Dominic Raab has said he will not back a proposed amendment to the British Bill of Rights which would give women the fundamental right to an abortion.
On Tuesday, Labour MP Stella Creasy announced that she plans to table an amendment to the government’s new human rights legislation following the US Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v Wade – the landmark decision in 1973 which resulted in abortion being legalised across America.
It means millions of women have lost their legal right to terminate a pregnancy, with the individual US states now able to decide whether to outlaw the practice.
The decision to overturn the ruling is expected to lead to abortion bans in roughly half of US states.
Speaking about her intentions, Ms Creasy warned that abortion rights in the UK are “more fragile than people realise” as it is “not a right”.
She added that adding the amendment to the legislation would reinforce the message that “abortion is a human rights issue”.
“Currently, only women in Northern Ireland have protected human rights to an abortion in law,” the Labour MP posted on social media.
“I will be tabling an amendment to the forthcoming UK Bill of Rights to guarantee this for all UK women. If you want your MP to vote for it – as will be free vote – tell them! #nowforUK.”
During PMQs on Wednesday, fellow Labour MP Rosie Duffield asked if the government would support an amendment on the issue to the proposed Bill of Rights.
But Dominic Raab, taking the place of Boris Johnson who is at the NATO summit in Madrid, said the legality of abortion in the UK is “settled”.
“So far this year, 52 women have been killed in the UK. Our rights to free speech, safe spaces, fairness in sport and even the words we use to describe our own bodies are all under threat,” Ms Duffield said.
“Will the deputy prime minister send a clear signal, as some of his cabinet colleagues have done this week, that Britain respects the rights of women, and will he accept the cross-party amendment to his forthcoming Bill of Rights which enshrines a women’s right to choose in law?”
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Former Justice Secretary said that it is ‘highly unlikely’ the UK will ban abortions
Mr Raab replied: “The position, as she knows, is settled in UK law in relation to abortion.
“It’s decided by honourable members across this House. It’s an issue of conscience. I don’t think there is a strong case for change.
“What I wouldn’t want to do is find ourselves, with the greatest of respect, in the US position where this is being litigated through the courts rather than settled as it is now settled by honourable members in this House.”
In the UK, only women in Northern Ireland have the complete right to have an abortion, after MPs backed an amendment to the NI Executive Formation Bill in 2019.
However, this access remains limited.
In a debate on the US Supreme Court’s decision in the Commons on Tuesday, Ms Creasy warned that “only women in Northern Ireland have their constitutional rights to an abortion protected as a human right”.
“I ask the minister a direct and simple question – if an amendment is tabled to the forthcoming bill of rights by those of us who recognise this will be a conscience issue and so a free vote, to protect a woman’s right to choose for every single woman in the United Kingdom, will she join me in voting for it?” she continued.
Speaking for the government, the Foreign Office minister Amanda Milling said she would not “pre-empt” the legislation.
“As we have discussed, this would be a matter of conscience,” she added.
Fellow Labour MP Dame Diana Johnson pressed on the government to offer assurances on their commitment to protecting the rights of women to “bodily autonomy”.
Ms Milling replied: “As the prime minister said at the weekend, he felt – and I share the view – that this is a big step backwards.
“In relation to our position on sexual reproductive health and rights, including safe abortion, the UK is proud to defend and promote universal and comprehensive sexual and reproductive health and rights, which is a fundamental to unlock the potential agency and freedom of women and girls.
“We will continue to push for strong supportive language in the UN and other international fora.”
‘In the case of abortion… another body is involved’
Meanwhile Conservative MP Danny Kruger said he would “probably disagree” with other MPs about the US Supreme Court decision.
“They think that women have an absolute right to bodily autonomy in this matter, whereas I think in the case of abortion that right is qualified by the fact that another body is involved,” he said.
As MPs tried to speak over him, Mr Kruger added: “I would offer to members who are trying to talk me down that this is a proper topic for political debate and my point to the frontbench is I don’t understand why we are lecturing the United States on a judgment to return the power of decision over this political question to the states, to democratic decision-makers, rather than leaving it in the hands of the courts.”
Mr Raab, in his additional role as justice secretary, has published the new bill of Rights but MPs are yet to debate the bill at second reading.