The Guardian reports that Harriet Harman is planning to block any vote on amendments to the Abortion Act in Parliament tomorrow by invoking a procedural motion to decide the order in which MPs debate the HFE bill. This would place the proposed amendments – both pro- and anti- choice – at the bottom of the list, meaning they are unlikely to be aired in time to be voted on. The motion would most likely be passed, as it would be subject to a strong three-line whip. This could result in not only the shelving of potential plans to extend the Act to Northern Ireland, but also those to remove the two doctor rule and allow nurses to carry out early abortions.
Harman justifies her move with the threat that, should MPs liberalise the abortion laws, the House of Lords could overturn other existing elements of the 1967Abortion Act, such as the allowance for abortion of severely handicapped foetuses after 24 weeks. This, as Polly Toynbee points out, is complete bollocks: the Lords have repeatedly voted in favour of the pro-choice position and support the Act as it currently stands.
It looks like Harman’s real motivations are indeed linked to NI politics:
…there was speculation last night that the government was acting to please the main political parties in Northern Ireland who are united in supporting the ban on abortions in the province. Some members of the Democratic Unionist party said its nine MPs voted in favour of the government’s plan to detain terror suspects without charge for 42 days in June after ministers assured Northern Ireland’s parties that the abortion ban would be retained.
The government wrote to all Northern Ireland parties saying that the HFE bill would be the wrong vehicle to change the law in Northern Ireland. [Evan] Harris [MP] said: “If that is right, then that is disgraceful.”
If Harman goes ahead with her plan, it will be a huge kick in the teeth for every woman in the country, particularly those from NI, and from no less than the Minister for Women herself. I’m speechless with disgust.