Maria Caulfield has voted in the past against the introduction of anti-harassment buffer zones outside abortion clinics and against the legalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland. She is also a former member of the all-party parliamentary "pro-life" group.
Campaigners, charities and opposition MPs have slammed her appointment as both Minister for Women and Minister for Women’s Health as “deeply troubling”, given that her role means she has responsibility for policy on gender equality as well as any and all issues relating to women’s health. Critics have also encouraged the government and Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to make clear that the UK’s laws around abortion are not under threat.
But the Lewes MP has hit out at those who have “attacked” her, directing her response towards Labour in particular. She told NationalWorld: “I am entitled to a personal view on issues that are sensitive such as abortion and have never hidden these. Given we have some of the most liberal abortion laws in the world, it is clear that unlike some, I respect parliamentary democracy and accept the results of votes in Parliament where I may have voted differently.”
She also wanted to speak on some of the actions she has taken in her role, commenting: “Given that as the Minister for Women’s Health I have introduced the first Women’s Health Strategy in England, which is prioritising women’s health for the first time ever and have been a lead campaigner on issues such as the menopause and access to HRT, I find the opposition party’s personal attack very disappointing.”
Caulfield concluded: “Freedom to practice a faith is a protected characteristic in this country and it is disappointing but not surprising to see such personal attacks from opposition parties.”
The MP’s response comes after Labour’s shadow women and equalities secretary, Anneliese Dodds, remarked: “It is deeply troubling that Rishi Sunak has appointed a Minister for Women who supports limiting women’s rights to abortion. The government must be clear and unequivocal that a woman’s right to a safe and legal abortion is not under threat.”
So what exactly is Caulfield’s stance on abortion - and how has she voted on the issue? Here’s what she’s said - and how women’s right’s activists have responded to her recent promotion.
How has Maria Caulfield voted on abortion?
Caulfield’s most recent vote on abortion came earlier this month, when MPs voted on whether or not harassing and/or obstructing any woman attending an abortion clinic in England and Wales should be made a criminal offence. MPs voted in favour of these ‘buffer zones’, but Caulfield was in the minority by voting against their introduction.
Explaining her stance, she said she did not think the measures were “proportionate to the issue at hand”, telling BBC’s Politics Live: “The definition of harassment is open to interpretation. There’s a possibility of someone going up to a woman who may be upset or distressed, offering them some comfort, that could then be accused of harassment and face six-months in jail."
Anti-abortion protesters often defend their presence outside clinics by saying they are offering support or comfort, but women have told of trying to enter clinics when the ground outside is scattered with graphic foetus models, or while protesters distribute leaflets containing misinformation about the links between abortion and cancer. One woman attending a clinic in Liverpool previously told NationalWorld a protester approached her and called her an “abomination”.
Caulfield has since said that while she voted against buffer zones, she accepts the result and will uphold it. According to the MP’s voting record on TheyWorkForYou, Caulfield also previously voted “not to legalise abortion in certain circumstances in Northern Ireland as soon as the act comes into force.”
What has the reaction been?
In response to criticism concerning Caulfield’s appointment to the role, a spokesperson from the government’s Equality Hub told NationalWorld: “The Minister for Women has a strong track record of delivering for women in her previous ministerial roles. We will continue to pursue a compassionate approach to equality, ensuring that everyone is able to live their lives free from discrimination.”
But Sister Supporter, an anti-harassment, pro-choice group which led the leading campaign for nationwide buffer zones, said the new Minister for Women “clearly does not listen to women”.
The group wrote on Twitter: “It is shocking and extremely worrying that the Conservative Government has appointed a Minister for Women who clearly does not listen to women. Sister Supporter and other organisations have gathered thousands of testimonials from women attesting to the distress caused to them by people hanging around outside abortion clinics attempting to shame them into not proceeding with their choice to have an abortion.”
It also urged Caulfield, and “anyone in a position of power,” to “simply listen to the voices of women across the UK,” saying “they will hear, loudly and clearly, that it is way past time for abortion clinic harassment to end.”
Katherine O’Brien from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service added: "We are absolutely appalled that the prime minister has decided to appoint as Minister for Women an MP who has consistently voted to restrict women’s rights." Meanwhile, director of the Centre for Women’s Justice Harriet Wistrich said: "We are horrified that a clear opponent of abortion rights has been appointed Minister for Women."