SNP MPs joined a group of pro-life MPs last night to call for the devolution of abortion to Holyrood despite concerns raised by 13 Scottish women’s and human rights groups.
The final day of the committee stage of the Scotland Bill saw Catholic MPs – Liberal Democrat John Pugh, Tory Fiona Bruce and Labour’s Robert Flello – put down an amendment to devolve powers over abortion north of the Border.
Veteran Tory Sir Edward Leigh, who sits alongside the three MPs on the all-party parliamentary pro-life group, put down a second amendment arguing that Scotland has its own point of view which should be reflected in the Scottish Parliament, particularly on “moral maze” issues such as abortion.
However, despite the SNP confirming they would back the amendments, they were both set to be pulled at the last minute after opposition from both Tory and Labour leaderships meant they faced almost certain defeat.
Sir Edward said: “I would have thought a self-respecting parliament can and should be trusted to deal with abortion, especially as I understand that the Scottish Parliament already deals with assisted dying.”
Dr Pugh, the MP for Southport, said that “Scottish parliamentarians [in Holyrood] have proved themselves eminently capable of debating complex moral issues” over the right to die.
But the 13 organisations, led by Emma Ritch, the executive director of Engender, an organisation which campaigns for equal rights for women, highlighted the situation in Northern Ireland, where more restrictive abortion laws have led to women travelling to mainland Britain for terminations.
Also signing the statement were Scottish Women’s Aid, Zero Tolerance, Rape Crisis Scotland, the National Union of Students Scotland, Close the Gap, YWCA Scotland, the Scottish Women’s Convention, Women’s Support Project, Scotland Amnesty International, the Human Rights Consortium Scotland, the Scottish TUC and Abortion Rights Committee Scotland.
They said: “Our concern is that this strategy of hasty devolution is being used in order to argue for regressive measures and, in turn, a differential and discriminatory impact on women and girls in Scotland.”
However, SNP Glasgow South MP Stewart McDonald said that the claim that there was “a choice between Nationalism and feminism” was “a false choice and offensive”.
He said he could “understand the concerns” of the 13 organisations but disagreed with their assessment.
He insisted that the record on debates on right to die, ending the section 28 ban on teaching homosexuality in schools and equal marriage showed that Holyrood “is now a mature parliament”. He said: “We want to make progress on this.”
There had been claims, which have been denied, that the SNP privately supported Labour in removing the devolution of abortion from the Smith Commission proposals because of the potential for pressure for a more conservative law.
He added: “Progress is never made by not taking control of the tough and important issues.”
The Labour leadership opposed the move because of the concerns that it could lead to a more conservative law in Scotland.
Shadow Scottish secretary Ian Murray said: “A woman’s right to choose should be based on medical evidence and not by where they live.”
He said the party “agreed with the 13 organisations from Scotland which had raised fears about the consequences of devolving abortion”.
He added: “We have a shared concern that this has not been properly consulted on and will harm women’s right to choose.”
Scottish Secretary David Mundell also made it clear that the Conservatives would oppose immediate devolution of abortion because it is subject to discussions between the UK and Scottish governments.
He said: “We do not consider it is appropriate to devolve abortion at this time.”