Some 50 years after David Steel's Abortion Act came into force, the Liberal Democrats are again debating abortion. On Saturday, the Lib Dem conference passed a motion which commits the party to supporting an extension of access to abortion within the UK, removing all legal protection for the unborn up to 24 weeks gestation and asserting a so-called human right to reproductive choice. Of course, there is no such internationally recognised human right to abortion, but why let the facts get in the way of ideology?
The motion represents a growing trend within the Lib Dems to adopt policy positions on issues which traditionally have been seen as a matter of conscience. This is a very dangerous and illiberal tendency which is ultimately likely to drive people of faith from the party.
In the motion, the Lib Dems claim that the UK Supreme Court has stated that access to reproductive healthcare is a human right. This misrepresents the Court's recent judgement relating to abortion in Northern Ireland. The most that can be said is that the Court found that not allowing for abortion in cases involving life-limiting conditions and sexual crime is contrary to article 8 of the ECHR. There is certainly no positive right to access abortion services in any circumstance. Moreover, the Court's judgement raises significant questions about whether UK law on abortion in relation to disabled children is compatible with human rights. For some reason this aspect of the Court's judgment seems to have been overlooked by the Lib Dems.
It is worth noting at this point that robust research by the campaign group Both Lives Matter has shown there are 100,000 people alive in Northern Ireland today who would not be had the 1967 Act covered Northern Ireland. Contrast that with nearly 9 million unborn lives lost in Britain. Why, then, is a political party so intent on forcing one constituent part of the United Kingdom to abandon its life affirming laws? It is the rest of the UK which should be learning from Northern Ireland rather than the other way around.
The Lib Dems go on to call for abortion to be available regardless of national boundaries. Are they really suggesting that people from all over the world should be able to have an abortion on the NHS for free? How do they intend to pay for this extravagant promise?
Under the Lib Dem's proposals, millions of people from countries where abortion is restricted would have the right to get free abortions on the NHS. Will the NHS be offering to pay for the travel and accommodation costs of these people? At a time of scarce resources in the NHS, what other treatments will be sacrificed in order to meet this goal?
The other aspect of the Lib Dem's new position is their commitment to ban protests and prayer vigils outside abortion clinics and also on common transport routes to these locations. This raises very serious issues of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. These are core human rights, which can only be denied by the state on grounds of strictest necessity (eg national security). Clearly a few people praying peacefully outside a hospital or clinic is unlikely to meet this test.
The very fact that such a motion is being debated surely demonstrates beyond reasonable doubt that the party has become a cold place for anyone with religious beliefs or pro-life views. One feels for those such as Tim Farron, a committed Christian who resigned the party leadership after pressure was applied on him because of his views on issues such as abortion. His brave stand subsequently for genuine tolerance within politics of those who have religious beliefs seems all the more relevant. The motion suggests that the Lib Dems are still unwilling to take on board his concerns.
This new policy and the plans contained in it pose a threat to the very foundations of a liberal free society. The party is a long way removed from the liberalism advocated by Gladstone and Asquith and now represents a mutant liberalism, which is the antithesis of everything the party historically represented. It is the most vulnerable, unborn children, who have been overlooked in the current abortion debate.
The Preamble to the Lib Dem Constitution states: 'We champion the freedom, dignity and well-being of individuals, we acknowledge and respect their right to freedom of conscience and their right to develop their talents to the full.' Later it states: 'We will at all times defend the right to speak, write, worship, associate and vote freely...' These commitments would appear to be under serious threat.
Dr Gordon Macdonald works for CARE (Christian Action Research and Education) and is a former Lib Dem parliamentary candidate and councillor.