London (CNSNews.com) – With the contest to choose the next leader of Britain due to end on Tuesday, campaigners on both sides of the abortion debate say they have little idea where front-runner Boris Johnson stands on the issue.
On Thursday, as part of an omnibus bill dealing with Northern Ireland, the House of Commons voted to end the almost total ban on abortions in the province. With abortions to be permitted up to the 28th week of pregnancy, Northern Ireland’s laws will be more liberal than the rest of the United Kingdom and much of Europe.
While dramatic, the development is part of a pattern seen with the issue of abortion in British politics, where it occasionally comes to the foreground in a flurry of headlines but otherwise lies quiet for most of the time – in contrast to the United States.
Next week, the Conservative Party will announce the winner of a ballot of party members – the next leader of the party. And as the Tories hold a commanding bloc of seats in the House of Commons, the next party leader will be prime minister.
The candidates are Johnson, a popular former foreign secretary and widely predicted winner, and the country’s current foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt.
Campaigners on both sides of the abortion debate said this month they have little to go on when it comes to Johnson’s views on the issue.
Aside from commenting this month that he would not “impose” abortion on Northern Ireland, Johnson has abstained from every almost every House of Commons vote related to the issue in recent years.
He voted against making assisted suicide legal in 2015, but he has neither voted to extend or restrict the time limit on abortion in England, Scotland and Wales, which generally stands at 24 weeks’ gestation.
“There's been absolutely nothing to indicate his stand on abortion," said Rachael Clarke, a spokeswoman for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) – the “leading provider of abortion services in the U.K.”
Hunt, a committed Christian, has voted in the past to restrict abortion to 12 weeks and to introduce a seven-day “cooling off” period for women seeking abortions.
Clare McCarthy, a spokeswoman for Right To Life UK, said Hunt has a “very good record” on voting.
McCarthy said, however, that the organization expected that the government led by either man would continue the policy of previous Tory leaders, which is to generally remain neutral on the issue and allow individual MPs to vote according to conscience.
In the recent past, bills dealing with abortion have been introduced in parliament by individual members – rather than parties – and as such are often given little time on the government-controlled schedule.
The vote this week on abortion in Northern Ireland was an exception, since it came about as an amendment to a larger bill.
McCarthy said that she expects the next battle over abortion in Parliament would be over decriminalizing it countrywide.
Abortions are still technically considered crimes in Britain. However, a 1967 law permits them in England, Scotland and Wales in certain circumstances, particularly when a doctor judges that continuing with a pregnancy would cause danger to the mental or physical health of a woman.
McCarthy predicted that abortion, as with so many other issues, will crowded out during the ongoing national debate over leaving the European Union.
“I think the real focus for the next parliament will be Brexit,” she said.
Clarke said that BPAS does not see “much danger” on the horizon as far as parliament imposing further restrictions on access to abortion goes. MPs could likely continue to be allowed conscience votes on the matter, she said.
That practice has been established for a while, and any new prime minister would be wary of expending political capital on the issue, she said.
“I don’t see that any government would want to pick that up.”