‘Rights at risk’ if Holyrood given abortion powers

John Mason MSP said he would like to see the UK abortion limit of 24 weeks cut. Picture: James Stevenson
John Mason MSP said he would like to see the UK abortion limit of 24 weeks cut. Picture: James Stevenson
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Women’s groups and human rights campaigners are urging MPs to reject a proposal to devolve abortion legislation to Holyrood.

Seventeen figures from 13 organisations, who believe women should have access to safe abortions, have signed a joint statement objecting to the move on the grounds that it could lead to Scotland adopting a more conservative law on terminations than elsewhere in the UK.

John Mason MSP. Picture: Dan Phillips

John Mason MSP. Picture: Dan Phillips

It was sent to MPs on the eve of a House of Commons debate that will consider transferring the powers over abortion to Edinburgh.

Tomorrow MPs will consider an amendment to the Scotland Bill which proposes to devolve the issue. The amendment was put forward by three MPs who are opposed to abortion on ethical grounds.

The SNP has said it will support the amendment put forward by the Lib Dem John Pugh, the Conservative and ex-pat Scot Fiona Bruce and Labour’s Robert Flello. Although Nicola Sturgeon has said she favours the current UK abortion limit of 24 weeks, the campaigners are fearful that the Scottish Parliament may eventually set a different limit from that in operation south of the Border. If Scotland decides to impose a stricter limit, women could end up travelling elsewhere in the UK to take advantage of more liberal laws.

The 13 organisations are led by Emma Ritch, the executive director of Engender, an organisation which campaigns for equal rights for women.

I would want to argue we could get the time limit down a bit

Also signing the statement are 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.

The signatories highlighted the situation in Northern Ireland, where the more restrictive abortion laws have led to women travelling to mainland Britain for terminations.

They said: “We are already in the situation in the UK where different legal frameworks of abortion have resulted in a discriminatory impact against women and girls in Northern Ireland, for which the UK has been repeatedly criticised internationally.

“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.

“Women across the UK have fought for women’s bodies to be their own and, to this day, fight opposition to a woman’s right to choose. We do not wish this amendment to open the doors to those who seek to undermine this right.”

In the past, senior figures within the Catholic Church have suggested that transferring power over abortion to Holyrood would give Scotland the opportunity to take a more conservative line.

A variety of views on abortion are held within the SNP, with some politicians such as Linda Fabiani MSP believing in the pro-choice agenda. Others, such as John Mason MSP, would like to see stricter limits.

Yesterday Mason said he would consider tabling a Member’s Bill at Holyrood to review abortion legislation if it were devolved.

“I would certainly want the opportunity to argue we could get the time limit down a bit,” he added.

A spokesman for the Catholic Church in Scotland said: “The Catholic Church is primarily interested in the content of any legislation pertaining to beginning of life issues, but takes no view on whether that legislation should be at Holyrood or Westminster”.