Maria Caulfield: does the divisive pro-life women’s minister pose a ‘danger to women’?

Maria Caulfield recently voted against the introduction of buffer zones outside abortion clinics in England and Wales  (ES)
Maria Caulfield recently voted against the introduction of buffer zones outside abortion clinics in England and Wales (ES)

Calling for action against Covid rule-breakers including Dominic Cummings. Claiming then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson “didn’t believe there was wrongdoing” in the Partygate scandal. Thanking her fellow nurses for their hard work over the last two years.

These are just some of the biggest headlines Maria Caulfield has made in recent years – or until this week, at least.

The MP for Lewes in East Sussex – a Tory MP since 2015, a practising cancer nurse and an urban shepherdess in her spare time – was appointed as the Government’s women’s minister last week and has already sparked anger from charities and women’s rights groups for her “pro-life” stance on abortion.

She has voted against legalising abortion in Northern Ireland and voted against buffer zones outside clinics, and she supports cutting the abortion time limit.

“Her appointment signals a potential restriction on women’s reproductive rights, which in turn is an attack on women’s autonomy and freedom,” director of the Centre for Women’s Justice, Harriet Wistrich, said following the news – yet another blow to new PM Rishi Sunak, who is already being accused of failing to represent women in his new cabinet. Just 23 per cent of roles have gone to women, down from nearly a third under his predecessor, Liz Truss.

So what else do we know about Maria Caulfield and what will her appointment mean for women up and down the country? Here’s everything we know so far.

From a council estate in Wandsworth to the top of Westminster

Ms Caulfield was born to Irish immigrant parents and grew up on a council estate in Wandsworth.

Ms Caulfield led parliamentary opposition to proposals to decriminalise some later abortions (PA)
Ms Caulfield led parliamentary opposition to proposals to decriminalise some later abortions (PA)

Her mother died of breast cancer when she was in her teens and this shaped her from an early age – after leaving school, she went straight into nursing, her mother’s profession, and became a specialist in breast cancer care at the Royal Marsden hospital.

Ms Caulfield and her brother were raised by their father after their mother’s death and she has recalled how he’d take her to Highbury, the then-home of Arsenal football club. “There was quite a lot of football violence when I was younger, so as a girl I was only allowed to go to certain matches,” she once said. “I was never allowed to go to Arsenal versus Tottenham, for example, in case there was trouble.”

The new women’s minister says her parents were swing voters and her brother “is not a Conservative”, but she was inspired to get into politics after moving to the south coast and seeing the Tories fight to save her local hospital in the mid-2000s. “I wasn’t overtly political before that, and it was because it was the local Conservatives that were running that campaign that I joined in,” she once said. “All political parties are the same, when you join one campaign they drag you in and get you more involved.”

She became a councillor for Brighton and Hove in 2007, through which she met her husband Steve Bell, an ex-serviceman and former builder who now works as her office manager and is a Brighton and Hove city councillor.

Bell had grown up in Woolwich and shared Ms Caulfield’s support for the Tories’ ambitious message. “At my school, the philosophy was that you come from a working-class background or a poor area, we’ll keep your benefits as they are or how you get into social housing and that was the only aspiration,” she once said.

“There’s a large group of working class Conservatives who say well actually you can achieve whatever you want to achieve and we’ll give you the tools and support to do that … There’s an image that Conservatives are very posh and from wealthy backgrounds. Actually, there’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s certainly not the party I recognise.”

She first stood as an MP in Caerphilly in Wales in 2010, before being elected as MP for Lewes in 2015, and has been passionate about making it clear that politics isn’t just for rich and powerful men.

“One of the reasons our pipelines to Westminster is not great is because we’re not encouraging women at local government level, at school governor level, as trustee of a charity, for example, where you get that experience of developing policy and influencing and making a difference. So, we’re looking at holding regional events and encouraging women,” she said in 2018.

“I’ve been inundated with women who are interested … they’re just not sure how to go about that. That’s been our problem, we haven’t necessarily made it as clear as it could be or they didn’t realise they could. They thought that was something that someone very political or very experienced would do.

“They didn’t realise that a mum who cares passionately about the local school that her children goes to, that actually she would make as good an MP as someone who studied politics at Oxford or Cambridge. We’re just opening those doors, and the response so far has been huge. Now, we’ve just got to use that time to give people the skills or confidence they need to go forward.”

A working-class nurse with a love of football

“I’m like the poor man’s Karren Brady.” That’s how Ms Caulfield once described herself after becoming a shareholder at Lewes Football Club.

She’s also a keen Arsenal supporter, a practising Roman Catholic and works as an urban shepherdess in her spare time, helping to use sheep and cattle to graze public open spaces.

But her main role outside being an MP is in healthcare. She helped the NHS in Covid wards during the height of the pandemic and still works as a cancer nurse for the Royal Marsden.

Throughout the pandemic she posted regular masked-up selfies in her nursing uniform urging followers to stay at home, stay safe and not to forget their mask. Her Instagram grid is littered with reminders of her nursing background, from Macmillan Cancer Support coffee mornings to hospital visits around the country. Over the years she has supported campaigns to get lip fillers banned, to double the number of cancer nurses by 2030 and for menopausal women to get flexible working, time off for GP visits and access to quiet rooms.

As for other areas of politics, she’s almost always voted against measures to prevent climate change, has voted not to take the opportunity to oppose further increases to university tuition fees, and has generally voted for raising the threshold at which people start paying income tax.

A women’s health champion or ‘a danger to women’?

Ms Caulfield’s first appearance at the government despatch box was a fitting one: she took part in a debate on International Women’s Day in 2020, when she was standing in for the then-women and equalities minister.

Since then she has held various health and female-focused roles including serving as Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Women and Minister of State for Health, and has a long history of standing up for women’s healthcare, encouraging her Instagram followers to be aware of breast cancer, pushing for improvements in miscarriage after-care and sitting down for interviews about the gender gap in medicine.

But her “terrifying” views on abortion have been met with great criticism, especially since she was appointed as women’s minister this week. Over recent years she has supported cutting the abortion time limit to 24 weeks, calling the UK’s 1967 Abortion Act “one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world” and urged her colleagues to be “wary of greater liberalisation of the law” governing abortions.

She has also voted against legalising abortion in Northern Ireland and more recently voted against buffer zones outside abortion clinics in England and Wales, claiming protesters who harass women may in fact be attempting to “comfort” them. “I am allowed on these life matters to have a personal view, without being criticised or told I can’t do my job,” she said at the time.

Women’s rights campaigners aren’t so sure. This week, Labour’s Diane Abbott called Ms Caulfield’s appointment “ridiculous” and many on Twitter were quick to join in, calling the new women’s minister “yet another delusional Tory”, “a danger to women” and a “joke as a parliamentarian”.

“An appalling appointment”, said one, calling Ms Caulfield “The new Minister for *diminishing the rights of* Women”, while others said she is allowed to have an opinion on abortion, but she does not and should not stand for women.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service has since said it was “profoundly disappointing” that the new PM did not think “a better choice for minister for women would be an MP willing to speak up for the one in three women who will have an abortion” while the shadow women’s secretary, Anneliese Dodds, called the move “deeply troubling”.

Abortion buffer zones were approved against Ms Caulfield’s wishes before her appointment last month but she insists she’ll be bound by the parliamentary vote. The new women’s minister also claims she is entitled to take a personal view on these matters without being labelled “anti-women” or “anti-choice”.

For most women and women’s rights campaigners around the country, the hope is that she sticks to that word and keeps those personal views to herself.