Prime Minister Theresa May has opposed an attempt to decriminalise abortion, saying the proposal “offers no safeguards for women”.
In a letter to a constituent, the Prime Minister strongly criticised measures outlined in a Ten Minute Rule Bill, introduced to parliament earlier this month by Labour MP Diana Johnson. The bill would impose radical changes to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws as well as decriminalising the procedure in England and Wales.
A similar bill, also put forward by Johnson, failed to proceed through parliament on Friday. As is common, the private member’s bill was blocked on a point of procedure.
“I do have concerns about the points raised in Diana Johnson’s Ten Minute Rule Bill,” Mrs May wrote. “I do not support the repealing of sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 for several reasons.
“Primarily, repealing those two sections does not solve the issue of abortion in Northern Ireland, as without any new provisions it offers no safeguards for women and would impact on England and Wales, as well as Northern Ireland.”
She added that if the bill became law, it would effectively create a legal vacuum: “The 1967 Abortion Act provides defences against the criminal law offences in the 1861 Act.
“If these offences were removed then abortion would in effect be decriminalised and no legal framework would be in place, including no gestational time limits.
“A new legal framework would be needed to replace those provisions, which is rightly a devolved matter which locally accountable politicians in Northern Ireland should have the opportunity to debate and consider.”
She continued: “The measures in the Bill also go a lot further than the current debate in Northern Ireland, so it is important legislation is not imposed on Northern Ireland and we allow local politicians the opportunity to represent the views of the people of Northern Ireland.”
Her comments were made public after Diana Johnson published a new bill to repeal sections of the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act under which abortion remains a criminal offence. The 1967 Abortion Act added exceptions where a doctor would not be prosecuted for performing an abortion.
Antonia Tully, Campaigns Director for the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, welcomed the Prime Minister’s intervention.
“Mrs May has highlighted the key issue of women’s health. Decriminalising abortion would leave women at greater risk.
“If abortion is no longer governed by the criminal law we could easily develop a ‘backstreet abortion’ culture.
“Decriminalising abortion would leave every unborn baby and expectant mother in England, Wales and Northern Ireland with no legal protection against abortion and utterly at the mercy of the unscrupulous abortion industry.”
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