What can we learn from the UK abortion vote?
Proposed changes to UK abortion law by Conservative MP Nadine Dorries were roundly rejected by MPs of all colours in Parliament on Wednesday (see WVoN story).
The amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill would have banned abortion providers from counselling women (see WVoN story).
While feminist campaigners are right to celebrate our victory after a hard campaign and enjoy a moment of rare public approval, we shouldn’t put away the placards too quickly.
This is the first insight we have had of the pro and anti choice MPs in the current government, and our next step should be to take the valuable opportunity this vote has given us to consider our allies and enemies.
There has not been a vote on an abortion-related issue since the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in 2008, at which another proposal by Ms Dorries (to cut the abortion time limit) was also rejected (BBC News).
Since then, a new Conservative-led government has been elected. The May 2010 election saw a large influx of new MPs whose views on this topic were until now untested, while 140 known pro-choice MPs left the Commons (Bright Green).
This particular vote is not an ideal litmus test for views on abortion. As MP for Cambridge, Dr Julian Huppert, remarked during Wednesday’s debate, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children (SPUC) as well as the campaign for Abortion Rights were both opposed to the amendment (Hansard).
We should therefore be cautious about reading too much into the failure of this amendment, as the ranks of noes may still include anti-abortion MPs.
So, what can we learn from it?
First, abortion is traditionally viewed as an issue of conscience for MPs and they are permitted a free vote. The results reflect this, showing divisions within parties as well as agreements across party lines.
Liberal Conspiracy has produced a helpful breakdown of the party allegiances of the MPs who voted for the amendment.
As expected most were Conservatives: 96 of the 118 ayes. More of a surprise were the 11 Labour and three Liberal Democrat MPs who voted in favour.
Labour lost some of its most prominent anti-abortion voices when former Cabinet Ministers Ruth Kelly and Des Browne retired at the last election, but it appears that some of last year’s new intake are keen to take on their legacy.
It is worth noting that Mr Shuker is the former leader of the City Life Church in his Luton constituency.
This highlights the likelihood that some Labour MPs voting for the amendment may have done so on the basis of their faith; four of those in favour are Roman Catholics (Joe Benton, Jim Dobbin, Stephen Pound, Keith Vaz).
A further point worth noting is that while most MPs in favour of the proposal were Conservative, Ms Dorries could did not manage to attract a majority of her own party – 96 were in favour, while 115 voted against.
Given the objections of the strongly pro-life SPUC to the amendment, this might not seem significant.
However, the vocal opposition to the amendment by Conservative MPs, including health minister Anne Milton during the debate, serves as a valuable reminder that feminist politics are not the exclusive prerogative of the left.
Earlier this month prominent Conservative blogger Niki Molnar wrote an article criticising the proposal which made me reevaluate some of my own prejudices (Conservative Women’s Organisation).
It may be that we would do well to remember our allies on the opposite benches, and cultivate links that could be useful in the difficult times to come.
Many of the Conservatives who voted in favour of the proposal came as no surprise, including Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith.
This was consistent with his vote in 2008 for a reduction in the abortion time limit (Guardian Politics), as well as the politics of his thinktank the Centre for Social Justice, which is avowedly not faith-based, yet as this Guardian article shows, has links to evangelical groups.
Prime Minister David Cameron may have instructed his party at the last minute to vote against the amendment, but Duncan Smith typifies the unwillingness among high-level Conservatives to obey what Nadine Dorries told the BBC was ‘covert whipping’ by Mr Cameron.
Two other Cabinet members voted in favour as well as Duncan Smith – Liam Fox and Owen Paterson – as well as other ministers (including but not limited to Henry Bellingham, Maria Miller and Chris Grayling) and influential backbenchers such as Graham Brady and Mark Pritchard, respectively “chairman” and secretary of the 1922 Committee.
Mr Pritchard indicated in the Guardian this week that there was an appetite in the party for further challenges to abortion access in Britain, saying: ‘Many colleagues have said to me that a wider debate on abortion and term limits needs to take place in this parliament.’
The government’s compromise over this proposal was to promise a consultation on abortion counselling (see WVoN story), while Ms Dorries’ proposal to introduce abstinence education for girls only will be debated in January (see WVoN story).
If we take one thing away from the results of this vote, it should not be complacency in our success but a renewed vigour in our campaigning.