Emma Ritch: Why Engender joined other women's rights groups to make the case for pressing "pause" on abortion

Director of Engender Emma Ritch explains why the organisation was one of several this week to urge MPs to vote down an amendment to the Scotland Bill which would devolve abortion laws to Scotland

IN the middle of the vibrant, participative discussion that women's organisations had in the run up to indyref, which covered so much ground about the type of Scotland we wanted to see, there was a small, silent space.

Abortion rights were barely discussed at all.

Engender's discussion events heard views on what independence or significant devolution might enable in terms of enhancing equal pay law, increasing access to justice, creating a living wage, overhauling social security to make it an investment in people's lives, making employability work for women, and incorporating women's rights into a new constitution.

We know relatively little about what people in Scotland think about abortion.

There was almost no dialogue about possible positive developments like decriminalising women who opt to terminate a pregnancy. About shaping a new and progressive law on abortion in Scotland.

We know relatively little about what people in Scotland think about abortion. Some recent-ish social attitudes surveys suggest that Scots are more progressive on this topic than people elsewhere in the UK.

A slightly older survey of MSPs suggests that they are roughly akin to their Westminster colleagues in their attitudes to restricting the time limits set out in the 1967 Abortion Act.

This suggests the possibility for a more progressive law in Scotland, but there are three related things that prompted us and 12 women's and human rights organisations to contact MPs this week to ask them to vote down an amendment that would devolve abortion to Scotland, proposed by three members of the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group.

First, the amendment wasn't doing something new, it was simply doing something more quickly. As part of the Smith Commission agreement there was an expression of cross-party consensus that abortion was an anomalous reservation, and that all parties were minded to devolve it.

However, in recognition of the complexity of the terrain, there was to be a preliminary period of discussion between the UK and Scottish Government.

It is hard to imagine a less helpful context for a discussion on abortion than the guddle that the Scotland Bill process has become.

We're assuming that civil society will be involved in those talks, because if we are looking to be more progressive on this issue then that should start with conversations with Scotland's women and women's organisations.

It is hard to imagine a less helpful context for a discussion on abortion than the guddle that the Scotland Bill process has become.

Second, we need to get this right first time. Debates on abortion can be so contentious and polarising that law on abortion is very infrequently revisited in most countries.

The 1967 Abortion Act is acknowledged to be problematic by both pro-choice and pro-life campaigners, but neither want its core principles to be opened up to scrutiny for fear of losing ground. Copying and pasting this law into the Scottish statute books would bring those problems with it, but having a more wide-ranging and exploratory discussion takes time, participation, and a careful sift of the evidence.

For example, Scotland currently has no provision for women terminating pregnancies after 18 weeks. Cross-border access to services in England would currently be contingent on whether Scottish residents could continue to access services on the NHS in England and on the maintenance of current time limits which are under regular attack by anti-choice MPs.

We need a process for creating a law that smoothes out some of these wrinkles. The Scottish Parliament is amply equipped to play its part in this process, but to have an open, generous, rights-respecting dialogue about abortion in Scotland will require civil society to shift resources and focus. This takes a little time.

Third, we know from the experience of women around the world that international focus on national abortion debates can be intense. American pro-life dollars and strategists flow to wherever there exists the possibility for constraining women's choices.

Unfortunately, as Katha Pollitt so beautifully summarises, opinions on abortion don't necessarily track those about other social issues like marriage equality. Women's and human rights organisations in Scotland are financially outmatched in making a case for a positive law, but more time to organise and build coalitions offers the best possibility for ensuring that everyone in Scotland at least hears a range of views.

We're hopeful about the possibility for a progressive law in Scotland, but we are also under no illusions about the scale of that task.

The amendment we saw this week from three MPs based outside Scotland, who have an anti-choice voting record, appears to be a somewhat cynical attempt to shortcut that process.

Engender has a positive vision of a Scotland where men and women are equal, and women's ability to make choices about their bodies is a critical part of that. We're not opposed to the devolution of abortion, and we're hopeful about the possibility for a progressive law in Scotland, but we are also under no illusions about the scale of that task.

Last night's amendment ultimately wasn't put to a vote, but we'll take the moment to catch our breath and ensure that we are in the place to work with civil society to do the best we can to make it happen.

Picture courtesy of Edson Chilundo