Abortion law in England and Wales has been settled by parliament and the government does not intend to change it, a justice minister has told MPs, after a woman was jailed for taking abortion pills after the legal limit.
Edward Argar was speaking after opposition MPs secured an urgent question on the 162-year-old legislation underpinning abortion regulations in part of the UK, during which there were cross-party calls for an overhaul.
Thangam Debbonaire, the shadow leader of the Commons, urged the government to work with Labour to look at options to prevent a repeat of the case, which has prompted outrage after the woman was sentenced to more than two years in prison after a court was told she was 32 to 34 weeks pregnant when she took an abortion pill.
“Therefore, I ask that the Sentencing Council looks at this to stop this sort of circumstance with this sort of sentence,” she said. “Of course, there needs to be safeguards and time limits and this needs to happen to prevent late-term abortion. We do not want to see vulnerable women serving prison sentences or being prosecuted when it is not in the public interest to do so.”
Argar said the Sentencing Council was independent. “And it determines what to review and how to review it … I suspect they will have heard her comments but again, it would be inappropriate for me to seek to direct the Sentencing Council, given its independent function,” he said.
A “longstanding position” remained that it was for the House of Commons “to seek to make changes if it so wishes, but not for the government,” Argar said. “Any such vote would be in normal process a free vote and would be brought before this house in the context of a private member’s bill or similar, or perhaps a dexterous amendment, which I know some [MPs] opposite are not averse to doing successfully.”
In a charged debate – during which only men responded from the Conservative side, while the response was almost entirely from women on the opposition benches – Diana Johnson said the government and parliament “must look at this outdated legislation and make it fit for the 21st century”.
“As we know, earlier this week a mother of three children was sentenced to a period of imprisonment for ending her pregnancy and was prosecuted under section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act, a piece of legislation dating from 1861, which carries a maximum sentence of life imprisonment,” said the Labour MP, who in 2018 tried to amend provisions in the 1861 act relating to abortion with a backbench bill.
“This case was desperately sad and thankfully rare and it has been debated widely in the media and throws up important questions that merit an open debate in a health democracy,” Johnson said.
She challenged the government on why it was reasonable to have different legal frameworks in different parts of the UK as a result of MPs voting three years ago to change the law in Northern Ireland, where abortion was decriminalised.
The Labour MP Stella Creasy said there had been 67 prosecutions in the last 10 years under the older legislation, adding: “The conviction that we have seen in England and Wales shows that it is not a theoretical issue to consider whether women in England and Wales have a legal right to an abortion. They don’t. They have a situation where they are exempted from prosecution.”
There was anger from the opposition benches when the Tory MP Nick Fletcher, who said he expected that parliament would vote to liberalise abortion laws in future, said he was sure there were not any women who went to a clinic for an abortion who “did not hate” the experience.
Labour’s Charlotte Nichols joined other MPs in asking government to table time for a reasoned debate on abortion reform in England and Wales in the coming weeks, adding that in a future debate MPs should take care not to make assumptions about what women believed.
Another Labour MP, Janet Daby, brought up a case from a constituent who was seeking an abortion due to medication her partner was taking that causes foetal abnormality. The woman was told this was not a legally valid reason, said Daby, who asked the government to review this situation.