Backlash over moves to devolve abortion powers

Pro-Choice supporters hold placards in front of the gates of the Irish Parliament building in Dublin on July 10, 2013 during a demonstration ahead of a vote to introduce abortion in limited cases where the mother's life is at risk. The bill follows a 2010 European Court of Human Rights ruling that found Ireland failed to implement properly the constitutional right to abortion where a woman's life is at risk.                    AFP PHOTO / PETER MUHLY        (Photo credit should read PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images)
Pro-Choice supporters hold placards in front of the gates of the Irish Parliament building in Dublin on July 10, 2013 during a demonstration ahead of a vote to introduce abortion in limited cases where the mother's life is at risk. The bill follows a 2010 European Court of Human Rights ruling that found Ireland failed to implement properly the constitutional right to abortion where a woman's life is at risk. AFP PHOTO / PETER MUHLY (Photo credit should read PETER MUHLY/AFP/Getty Images)
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women’s campaigners are insisting there must be full consultation and debate before any transfer of responsibility for abortion laws from Westminster to Holyrood.

Scottish Secretary David Mundell hinted during a Commons debate that he was open to devolving abortion powers after “pro-life” MPs argued for such a move to be included in the Scotland Bill, currently going through Westminster.

Mr Mundell said discussions were under way between the UK and Scottish governments on the issue, as recommended by the cross-party Smith commission.

But Ann Henderson, assistant secretary of the STUC and former chair of the Abortion Rights campaign, warned against trying to include any switch of responsibility for abortion in the Bill since there would not be enough time to consider the plan fully.

She said: “They could try to bring further amendments when the Bill reaches report stage, depending on the results of the talks. But there has not been wide civic engagement and there needs to be much more discussion. The Smith commission itself indicated there should be wider discussion outside the process of the Scotland Bill.”

There were concerns any change could see Scotland targeted by the pro-life campaign demonstrations such as seen recently in Ireland and America.

Emma Ritch, director of women’s organisation Engender Scotland, said she was not necessarily opposed to devolution of abortion powers but argued it would not be helpful if the issue got caught up in the “guddle” of the Scotland Bill.

She said the pro-life MPs pressing for devolution seemed to be making “unfounded assumptions” that the Scottish Parliament was likely to take a more conservative attitude than south of the Border, perhaps based on its rejection of assisted suicide.

She said: “They have looked at the debate on the end of life and assumed a similar decision might be made on choice.”

Ms Ritch said there was some evidence that opinion in Scotland on abortion was more progressive. But she added: “The sense of the general public is not necessarily translated into law. It matters quite a lot what the 129 MSPs think – and we don’t know anything about that.”

Both former First Minister Alex Salmond and former Health Secretary Alex Neil have in the past supported a reduction in the time limit for abortion from 24 to 20 weeks, but Nicola Sturgeon has opposed this.

But there is more to the discussion around abortion than the issue of time limit.

Shadow Scottish Secretary Ian Murray spoke against devolving abortion, arguing such crucial issues should not be decided by “a line on a map”.

Scottish Tory health spokesman Jackson Carlaw claimed there was a risk of “health tourism”. He said: “This is not something that can be devolved for devolution’s sake. The Scottish Parliament has significant new powers coming, and those must take priority over a new issue which could potentially take up huge amounts of time and resources at Holyrood when it is perfectly acceptable to be decided on a UK-wide basis.”

ian.swanson@edinburghnews.com