Abortion law is being politicised in the broader debate about devolution in Scotland, with serious implications for women’s rights.
In recent years, several decisions have been made regarding the devolution of abortion laws from central government at Westminster to the devolved regions of the United Kingdom.
Abortion is rarely a non‐controversial topic for political conversation. It has come to symbolise, in many western societies, “a much broader ideological struggle in which the meanings of the family, the state, motherhood and young women's sexuality are contested”. Debate around abortion has thus often become polarised between conservative and liberal thinking, most especially in North America.
As a result, the central concern in abortion—women, their lives, health and rights—is often obscured in broader political debate. But what is the discussion of abortion and Scotland here actually a discussion of?
The arguments made for this legislative move
In the UK framework, devolution has been uneven and ad hoc in the powers it has distributed amongst the regions. But in abortion law, there has historically been a long period of uniformity in the country as a whole.
For this article, I have considered two debates on the issue of Scotland and abortion at Westminster, alongside several questions on the issue put in the Scottish Parliament.
The issue of devolving abortion law to Scotland was raised in the Smith Commission's report of late 2014. Although the issue of abortion only received one brief paragraph in the report, it was subject to a heated discussion which resulted in eleventh‐hour renegotiating, with Labour insisting that the law remain at Westminster in order for their being able to support the report. As a result, the Commission did not advocate for abortion law to be immediately transferred to Scotland.
The following year, in July 2015, ‘pro‐life’ MPs tabled amendments to devolve jurisdiction over abortion to Scotland as part of the Scotland Bill. Two clauses were proposed regarding abortion, one by Liberal Democrat John Pugh, who has a long history of voting conservatively on abortion, and one by Conservative Sir Edward Leigh, who has a similar voting record of social conservatism on abortion and LGBT issues. SNP Members, now almost the sole political party representing Scotland in national government, distanced themselves from the amendments and the perceived forces behind them. However, Stewart McDonald, MP for Glasgow South, simultaneously argued against the proposers of the amendment, and for the devolution of the issue to Scotland.
In spite of this, the amendments failed, and there appeared no further push from central government to devolve abortion law to Scotland. The issue, it appeared, had been laid to rest.
By September 2015, however, reports came to light that abortion was indeed set to be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. Three competing representations of the issue emerge in the course of the November debate and the question to the First Minister in the Scottish Parliament. For national government and the Conservative party, this is now presented as a natural move, part of the broader parcel of devolution. The Scottish Parliament is able to legislate on this, they argue, there is no specific constitutional reason why it should not be devolved, and, indeed, the Smith Commission recommended that powers should be transferred to Scotland.
For Labour, abortion is an issue of national importance, and one which should not be devolved as it requires uniform standards across the UK. For the SNP, whilst keen to stress that they had no desire to change the law around abortion, it was problematic that Labour think that Scotland was not responsible enough to have this issue devolved. The Scottish Government, the SNP argue, is more than capable of legislating on abortion. Competing representations of the issue thus abound in this debate, emanating from the different political parties' agendas.
Boader issues behind the abortion debate
Looking at the ideas and language helps to get beyond the surface level of the debate and to see the broader issues at play. For the SNP, this is an opportunity to highlight their progressive social attitudes; for Labour, a chance to reiterate the need for strong abortion provision across the UK; and for the Conservatives, a way to reinstate their commitment to devolution.
Abortion becomes a smoke screen that symbolises far more than merely reproductive or women's rights. Beyond a discussion of abortion, these debates become a proxy discussion about the Scottish Parliament, Labour's position on the constitutional question and, by extension, the question of Scottish independence itself.
Impact on women’s rights
These legislative changes have worrying connotations for women's rights. Firstly, creating a framework for potentially different laws within the country as a whole means that there is now a way by which women north and south of the border may see different policy frameworks in which they can access terminations. Secondly, women and their right to bodily autonomy should, from a feminist perspective, maintain precedence in debates on the issue of abortion.
With the devolved levels now carrying responsibility for a potentially controversial policy area, it is doubtful whether such a move is good for abortion laws, or women's rights.
Jennifer Thomson is a Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the University of Bath.
This article is adapted from a longer piece in the Political Quarterly journal.
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