The new minister for women has defended an earlier decision to vote against buffer zones outside abortion clinics, explaining she is concerned some people accused of harassment may be just trying to “comfort” people using the healthcare services.
Maria Caulfield, who has also supported cutting the abortion time limit, was appointed as minister for women by the prime minister, Rishi Sunak.
The MP for Lewes was also previously an officer of the all-party parliamentary pro-life group and voted against legalising abortion in Northern Ireland.
Charities and women’s rights groups significantly criticised the appointment. On BBC Two’s Politics Live on Monday, Caulfield raised eyebrows with her attempt to defend her voting record on buffer zones.
She said: “For me, the definition of what’s harassment is open to interpretation. That’s my concern – [that] someone who’s going up to, maybe, comfort someone who’s upset or distressed could be accused of harassment and could face six months in jail.”
Caulfield said that as a minister, she would be bound by the parliamentary vote in favour of buffer zones. She said that in her previous role as a health minister she had supported pro-choice policies.
Labelling someone as “anti-women” or “anti-choice” on the basis of particular votes was wrong, she claimed. She also said she was entitled to take a personal view on these matters.
In 2018, when Caulfield was the Conservative vice-chair for women, she called for a debate on reducing the 24-week time limit for women to receive legal abortions, describing the 1967 Abortion Act as “one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world”.
She urged her colleagues in the House of Commons to be “wary of greater liberalisation of the law” surrounding abortion, and said having to receive approval from two doctors before terminating a pregnancy protected vulnerable women.
Sunak has been accused of failing to represent women in his new cabinet, with about 23% of roles going to women, down from nearly a third under Liz Truss.