If a heavily pregnant woman worked in any industry other than politics, she would be entitled to maternity leave. But due to outdated rules, pregnant politicians may be forced to choose between their career and their own health. This was demonstrated on Tuesday evening when a pregnant MP delayed her caesarean section in order to have the chance to vote on the Brexit deal.
Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, Tulip Siddiq, arrived in the House of Commons in a wheelchair after deciding to postpone giving birth. As the Evening Standard reports, Siddiq is pregnant with her second child and was originally due to have an elective C-section on Feb. 4. However, the 36-year-old developed gestational diabetes during her pregnancy and was advised by doctors to bring forward the delivery date.
Staff at the Royal Free Hospital in London advised Siddiq to have the procedure on Monday or Tuesday of this week, but she asked to push it back to Thursday to avoid a clash with the all-important Brexit deal vote. There's a simple reason why Siddiq felt the need to do this, and it's that MPs do not have the option to let someone vote on their behalf. More commonly known as proxy voting, this method would have enabled Siddiq to have her say without potentially endangering her health.
Siddiq alluded to the health risks in a statement, saying: “The Royal Free has been very clear on their legal and health duties. This is a high risk pregnancy and I am doing this against doctor’s advice.”
A voting option for MPs who are pregnant or ill does exist, but it isn't considered to be particularly trustworthy. "Pairing" is where two MPs, who are set to cast differing votes, both promise not to vote. This effectively cancels the votes out, making it a fair procedure.
However, the chairman of the Conservative party, Brandon Lewis, caused uproar in July 2018 after breaking this pact. At the time of a vote on a trade bill, he was paired with a Liberal Democrat MP, Jo Swinson, who was on maternity leave. Despite this pairing, he went on to vote on the bill. He later apologized and the Prime Minister called it "an honest mistake," reports ITV.
Unsurprisingly, this incident has left MPs with little faith in the system. "If the pairing system is not honoured, there's nothing I can do, and it's going to be a very close vote," Siddiq's statement continued. "I've had no pressure at all from the whips to come and vote but this is the biggest vote of my lifetime. I am thinking about my child’s future when I made this decision — his future in the world. If it comes to an absolute emergency, I will of course prioritise the baby’s health."
She added that she felt she was "choosing in a sense between career and [her] family life, continuing: "I feel it’s totally unfair and if we want more women in politics and we want people to come from different backgrounds, we need change and to introduce proxy voting.”
Proxy voting has been unanimously agreed on in two Parliamentary debates, the BBC reports, but little progress to introduce the fairer measure has been made. Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, spoke before Tuesday's Brexit vote, urging the politicians in power to make a change, according to Politics Home:
It is extremely regrettable that almost a year after the first debate and over four months after the second debate this change has not been made. This is frankly lamentable ... and very disadvantageous to the reputation of this House ... If people want to express their opposition, let them not do it murkily behind the scenes. Let them have the character up front to say they oppose progressive change.
Along with pairing, Siddiq did have the option to be "nodded through." This process has been used by ill MPs in the past and involves being able to cast a vote as long as you are somewhere on the parliamentary estate. As the Independent reports, politicians in the 1990s who were unwell but wanted to vote had to be driven onto the estate via ambulance.
It's not rocket science to conclude that this is far from ideal for women who could be due to give birth at any second. Several MPs have since spoken out to raise awareness of the issue both on social media and in the House of Commons. SNP politician and surgeon Philippa Whitford gave a particularly powerful speech, telling fellow MPs: "I have to say, as a doctor, to put our colleague at risk — and her baby at risk — because we cannot have a method of allowing those who are sick or pregnant [to vote] is disgraceful."
With news like this, politics' stereotype as a man's world still rings true. Let's hope it doesn't take another year for voting equality among MPs to come into place.