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Lord Gordon of Strathblane: I thank the noble Lord for giving way. In the light of those figures, does he have any plans to restrict freedom of movement north to south of the Border or visa versa, assuming, first, that the amendment were to be passed and, secondly, that there were to be any difference in the legislation north or south of the Border?
Lord Steel of Aikwood: The noble Lord anticipates my next point. It is argued by those who want to keep the Bill as it stands that any change in the law in Scotland might involve a traffic of patients one way or the other across the Border. Cardinal Winning--with whom on other issues I have frequently stood shoulder to shoulder, whether on overseas development or urban poverty and housing--takes a notably different view from the one that I hold as to what the law in Scotland should be. He would like to see an effective repeal, more or less, of the 1967 legislation. I have argued with him in the past that he seems inclined to the view that abortion was invented in 1967, whereas what actually happened was that safe and legal abortion was introduced in place of illegal and dangerous abortion, which cost the lives of so many women and cluttered up the wards of so many of our hospitals.
Cardinal Winning and his colleagues are not the only people who want to change the law in Scotland. The Woman's Right to Choose Campaign asked MORI to conduct a poll in Scotland. It claims the support of 65 per cent. of the population to change the law and to do away with the 1967 restriction involving two doctors, registration and all the rest, in favour of simply allowing a woman to choose to terminate her pregnancy if she wishes. Many European countries now do that.
The noble Lord, Lord Gordon, is right. If the law is changed in Scotland and it becomes more restrictive or more liberal there may be a flow of patients one way or the other across the Border. Surely, a Scottish parliament in considering this matter will take that into account. Those who argue for removing abortion from the criminal law and responsibility for health matters in Scotland are simply saying that the Scottish parliament
Baroness Gould of Potternewton: I oppose Amendment No. 212 but with some reluctance because I am conscious of how grateful UK women are to the noble Lord, Lord Steel, for the introduction of the Abortion Act 1967. I was fascinated by the history of that Act as outlined by the noble Lord. That Act, which dealt with the timescales, circumstances and conditions to be met before a termination could be carried out, did not and does not differentiate between different parts of the country. I shall turn to Northern Ireland in one moment. The arguments put then are just as valid today.
In any Bill that deals with devolved and reserved powers there will be arguments about inconsistency. However, it is absolutely clear that on abortion there should be a common approach throughout the country and it should be a reserved matter. Wherever abortion is discussed many people hold very strong and differing views, all of which are sincerely held. But this debate is not about abortion policy but about who should have legislative responsibility. This debate is not about the content of the law; nor is it a question of whether the law in Scotland would be more rigid or relaxed. I do not imply, as appears to be suggested, that the Scottish parliament would act in an irresponsible or extreme way. The reverse may be the reality.
I appreciate that the medical profession in Scotland has a strong tradition of support for abortion. The MORI poll conducted in 1997 showed that 63 per cent. of the sample questioned in Scotland agreed with the statement that abortion should be made legally available for all who wanted it. That was a lower figure than in England but still a significant level of support. I also appreciate that in 1996 in Scotland the NHS provided 99 per cent. of abortions free of cost to women. In contrast, the proportion paid for by NHS health authorities in England and Wales varied between 97 per cent. and 34 per cent.
These figures illustrate that even now there are variations in social approach and medical practice in different parts of the country. That does not provide a justification for having different criteria and tests within the legislative framework. I believe that these figures support my concerns about cross-Border traffic. It is the cross-Border traffic of patients that justifies abortion being a reserved matter. We do not know in which direction the traffic will flow. There is cross-border traffic in this country and in other parts of Europe, but that is no reason to introduce such bad practice as a result of a difference between England and Scotland. Such cross-Border traffic would cause stress, hardship and suffering. The heartache of many women who come from Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic to the United Kingdom in order to have abortions clearly illustrates the problem. In 1995, 1,548 women came from Northern Ireland and 4,531 from the Irish Republic.
Another factor is illustrated by those figures. I believe that the number would have been greater had it not been for the costs involved. If women can afford to travel and pay for abortions, that is fine; if they cannot, that fundamental right is denied to them.
Any differences in future legislation may not be dramatic but we do not know their effects. Differences may emerge in medical and social tests and the statutory framework. I do not believe that we have the authority to take that risk. The position of Northern Ireland is often cited as the reason for this devolved power. There is absolutely no case for arguing that because Northern Ireland is different one should countenance differences in the law on abortion between England and Scotland.
For me, abortion is primarily a health issue but also an ethical one. That causes confusion and inequality of access. Because of its complexity and sensitivity it should be dealt with by the Westminster Parliament. Women throughout the UK should have equal access to abortion, but this amendment would prevent that from happening.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: Two distinct issues are raised by the amendments before the Committee. The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, raises the issue of abortion and the amendments of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, raise the issue of euthanasia. Once again, they highlight a contradiction. They highlight a contradiction because, on the one hand, on the abortion issue the Committee is being invited to reserve this power to Westminster, whereas in the case of euthanasia it is being said that the Scottish parliament is competent to decide on the matter.
As we discovered during the debate on the previous group of amendments, there are already too many inconsistencies in the legislation. Surely it would be far more sensible to recognise that the Scottish parliament will be a grown-up parliament and will be quite capable of deciding these matters for itself. Either the Committee is in favour of devolving powers to the Scottish parliament or it is not.
I have diametrically opposed views to those of the noble Lord, Lord Steel, on this question. However, I would say in fairness to him that over the years we served together--I was his Chief Whip for many years--he always accepted that this was a conscience question. One of the most undesirable things that has occurred on the issue of abortion in the past 20 years has been the way that it has become an increasingly polarised party political issue. That has been the tragedy because it has driven people into positions where they have had to choose between their party and their conscience. It would have been better if this matter had been retained entirely as a matter of conscience. Therefore, I hope that when the Minister comes to reply to the debate he will answer the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, about whether this vote is being whipped tonight on the government Benches. The noble Lord, Lord Steel, was right to say that in the other place there was great confusion. It cannot be right that Whips managed to exempt themselves from the vote because,
Perhaps I may say to the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, that part of this process of the politicisation of the abortion issue has been due to Emily's List, of which I know she is a great supporter. For those Members of the Committee who do not know about this phenomenon, it is another one of those things that has swept up from the United States. It is an acronym. Emily stands for Early Money Is Like Yeast. This money was made available before the last election to candidates specifically on the basis that they were women candidates who supported abortion. That was the one condition that had to be satisfied before funding was made available. That, I believe, was an undue pressure--
Baroness Turner of Camden: As far as I am aware, the Emily's List project was concerned solely with getting women into Parliament and into positions of authority in public bodies. It had nothing to do with the abortion issue.
Lord Alton of Liverpool: If the noble Baroness were to look into the background of Emily's List--I assure her that I have done so--she would find that the question was raised with candidates. She has only to look at the women who were supported by Emily's List and she will discover that there are among them no Orthodox Jews, no Moslems, no evangelical Christians or Catholics--or anyone who would be unable to answer the question that they would support the maintenance of the 1967 Act.
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