Highlighting what is wrong with the way Parliament debates Bills is crucial for issues of equality

24 Feb 2015

Last night, Parliament debated the Bill concerning sex-selective abortion and women being coerced by partners or their families into aborting a pregnancy because it is a child of the ‘wrong’ sex. On Sunday night, Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper and Shadow Care and Older People Minister Liz Kendall had written to the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) urging their colleagues to join them in voting against the amendment to the Bill by Tory MP Fiona Bruce, which would see sex-selective abortions made illegal.


Thankfully, the House voted decisively against Bruce’s amendment to the Bill, but the episode and the eventual debate round it highlighted a major flaw in our democratic process in terms of how we pass Bills into law. In openly opposing an amendment to a Bill which reduced an extremely complex and sensitive issue to a yes-or-no non-debate, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall showed laudable courage and fortitude in taking a potentially highly unpopular stance on the Bill, but also elucidated a major flaw in how our Parliament passes Bills.


The understandable reaction to many upon hearing of Bruce’s amendment to the Bill was that it was a good one and one which all MPs should vote for. Surely, outlawing sex-selective abortion is the best way to stop these abortions happening and protect vulnerable women? That was certainly the view of Telegraph leader writer Tim Stanley, who argued impassionedly in the Catholic Herald on Monday that “there is no reason not to support the sex-selective abortion bill”.  Yet there was more to this Bill than meets the eye.


Outlawing something does not necessarily make it less likely to happen. As a point of comparison, many pro-sex work feminists have argued in the past that legalising prostitution would actually be a good starting point to ensure greater protection for the women who choose to work in the sex industry. I do fully appreciate that this is not the best comparison in one sense, as women who have abortions based on sex selection overwhelmingly do so because of pressure put on them by partners and families, yet the comparison is still a fair one: changing the law is frequently only half the battle on Bills concerning equality such as this one.


The glib, oversimplified nature of what was a non-debate until last night was highlighted by many media commentators who really should have known better hysterically ranting that opposing the amendment was “anti-feminist”. If opposing glib, uninformed, political amendments to a Bill which would put vulnerable women in more danger in the future makes one anti-feminist, then grab me a #Meninist t-shirt right now.


As Cooper and Kendall pointed out in their letter to the PLP, sex-selective abortion is already illegal, under the Abortion Act of 1967, a further change in the law would be mere tokenism. What really needs to change, as highlighted by the amendment to the Bill tabled by Anne Coffey and supported by Jenny Willot and Dr Sarah Wollaston, a woman with many years experience as a GP, is ‘custom, practice and prejudice’. Several organisations such as the Royal College of Midwives, the British Medical Association, the End Violence Against Women Coalition and the Genetic Alliance all raised concerns about passing this Bill via what is an over-simplistic amendment.


The real danger that many experts have raised is that passing Bruce’s amendment to the Bill would have made it less likely that women in the future who are being coerced to have a sex-selective abortion will open up to medical professionals. Ultimately, it is the opinions of these women which the whole debate should be framed around, not what politicians think and this is a crucial angle that has been missing from this debate and others like it. In taking such a courageous, outspoken stance on this one issue, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall have, hopefully, opened many people’s eyes to what is wrong with how we debate Bills of this highly sensitive nature.


The danger of a lack of a serious informed discussion on the issue was last night highlighted by Dr Wollaston, who warned against debating sex-selective abortion “without adequate discussion” and urged her parliamentary colleagues to debate this issue on its ethical merits. Dr Wollaston was herself very impressive and made a highly cogent argument against Bruce’s amendment and helped highlight the importance of serious discussion in addition to non-political debate on issues of this nature. The majority of MPs who voted on the Bill were not medical experts or have any background in the medical profession; many of them may have voted for political rather than medical, let alone ethical, reasons.


Furthermore, the way in which the amendment was framed did not lead itself in any way to proper discussion on the issue and that was only achieved through the determination and articulacy of Dr Wollaston and other MP speaking in the House last night. It was fantastic to see cross-party support in opposing Bruce’s amendment and our democracy needs to to see more of it. Not everything in politics should be political.


All too often, Bills such as the sex-selective one are framed in too narrow a format for any serious debate to be had on them. The end result is that many of the MPs voting on them have not had the chance to weigh up both arguments and do their own research before coming to a final conclusion. In addition to this, party whips will frequently be putting pressure on MPs to vote in a certain way and toe the party line, which renders having a debate over a highly sensitive and important equality issue as this somewhat redundant.


Yvette Cooper, Liz Kendall, Dr Sarah Wollaston and all who voted against Fiona Bruce’s amendment deserve credit for standing up to an over-simplistic, populist amendment and in doing so have opened a hugely important debate about how Bills are framed, debated and voted on. Some things are too important for politicians to play around with.

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