Abort Gordon


6:08 pm - September 9th 2008

by Kate Belgrave    


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Evening all. Tremendous to see our comrades in the Green party embracing the notion of extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology bill comes round for its third reading.

The part I’m really looking forward to, though, is watching our comrades in the Labour party try to reconcile any push for Northern Ireland abortion rights with the undoubtedly high expectations of their new and highly reactionary pals in the Democratic Unionist party. Can’t WAIT to see the great Harriet Harman – our very own self-proclaimed champion of women’s rights – pull that one out of her butt. What a result that’ll be for perversion.

You’ll remember the DUP, of course, and the unpalatable details of its recent, greasy love-in with Labour. You’ll remember that DUP MPs agreed to vote with the government on 42 days’ detention, in exchange for – well, in exchange for absolutely nothing apart from job satisfaction if our glorious leader Gordon was telling the truth at the time.

If he wasn’t – guess we’ll need to pretend Gordon’s a liar for a moment here – they did it in exchange for extra financial support for Northern Ireland, and for guarantees that Northern Ireland would continue to be excluded from the Abortion Act. I err towards option B.

Certainly, it was no surprise to find the HFEB and its attending Abortion Act amendments suddenly withdrawn from Commons debate in July. It was no surprise either to hear whispers that one of the reasons the HFEB left the picture so fast was that Gordon was struggling to get his new DUP mates to see the bright side of HFEB notions such lesbian parents, and abortion on demand in Northern Ireland.

Speaking as the bill was delayed, Harriet said ‘Of course the bill remains a flagship government bill … as much time as possible needs to be found for it and the other issues that the government are committed to. It would therefore be good to look for a date in the autumn….’

I had a feeling at the time that that was Harriet’s way of saying she was hoping like hell Gordon would be history by autumn, and taken his DUP deals with him.

And who could blame the old bag? We’re all hoping that.

More to come as the date for the third reading of the HFEB draws near.

In other news: the TUC has called for MPs to vote in favour of the HFEB’s pro-choice amendments – guess that’s another pie in the face for Gordon. Ain’t going so well for him at TUC conference.

xxxx

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About the author
Kate Belgrave is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. She is a New Zealander who moved to the UK eight years ago. She was a columnist and journalist at the New Zealand Herald and is now a web editor. She writes on issues like public sector cuts, workplace disputes and related topics. She is also interested in abortion rights, and finding fault with religion. Also at: Hangbitching.com and @hangbitch
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Civil liberties ,Coalition For Choice ,Detention (28 days) ,Feminism ,Sex equality

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Reader comments


That DUP deal with despicable. But I think you’re being a bit harsh on Harriet Harman. Despite opposition from other Cabinet members, I think she does a fair job of pushing feminism within the govt.

Hey Sunny,

Interesting point. Don’t know that we’ll agree on old Harriet – her equalities bill was interesting, if patronising, but I see her as part of a wider Labour administration that has done little to assist women. Depends a bit on your definition of feminism.

Where is our Harriet on protecting TUPED workers, for instance – people who are transferred to private sector employment from the public and forced to accept new contracts and lower wages as a result? Isn’t she part of an administration that has delivered an ever-widening gap between rich and poor – with women featuring often as the heads of the poorest families?

I don’t know that a woman who is part of a government that is so devoted to privatisation and the third sector can claim to be a feminist – not with the social fallout that such New Labour ideology has delivered.

I like the title of this post, let’s hope the Labour party sees sense in the coming weeks and tells the fucker to shove off.

With you there, Leon. I think Tell the Fucker to Shove Off would have been an even better title. I might change it.

5. Sunder Katwala

Kate, I found the post really thought-provoking – though mainly because the tone of it was so irritating. The extension of abortion rights to Northern Ireland comes across as primarily a stick to beat the government with – because it is a simple morality tale of good versus evil, the forces of progress versus reaction. But I think there is a more complicated challenge for those who want to extend abortion rights and/or women’s rights more broadly in Northern Ireland, at the very least about campaign strategy.

But let me agree on some important points.
– I think women in Northern Ireland should have similar rights to women elsewhere in the UK. If I were in Parliament, I would vote for that.

– I have said previously that I opposed the government’s policy on 42 days, and they certainly should not have been cutting any sort of deal with the DUP given the fragility (as ever) of the Northern Ireland devolution process. I have no information about a deal on abortion, but I would be even more against that.

But my question is this: does it matter about how the argument is made in Northern Ireland, and is it important to try to make – and even win – the argument there? How much priority – relatively – should be given to that? And what does that mean for a campaign to extend abortion rights?

I really don’t know where I would come down on those questions of how much winning the local argument matters, but I don’t think the issue can be simply ignored.

I can see an argument for saying no – this should be a relatively low priority. The overriding priority is the extension of abortion rights, by any means possible. If it looks like something of a liberal imperialist imposition, so be it: British rights for British citizens. (And presumably the argument would also be that this would not in 2008 have much impact on the broader political settlement, etc which has clearly been one reason why British governments did not push the issue since 1967, in the periods of direct rule).

A different argument would be that this is the only way to provoke a debate which Northern Ireland will always prefer to avoid (but this turns into a version of the same argument, if the bottom line is that there can be no local veto because these must be universal rights across the polity).

But there are problems with that approach.

– Firstly, it might be very difficult to get a Commons and Lords majority for it, in a free vote which combines the current pattern of abortion opinion with a devolution/local decision-making argument pushed strongly from Northern Ireland MPs. (Still, there would be an argument that everybody should stand up and be counted, and that the prospects in this Parliament might be relatively strong).

– Secondly, there would be a strong and vocal cross-party and cross-community campaign in Northern Ireland. It is quite clear that there is a strong elite political consensus against reform which seems to cover almost every prominent national political figure and party. The vote in the Stormont Assembly in 1984 saw one vote in favour of extending the 1967 law. And not much seems ot have changed since. Now, it is a good and rare thing to see people embrace causes which transcend religious and tribal loyalties – but I am not quite so sure we want to act to unite people against women’s rights.
http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/local-national/mps-unite-to-fight-law-that-will-make-abortions-available-in-northern-ireland-13919924.html

– Thirdly, while there would be some campaigning on the other side, conceding a ‘London/Westminster versus Northern Ireland United’ framing to the opponents of reform isn’t going to help.

– Finally, if the extension of rights could be achieved by a primarily Westminster/UK campaign, how entrenched would these be? If the public argument appears to have been clearly won by the no/pro-life voices, then future devolved parliaments and/or UK Parliaments (especially any containing more Conservatives) could easily challenge that – and a row would have increased the salience of the issue.

So what alternative or additional strategies are available? I don’t know. My instinct would be to try to work out how ot combine a Westminster and UK-wide strategy with a ‘contextual universalism’ approach: how do those whose rights you want to extend advise us to go about taking on the argument in their society and communities? Can we avoid simply dropping laws and arguments from 37,000 feet which appears to send the message that we liberals think they are all simply uncivilised savages below?

Perhaps Liberal Conspiracy could pursue a campaign here- but also a dialogue (not with irreconciliables) but with reformers and reform-minded voices in Northern Ireland, perhaps trying to work with Slugger O’Toole on this, including on how to avoid turning it into London versus Northern Ireland issue.

6. Sunder Katwala

A couple of final thoughts..

As far as I am aware, there is no good current information on public attitudes to abortion in Northern Ireland. The FPA campaign factsheet has some early 90s figures, suggesting a rise in support for pro-choice arguments from 25% to 30%. Does anybody have anything more recent?
http://www.fpa.org.uk/attachments/published/89/PDF%20NI%20Abortion%20January%202007.pdf

There is some BMA information (from the mid-90s) about the attitudes of doctors in Northern Ireland, which appear to be fairly complex.
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3634/is_199709/ai_n8767041/pg_1?tag=artBody;col1

Perhaps there is relatively little interest in finding out more about this.

For opponents of reform, this might well present a rather more complicated picture than the claim of a society united against the imposition of external values over a solid and near universal cross-community, cross-faith consensus.

Supporters of reform might well expect to find that theirs is a minority view (even if it might be a more sizeable minority, and a more nuanced picture on detailed questions on the circumstances in which people would and would not support abortions).

Perhaps the BBC, in the interests of public information should do something about this. In any event, it seems to me it would be a good idea to try to find out more about this.

To be clear, I am not proposing policy-making by referendum, but some good evidence on attitudes could be an important way to address the debate – and perhaps prevent the opponents of reform successfully polarising this.

With you there, Leon. I think Tell the Fucker to Shove Off would have been an even better title. I might change it.

Nah don’t, yours has a simple elegance that serves the underlying hatred well. 🙂

‘Kate, I found the post really thought-provoking – though mainly because the tone of it was so irritating. The extension of abortion rights to Northern Ireland comes across as primarily a stick to beat the government with – because it is a simple morality tale of good versus evil, the forces of progress versus reaction.’

Sundar – I make absolutely no apology for this. The government’s deal with the DUP was, as Sunny says in his earlier post, despicable. It is indeed a stick to beat the government with and I see no reason at all not to take the opportunity. Tis a rod the government has created for its own back, perhaps? Certainly, I think you try and shelve the DUP deal, and the implications of it, too quickly. I think it is possible a deal around abortion was done – certainly, the Guardian and BBC reported as much on several occasions. And there’s no doubt that the government would have lost the 42 days vote without that DUP deal (if memory serves, it would have come down to a casting vote), so that was indeed a morality tale. The government pushed the deal with the DUP to win and save face. It really is almost as simple a tale as that.

You raise interesting and important points about the way forward from here, though, and the political consensus against reform in Northern Ireland – a consensus that doesn’t quite marry with the apparent needs of the large number of women from Northern Ireland who come here every year seeking legal abortion. It’s that number that motivates the Abortion Rights movement, to answer your question on that one. I’ve got to go to work now, so will come back to this this evening.

Cheers,

Kate

Hi again Sundar,

I wanted to quickly pick up a few of the points that you raised regarding the priority that ought to be given to campaigning for abortion rights in Northern Ireland.

It’s my understanding that the priority is based on the number of women from Northern Ireland who seek abortions here every year (some 1300 Natalie reports in her post, and some 50,000 since 1967) and lobbying by various interest groups – trade unions, rape crisis centres, the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland, the fpa and so on (there’s a briefing paper on the Abortion Rights website that gives a comprehensive list).

It’s my understanding as well that those groups have lobbied MPs to table a cross party amendment on Northern Ireland to the HFEB:

http://www.fpa.org.uk/news/press/current/detail.cfm?contentid=1041

Thus – to put it fairly simply at this stage – are political priorities formed.

I want to return to this in more detail, though, and so have set up a couple of interviews next week to find out more about that prioritising, I’ll post those interviews here.

I remain keen to thrash the government over its deal with the DUP, though. It deserves a thrashing for that. If it sold women in Northern Ireland out in the process – as was widely reported – it deserves a real kicking. That is not to say that some Labour MPs haven’t been admirable in their public committment to abortion rights – I posted a very positive (too positive, some said) interview with Emily Thornberry here, and have also posted positive reports on the work contributed by Katy Clark and Diane Abbott. Gordon’s DUP deal, though, will surely come back to haunt him.

10. Sunder Katwala

All you said was that you “think it is possible a deal around abortion was done” on 42 days, though you also seem pretty certain that it was. I am sceptical: this was one of several different (and contradictory) theories about what the DUP may have asked for. In any event, I don’t see that the government will be able to do is prevent that vote being put in Parliament, or to prevent Labour MPs voting on it: abortion is a free vote issue in Parliament. The proposal by a group of cross-party MPs to put it to the vote was made after the 42 day vote. Labour MPs are among those proposing it, and will be among those voting for it.

I think the campaign is a good and important one. So my question was less about how important a priority abortion reform in Northern Ireland is – but about the relative weight to be given to trying to win the vote in Westminster (against the votes of all Northern Ireland MPs), and alongside that to trying to shift opinion in Northern Ireland itself.

My sense is that:
* Creating a campaign is important to put the issue into the public domain, creating a debate on a somewhat taboo issue
* The best option is to have the same law. But there are risks of creating a Westminster vs Northern Ireland debate. Done badly, this will allow opponents to present local opposition as almost unanimous, because that is the view of the politicians.

* My guess is that it will be difficult to pass legislation through both houses at the first time of asking. The Conservatives are quite strongly and increasingly anti-abortion rights, and will use the devolution/localism argument too. I can imagine that could have an influence in the LibDems among those who support the current law. There has always been a solidly pro-life Labour group of MPs.

* So I wonder whether there would be any or much support for putting (i) the extension of the 1967 Act to the vote, and trying to pass that, or, failing that, at least to determine the level of support on a cross-party basis and (ii) also proposing that women from Northern Ireland should be eligible to have an abortion on the NHS in the rest of the UK, until and unless the NI law is changed.

– The Northern Irish politicians will argue that local opinion should be listened to (and be decisive) on what the law in Northern Ireland, though that can be challenged.
– However, I can not see how they could make any argument at all for a Northern Ireland veto against English and Welsh MPs determining the policies of the NHS outside Northern Ireland, including on this issue.

Of course, I agree that would be a very modest reform – not even an imperfect halfway house but one small step towards reform. The women concerned would still face additional inconvenience and cost. But this would not only open the issue to public debate, but increase the chances of making some legislative or policy progress, while putting the opponents of reform in the difficult position of admitting they were exporting the problem. (However, there is no point in trying that if this would not win a significant amount of support from MPs outside Northern Ireland beyond those backing the straight extension of the 1967 act).

‘I don’t see that the government will be able to do is prevent that vote being put in Parliament, or to prevent Labour MPs voting on it: abortion is a free vote issue in Parliament.’

Certainly is. But the point of my original post is that Brown’s filthy deal with the DUP puts him in a compromising position. That point remains valid. You seem determined to skirt that point, and redraw the government in a reasonable light. Are you really saying that you think the DUP asked for nothing in exchange for its nine votes of support on 42 days? That seems an extraordinary, and entirely disingenous, position, and Brown was not at all convincing when he tried to put it.

I agree that some Labour MPs have been admirable in their support of abortion law – as I observe above, I have interviewed Labour MPs who are publicly pro-choice, were instrumental in defending the 24 week limits, and deserved support as a result in my view. I have also read that Harman is keen to step round any deal done with the DUP and pursue liberal abortion reform.

You make this statement:

‘My guess is that it will be difficult to pass legislation through both houses at the first time of asking. The Conservatives are quite strongly and increasingly anti-abortion rights, and will use the devolution/localism argument too.’

I agree with your projection there (although would like to be proven wrong) and also think your points around the devolution/localism argument hold water. My own view is that in reality, the attempt to push a vote through the commons on this one will be an awareness raising exercise in the main, and an opportunity, as you rightly point out, to get a feel for levels of support. Northern Ireland’s politicians will of course argue in favour of local opinion – the point of the interviews I will be carrying out next week is to try and better guage that opinion.

Because – least we forget – you can’t necessarily equate goverment position with public opinion, can you? Quite a large number of us were and are still against the notion of a war in Iraq, for example, but your philanthropic, liberal-thinking Labour government took us there anyhow, and as a direct result, thousands of people are dead.

There are free votes and there are free votes. One telling point will be how many cabinet members and PPSes actually vote.

As for NI making its own decision – well there is talk that the issue will be devolved (although it isn’t in Scotland) but surely if that happens what they should be bequeathed is the UK default – after that if they want to change it that will at least require active effort – and allow a chance for the public view to be expressed.

Agreed. It certainly will be interesting to see where the cabinet goes. I understand that some of them (Ruth Kelly, for instance) already have leave to be out of town…


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  1. The DUP and 42 day detention « UK Liberty

    […] Kate Belgrave on Liberal Conspiracy: … You’ll remember the DUP, of course, and the unpalatable details of its recent, greasy love-in with Labour. You’ll remember that DUP MPs agreed to vote with the government on 42 days’ detention, in exchange for – well, in exchange for absolutely nothing apart from job satisfaction if our glorious leader Gordon was telling the truth at the time. […]





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