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Does It Matter If Politicians Think Abortion Is A Sin?

28/04/2017 08:05 BST | Updated 28/04/2017 10:33 BST
Christopher Furlong via Getty Images

No. It doesn't matter whether politicians think abortion is a sin. What matters is whether they would let their own personal convictions stand in the way of women's ability to act on their own.

Over recent weeks there has been intense probing of Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron's views on LGBT issues, culminating in an interview by a BBC reporter in which he finally declared that he did not believe gay sex was a sin.

Interestingly, he has faced significantly less pressure on the issue of abortion (not mentioned at all in the BBC inquisition). Tim Farron has said in the past that he thinks: "Abortion is wrong. Society has to climb down from the position that says there is nothing morally objectionable about abortion before a certain time. If abortion is wrong, it is wrong at any time."

This is a very clear moral position, which is he absolutely entitled to hold.

Abortion is deemed a matter of conscience in politics - that is to say there is no party whip when votes on abortion come round: rather members of the house are left to vote in accordance with their own personal beliefs. For Tim Farron, that has usually

meant not voting at all, presumably because he has found it hard to square the liberalism of his party with the vote against abortion that would accord with his personal beliefs. Theresa May has either abstained or voted to restrict abortion rights while Jeremy Corbyn has a consistently pro-choice record.

But abortion is not simply an abstract issue, or a parlour game. Politicians have the right to follow a religious faith, and indeed to believe that abortion is sinful (the two are certainly not synonymous). But when they allow those beliefs to determine their vote on the matter, that tells us something about the extent to which they trust women to make their own decisions about their own lives. Politicians refusing to stand up and be counted on reproductive choice means that women cannot live their lives in accordance with their own conscience. The question becomes: whose conscience matters most?

Last month, MPs voted in favour of a ten-minute-rule-bill tabled by the MP Diana Johnson that would have decriminalised abortion up to 24 weeks gestation in England and Wales. Farron wasn't there, neither was Theresa May.

The bill (which ran out of time to progress in the last session) proposed removing abortion in the first two trimesters from the criminal law altogether, which would enable it to be regulated in the same way as other women's healthcare procedures. Care therefore could be delivered in a way determined by healthcare professionals, in accordance with best practice clinical guidelines. It would also have removed the threat of criminal penalty from women who take abortion medication bought online, as increasing numbers now do, not least because our current laws can place significant obstacles to access to legal care in their way.

It was interesting to see that a number of MPs who have historically voted along anti-abortion lines supported it. We cannot be sure of their reasons for doing so, but we might speculate that there is increasing recognition that in a society where abortion is accepted, it would be best if those services could be delivered in the most woman-centred way possible, in accordance with the highest standards of clinical care. This is what this bill would have delivered.

Our current legal framework means that once pregnant, a woman no longer has autonomy over her own body. From the moment she misses her period, she can only end that pregnancy if she has the permission of two doctors. If she induces her own miscarriage without that permission, she can go to prison for life.

It doesn't matter whether our politicians think abortion is right or wrong, good or bad. Whether it is something they would do themselves. What matters is whether they think they should dictate women's ability to make their own decisions about their own pregnancies.

Access to abortion enables women to live their lives in the way that they believe is right. No-one can decide what that is except the person who must live that life, who must bear the immediate - and profound - physical and mental impact of pregnancy and childbirth, and take responsibility for the child that results.

Often, charities call for politicians to make laws for their cause. This time, we want politicians to renounce control of women's bodies, and let women make their own choices, in accordance with their own conscience, as decriminalisation would allow. Anything less than support for making that happen is not good enough.