Diane Abbott’s amendment to extend the 1967 Abortion Act to Northern Ireland seems unlikely to be put to a vote today. It was probably unlikely to be carried - on a free Commons vote – but the vote would have broken an important public and political taboo.
Abortion is probably the most ‘hot button’ issue where equity and devolution clash. Opposition to reform unites the Northern Irish parties and the political class, with the Unionist parties reject the argument of ‘British rights for British citizens’.
On the surface, little seems to have change since a Stormont Assembly vote in 1984 saw just one vote in favour of extending the 1967 law. Usually, it would be good to find issues and causes which transcend religious and political tribalism – but uniting people against women’s rights on abortion is one to avoid.
This is not a simple issue. On the age of consent and civil partnerships, equal rights trumped local sentiment. But entrenching rights depends on winning public arguments too. Can progress be made without this becoming a ‘Westminster versus Northern Ireland’ issue?
And there is now a brave and active local 'safe and legal' campaign, demonstrating that the issue is contested within Northern Ireland, with local campaigners calling on Westminster to act, to contest the campaigning of anti-abortion groups.
Let me suggest two modest proposals which might seek to build on that.
(1) As well as the Commons voting, at some point in the future, on extending the 1967 Act to Northern Ireland, perhaps there is a good case to put another ‘stepping stone’ reform on the agenda at the same time: mainland MPs should also propose to make women from Northern Ireland eligible to have an abortion on the NHS in the rest of the UK, until and unless the NI law is changed. I can not see what ‘devolution’ argument the Northern Irish politicians could make against that.
This would be a highly imperfect step forward – but it would also perhaps open up the local debate: requiring Northern Ireland politicians, opinion formers and the broader public to address the charge of simply seeking to ignore and export the problem.
(2) Secondly, there is very little good information on public attitudes to abortion in Northern Ireland - and a non-partisan study of public attitudes could help to create a more informed and less polarised debate.
It may perhaps not be in the partisan interests of neither side to admit to the complexity of opinion.
It would complicate the claim that there is united opposition to reform: that this is about views being imposed on Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, those promoting reform have this week released a poll with a clear majority in Northern Ireland for the right to abortion in the cases of rape and incest – with 60% in favour and 20% against.
I don't know if they also polled the public on the support for the extension of the 1967 Act itself: if they did, the figures do not seem to have been released. (It would be a reasonable hunch to say that there would currently be public a majority against: it is reported (PDF file) that there was 25% to 30% support for abortion at the request of the woman in Northern Irish polls in 1992 and 1994. I have not seen any more recent information).
It would be a good idea for an academic or media organisation to try to find out how opinion currently stands.
This is not an argument for government by opinion poll and referendum. But would help to open the question of whether the Northern Irish political elites would consider any reforms at all. If the status quo is kept, Westminster might well then want to consider a series of amendments - perhaps starting with the case of rape and incest, where the local parties give no voice to majority local opinion, through to the full equalisation of the 1967 law.