The Conservative MPs Trying to Follow America in Cutting Abortion Rights
A chunk of Boris Johnson’s party – including some of his own ministers – want to turn the clock back on women’s abortion rights
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The overturning of the constitutional right to abortion in the United States has led some to suggest that the same could never happen in the UK. However, while those wishing to restrict women’s right to safe and legal abortions in Britain are in a small minority among the public, they retain plenty of influence inside the Government.
Last week, a total of 61 Conservative MPs voted against the Government’s plans to extend abortion access in Northern Ireland, with a further 190 not recording a vote.
Among the number voting against the measure were several ministers, including the Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg. He has previously said that he is “completely opposed” to women having the right to abortion, including in the cases of rape or incest. He is also patron of the anti-abortion organisation Right to Life.
Most alarmingly, he was joined by Conservative MP Maria Caulfield, another Right to Life patron, who is also the Government’s Women’s Health Minister. Caulfield has previously been accused of making “baseless claims” about the issue after she used an interview to call for the Government to reduce the upper time limit on abortions.
Tory MP Scott Benton, who was recently made a parliamentary private secretary at the Foreign Office, was also among their number. In the aftermath of the decision to overturn Roe v Wade, Benton shared a tweet from the US Republican Party, with the caption “Life Wins”.
Another Conservative MP on the list was Danny Kruger, who previously worked for David Cameron’s speechwriter and was Boris Johnson’s political secretary. In a parliamentary debate on the Supreme Court’s decision, Kruger said that politicians in Britain should not “lecture” the US about abortion rights and said that he disagreed with those who “think that women have an absolute right to bodily autonomy in this matter”.
The Prime Minister himself has said he is opposed to changing the law on abortion and described recent developments in the US as a “backwards step”. However, support for limiting access to abortion in the UK within the Conservative Party is likely to be significantly broader than the 61 MPs who explicitly opposed extending abortion access in Northern Ireland.
One person who previously led the fight to mobilise opposition to abortion rights within the party is Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries – who did not take part in last week’s vote. She has previously had strong links to fundamentalist Christian groups, such as Christian Concern and the World Congress of Families, while the Conservatives were in opposition. She also continued to campaign on the issue once David Cameron became Prime Minister.
In 2011 she claimed that 90% of Conservative backbenchers supported reducing access to abortion. Her 2008 attempt to reduce the upper time limit for abortion was supported by all but one of the then Conservative frontbench, including future Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt. Hunt, who has been vocal about his leadership ambitions, has said that he believes that abortion should only be available up to 12 weeks.
Backbench and pressure group lobbying on the issue may have continued to have an impact on government policy.
In 2018, then Home Secretary Sajid Javid rejected calls to place ‘buffer zones’ around abortion clinics as being disproportionate – despite the Government’s own review into the issue finding evidence of harassment of women outside dozens of abortion clinics.
Leading the charge against buffer zones was the backbench MP Fiona Bruce, who has repeatedly tabled bills designed to restrict access abortion. These include attempts to ban sex selective abortion; and to exclude cleft lip, cleft palate and clubfoot as qualifying physical abnormalities for the purposes of medical termination of pregnancy. Bruce has links to the US anti-abortion movement through ADF International – the European arm of the Arizona-based religious freedom giant Alliance Defending Freedom.
The ADF has been instrumental in fighting against women’s reproductive rights through the US courts, including a ban on buffer zones and on so-called ‘partial birth abortion’. In 2019, Bruce spoke at ADF International’s youth conference, with the organisation paying for her expenses. The group’s London office receives a yearly grant from the US parent organisation.
Bruce is not the only Conservative MP with links to the US anti-abortion movement. Many leading Conservatives have spoken at the radical-right think tank, the Heritage Foundation – including former International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, Home Secretary Priti Patel, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss, and former Conservative Party Co-Chairman and Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden.
The organisation welcomed the overruling of Roe v Wade, saying that it would give the American people “the power to fix America’s extreme abortion laws”.
The Government also remains opposed to formalising women’s rights to seek an abortion. Deputy Prime Minister and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab ruled out enshrining the right to abortion in the Government’s new Bill of Rights Bill – saying that it is an “issue of conscience” and there is not “a strong case for change”.
Should the Conservative Party decide to follow its ideological cousins in the US Republican Party and seek to restrict abortion rights in the UK, it is likely that they would meet with strong public resistance. Recent polling by YouGov shows that around 85% of the public believe that women should have the right to an abortion, compared to just 5% who disagree.
However, with the Conservative Party still containing significant numbers of MPs who want to restrict abortion rights – and with the Government opposing moves to enshrine the right to abortion in the UK – it still remains possible that the UK could one day follow the US down a similar path.