Talks start on abortion powers for Holyrood

Labour's Iain Gray, Gregg McClymont, the Lib Dems' Michael Moore and Tavish Scott and the SNP's Linda Fabiani and John Swinney during the Smith Commission all-party talks. Picture: PA
Labour's Iain Gray, Gregg McClymont, the Lib Dems' Michael Moore and Tavish Scott and the SNP's Linda Fabiani and John Swinney during the Smith Commission all-party talks. Picture: PA
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TALKS on handing control over abortion law from Westminster to Holyrood will open this week amid calls from pro-life groups for Scotland to take a harder line on terminations.

Scotland on Sunday understands that the Secretary of State for Scotland Alistair Carmichael is about to contact political leaders and interest groups to discuss how the transfer of power should be made. Carmichael will write to the leaders of Scotland’s political parties seeking their views on how the one outstanding issue arising from the Smith Commission more powers package should be handled.

Devolution of abortion law proved a highly divisive issue during the Smith Commission negotiations that determined the package of powers that should come to Holyrood as a result of the UK party leaders’ pre-referendum vow.

The “more powers” deal almost collapsed moments before its deadline when Labour negotiators made abortion a red line issue and made strenuous objections to the idea of devolving it.

Labour made the point that transferring abortion law raises the possibility of different legal limits for terminations north and south of the Border.

The Smith package was saved at the last minute when the SNP, Labour, the Tories, Lib Dems and Greens reached a compromise on the issue.

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The draft Smith legislation published last month did not include a proposal to devolve abortion, but the original agreement noted that the political parties were “strongly of the view” to recommend the “anomalous health reservation”.

The Smith report said that “further serious consideration should be given to its devolution and a process should be established immediately to consider the matter further”.

Carmichael’s letters will mark the start of that process. The resurfacing of the issue will once again set Labour against the other parties.

And the prospect of the law coming to Edinburgh will see rows erupt between Scottish pro-life and pro-choice groups and set politicians with differing religious and ethical viewpoints against each other.

In the Smith talks, the SNP negotiator, Linda Fabiani, and her Green counterpart, Maggie Chapman, were vocal proponents of devolving the law.

Last night, Fabiani said: “I am pro-choice and I believe that abortion and other ethical issues should be decided in Scotland for Scotland. I would welcome a full discussion around these issues.”

Labour, however, remained implacably opposed to its devolution.

“The Scottish Labour party does not support the devolution of abortion law to the Scottish Parliament,” said a party spokesman.

“As we have repeatedly said, we believe that there should be a common policy between Scotland and the rest of Britain on this because otherwise there would be cross-border travel by women seeking a termination under different laws north or south of the Border.”

The Conservatives on the other hand were more relaxed about the issue. A Conservative party spokesman said: “As suggested by the Smith Commission, we would agree that this should be considered further. We are more than happy to take part in any process that considers this sensitive but important issue.”

Although Fabiani and Chapman argued for the power to be transferred from a pro-choice perspective, there have been suggestions the churches and the devout Christian and SNP donor, Sir Brian Souter, would try to exert pressure on Scottish politicians to implement a more conservative abortion law. Under current UK law, an abortion can be carried out in the first 24 weeks of pregnancy as long as certain criteria are met.

The possibility of MSPs receiving the power to alter that has already led to pro-life campaigners calling for the law to be overhauled in Scotland.

Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, Sister Roseann Reddy of the Cardinal Winning Pro-Life Initiative in Glasgow said it was “crazy” that abortion law was not yet under Scottish control.

“When it comes to the issues that affect the people of Scotland, then it should be decided and we should be able to legislate here in Scotland for it. It does seem a bit crazy that we have a separate NHS system up here for everything else except for abortion. That seems to me to be unfair. I don’t know why the UK has to keep the power for that. If everything else in the NHS is decided up here, then why isn’t this?”

Reddy added that abortion law should be reformed.

“I think the abortion law per se needs changed. We are 50 years on since the abortion law was passed. Everybody has seen an ultrasound scan of a child at 10 weeks and we cannot now deny the humanity of the baby. The science is so strong. “If we did get devolved powers to Scotland, of course it would be an opportunity to look at it again and to see who the abortion law has really helped.”

Ann Henderson, former chair of the Abortion Rights campaign, had a different view on the issue. She said: “We have a view, which is whatever the constitutional framework, we want women to be able to access abortion services free from judgment and delivered by an NHS free at the point of delivery.

Last night, a Scottish Government spokesman said: “The Smith Commission noted that a process should be set up to consider devolution of abortion law. The Scottish Government is currently in discussions with the Department of Health about how this should happen.”

A UK government spokesman last night confirmed there would be discussions over the coming weeks on Smith that would include abortion.