The Government clearly stated to Parliament that no changes to the abortion regulations would be made due to covid-19. Just days later, with parliament now shut down, changes to the abortion regulations were pushed through. Such a move clearly undermines and threatens our system of parliamentary democracy.

Mistaken announcement of change to abortion regulations

On Monday 23 March, the Department for Health and Social Care mistakenly announced that the abortion rules would change dramatically so that one practitioner could prescribe abortion pills on the phone to be taken at home. This change was rescinded just hours later, with the relevant webpage amended to state:

“The information on this page has been removed because it was published in error.
“This was published in error. There will be no changes to abortion regulations.”

Health Secretary tells parliament no changes proposed

The next day, on Tuesday 24 March, Health Secretary Matt Hancock was questioned about this in Parliament. He was asked whether the government would “reinstate the regulations that were put up for a short while on the Government website last night.” In response, he categorically stated to parliament:

“There are no proposals to change the abortion rules due to covid-19.”

Health Minister tells parliament changes will not be made

On the following day, Wednesday 25 March, the Coronavirus Bill was debated in the House of Lords. An amendment was proposed which included changing the abortion rules along the same lines as the rescinded announcement, to allow prescription for abortion pills to be taken at home to be made by one practitioner over the phone. This amendment was rejected in the strongest terms by Health Minister Lord Bethell who was speaking on behalf of the government to parliament. The Minister stated to parliament the government’s unequivocal opposition to this amendment, making the government’s reasoning crystal clear:

“It is the Government’s priority to ensure that women who require abortion services should have safe, high-quality care and that abortions should be performed under the legal framework already set out by the Abortion Act.

“The safety of women remains our priority, but it is vital that appropriate checks and balances remain in place regarding abortion services, even while we are managing a very difficult situation such as Covid-19.

“We do not agree that women should be able to take both treatments for medical abortion at home. We believe that it is an essential safeguard that a woman attends a clinic, to ensure that she has an opportunity to be seen alone and to ensure that there are no issues.

“Do we really want to support an amendment that could remove the only opportunity many women have, often at a most vulnerable stage, to speak confidentially and one-to-one with a doctor about their concerns on abortion and about what the alternatives might be? The bottom line is that, if there is an abusive relationship and no legal requirement for a doctor’s involvement, it is far more likely that a vulnerable woman could be pressured into have an abortion by an abusive partner.

“It is not right to rush through this type of change in a sensitive area such as abortion without adequate parliamentary scrutiny.”

Parliament shut down

The following day, Thursday 26 March, Parliament was shut down to combat the spread of coronavirus.

Changes announced with no parliamentary scrutiny

Then just days later, on Monday 30 March, after the government had clearly said that it would be wrong to push through a change in this area without adequate parliamentary scrutiny, the government announced significant changes to the abortion regulations, allowing women to be prescribed both abortion pills to be taken at home after just one phone consultation. The announcement states that the home of a pregnant woman is “approved as a class of place where the treatment for termination of pregnancy may be carried out” without medical supervision. The announcement made on Monday 30 March was virtually identical to the one that was rescinded one week earlier on Monday 23 March.

Was Parliament misled?

So just days after the Health Secretary categorically told MPs in Parliament that there were “no proposals to change the abortion regulations due to covid-19,” changes exactly like the ones he had denied would be made were made. How did this happen? How was the abortion industry able to exert such pressure and influence as to force the Health Secretary to overturn what he had explicitly stated as the government’s intent on the floor of the House of Commons?

An open letter appeared in the Sunday Times on 29 March exerting pressure on the government to do a U-Turn. Things were clearly going on behind the scenes between key figures in the abortion industry, policy advisers and the civil service. It will be interesting to see how this interplay gets exposed at the Judicial Review hearing on Tuesday 19 May.

How can the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care tell  parliament that it would not be right to push through these kinds of changes “without adequate parliamentary scrutiny,” and then reverse the decision without explanation less than a week later? What happened needs to be brought into the light. Who within the corridors of power can force such a staggering, undemocratic and far reaching change?

Parliamentary vote on home abortions promised

witness statement from Rt. Hon. Ann Widdecombe makes clear that the government had promised Parliament that there would be no changes to allow home administered abortion without a vote in parliament. Ann Widdecombe was an MP between 1987 and 1997, during which time she held various ministerial positions. She raised concerns about a Bill being debated in the House of Commons in June 1990, suggesting that the Bill concerned was a “paving measure … for self-administered home abortion.”

The Rt Hon. Kenneth Clarke, then the Health Secretary, responded by denying that the Bill would allow home abortions. He also said that any change to approve the places and circumstances for administration of an abortion drug would be “for the House to decide.”

Legal precedent relied upon

In her witness statement, Ann Widdecombe states:

“I took the Secretary of State’s assurances in the spirit of a Pepper v Hart statement and therefore assumed that no change could be wrought to the legislation without a vote of Parliament. I perceive the current Department of Health’s decision to overturn prevailing regulations without parliamentary endorsement as wholly contrary to the legislative intent.”

Pepper v Hart is a landmark legal decision which established the principle that statements made in the House of Commons or the House of Lords by government Ministers or other promoters of a Bill can in certain circumstances be relied upon in the courts to interpret the meaning of primary legislation. Ann Widdecombe therefore argues that what was said in parliament by the then secretary of state should be relied upon in law as clearly intending that home abortions would not be legalised without a vote in parliament. The recent changes in regulations without the consent of parliament clearly breach that promise.

No parliamentary scrutiny

Health Minister Lord Bethell said in the House of Lords:

“It is not right to rush through this type of change in a sensitive area such as abortion without adequate parliamentary scrutiny.”

Just days later the government rushed through precisely this type of change with absolutely no parliamentary scrutiny at all.

Democracy threatened

Parliament was told no changes would be made to abortion regulations, and then days later, once Parliament was shut down, those same changes were made. This is a serious matter.

If we take Matt Hancock and Lord Bethell’s statements to Parliament as made in good faith, then it must lead us to deduce that the pressure from change was coming from elsewhere. Was it from the civil servants? The abortion industry? No doubt, the court case will give us some answers. Unless we get to the bottom of this it appears that the government is riding roughshod over our parliamentary democracy. What kind of power lies behind the scenes that could force Matt Hancock and Lord Bethell to back on what they had said to Parliament?

Judicial Review to protect democracy

Christian Concern is seeking  a judicial review of the decision to change the regulations on abortion without parliamentary scrutiny and contrary to what Parliament had been told. Next week the court will be told that this move was unlawful because it was unconstitutional. If the court rules that the government acted lawfully this has serious implications for the rule of law and the meaning of parliamentary democracy.

Please pray and support us as we seek to uphold the rule of law and preserve parliamentary democracy.

Reproduced from Christian Concern by permission.

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