The latest census data showed that 51% of the population in the UK are women. Yet in the latest round of reshuffles, the role of minister for women went to a junior minister.
Maria Caulfield, Conservative MP for Lewes, is now parliamentary under-secretary of state for mental health and women’s health strategy, as well as being the parliamentary under-secretary of state for women. That is a lot of responsibility for anyone, and represents a huge amount to prioritise, spend time on and campaign around – meaning that many important issues will not get the attention they deserve.
Under this brief, and among many other responsibilities, Caulfield oversees women’s health, maternity services, gender identity services, cosmetic regulation, mental health, disabilities, bereavement and equalities. A sizeable portfolio for any minister to juggle, and worryingly, her voting record presents concerns about what her priorities might be.
She has almost always voted against laws which aim to protect equality and human rights, particularly around abortion. In 2018, when Caulfield was the Conservative Party vice-chair for women, she called for a debate on reducing the 24-week time limit to receive legal abortions, describing the 1967 Abortion Act as “one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world”.
Caulfield has since urged caution around liberalising the law any further. Furthermore, she has voted against anti-harassment buffer zones outside abortion clinics, and against the legalisation of abortion in Northern Ireland. She is also a former officer of the all-party parliamentary ‘pro-life’ group.
And yet despite these concerning credentials, her new role gives her responsibility for policy on gender equality and issues relating to women’s health. She insists she is entitled to her own views, which is unarguably true, but for many advocates of female choice, her own views in this position of power are a huge concern.
What do campaigners think of Caulfield?
Many clinics and women’s rights groups are rightly concerned about her appointment and what it signifies for the future of women’s rights in parliament, with many calling for her to be stripped of the role.
Katherine O’Brien from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service said: “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.” Harriet Wistrich, the director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, said: “We are horrified that a clear opponent of abortion rights has been appointed minister for women.”
And from the Opposition, Anneliese Dodds, the shadow women and equalities secretary, said:
“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.”
Female representation in government
Rishi Sunak has been accused of failing to represent women in his new cabinet, with around 23% of roles going to women, down from nearly a third under his predecessor, Liz Truss. Mandu Reid, the leader of the Women’s Equality party, said the fall in women’s representation showed that Sunak has a “massive and deeply concerning blind spot”.
This erosion of female voices at the highest tiers of government also comes at a time when the anti-abortion lobby is on the rise in the UK. We live in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s decision in the US to overturn Roe Vs Wade, meaning 33 million women were stripped of the right to a safe and legal abortion in June 2022.
Threats to abortion rights in the UK
While there is not as powerful a religious lobby here in the UK as there is on the other side of the Atlantic, those forces do exist in our parliament. Conservative MP and devout Christian, Danny Kruger, asked the Commons not to lecture Americans on Roe vs Wade, arguing that women do not “have an absolute right to bodily autonomy in this matter”, though he later claimed he had been misunderstood.
In June 2022, 61 Conservative MPs, including Caulfield, voted against government efforts to expand abortion access in Northern Ireland, together with the practising Catholic MP, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has previously said he is completely opposed to the right to abortion, including in the cases of rape or incest. Rees-Mogg is patron of the anti-abortion organisation Right to Life. His ideological opposition to abortion, however, did not stop him profiting from the sale of abortion pills in Indonesia through his investment firm.
In December 2022, Caulfield incorrectly claimed on Twitter that a pro-life protester outside an abortion clinic had been arrested for praying. In fact, the woman was arrested for breaking a public space protection order on four occasions. Caulfield was quickly corrected and widely criticised by readers, but refused to withdraw her original tweet.
Green Councillor for Lewes, Emily O’Brien, tweeted her disappointment and added:
“She is entitled to personal views on abortion but simply can’t be Govt Minister for Women if she won’t leave those views at the door.”
We must defend women’s rights
It is clear therefore that the anti-choice campaigners do have a presence in parliament, and the means to attack access to reproductive healthcare through the courts. We cannot be complacent about the sanctity of abortion rights. It is not enough to win progress once: these rights have to be defended against those who want to take these rights away.
While it is women’s bodies that are currently under threat, this cannot be solely viewed through the lens of women’s issues either. This is a societal issue and one where we must defend our rights, rights that while enshrined in law, can easily be eroded and undermined across all aspects of public life, if they are not continuously fought for.
Whilst Maria Caulfield is minister of women, we must be doubly vigilant.