May can and should do more to facilitate change over Northern Ireland’s abortion law

Labour Party

‘“There are currently no plans to intervene in the Northern Ireland abortion law debate”, the Prime Minister has said. Such a statement denies women citizens of Northern Ireland, who require an abortion, the opportunity to receive safe medical care, dignity and compassion. In fact, it not only denies them access to such care but it ignores their need for it.

It would be foolish to not recognise that the political situation makes this an incredibly difficult journey to undertake, but as complicated as it is its most definitely a necessary one.

May’s spokesman has said that the only way legislation can come into force is through legislation from the devolved assembly because it has responsibility for health. The problem is, of course that the Stormont legislature hasn’t sat for 16 months.

If Theresa May is to pursue this line (that change must come from within Stormont) then the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland must work with great urgency to facilitate the restoration of the legislature. It’s simply not good enough to make a dismissive statement like “it was a matter for the devolved Northern Ireland Government”.

The current stale mate can’t continue. Northern Ireland must change its laws on abortion and do so urgently.

I campaigned in the Irish refferendum last month and was obviously pleased with the result. I wrote about my experience for the New Statesman, and the article is available online which you can read here. Now that the eighth amendment in Northern Ireland will be repealed the focus inevitable turns to Northern Ireland where the pressure to change the law will rightly increase.

Standing in Solidarity with the Women of Poland

Labour Party

Today, along with fellow Labour MEPs, I stand with thousands of women in Poland who have downed their tools to go on strike from both professional work and domestic responsibilities in protest at the Polish government’s moves to ban abortion.  This proposal that will criminalise all women seeking terminations threatens the dignity and safety of women.

As the law stands, Poland already has some of the most restrictive laws in Europe on accessing abortion. Legal termination of pregnancy currently applies only in cases where the life of the foetus is under threat, where there is grave risk to the pregnant woman or where the pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.

The change in the law will mean increased criminalisation of women, with those who seek abortion facing up to five years in prison. Consider a case where a 14 year old seeking the termination of a pregnancy resulting from rape will herself be seen as a criminal. Doctors who assist with terminations will face a prison term and women who have miscarriages will also be under greater suspicion.

It bears repeating that sexual and reproductive rights remain human rights enshrined in international human rights mechanisms. As a signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), Poland must guarantee women’s rights to decide freely and responsibly about the number and the spacing of their children.

Women must also be able to access information, education and means to enable them to exercise these rights. Constricting access to abortion is an assault on women’s human rights and dignity, and countries that criminalise women who seek abortion inevitably put women’s lives at great risk.

These moves to restrict abortion access follow intensive trading between the Polish government and hard-line anti-abortion factions and it is clear that women’s reproductive rights are being treated as inherently disposable.

Poland must respect the will of Polish women in their call for sexual and reproductive rights, ceasing immediately these legal manoeuvres that deny the dignity of Polish women and put their safety at risk. Today, across Europe, we stand with Polish women who demand that they are heard and their human rights are recognised.


To keep up-to-date with today’s protest and share your support for Polish women’s right to access safe abortion, follow #CzarnyProtest on Twitter.



When it comes to abortion ministers should deal in facts

Labour Party

The studies on survival rates for babies born before 24 weeks, published in the British Medical Journal, shed a welcome light onto the debate about the current 24-week limit.  In October the Minister for Women, Maria Miller, said the limit should be lowered because babies are surviving at ever younger gestational stages, while the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, called for the limit to be halved to 12 weeks.

 The finding from the two studies conducted 11 years apart is that there has been no significant improvement in the survival of extremely premature babies born before 24 weeks.  This contradicts Cabinet ministers’ claims that the abortion limit should be lowered because, to quote Maria Miller, “the science has moved on”.

 As the Independent puts it in their leader, “by pouring cold water on Ms Miller’s claims, the figures also amply illustrate the danger of politicians’ co-opting half-baked science to bolster personal prejudices, however sincerely held. Those with the power to govern have a duty to establish the facts. Abortion is a tricky enough issue already without ministers adding to the confusion”.

Honeyball’s Weekly Round-Up

Labour Party

The good news this week was that Obama has won a second term in office.  The election was predicted as being too close to call right up until Tuesday, but in the end Obama won the electoral vote comfortably.

The tone of this election was bleak, with both sides engaging in some rather underhand tactics, but the thought of a Romney presidency was just too much for most Americans in the end.  Looking at the coverage over here of American politics, you could easily believe that a large proportion of Americans are right-wing religious zealots, but, though they do have their fair share of such people, it would seem that America is actually quite a liberal place.

Three states, Maine, Maryland and Washington, have all voted to legalise same sex marriages.  This brings the total up to nine now in the U.S.

But all the pundits are saying that women, and in particular single women, were the deciding factor in this election.  The finding might seem unsurprising after a campaign season punctuated by offensive and biologically illiterate statements from Republican candidates about rape and pregnancy.

But pollsters said the newly identified electoral bloc of unmarried women voted for Obama for bringing the country through the recession – with the Democrats’ support for healthcare and equal pay.  Obama obliterated Romney when it came to the battle for the votes of unmarried women, beating him by 36 points.

It’s not difficult to see why this is happening, especially when Romney made his now infamous “47%” speech, where he said it was not his job to worry about people who made need help from the government.  I think the republicans need to think very carefully about how they come across to female voters.  This election has shown that telling women what they can and can’t do with their bodies and denying them access to much needed welfare is a sure fire way to lose their support.

The US election shows caring is the new politics

Labour Party

Radio 4’s Today programme ran a fascinating piece this morning on how much Barack Obama and Mitt Romney were thought by their electorate to care about the people whose vote they sought. Unsurprisingly Romney came out the worse by a long mile.

While not new in politics, the strength of the notion throughout the Presidential election campaign that politicians should care for the people they represent does, I believe, mark a sea change. The days when US citizens were concerned above all else about American might in the world are being overtaken by the feeling that politicians should care more about their voters as individuals, their daily lives and what matters to them, their families and their communities.

The way women voted is the most obvious example of this trend. Unlike racial groups who tend to vote a particular way, for example Latinos support Obama and in the UK the ethnic minority communities veer towards Labour, women owe no such allegiance. As 50 per cent of the population, women are just about as representative as you can get of the 100 per cent of voters.

The majority of women did not like Romney. They deserted him in droves. The principal reason for this extraordinary phenomenon was that women did not feel Romney cared about them, mainly because the GOP candidate and his Party chose to attack the only thing which makes women different from men – their reproductive capacity. The result was that women felt threatened and uncared for.

It was, in fact, quite a legacy for the Republican Party. In Missouri Todd Akin talked about “legitimate” rape, saying that if this was the case the female body had a way of shutting the whole thing down, Richard Mourdock from Indiana thought babies born as a result of rape were “a gift from God” while in the campaign for the Senate in Pennsylvania Tom Smith compared rape to unwed motherhood. Sadly, there is more. Atlantic Monthly gives a round up well worth a read.

Contraception and abortion were, of course, the other main focus of Republican attitudes to women. Romney himself is against abortion under any circumstances, opposed Roe v Wade and does not agree with insurance funding for contraception. Meanwhile Obama campaigned positively for contraception to be available and for women to have access to safe abortions.

Romney also looked as if he didn’t care about non-whites, highlighted by the phrase “he [Romney] hates Chinese”. Those who are less well-off fared possibly even worse when Romney stated that 47 per cent of Americans do not pay federal taxes.

The caring agenda came through loud and clear during the American Presidential campaign with women at the forefront. Governments and political leaders would do well to think hard about the American lesson. Individuals and their immediate concerns now really count and they want politicians to take note and look after them, taking up matters dear to their hearts rather than political, or in America, religious ideology.

Sex-selective termination is not the inevitable consequence of access to abortion

Labour Party

The Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child (SPUC) has claimed that terminating pregnancies on the basis of the sex of the foetus is the “inevitable consequence” of easy access to abortion.

SPUC felt motivated to put forward this appalling and inaccurate view following revelations in the Daily Telegraph that doctors agreed to carry out abortions on the grounds of the sex of the foetus. The Daily Telegraph sent undercover reporters to nine abortion clinics in Britain and found three cases where women wanted a termination because of the gender of the foetus.

Abortion carried out because the potential baby is the wrong sex is completely and utterly reprehensible. It is also illegal, according to Health Secretary Andrew Lansley. In England, Scotland and Wales that there are criteria which have to be met to have a termination before 24 weeks, including:

  • Continuing with the pregnancy would be a greater risk to the woman’s life, physical or mental health than ending the pregnancy
  • Continuing would be more of risk to the physical or mental health of any of the women’s existing children
  • There is a real risk the unborn child would have a serious physical or mental disability

In addition, two doctors have to agree to the abortion, or one in the case of an emergency, and conditions are stricter for abortions carried out after 24 weeks. In Northern Ireland abortion is usually illegal unless the mother’s life is at risk.

So despite what SPUC may have you believe, it is actually quite difficult under the law to get an abortion. We do not have “easy access” to abortion. There are strict requirements for the procedure to be undertaken in a legal fashion.

In response to the Daily Telegraph investigation SPUC makes an extraordinary claim, namely, “This investigation confirms the reality of eugenics in modern British medicine.” Making accusations such as this is both stupid and deeply offensive.   

The Daily Telegraph does not tell us which sex was preferred and which sex was consigned to the dustbin of termination. My strong hunch is that it is girls who are not wanted. Female foetuses are terminated in India because of their gender, and the same is probably true in other parts of the world. We need more information on whether it is girls who are terminated in larger numbers than boys so that the problem of parents not wanting females can be properly addressed.  

The Department of Health has launched an inquiry into the claims the abortions are carried out on the basis of sex and Andrew Lansley has roundly condemned the practice. Let’s hope he has more success with this inquiry, and subsequently ensuring the current abortion laws are obeyed, than he is currently having with the disastrous NHS Bill.

World AIDS Day

Labour Party

I am really pleased that yesterday on World Aids Day the motion for a resolution was adopted by the parliament on the EU response to HIV/AIDS in the EU and neighbouring countries. 

The far-right Europe for Freedom and Democracy (EFD) group, of which UKIP are a member, asked for roll call votes on a number of passages in the motion. This means that the vote of each MEP is registered and made publically available so it’s possible to see which parts of the text they supported. 

The conservatives Roger Helmer, Sajjad Karim and Charles Tannock don’t support the strong link in national programmes between HIV/AIDS and sexual and reproductive health. 

Helmer and Tannock voted against the part of the motion supporting equitable and affordable access to contraception too. 

I wonder if they know that on a daily basis more than 7000 people are newly infected by HIV globally. Or that of the 24,703 people diagnosed with HIV in Western Europe in 2009 it is estimated that around 77% of these infections resulted from sexual contact

The inclusion of HIV/AIDS on the European public health agenda is a vital step in significantly reducing the number of new HIV infections. To prevent the spread of the disease people must be provided with access to adequate information on contraception, sex education and access to means of protection from HIV. 

The World Health Organisation has recognised that: 

HIV affects, or potentially affects, all the dimensions of women’s sexual and reproductive health — pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, abortion, use of contraception, exposure to, diagnosis and treatment of STIs and their exposure to sexual violence. For instance, HIV infection accelerates the natural history of some reproductive illnesses and increases the severity of others” (WHO, 2006). 

As I have said before, I fully support a woman’s right to choose. An abortion is a serious, life-altering decision, but the person whose life would be most altered and whose decision it fundamentally remains is the pregnant woman in question. 

Women living with HIV/AIDS are at greater risk of septicaemia and post-operative complications. Denying a woman the right to safe and legal abortion and post-abortion care can not only puts her reproductive health at risk it also puts her life in danger. This part of the motion was not supported by Nirj Deva, Roger Helmer, Sajjad Karim, Timothy Kirkhope, Emma McClarkin and Charles Tannock. 

We’ve not yet found a cure for HIV/AIDS, but, there is international agreement from organisations such as the WHO and the UN that the spread of HIV can brought to a halt and indeed reversed with policies and practices targeted at its prevention. 


The Tories’ do not really believe in their plans to win back women

Labour Party

Last week an email was leaked that originated from number 10 that contained policy suggestions of how to win back the dwindling support from women.

The Tories’ cynical attitude towards female voters was outlined starkly in the document. Examples include a proposal to criminalise forced marriage because the “signal sent out by opting not to criminalise is a bad one” – not because forced marriage is a terrible abuse of human rights but because it looks bad that it is allowed it to happen.

Although the leaking of this document means that their sly tactics are exposed, I don’t think women would have bought the Tories’ newfound concern for them either way, because their attitude towards women has always been pretty transparent.

For instance, despite calling for fathers to be “more responsible” for their children, the coalition still proposed to charge single parents (overwhelmingly women) to access the Child Support Agency. It has now been revealed that nearly half of the parents who use the service would be unable to afford the fees…  The Tories have said no word about rethinking these plans.

In addition, despite promising to be the most “family-friendly” government ever, leaked documents emerged that suggested abolishing maternity rights as a means of aiding the economy. This shows that for all the rhetoric, the Tories have no problem making collateral damage of the women of the UK.

One of the issues that struck fear into the heart of many British women was the attempt by Nadine Dorries to restrict access to abortion. The right to abortion is one that women of this country fought long and hard for and prize dearly, whether or not they ever chose to use it. Cameron, however, didn’t even care enough about the issue to read Nadine’s proposals before offering his support. Only when the protestors appeared on his front door did he bother to actually read the small print – whereupon he made another (now characteristic) hasty U-turn.

Altogether it appears to me that the vast majority of the Tory front bench view the women of this country as inconvenient vote holders – a group that needs to be considered because of their power to lose them the next election but for whom they hold no real respect or understanding. Cameron’s own treatment of women in the house has on several occasions blatantly displayed his contempt for the other sex.

The Tories’ stumbling block in the next election might well be the women’s vote. Although they recognise that women constitute the main casualties of their policies and are planning to try and remedy the problem, their hearts just aren’t in it and almost certainly never will be.

Abortion advice and pro-life groups – a bad fit?

Labour Party

I was asked by Public Service Europe to write an article regarding my concerns over the amendment Nadine Dorries planned to table to the Health and Social Care Bill which has now been published online. You can read it at Public Service Europe by clicking here, but I have reproduced it in its entirety below:

Abortion advice and pro-life groups – a bad fit?

At first sight, amendments to the UK Health and Social Care Bill put forward by Nadine Dorries MP appears innocuous. Who could dispute that the decision to seek an abortion can be a fraught and difficult one, and that women should have access to high-quality counselling services – if they feel that they need to discuss their options? Unfortunately, the suggestion that government should provide “independent information, advice and counselling services for women requesting termination of pregnancy” is, in fact, far from harmless. It is an attempt to fundamentally alter the delivery of counselling services, holding profound implications for women’s reproductive rights.

At the core of the proposal is the notion that those delivering abortions cannot be trusted to deliver impartial advice, that the staff of not-for-profit organisations like Marie Stopes and BPAS centres are too deeply compromised by cold, hard financial imperatives to offer the support women need. The solution to this, we are told, is to open the service up to a miscellany of “independent” organisations. Under this model, deeply-held anti-abortion beliefs would present no obstacle to bidders seeking state contracts. The likes of Care Confidential, found to have distributed leaflets containing deeply misleading and condemning statements on abortion, would be free to participate in the delivery of state healthcare.

A less obvious, but equally dangerous, aspect of the amendment is the notion that pregnant women are vulnerable and necessarily in need of external advice. Of course, women must have the opportunity to talk through their options – but to compel them to do so is to imply that women are incapable of independently making an informed and rational decision; and that thousands of women are simply drifting unthinkingly into abortion clinics, dimly unaware of the alternatives. This is aside from the fact that this process is likely to delay the procedure.

To me, this seems to be very obvious encroachment upon the now established principle that a woman’s body is her own and that decisions affecting a woman’s body are hers alone.  What is being put forward here is an essentially pernicious proposal, veiled in the liberal language of rights and choice – but framed with the moralistic goal of dramatically reducing abortion rates at its core. If adopted, the bill will strip state-support from current providers, with their wealth of experience acquired from decades of contact with women, and risk placing money in the hands of avowedly pro-life organisations.

Ultimately, this would constrain women’s access to quality and impartial advice. Already, much damage has been done. Dorries has tarnished service providers and circulated damaging accusations about the nature of abortion procedures in her efforts to bolster support for the motion. If women’s reproductive rights are to endure we must stop this amendment in its tracks.

Women’s fertility rights to be set back 20 years if Nadine Dorries’ proposals go ahead.

Labour Party

After a lovely, if slightly grey, summer break in the UK I am now back to work. First on the agenda is a visit for the entire Culture Committee to the Olympic and Cultural Olympiad sites which will give us British MEPS the chance to show off the cultural delights of London. In addition, I myself will get the opportunity to see how work is progressing towards the Olympics for 2012 – all very exciting.

However, what would otherwise have been a very enjoyable week has been overshadowed by the incredibly worrying news that ministers are set to back Nadine Dorries’ plans to force women seeking a termination to undergo compulsary counselling provided by organisations that do not themselves provide abortion. This will mean that women will experience greater delays in accessing abortions which may lead some to have to undergo more complicated procedures. What is even more concerning however is that this is a policy expressly designed to curtail the number of abortions that happen in the UK and which has been lobbyed for by pro-life religious organisations who will no doubt be on hand to offer counselling services themselves if the policy is implemented. This can leave us in little doubt as to the nature of the counselling that women may now be forced to undergo.

I have outlined my concerns in a letter to the Guardian published today and can only hope that our government sees sense before it is too late and women in the UK lose some of the rights that they have had to fight so hard for over the years – the right to access abortions and the right to free and unbiased medical advice.