Often seen as a campaigner for human rights, Rachael Maskell has surprised many in her party by voting against ending the near-ban on abortions in Northern Ireland.
The York Central MP was one of only five in the Labour Party to vote against an amendment which would extend England’s more liberal laws to the province.
Parliament passed the motion by 332 votes to 99, obliging ministers to lay new legislation to provide all women in Northern Ireland with access to safe, legal abortions.
As things stand, “Northern Ireland has one of the strictest bans on abortion in the world with women in almost every circumstance facing up to life in prison for a termination,” in the words of Amnesty International.
Abortion is illegal except in very limited circumstances, in order to preserve a woman’s life or to prevent permanent or long-term injury to her physical or mental health.
That means, according to the BMJ, “Abortion following rape or incest, or following the diagnosis of fetal anomaly, is not permitted.”
So why did Rachael Maskell not vote with the majority to change the law?
‘Law is in the wrong place’
“I believe the abortion laws are in the wrong place in the UK,” Ms Maskell told YorkMix. “I have been very transparent about that since I was elected.”
There were 200,608 abortions for women resident in England and Wales in 2018 – a rise of 5,000 on the year before. “That shows to me that there’s a failure within the system.”
She added: “I have an issue with the 24-week limit. I worked in neonates in the NHS. Neonates survive from 21 weeks. Yet you can perform an abortion at 24 weeks.”
Ms Maskell didn’t want to put forward a limit she would be happier to accept, saying there needs to be more debate.
She also said society should invest more resources in supporting parents-to-be, saying people who had been to her surgeries had told her they undertook terminations because of their economic circumstances.
Ms Maskell said:
I am not sure we have got the balance right at the moment. There should be a debate about it.
I know that might not be a mainstream view but I am somebody that doesn’t just go with the flow on any issue – I listen and I scrutinise.
We have got to rethink the whole issue.
Clearly the choice movement is very powerful, but I do think we need to stop and think.
‘All life is sacred’
Ms Maskell is also concerned about the abortion of foetuses due to disability.
“I want to see all life valued. That’s very much where I come from. All life is really precious – that of the mother and the pre-natal life as well.”
Ms Maskell added: “As a Christian I believe that all life is sacred. We need to respect that life.
“That’s not saying I disrespect women who make difficult choices at all.
“Having worked in the NHS for 20 years fighting to save lives in acute medicine I value the lives of everybody equally. I believe that every life should have equal rights.”
The York MP also abstained on another amendment, which saw MPs vote to extend same-sex marriage to Northern Ireland.
Both changes could come in if a new powersharing Stormont Executive is not formed by October.
The votes came about because of the suspension of the executive in Northern Ireland. Ms Maskell says it isn’t right for the UK Parliament to impose its laws when these powers had been devolved to the province.
That was particularly true when they were areas of significant dispute between the DUP and Sinn Fein, who have struggled for years to reconcile their differences and resurrect the institutions at Stormont.
The DUP and religious leaders believe marriage is between a man and woman and civil partnerships are an option for same-sex couples.
Sinn Fein and a coalition of civic society activists believe the change is an issue of equality and human rights.