Therese Coffey today insisted she won’t use her new powers as Health Secretary to ban abortions.
A devout Catholic, the 50-year-old publicly stated she would prefer women ‘did not have abortions’ in the wake of the landmark overturning of the Roe V Wade ruling in the US which had safeguarded women’s right to an abortion.
The ex-Work and Pensions Secretary also voted against making at-home termination pills permanently available post-Covid, and didn’t back a motion to grant women in Northern Ireland abortion rights.
Charities called her stance ‘deeply concerning’, accusing Dr Coffey of putting her ‘personal beliefs above expert clinical guidance’.
But when grilled about her controversial outlook, Dr Coffey denied she would abuse her new position to change the rules.
A devout Catholic, Therese Coffey publicly stated she would prefer women ‘did not have abortions’ in the wake of the landmark Roe V Wade ruling in the US that safeguarded women’s right to an abortion
In her first day in charge of the Department of Health and Social Care, she was asked on Sky News whether she personally supported abortion.
She said: ‘I’m conscious I have voted against abortion laws.
‘What I will say is I’m the complete democrat, and that is done so it’s not that I’m seeking to undo any aspects of abortion laws.’
Dr Coffey, who has a PhD in chemistry, previously brought a motion before parliament which called for women seeking an abortion to undergo a ‘mental health assessment’.
She has also voted against same-sex marriage, including among armed forces personnel and in Northern Ireland.
The new Health Secretary, who is also Deputy Prime Minister, also failed to back a bill that would permit terminally ill people to lawfully be allowed to end their life with consent from the High Court.
Ms Coffey sparked fury in June after her stance on abortions made headlines following an interview with Sky News in response to the June US Supreme Court decision.
It overturned the 1973 Roe v Wade judgment, which ruled woman’s right an abortion was protected by the constitution. The decision saw the British Medical Association call for all women to be given access to free abortions in the UK, which can cost up to £1,500 for foreign patients.
The ruling sparked concerns that a similar push back would be made in the UK.
However, Dr Coffey told Sky News that ‘abortion law isn’t going to change in this country’.
She was asked whether she agreed with the new Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg’s view that the UK’s abortion rate is ‘one of the saddest aspects of British modern life’.
Dr Coffey said: ‘In a broad variety of ways, of course I would prefer if people didn’t have abortions but I’m not going to condemn people that do.’
Asked whether the right to an abortion should be enshrined in British law, she said: ‘We don’t need it because we already have legislation that provides access to abortion.’
Dr Coffey has signalled her stance on abortion for over a decade.
In a 2010 motion when she was a backbench MP, Dr Coffey called on the Government to give its ‘full backing to mental health assessments for women presenting for abortion’.
She also urged ministers to back plans to tell women about their risks to their mental health if they terminate their pregnancy.
Dr Coffey has also voted against extending the right to terminate pregnancy to women in Northern Ireland. She argued that her vote reflected her belief that the UK Parliament should not directly rule on the issue.
In March, Dr Coffey voted against making the abortion ‘pills by post’ policy permanent. However, most MPs backed the move so women in England and Wales can receive abortion pills in the mail from September.
The move was brought in temporarily amid the Covid crisis and allowed women to take two pills at home, provided they were not more than 10 weeks pregnant. More than 150,000 woman have used the service since it was brought in.
Clare Murphy, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), told the BBC that while politicians can have a personal stance on abortion, these should not ‘stand in the way of women’s ability to act on their own.’
She faces a mammoth in-tray that includes clearing record NHS backlogs, fending off historic levels of strikes and addressing a deadly crisis in A&E
Cigar-smoking, karaoke-loving MP Therese Coffey will be the new health Secretary – the third in as many months
Dr Coffey’s vote against at-home abortion pills was ‘against the advice of leading medical bodies including Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives and the BMA’, Ms Murphy said.
She added: ‘To have a health secretary who would place their personal beliefs above expert clinical guidance is deeply concerning.’
‘Anti-abortion protest activity is escalating, with women and clinic staff facing intimidation while seeking to access and provide an NHS-funded service.
‘Every week, women with complex medical conditions are forced to continue pregnancies against their will because of a lack of appointments within NHS hospital settings.
‘We need a health secretary who wants to improve access to a medical procedure that one in three women will need in their lifetime, not impose further restrictions.’
Mr Rees-Mogg, another member of Liz Truss’s new-formed Cabinet, is also anti-abortion.
The former Minister of Brexit Opportunities and Efficiency has publicly stated that he is ‘completely opposed’ to pregnancy termination, even in cases of rape or incest.
Mr Rees-Mogg, who is also Catholic, has labelled abortions as ‘morally indefensible’, argued that life beings ‘at the point of conception’ and falsely claimed that the morning after pill causes abortion.
However, he has also said British women’s right to abortions are ‘not going to change’.
Dr Coffey was last night confirmed as Health Secretary after days of speculation.
She has earned a reputation in Westminster as a ‘workhorse’ thanks to her scientific attention to detail and willingness to work long hours.
Those qualities will be crucial in her new role where she faces a mammoth in-tray that includes clearing record NHS backlogs, fending off strikes and addressing the deadly crisis in A&E and ambulance services.
Her appointment highlights how Ms Truss views fixing the NHS as a key priority leading up to what is expected to be a closely fought 2024 General Election.
Ms Coffey is now the third Health Secretary in as many months, taking over from the interim post-holder Steve Barclay, a staunch Boris supporter, and Sajid Javid, who quit in protest against Mr Johnson’s premiership in July.
She comes into the role as 6.7million patients in England languish on NHS waiting lists for routine operations such as knee replacements and cataracts surgery, often in pain. The queue is expected to keep growing for the next two years as people come forward for treatment after delays during the pandemic.
At the same time, the situation in emergency departments is so bad that heart attack and stroke patients wait an hour on average for an ambulance, more than triple the 18-minute target, and every month 30,000 people spend 12-plus hours on A&E trolleys before being admitted to a ward.
Patients are still struggling to get a GP appointment, which campaigners and experts say is driving those who are most desperate to emergency departments and clogging up the system even more. Record levels of bed-blocking – when elderly patients can’t be discharged into care homes because of a lack of beds there – is exacerbating the issue.
Meanwhile, unions are threatening a ‘winter of discontent’ that could see doctors, nurses and other medics strike over pay, crippling staff shortages and working conditions.
Colleagues have described Ms Truss and Ms Coffey as ‘yin and yang’, with Ms Truss viewed as a big picture politician and Ms Coffey a forensic operator who knows her brief inside out. Departing Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has previously said ‘nothing goes wrong’ in Ms Coffey’s departments.