Repealing a 150-year-old law that criminalises abortion could eliminate certain safeguards and allow “abortion on demand throughout pregnancy”, MPs have heard.
Tory and DUP MPs stood to oppose the proposal to repeal certain sections of the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA) 1861, saying it would “impose” one of the most liberal abortion regimes anywhere in the world.
Labour MP Stella Creasy told the Commons reform was needed as at present women “cannot control what happens to their own body”.
However Tory MP Fiona Bruce argued if the change were to go ahead “the Abortion Act’s safeguards would in fact be removed”.
The Congleton MP added: “The proposers of this debate clearly want to go further, they want to decriminalise our legislation to remove the safeguards that have been in place.
“Already we have some of the most liberal abortion laws in the world and yet campaigners want to I believe liberalise them further.
“Colleagues should be under no illusions, repealing these sections of the OAPA would effectively pave the way to review comprehensively our current abortion legislation, not just for Northern Ireland but also for England and Wales.
“We could see abortion on demand throughout pregnancy, that would be wrong and we should resist it.”
The DUP’s equality spokeswoman Emma Little Pengelly added: “What this proposal would do would be to impose on the people of Northern Ireland one of the most liberal abortion regimes anywhere in the world – abortion on demand up to 24 weeks – in the absence of a regime or guidelines because currently those do not exist and if this went ahead there would be nothing there apart from the legality and decriminalisation up to 24 weeks.”
Tory Maria Caulfield (Lewes) said the issue was a “Trojan horse for what is really wanted which is removing section 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Persons Act which would introduce abortion on demand for any reason up to 24 weeks”.
And Ms Caulfield said if MPs were “truly serious about having modern abortion laws” then the time limit for abortion should be looked at.
“In a ComRes poll, 70% of women in the United Kingdom would like to see the time limit reduced – if you’re going to have a modern day abortion in this country, let’s have an honest and genuine discussion and let’s not hide behind pretending this is about rights for women in Northern Ireland.”
DUP MP Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) was heckled as he insisted the laws “do reflect the views of the people” in Northern Ireland.
He also pointed to figures which claimed 100,000 people are alive in Northern Ireland due to the Abortion Act 1967 not being introduced.
Mr Wilson said: “We have people today in Northern Ireland who are rearing families, who are contributing to society, who are building their businesses, who are working in our factories, who are sitting in our schools, who otherwise, if we had had the legislation which exists here in the rest of the United Kingdom, would have been discarded and put in a bin before they were ever born.”
Ms Creasy, wrapping up the debate, reserved particular criticism for the “scaremongering” of Ms Bruce and Mr Wilson.
She added: “Above all I want to thank (Mr Wilson) who so beautifully illustrated why this change must happen in this House and why it matters.
“He took to the floor of this debate to control this debate, because control came easily to him. That sensation of being in control and able to make decisions about what happens is what we seek for all our constituents.
“I will stand up for his right as a Northern Irish man to have control over his body. All we are asking is that he stand up for the rights of Northern Irish women to have control over their bodies too.”
The DUP’s Jim Shannon (Strangford) branded the debate an “opportunistic move” on the back of the Irish referendum “to see abortion on demand with no restriction brought into the UK”.
He said: “I believe that the woman and her body matter but so does the life of the child, let’s remember the child … do not ask this place to impose on Northern Ireland a law which does not reflect the will of the elected representatives … life is precious, both lives matter.”