel for as long as five hours just to get to the next facility, where there is no guarantee the response will be any better.

Also, a lot of patients unfortunately have to deal with lifelong complications. Young women often have to have hysterectomies, because in South Africa unsafe procedures outnumber safe procedures by two to one. That is a disgrace if you look at the type of legal framework that we have.

I constantly receive messages from women asking where to go to get an abortion. Some clinics shut down overnight and you never find out why. It is very frustrating for us even as civil society members who want to help, and have the technical knowledge, to actually then get in the system and start doing right by some of our patients.”

Dr Murishe Ledwaba

Gynaecologist and obstetrician based in Johannesburg

“I qualified as doctor in 1984 and became a gynaecologist in 1995. I’m self-employed and have my own private practice in a larger clinic, working alongside other practitioners. I provide antenatal care and carry out gynaecological checkups and operations. The private clinic provides the nursing staff, but I have my own receptionist.

I prescribe contraception, but I do not prescribe the morning-after pill or carry out abortions because of my religious beliefs. I cannot decide which women should have an abortion just based on what that mother feels about the baby. While the law does provide women with the right to abortion, the rules also allow conscientious objectors based on personal beliefs. So we cannot be forced to provide abortion care.

If women approach me about having an abortion I talk them through their reasons. In a situation where the person has an unwanted and unplanned pregnancy, the rationale is not necessarily medical. In that moment abortion may seem like the best option to them but I will discuss with them why they want to terminate. I’ll talk them through their options and alternatives, such as adoption, and I invite them to look at the short-term and long-term consequences.

In terms of the procedure, some women end up requiring blood transfusions. Others suffer damage to their uterus or cervix, or end up with an infection. The effects can be emotional as well, with some women suffering acute depression after the procedure. And there is a risk they might not be able to fall pregnant again.

Patients have the right to choose but, as health providers, we also have rights. I work in a huge clinic and there are other doctors there who provide abortions. Each is an independent practitioner, so there is no overall policy at the clinic.

Many women seeking a termination are not using contraception. If they are not ready, they should be taking precautions. If it was a case that there was a medical problem with the foetus, there are others who will do it. But as a Christian I don’t perform abortion under any circumstances.

Advert for same-day abortion on a Johannesburg street


Same-day abortion is advertised on a street in Johannesburg. A 2017 study found 32% of South African women do not know abortion is legal. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

Legalising abortion has not done anything to stop women having backstreet abortions. You see it openly advertised everywhere. Unlike before, when these people could be penalised, there is no deterrent and services are advertised on the street.

When I was training to become a gynaecologist, my senior consultant did not do abortions. So that was a blessing for me, and in our unit we did not do the full training. I attended one session where it was being demonstrated, but I said I will not be using this skill.

The problem we have is that in some cases women have multiple abortions. There needs to be more done to provide information about contraception.”

Should doctors be free to refuse patients an abortion on personal grounds?

A rise in the number of healthcare providers who refuse to provide abortion services based on their personal beliefs is having a devastating impact on women and girls around the world, a new study has claimed.

Over the past two decades, at least 30 countries – including, most recently, Ireland, Chile and Argentina – have taken steps to improve access to abortion through legislative changes.

Many medics have sought to exempt themselves from these new laws, however. As a result, doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists and even entire hospitals around the world have denied women access to abortion care in countries where the procedure is legal.

The report, Unconscionable: When Providers Deny Abortion Care, published by the International Women’s Health Coalition, is based on consultation with 45 experts in 22 countries, from Italy and Ghana to South Africa and Uruguay. It found that more than 70 jurisdictions have provisions allowing medics to refuse care based on their personal beliefs, a phenomenon known as “conscientious objection”.

South Africa has the most liberal abortion laws in Africa, but this has not resulted in the consistent availability of abortion care and fewer than 50% of licensed facilities provide services. Unsafe abortions outnumber official procedures by two to one in the country.

The Guardian spoke to two practising gynaecologists, based in Johannesburg, about conscientious objection.

Dr Tlaleng Mofokeng

Tlaleng Mofokeng


Photograph: Michael Bonfigli/IWHC

Runs a women’s private health practice and is chairperson of the sexual and reproductive justice coalition, which campaigns for safe and legal abortion

“I’ve been an abortion provider for 10 years now and most of my experience has been in the public sector and in the past four years in the private sector.

While South Africa liberalised abortion in 1997, there hasn’t really been a political commitment from the leadership. Now the issue of medics refusing to give women the procedure they are requesting has increased so much that some of us feel the system itself has become an enabler of violence against women. First, it does not discipline health workers who are dishonourable in my view. Second, it doesn’t support providers in the system who are offering abortions.

In South Africa, we are starting to see younger medical students coming up who are interested in studying the procedure. They are finding their medical schools, their consultants, the head of departments of obstetrics, are not helping them in the learning process. A lot of clinical training around abortion is left as an optional extra.

Abortion is stigmatised by health professionals who won’t speak out and affirm the fact that women have a human right to autonomy, and that their rights should be respected. But it is further stigmatised by the system. There are instances where abortion clinics have been moved to the back of the hospital, where there is no signage to say that an abortion is something offered by core services.

Because so few medical doctors and nurses are doing the procedure they find they have a lot of patients to care for on a daily basis, often unsupported by management and with lack of proper medication or stock. Sometimes procedures are delayed, so you might have a patient who comes in at four weeks or six weeks pregnant and, by the time they get an abortion, they are in their second trimester.

A lot of abortion providers speak of being burned out or exhausted. People think this means we can’t do the work, or the work is too much. But what it really speaks to is the lack of support from the rest of our colleagues. So the stigma patients face, a lot of us as service providers are facing from those who do not want to offer abortions.

In rural areas, if one clinic does not offer an abortion a woman might have to travel for as long as five hours just to get to the next facility, where there is no guarantee the response will be any better.

Also, a lot of patients unfortunately have to deal with lifelong complications. Young women often have to have hysterectomies, because in South Africa unsafe procedures outnumber safe procedures by two to one. That is a disgrace if you look at the type of legal framework that we have.

I constantly receive messages from women asking where to go to get an abortion. Some clinics shut down overnight and you never find out why. It is very frustrating for us even as civil society members who want to help, and have the technical knowledge, to actually then get in the system and start doing right by some of our patients.”

Dr Murishe Ledwaba

Gynaecologist and obstetrician based in Johannesburg

“I qualified as doctor in 1984 and became a gynaecologist in 1995. I’m self-employed and have my own private practice in a larger clinic, working alongside other practitioners. I provide antenatal care and carry out gynaecological checkups and operations. The private clinic provides the nursing staff, but I have my own receptionist.

I prescribe contraception, but I do not prescribe the morning-after pill or carry out abortions because of my religious beliefs. I cannot decide which women should have an abortion just based on what that mother feels about the baby. While the law does provide women with the right to abortion, the rules also allow conscientious objectors based on personal beliefs. So we cannot be forced to provide abortion care.

If women approach me about having an abortion I talk them through their reasons. In a situation where the person has an unwanted and unplanned pregnancy, the rationale is not necessarily medical. In that moment abortion may seem like the best option to them but I will discuss with them why they want to terminate. I’ll talk them through their options and alternatives, such as adoption, and I invite them to look at the short-term and long-term consequences.

In terms of the procedure, some women end up requiring blood transfusions. Others suffer damage to their uterus or cervix, or end up with an infection. The effects can be emotional as well, with some women suffering acute depression after the procedure. And there is a risk they might not be able to fall pregnant again.

Patients have the right to choose but, as health providers, we also have rights. I work in a huge clinic and there are other doctors there who provide abortions. Each is an independent practitioner, so there is no overall policy at the clinic.

Many women seeking a termination are not using contraception. If they are not ready, they should be taking precautions. If it was a case that there was a medical problem with the foetus, there are others who will do it. But as a Christian I don’t perform abortion under any circumstances.

Advert for same-day abortion on a Johannesburg street


Same-day abortion is advertised on a street in Johannesburg. A 2017 study found 32% of South African women do not know abortion is legal. Photograph: John Moore/Getty Images

Legalising abortion has not done anything to stop women having backstreet abortions. You see it openly advertised everywhere. Unlike before, when these people could be penalised, there is no deterrent and services are advertised on the street.

When I was training to become a gynaecologist, my senior consultant did not do abortions. So that was a blessing for me, and in our unit we did not do the full training. I attended one session where it was being demonstrated, but I said I will not be using this skill.

The problem we have is that in some cases women have multiple abortions. There needs to be more done to provide information about contraception.”

Sinn Féin votes to liberalise abortion law in Northern Ireland

Sinn Féin members have voted in favour of liberalising abortion law in Northern Ireland, saying the procedure should be provided through a GP-led service for a “limited gestational period”.

Party grassroots recognised last month’s referendum decision of voters in Ireland to overturn a constitutional provision that outlawed terminations in most cases.

Q&A

What is the law on abortion in Northern Ireland?

Following the Irish referendum, Northern Ireland is the only place in the UK and Ireland – and most of Europe – where terminations are outlawed apart from in the most exceptional circumstances.

The UK Abortion Act of 1967 was never extended to Northern Ireland, and abortion remains illegal unless the life or mental health of the mother is at risk. Northern Ireland has the harshest criminal penalty for abortion anywhere in Europe; in theory, life imprisonment can be handed down to a woman undergoing an unlawful abortion.

Fatal foetal abnormalities and conceptions by rape or incest are not lawful grounds for a termination.

Most politicians in Northern Ireland – Catholic and Protestant – do not favour reform, despite the UN saying the UK was violating the rights of women in Northern Ireland by restricting their access to abortion.

In 2016 more than 700 women from Northern Ireland crossed the Irish Sea to clinics in Britain to terminate pregnancies.

Delegates at an annual party conference in Belfast decided abortion should also be available where a woman’s life, health or mental health is at risk and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, where an infant cannot survive.

The party’s vice president, Michelle O’Neill, said: “Sinn Féin refuses to hide. It will address this issue with compassion and will show the leadership that is required.”

New legislation implementing the Irish Republic poll’s overwhelming two-to-one verdict in favour of making the procedure available will be introduced in the new year, the taoiseach has said.

It will make abortion freely available during early pregnancy and in limited circumstances later.

The referendum vote was lauded by proponents as a modernising and compassionate step for women after a fierce debate in which opponents including the Catholic church argued that the unborn baby’s life was sacrosanct.

Sinn Féin is a major force in opposition in the Republic. It is the majority voice of nationalism in Northern Ireland and hopes to make gains in the Republic’s next general election.

Irish society has liberalised in recent years, with public polls in favour of divorce, same-sex marriage and access to terminations.

Pro-choice campaigners from the Republic have turned their focus north of the border after last month’s historic referendum to repeal the Irish state’s restrictive constitutional position on abortion.

MEP Martina Anderson said: “The North is next.”

The debate has intensified since the outcome of the referendum, with the British government resisting renewed calls to step in and legislate in the continuing absence of a power-sharing government in Belfast.

Sinn Féin votes to liberalise abortion law in Northern Ireland

Sinn Féin members have voted in favour of liberalising abortion law in Northern Ireland, saying the procedure should be provided through a GP-led service for a “limited gestational period”.

Party grassroots recognised last month’s referendum decision of voters in Ireland to overturn a constitutional provision that outlawed terminations in most cases.

Q&A

What is the law on abortion in Northern Ireland?

Following the Irish referendum, Northern Ireland is the only place in the UK and Ireland – and most of Europe – where terminations are outlawed apart from in the most exceptional circumstances.

The UK Abortion Act of 1967 was never extended to Northern Ireland, and abortion remains illegal unless the life or mental health of the mother is at risk. Northern Ireland has the harshest criminal penalty for abortion anywhere in Europe; in theory, life imprisonment can be handed down to a woman undergoing an unlawful abortion.

Fatal foetal abnormalities and conceptions by rape or incest are not lawful grounds for a termination.

Most politicians in Northern Ireland – Catholic and Protestant – do not favour reform, despite the UN saying the UK was violating the rights of women in Northern Ireland by restricting their access to abortion.

In 2016 more than 700 women from Northern Ireland crossed the Irish Sea to clinics in Britain to terminate pregnancies.

Delegates at an annual party conference in Belfast decided abortion should also be available where a woman’s life, health or mental health is at risk and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, where an infant cannot survive.

The party’s vice president, Michelle O’Neill, said: “Sinn Féin refuses to hide. It will address this issue with compassion and will show the leadership that is required.”

New legislation implementing the Irish Republic poll’s overwhelming two-to-one verdict in favour of making the procedure available will be introduced in the new year, the taoiseach has said.

It will make abortion freely available during early pregnancy and in limited circumstances later.

The referendum vote was lauded by proponents as a modernising and compassionate step for women after a fierce debate in which opponents including the Catholic church argued that the unborn baby’s life was sacrosanct.

Sinn Féin is a major force in opposition in the Republic. It is the majority voice of nationalism in Northern Ireland and hopes to make gains in the Republic’s next general election.

Irish society has liberalised in recent years, with public polls in favour of divorce, same-sex marriage and access to terminations.

Pro-choice campaigners from the Republic have turned their focus north of the border after last month’s historic referendum to repeal the Irish state’s restrictive constitutional position on abortion.

MEP Martina Anderson said: “The North is next.”

The debate has intensified since the outcome of the referendum, with the British government resisting renewed calls to step in and legislate in the continuing absence of a power-sharing government in Belfast.

Sinn Féin votes to liberalise abortion law in Northern Ireland

Sinn Féin members have voted in favour of liberalising abortion law in Northern Ireland, saying the procedure should be provided through a GP-led service for a “limited gestational period”.

Party grassroots recognised last month’s referendum decision of voters in Ireland to overturn a constitutional provision that outlawed terminations in most cases.

Q&A

What is the law on abortion in Northern Ireland?

Following the Irish referendum, Northern Ireland is the only place in the UK and Ireland – and most of Europe – where terminations are outlawed apart from in the most exceptional circumstances.

The UK Abortion Act of 1967 was never extended to Northern Ireland, and abortion remains illegal unless the life or mental health of the mother is at risk. Northern Ireland has the harshest criminal penalty for abortion anywhere in Europe; in theory, life imprisonment can be handed down to a woman undergoing an unlawful abortion.

Fatal foetal abnormalities and conceptions by rape or incest are not lawful grounds for a termination.

Most politicians in Northern Ireland – Catholic and Protestant – do not favour reform, despite the UN saying the UK was violating the rights of women in Northern Ireland by restricting their access to abortion.

In 2016 more than 700 women from Northern Ireland crossed the Irish Sea to clinics in Britain to terminate pregnancies.

Delegates at an annual party conference in Belfast decided abortion should also be available where a woman’s life, health or mental health is at risk and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, where an infant cannot survive.

The party’s vice president, Michelle O’Neill, said: “Sinn Féin refuses to hide. It will address this issue with compassion and will show the leadership that is required.”

New legislation implementing the Irish Republic poll’s overwhelming two-to-one verdict in favour of making the procedure available will be introduced in the new year, the taoiseach has said.

It will make abortion freely available during early pregnancy and in limited circumstances later.

The referendum vote was lauded by proponents as a modernising and compassionate step for women after a fierce debate in which opponents including the Catholic church argued that the unborn baby’s life was sacrosanct.

Sinn Féin is a major force in opposition in the Republic. It is the majority voice of nationalism in Northern Ireland and hopes to make gains in the Republic’s next general election.

Irish society has liberalised in recent years, with public polls in favour of divorce, same-sex marriage and access to terminations.

Pro-choice campaigners from the Republic have turned their focus north of the border after last month’s historic referendum to repeal the Irish state’s restrictive constitutional position on abortion.

MEP Martina Anderson said: “The North is next.”

The debate has intensified since the outcome of the referendum, with the British government resisting renewed calls to step in and legislate in the continuing absence of a power-sharing government in Belfast.

Sinn Féin votes to liberalise abortion law in Northern Ireland

Sinn Féin members have voted in favour of liberalising abortion law in Northern Ireland, saying the procedure should be provided through a GP-led service for a “limited gestational period”.

Party grassroots recognised last month’s referendum decision of voters in Ireland to overturn a constitutional provision that outlawed terminations in most cases.

Q&A

What is the law on abortion in Northern Ireland?

Following the Irish referendum, Northern Ireland is the only place in the UK and Ireland – and most of Europe – where terminations are outlawed apart from in the most exceptional circumstances.

The UK Abortion Act of 1967 was never extended to Northern Ireland, and abortion remains illegal unless the life or mental health of the mother is at risk. Northern Ireland has the harshest criminal penalty for abortion anywhere in Europe; in theory, life imprisonment can be handed down to a woman undergoing an unlawful abortion.

Fatal foetal abnormalities and conceptions by rape or incest are not lawful grounds for a termination.

Most politicians in Northern Ireland – Catholic and Protestant – do not favour reform, despite the UN saying the UK was violating the rights of women in Northern Ireland by restricting their access to abortion.

In 2016 more than 700 women from Northern Ireland crossed the Irish Sea to clinics in Britain to terminate pregnancies.

Delegates at an annual party conference in Belfast decided abortion should also be available where a woman’s life, health or mental health is at risk and in cases of fatal foetal abnormality, where an infant cannot survive.

The party’s vice president, Michelle O’Neill, said: “Sinn Féin refuses to hide. It will address this issue with compassion and will show the leadership that is required.”

New legislation implementing the Irish Republic poll’s overwhelming two-to-one verdict in favour of making the procedure available will be introduced in the new year, the taoiseach has said.

It will make abortion freely available during early pregnancy and in limited circumstances later.

The referendum vote was lauded by proponents as a modernising and compassionate step for women after a fierce debate in which opponents including the Catholic church argued that the unborn baby’s life was sacrosanct.

Sinn Féin is a major force in opposition in the Republic. It is the majority voice of nationalism in Northern Ireland and hopes to make gains in the Republic’s next general election.

Irish society has liberalised in recent years, with public polls in favour of divorce, same-sex marriage and access to terminations.

Pro-choice campaigners from the Republic have turned their focus north of the border after last month’s historic referendum to repeal the Irish state’s restrictive constitutional position on abortion.

MEP Martina Anderson said: “The North is next.”

The debate has intensified since the outcome of the referendum, with the British government resisting renewed calls to step in and legislate in the continuing absence of a power-sharing government in Belfast.

Abortion campaigners target Sajid Javid over Northern Ireland

Sajid Javid will come under pressure from a crossbench group of MPs to bring forward a bill that would allow reformers to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland.

More than 30 MPs have pledged to send the home secretary written questions on Monday demanding the domestic abuse bill be brought before parliament by the autumn. This would allow pro-choice MPs to put down an amendment that would give women in Northern Ireland the right to access terminations.

Calls for a shakeup of Northern Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws have been growing since voters in the Republic of Ireland ditched a constitutional curb on the procedures in a landmark referendum last month.

Theresa May faces a headache over the issue because the government depends on the support of 10 Democratic Unionist party MPs, who strongly oppose any change to Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws.

Q&A

What is the law on abortion in Northern Ireland?

Following the Irish referendum, Northern Ireland is the only place in the UK and Ireland – and most of Europe – where terminations are outlawed apart from in the most exceptional circumstances.

The UK Abortion Act of 1967 was never extended to Northern Ireland, and abortion remains illegal unless the life or mental health of the mother is at risk. Northern Ireland has the harshest criminal penalty for abortion anywhere in Europe; in theory, life imprisonment can be handed down to a woman undergoing an unlawful abortion.

Fatal foetal abnormalities and conceptions by rape or incest are not lawful grounds for a termination.

Most politicians in Northern Ireland – Catholic and Protestant – do not favour reform, despite the UN saying the UK was violating the rights of women in Northern Ireland by restricting their access to abortion.

In 2016 more than 700 women from Northern Ireland crossed the Irish Sea to clinics in Britain to terminate pregnancies.

MPs are targeting Javid, who is yet to comment on the issue, as they seek to allow parliament to hold a free vote on whether to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.

Supreme court judges last week recommended repealing the legislation to address the breach in the human rights of Northern Irish women caused by the failure to provide access to abortion services.

The MPs putting questions to Javid include the Conservative health select committee chairwoman, Sarah Wollaston, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, Jo Swinson, the Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas and the Conservative former minister Ed Vaizey.

The Labour MP Stella Creasy plans to table an amendment to the bill aimed at equalising access across the UK and reducing the need for women from Northern Ireland to travel to England to access help.

“It is clear there’s a majority across parliament who want to see this legislation which criminalises women who seek an abortion repealed, yet without this legislation being brought forward to parliament, an amendment can’t be tabled,” she said.

“The government won’t give a date, so now MPs across parties are tabling questions demanding the home secretary set out the bill timetable. Without this, we face the prospect of a rape victim having to give evidence about the damage this legislation does to women’s rights before the government is forced to act,” she said.

Campaign organisations including Bpas, the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, Nupas, FPA, Amnesty International, Together for Yes and Alliance for Choice are working together to call for the decriminalisation of abortion across the UK.

Last week, supreme court judges said Northern Ireland’s abortion law is incompatible with human rights legislation, but rejected a challenge brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission on technical grounds.

The prime minister continued to resist calls to intervene in Northern Ireland’s affairs and insisted change was a matter for the devolved government there, which has not met for more than a year.

The domestic abuse bill, which is out for public consultation, is a flagship piece of legislation for the prime minister.

A government spokesperson said: “We want to see devolved government in Northern Ireland restored, so that locally elected, democratically accountable politicians can debate fundamental changes to policy on abortion, and the people of Northern Ireland have a direct say in the process.”

Abortion campaigners target Sajid Javid over Northern Ireland

Sajid Javid will come under pressure from a crossbench group of MPs to bring forward a bill that would allow reformers to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland.

More than 30 MPs have pledged to send the home secretary written questions on Monday demanding the domestic abuse bill be brought before parliament by the autumn. This would allow pro-choice MPs to put down an amendment that would give women in Northern Ireland the right to access terminations.

Calls for a shakeup of Northern Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws have been growing since voters in the Republic of Ireland ditched a constitutional curb on the procedures in a landmark referendum last month.

Theresa May faces a headache over the issue because the government depends on the support of 10 Democratic Unionist party MPs, who strongly oppose any change to Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws.

Q&A

What is the law on abortion in Northern Ireland?

Following the Irish referendum, Northern Ireland is the only place in the UK and Ireland – and most of Europe – where terminations are outlawed apart from in the most exceptional circumstances.

The UK Abortion Act of 1967 was never extended to Northern Ireland, and abortion remains illegal unless the life or mental health of the mother is at risk. Northern Ireland has the harshest criminal penalty for abortion anywhere in Europe; in theory, life imprisonment can be handed down to a woman undergoing an unlawful abortion.

Fatal foetal abnormalities and conceptions by rape or incest are not lawful grounds for a termination.

Most politicians in Northern Ireland – Catholic and Protestant – do not favour reform, despite the UN saying the UK was violating the rights of women in Northern Ireland by restricting their access to abortion.

In 2016 more than 700 women from Northern Ireland crossed the Irish Sea to clinics in Britain to terminate pregnancies.

MPs are targeting Javid, who is yet to comment on the issue, as they seek to allow parliament to hold a free vote on whether to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.

Supreme court judges last week recommended repealing the legislation to address the breach in the human rights of Northern Irish women caused by the failure to provide access to abortion services.

The MPs putting questions to Javid include the Conservative health select committee chairwoman, Sarah Wollaston, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, Jo Swinson, the Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas and the Conservative former minister Ed Vaizey.

The Labour MP Stella Creasy plans to table an amendment to the bill aimed at equalising access across the UK and reducing the need for women from Northern Ireland to travel to England to access help.

“It is clear there’s a majority across parliament who want to see this legislation which criminalises women who seek an abortion repealed, yet without this legislation being brought forward to parliament, an amendment can’t be tabled,” she said.

“The government won’t give a date, so now MPs across parties are tabling questions demanding the home secretary set out the bill timetable. Without this, we face the prospect of a rape victim having to give evidence about the damage this legislation does to women’s rights before the government is forced to act,” she said.

Campaign organisations including Bpas, the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, Nupas, FPA, Amnesty International, Together for Yes and Alliance for Choice are working together to call for the decriminalisation of abortion across the UK.

Last week, supreme court judges said Northern Ireland’s abortion law is incompatible with human rights legislation, but rejected a challenge brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission on technical grounds.

The prime minister continued to resist calls to intervene in Northern Ireland’s affairs and insisted change was a matter for the devolved government there, which has not met for more than a year.

The domestic abuse bill, which is out for public consultation, is a flagship piece of legislation for the prime minister.

A government spokesperson said: “We want to see devolved government in Northern Ireland restored, so that locally elected, democratically accountable politicians can debate fundamental changes to policy on abortion, and the people of Northern Ireland have a direct say in the process.”

Abortion campaigners target Sajid Javid over Northern Ireland

Sajid Javid will come under pressure from a crossbench group of MPs to bring forward a bill that would allow reformers to decriminalise abortion in Northern Ireland.

More than 30 MPs have pledged to send the home secretary written questions on Monday demanding the domestic abuse bill be brought before parliament by the autumn. This would allow pro-choice MPs to put down an amendment that would give women in Northern Ireland the right to access terminations.

Calls for a shakeup of Northern Ireland’s strict anti-abortion laws have been growing since voters in the Republic of Ireland ditched a constitutional curb on the procedures in a landmark referendum last month.

Theresa May faces a headache over the issue because the government depends on the support of 10 Democratic Unionist party MPs, who strongly oppose any change to Northern Ireland’s strict abortion laws.

Q&A

What is the law on abortion in Northern Ireland?

Following the Irish referendum, Northern Ireland is the only place in the UK and Ireland – and most of Europe – where terminations are outlawed apart from in the most exceptional circumstances.

The UK Abortion Act of 1967 was never extended to Northern Ireland, and abortion remains illegal unless the life or mental health of the mother is at risk. Northern Ireland has the harshest criminal penalty for abortion anywhere in Europe; in theory, life imprisonment can be handed down to a woman undergoing an unlawful abortion.

Fatal foetal abnormalities and conceptions by rape or incest are not lawful grounds for a termination.

Most politicians in Northern Ireland – Catholic and Protestant – do not favour reform, despite the UN saying the UK was violating the rights of women in Northern Ireland by restricting their access to abortion.

In 2016 more than 700 women from Northern Ireland crossed the Irish Sea to clinics in Britain to terminate pregnancies.

MPs are targeting Javid, who is yet to comment on the issue, as they seek to allow parliament to hold a free vote on whether to repeal sections 58 and 59 of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act.

Supreme court judges last week recommended repealing the legislation to address the breach in the human rights of Northern Irish women caused by the failure to provide access to abortion services.

The MPs putting questions to Javid include the Conservative health select committee chairwoman, Sarah Wollaston, the Liberal Democrat deputy leader, Jo Swinson, the Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas and the Conservative former minister Ed Vaizey.

The Labour MP Stella Creasy plans to table an amendment to the bill aimed at equalising access across the UK and reducing the need for women from Northern Ireland to travel to England to access help.

“It is clear there’s a majority across parliament who want to see this legislation which criminalises women who seek an abortion repealed, yet without this legislation being brought forward to parliament, an amendment can’t be tabled,” she said.

“The government won’t give a date, so now MPs across parties are tabling questions demanding the home secretary set out the bill timetable. Without this, we face the prospect of a rape victim having to give evidence about the damage this legislation does to women’s rights before the government is forced to act,” she said.

Campaign organisations including Bpas, the London-Irish Abortion Rights Campaign, Nupas, FPA, Amnesty International, Together for Yes and Alliance for Choice are working together to call for the decriminalisation of abortion across the UK.

Last week, supreme court judges said Northern Ireland’s abortion law is incompatible with human rights legislation, but rejected a challenge brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission on technical grounds.

The prime minister continued to resist calls to intervene in Northern Ireland’s affairs and insisted change was a matter for the devolved government there, which has not met for more than a year.

The domestic abuse bill, which is out for public consultation, is a flagship piece of legislation for the prime minister.

A government spokesperson said: “We want to see devolved government in Northern Ireland restored, so that locally elected, democratically accountable politicians can debate fundamental changes to policy on abortion, and the people of Northern Ireland have a direct say in the process.”

Stella Creasy’s abortion law campaign showed practical politics at its bestt | Helen Lewis

The most striking moment in politics last week was not David Davis’s fifth (unfulfilled) threat to resign. Nor was it Boris Johnson’s latest (unpunished) violation of collective responsibility. It wasn’t even the spectacle of hours of intense cabinet psychodrama finally resulting in a customs proposal that was instantly shot down by the EU’s chief negotiator. In Brexitland, a lot happens – but very little changes.

No, the week’s most interesting political event came late on Monday, when the Speaker, John Bercow, asked if he had “the leave of the House” to grant Labour backbencher Stella Creasy an emergency debate on Northern Irish abortion law. In silence, the vast majority of the MPs present in the Commons stood up – and the debate was granted. Supporters of the motion included the new minister for women, Penny Mordaunt, and Karen Bradley, the secretary of state for Northern Ireland.

The gesture was strangely moving, and getting to that point had required some good old-fashioned parliamentary strategy. The support of 40 MPs is needed for an emergency debate, and Monday was a low-key, one-line-whip day in the Commons. Yet both Labour and Tory MPs slipped into the chamber, ready at just the right time, thanks to an effective and unseen marshalling operation. (Labour’s Margaret Hodge and Tory Andrew Mitchell achieved a similarly impressive feat when they stealthily secured cross-party support for greater transparency in tax havens last month, forcing the government to accept their amendment.)

The content of the next day’s debate was equally heartening for believers in parliamentary democracy. The Conservative MP Heidi Allen spoke about her own experience of needing an abortion when she was seriously ill with daily seizures. The DUP’s Sammy Wilson tried to argue that the current Northern Irish regime – which forbids terminations even for rape victims – was “balanced” between women and “the rights of the unborn child”.

He was promptly interrupted by Anna Soubry, who appears to have last given a shit some time in mid-2016. Standing resolutely with her arms crossed, she had a straightforward question: “So what’s he going to do about it? Are you going to get the 724 women [a year] who came to this country, to have abortions… to stay in Northern Ireland to have children that they don’t want?” (Wilson fell back on saying that it was a devolved issue.)

MP Heidi Allen talks about her abortion in powerful Commons speech – video

The debate showed the Commons at its best – courteous, attentive to details, and largely free from partisan point-scoring. It clarified the issue at stake and scrutinised the proposed response. Revisiting Northern Ireland’s archaic restrictions on abortion – and its ban on same-sex marriage – is long overdue. When the Republic of Ireland voted resoundingly to liberalise its own laws on 26 May, it shamed British politicians into considering the experiences of women north of the border. The 1967 Abortion Act was never enacted there, and so the relevant legislation remains the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. This declares that a woman can “be kept in penal servitude for life” for inducing a miscarriage. As Stella Creasy has pointed out, a rape victim who has an abortion faces a longer jail term than her rapist.

As in the Republic, Northern Irish women already have abortions. They travel to England – where, thanks to an earlier campaign by Creasy, their treatment is now funded by the NHS – or buy pills off the internet and risk being arrested. I met three campaigners who had deliberately bought such pills and then handed themselves into police as a protest. It was notable that they were all retired. Why? Because, as they pointed out, a conviction under the 1861 Act counts as assault, and would show up on criminal records checks and visa applications to America or Australia. (Two years on, they are still waiting to hear if they will be prosecuted.)

That is the cruel reality of the current laws. A 2016 poll by Amnesty suggested that 70% of Northern Irish voters back reform. The stumbling block is the DUP, whose leaders remain hardline social conservatives, even as their constituents have become more liberal. It is extremely convenient for Arlene Foster, Nigel Dodds and the rest to point to the collapse of the Northern Ireland assembly as an excuse for keeping the status quo.

Other “pro-life” commentators and MPs have tried to derail the discussion by suggesting a referendum. But this is not needed: while the Republic’s written constitution can only be amended by a popular vote, there is no such barrier to changing the law in Northern Ireland. A referendum would only cause division and delay.

That brings us to Creasy’s strategic insight. Instead of trying to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland – and face down the resulting howls about devolution – she is proposing something more simple and more radical. The 1967 Act works by providing exemptions to the 1861 Act – allowing abortions in certain circumstances. So why not just repeal the relevant clauses of the older legislation? That would decriminalise abortion up to 24 weeks(after which point the 1929 Infant Life Preservation Act kicks in) and allow the constituent nations of the UK to introduce their own new frameworks.

Changing the “ask” to repealing Westminster legislation rather than over-riding a devolved assembly has made the proposal palatable to Scottish nationalist MPs such as Hannah Bardell and Alison Thewliss. It has also won over Sinn Féin’s leader, Michelle O’Neill, who said Northern Ireland risked becoming “a political, cultural, backwater, to keep the Tories in power”.

Sammy Wilson, DUP MP for East Antrim.


Sammy Wilson, DUP MP for East Antrim, opposed any changes to the Northern Irish law. Photograph: Liam McBurney/PA

Real progress now seems possible – which is quietly astonishing in itself. For decades, the feminist consensus has been that revisiting our abortion law is too dangerous to contemplate in case the well-funded and increasingly well-organised “pro-life” movement successfully lobbies MPs to cut the upper time limit or impose new restrictions. (Several leading Tories, such as the health secretary, Jeremy Hunt, personally support lower limits.)

The impression that the current situation is unjust and untenable was bolstered by the supreme court’s ruling that Northern Irish law violates human rights – even if the petition itself was rejected because it was brought by an organisation rather than an individual. We might now see a similar case brought by a single rape victim, which would deeply embarrass the government.

Meanwhile in parliament, the spotlight will now shift to the newish home secretary, Sajid Javid, who has so far remained completely silent on the subject. (And most other subjects, to be fair.) Repealing the 1861 law could be achieved through an amendment to the domestic abuse bill, one of the few pieces of non-EU legislation on the parliamentary agenda. It is promised within the current session, but that is scheduled to run into next year. Javid is under pressure to speed up its arrival.

One last point. The lack of histrionics involved in advancing abortion reform does not mean that the fight has been easy. Creasy – already squaring off with Momentum activists in her Walthamstow constituency who want to deselect her – has received little support from her party’s leadership. Karen Lee, the shadow minister for fire, criticised Creasy, saying that the motion should have been run by the frontbench. The shadow attorney-general, Shami Chakrabarti, had earlier spooked some wavering Tories by declaring that reform was a test of Theresa May’s feminism, which threatened to turn a non-partisan issue into a test of their loyalty to the prime minister. The spirit of collaboration has its limits.

Still, it is notable that all of this has happened without any of the headline-generating bombast of David Davis and Boris Johnson’s antics over Brexit. From Dr Sarah Wollaston to Thewliss to Caroline Lucas to Jess Phillips, the roll call of MPs involved reads like an alternative House of Commons, where pragmatism and cooperation count for more than ego-driven bluster and knowing three dozen words of Latin. (It is tempting to reduce this to a point about gender – oh, if only women ran the world! – but several men also spoke eloquently in the emergency debate.)

A poll last week revealed that even 71% of Leave voters think Brexit is going badly. They are, to put it mildly, not wrong. The pointless melodrama, unforgivable lack of preparation and selfish short-sightedness that swirls around our exit from the EU is enough to make you lose faith our politicians. Until, that is, you remember the sight of MPs quietly getting to their feet, and working together for a cause they believe in. Because that is politics, rather than posturing.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman