A Tory minister who voted to curtail access to abortion has been granted ministerial responsibility for abortion care in the UK in a move that has provoked fury among termination services.
Maria Caulfield, recently appointed as women’s minister by the new PM Rishi Sunak, is an ex-officer of the all-party parliamentary pro-life group and she voted against legalising abortion in Northern Ireland.
Abortion was banned in almost all circumstances, even rape and incest, with women seeking terminations facing life imprisonment, until the procedure was legalised in Northern Ireland in October 2019.
Clare Murphy, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), a leading UK abortion provider, said it is “quite simply appalling that Maria Caulfield, a self-declared ‘voice of the unborn’” had been “given the government portfolio for abortion care”.
Ms Murphy added: “This is an absolute slap in the face to the women of this country and suggests a complete disregard for their needs.
In the aftermath of Roe v Wade, the UK has an opportunity to really show the world what progress and protection of women’s rights looks like – this appointment would signal just the opposite.”
Roe v Wade – the landmark decision that legalised abortion nationwide in the US in 1973 – was overturned by the country’s Supreme Court in June, with millions of women losing their legal right to have a termination.
Ms Murphy said: “This is an MP who has described those who support women needing to end pregnancies as the ‘abortion industry’, which she has accused of being ‘unethical, unsafe and unprofessional’.
“Unlike any other area of healthcare, decisions regarding the licensing of abortion clinics sit with the relevant government minister. Maria Caulfield potentially now has the ability to block the establishment of new abortion services, and close existing clinics.”
She noted Ms Caulfield voted to “re-criminalise at-home early medical abortions, and voted against measures to protect women from anti-abortion clinic harassment” in the last year.
“These two important pieces of legislation were passed by an overwhelming majority by her fellow MPs. Maria Caulfield does not speak for the house, does not speak for women, and is in no way an appropriate minister to oversee this vital aspect of women’s healthcare,” Ms Murphy added.
“We urge the prime minister to revoke this appointment and ensure that Maria Caulfield is not given this portfolio, and is not handed the chance to jeopardise women’s access to safe, legal, NHS-funded abortion care.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care told The Independent abortion typically used to sit under the public health brief.
Ms Caulfield, the Conservative MP for Lewes, has previously suggested curbing the 24-week abortion time limit – facing criticism for claiming babies born at a mere 18 weeks “grow up to live long, healthy lives like the rest of us” – an assertion which was rejected as “simply untrue”.
While earlier this week, she claimed protesters who harass women outside abortion clinics may be attempting to “comfort” them. Ms Caulfield made the comments while standing up for her decision to vote against “buffer zones” outside abortion clinics.
However, Ms Caulfield also said she would “uphold” MP’s vote in support of “buffer zones”. Earlier in the month, MPs voted in favour of nationwide ”buffer zones” outside abortion clinics in England and Wales in a major win for abortion providers.
A “buffer zone” stops anti-abortion protesters or any other types of demonstrators standing outside the clinic or hospital or in the near vicinity. Ms Murphy previously said BPAS was “delighted” politicians had voted to “protect women, protect healthcare staff, and establish buffer zones”.
“Every year, around 100,000 women are treated by a clinic or hospital for an abortion that is targeted by anti-abortion protests,” she said.
“These groups attempt to deter or prevent women from accessing abortion care by displaying graphic images of foetuses, calling women ‘murderers’, and hanging baby clothing around clinic entrances, causing women significant distress.”
Other tactics employed by anti-abortion protesters include chasing women down the street and sharing pamphlets containing wholly false medical information. This sometimes even involves disseminating material that features incorrect claims that abortions cause breast cancer.