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Interview: Ann Widdecombe takes part in Cambridge Union abortion debate

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Former Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe was among the speakers at a Cambridge Union debate titled ‘This House believes nothing should impede a woman’s right to choose’ on Thursday, May 27.

Oscar Wilde and George Orwell debate at the Cambridge Union on January 23, 2020
Oscar Wilde and George Orwell debate at the Cambridge Union on January 23, 2020

In this passionate exchange of ideas which lasted well over an hour - the Union’s second in-person debate of the term, though four of the speakers joined in virtually - this highly contentious topic was discussed at length by invited guests as well as student speakers.

Few questions in medical ethics have proved as controversial as whether or not a woman should have the right to terminate her pregnancy. To some, abortion is tantamount to murder, to others it is a simple question of women’s rights and bodily autonomy.

Others traverse the middle ground, arguing that abortion can be condoned in cases of rape or incest but condemned in other circumstances. Is it misogynistic to oppose abortion? Is it immoral to support it? Should abortion be permitted in some circumstances but not in others? When does life begin, and is all life sacred?

First up, speaking for the motion, was Leni Zumas, author of national bestseller, Red Clocks, which won the Oregon Book Award in fiction and was shortlisted for the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. She is currently the professor and director of creative writing at Portland State University.

"I support the proposition because other people's religious and moral beliefs about foetal personhood belong to them," she said, "and my body belongs to me."

She mentioned that the people of Ireland and Argentina have "recently won battles for expansion of reproductive rights" and compared that to Poland and the US, of whom she said that access to abortion has been "shrinking fast", citing examples such as a Republican state senator from Idaho proposing a law that anyone who has an abortion can be charged with first-degree murder.

She added: "If you don't like abortion, don't have one, as the bumper sticker says" and also suggested that "misogyny under guards the forced birth crusade, whether the crusaders realise it or not."

The exterior of the Cambridge Union. Picture: Keith Heppell
The exterior of the Cambridge Union. Picture: Keith Heppell

Getting the proceedings under way for the opposition was Ann Widdecombe, a Conservative MP between 1987 and 2010, during which time she was for a period the Shadow Home Secretary.

She said: "When the child is born, that child has full civil rights - nobody at that stage can say that because that child is disabled or the mother is poor, or something has gone wrong in the mother’s arrangements for bringing up that child... nobody can say that because of that, that child can die.

"That child has full civil rights as soon as it’s born - yet, an hour before, it does not have those rights. Yet it’s the same child. The only difference between the child immediately after birth and the child coming up to birth is that one is seen and the other is not seen - and that to me cries out for saying there has got to be a limitation on this."

She added: "It’s all very well saying, ‘It’s my body, I can decide what to do with it’, but there are two bodies involved. The one can speak for itself, the other has no voice but Parliament’s, but the law to protect it - that is all it has. So I do believe that the law is right to say that there are limits to a woman’s right to choose."

Further contributors to the discussion included Barbara Nowacka, a Polish politician and leader of the centre-left Civic Coalition. A tireless campaigner for abortion rights in Poland, she spoke of the "more than 30-year history" of women "campaigning for their right to choose". She said that young women in Poland are afraid of starting a family as if something goes wrong, they will not "get any help from the state".

Melanie McDonagh (appearing in person and speaking against the motion), a lead-writer for the Evening Standard and a former President of the Cambridge Union, said that men too suffer as a result of abortion and suggested: "The whole idea that there should be no limits to a women’s right to choose is impossible to sustain for any decent human being - and I include all of you in that category."

Laura Ryan, a PhD student in molecular neurogenetics at Downing College, spoke for the motion, asking "huge" questions like "When does life start?" and "Is a foetus entitled to the same rights as a person?".

She added: "Let’s consider the case of a fertilised embryo. Is it alive? Well yes - fungi are also alive, as are the cells that are used for research in the lab and the organs that are waiting to be transplanted, but we certainly don’t afford them human rights."

The inside of the newly refurbished bar area of the Cambridge Union. Picture: Keith Heppell
The inside of the newly refurbished bar area of the Cambridge Union. Picture: Keith Heppell

Cora Sherlock, an Irish anti-abortion activist, concluded the debate by speaking of, among other things, the "profound shock and sadness" felt by women who have undergone the procedure. She ended by quoting the "late, great Christopher Hitchens" - an example of an atheist who made pro-life statements, in an attempt, she later revealed, to show that the issue is not just the preserve of the religious:

"Take the time and take the risk of thinking for yourself on this issue. Don’t be betrayed by the fake phrases, like the ‘right to choose’. Search instead for something more lasting, more satisfying and more genuine.

"Search for the truth that you know to be true, that is often obscured by society and by those who would claim that the right to choose matters. Instead, seek the truth that every human being matters."

Afterwards, Ann Widdecombe, who served as the Brexit Party MEP for South West England between 2019 and 2020, spoke to the Cambridge Independent, along with Cora Sherlock, who has also written for publications such as The Irish Times and The Irish Catholic.

"It was a very interesting debate, good speeches, and one thing that can be said for this Zoom business is that you can get somebody in the United States contributing to the debate," said Ann, a converted Catholic. "So I’ve got a horrible feeling - because I much prefer to do it in person - that this is here to stay."

The Cambridge Union
The Cambridge Union

During her speech Melanie McDonagh thanked the Union for holding the debate, stating that "for many years, it’s been a topic that’s been in bad taste to address". Commenting on this, Cora said: "Absolutely, and I really think it’s great to take every opportunity to talk about it.

"It’s important to hear what everyone has to say, and I would agree with Ann - I think it was a really good debate and I think the speakers from the floor were excellent. I always find at student debates that everybody puts so much effort in; they really know their stuff and they really go away and do the research, which I think is fantastic."

Ann noted: "I’ve been debating this one for a very, very long time in various guises, in Parliament, at student unions, etc, up and down the country, and I think there wasn’t anything original said tonight - but it was a very odd motion, quite honestly.

"The motion was that ‘nothing should impede a woman's right to choose’ - well, that’s pretty extreme. It would have been more interesting, I think, to have debated a different sort of motion. I wouldn’t have said ‘nothing should impede’. I think if I were drawing up that motion, I would have said, ‘This house believes in a woman's right to choose’ - and that’s very different."

She continued: "I was rather disappointed with the superficial stuff about misogyny and sexism etc, which is neither here nor there - the child in the womb can be make or female, and I think that’s a bit of a distraction in the argument."

Ann Widdecombe, former Conservative MP talks to the press in Maidstone. Picture: John Westhrop
Ann Widdecombe, former Conservative MP talks to the press in Maidstone. Picture: John Westhrop

Ann, who says she would like to see the pro-life agenda supported across the political spectrum, rather than the exclusive property of any one party, concluded: "We live in an abortion culture. When I was in Parliament, the Health Select Committee did an examination of the workings of the conscience clause, and one gynecologist who gave evidence to us had spent 20 years in Australia.

"And she said that the difference was that when she left for Australia, doctors had to justify it if they wanted to carry out an abortion, but when she came back from Australia, the whole thing was turned on its head - and doctors had to justify it if they wouldn't do an abortion.

"We have an abortion culture, and so there's no sense of shock about those figures [the number of abortions carried out] and we never hear about them. Obviously those of us who take an interest in the subject will find them, but they’re not put up on our television screens.

"I’ve been fighting this one for decades and it gets tougher, rather than easier. There was a time, which I can remember, when the presumption was still against abortion, and people didn’t want to see the figures rocketing - and the fact is that over eight million children have been aborted since the passing of the [1967] Act, and that is eight million individuals that would otherwise have been among us."

I couldn’t let the former MP go without asking her opinion on the Dominic Cummings revelations. "The crucial thing is are they true, and I strongly suspect that some of them are...

"I suspect it sums up the chaos that there was in Downing Street at the time, and I think if I were Boris Johnson, I wouldn’t dismiss it all and say ‘rubbish’, I would say, ‘Look, we had a pandemic, we weren't prepared for it - that is quite true - we didn't get everything right’.

"People are saying it was vengeance - possibly, but it can still be all true. That’s the crucial thing - is it true, never mind why he’s doing it. But what nobody can take away from Boris is the vaccination programme - a huge success and that’s because he was then Boris as we knew him...

"He ordered millions of doses of the vaccine before they’d even been approved, let alone produced. He just ordered them - every time there was a vaccine coming on, didn’t matter what it was, he ordered it, and it paid off."

The result of the debate was ayes: 51, noes: 21, abstentions: 14. For more on the Cambridge Union, visit cus.org.

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