Abortion debate: MPs reject call for time limit cut
Date: 21 May 2008
By GERRI PEEV AND EMILY PYKETT
AN ATTEMPT to lower the time limit for abortions in the UK has failed, after MPs last night resisted emotive pleas from pro life campaigners.
A bid to lower the maximum term for abortions from 24 weeks of conception to 22 weeks was defeated, alongside plans for a more drastic cut to 12 weeks.
It was the first time the issue of abortion had been debated as part of a government bill for 18 years. The last time was 1990, when abortion times were cut from 28 weeks. But months of behind the scenes campaigning from religious groups motivated MPs to introduce amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (HFE).
In three hours of impassioned debate, most of it on the anti abortion side, MPs discussed the scope for limiting the procedure. One of the main considerations was at what age an aborted foetus could survive.
There was evidence showing medical advances could help a baby as young as 25 weeks to survive, but scientists have argued that there is not enough proof to show any but a tiny percentage could live if born at 24 weeks or less.
Edward Leigh, a former Conservative minister and a father of six, put forward an amendment to bring the UK into line with the 12 week limit of other European countries, such as France, Portugal, Austria, Belgium, Germany, Greece and Spain.
This was rejected by 393 votes to 71. An attempt then to reduce abortion term limits to 16 weeks was also rejected by more than 300 MPs, while a bid to cut the time limit to 20 weeks was rejected by 332 to 190.
A much tighter vote came on the amendment proposing cutting the limit to 22 weeks, which was also rejected by 233 to 304; a majority of 71. Ahead of the vote, Mr Leigh made an impassioned plea.
"In modern Britain the most dangerous place to be is your mother's womb," he said. "It should be a place of sanctity."
He said that "98 per cent of abortions are social – only 1.3 per cent are for foetuses which are handicapped, 0.4 per cent are for risk to mother's life. It is a bleak picture of modern Britain."
Nadine Dorries, a Tory MP who unsuccessfully tried to introduce a private bill to limit abortions, described how she had been turned against them after witnessing abortions as a nurse. She recounted her experience of witnessing a "botched" abortion where a little boy survived for seven minutes.
"A live abortion became a death in seven minutes. I knew then that one day I would be able to stand up and defend children like him," she said. Claire Curtis Thomas, a Christian Labour MP, said she was not opposed to abortion, believing that women have the right to choose.
"I just hope they don't choose to have an abortion," she said, adding that she would be happier with a 12 week limit.
Mark Pritchard, a Conservative MP, called for the limit to be 16 weeks.
"I believe that terminating a child should be a choice of last resort – not the latest manifestation of Britain's throwaway society."
Mr Pritchard also brandished pictures of a foetus at 16 weeks, saying it showed a "living, small human being".
Mike Penning, the shadow health minister, argued that women should be given more time to think before they made the difficult decision to have an abortion.
He said the "sheer quantity" of repeat abortions was "enormously disturbing".
However, Christine McCafferty, a Labour MP, said restricting when a woman can have a termination "is just prolonging the agony".
Evan Harris, the Lib Dems' science spokesman and a doctor, said it was not the role of a GP to "hector or impose on women burdensome information about the methods of abortion" if they did not want to know.
But Anne Widdecombe, a former Tory minister and a Catholic, insisted that the rights of women were already limited at terminating a pregnancy up to 24 weeks. She added that if more people could see the babies that were being "wantonly, and I believe wickedly" killed, then there would be public uproar.
She added: "We have in this country a situation in which you can have two children, of exactly the same age and gestation – exactly the same – and one is in a cot with all the resources of medical science being poured into saving it and the other is quite deliberately being taken from the womb and destroyed.
"That is moral anarchy," she said. "That is a totally unjustifiable state of affairs."
Miss Widdecombe urged MPs to protect the most "vulnerable in our midst".
Dawn Primarolo, the UK health minister, said there was no scientific evidence to warrant a reduction in the time limit. She warned that reducing it would force a small number of women who sought late abortions to go elsewhere. And she asked: "Wouldn't it be appalling if we drove women back to where they were before the 1967 act?"
She also rejected calls to remove disability as a ground for abortion, asking: "Is it right to force a woman to carry a child ( with a serious handicap] until it dies in the womb, or is born with no chance of survival?"
David Cameron, the Conservative leader, earlier said he would vote to lower the limit to 22 weeks, although he expected colleagues to vote in all different ways. Nick Clegg, the Lib Dems' leader, was expected to reject any moves to restrict abortions. Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, voted against any reduction, after insisting there was no medical evidence to justify a change in the law.
Alex Salmond, the First Minister, also made a rare trip to take up his seat in the Commons. He was expected to have voted for a reduction in the abortion limit to 20 weeks. Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, Ruth Kelly, Transport Secretary and Paul Murphy, the Welsh Secretary, voted in favour of cutting the time limit to 12 weeks. It was the last in a series of free votes on amendments to the HFE Bill. Earlier, MPs voted to include an amendment which ensures clinics prescribing IVF consider a child's "need for a father". Under the present Bill, IVF clinics would only have to take account of the need for "supportive parenting".
And, on Monday, they rejected proposals to ban research using human animal embryos and the creation of so called "saviour siblings".
Despite the vote, abortion on demand remains illegal in the UK. A woman must have the consent of two doctors, on the grounds that a pregnancy will harm her health, before she receives to go ahead to have an abortion.
Pro-choice campaigners have argued that it is this requirement that often forces women to have abortions late. They have pointed out that in other European countries with much shorter term limits, women are granted abortions much more readily.
Following the vote, Louise Hutchins, the campaigns coordinator for Abortion Rights, said: "This was never about the time limit, but women's rights to access safe and legal abortions.
"But there is a long way to go yet. Now we want to see the end of the intolerable situation where women in Northern Ireland do not have any access to safe, legal abortions."
Anne Quesney, the head of advocacy at reproductive healthcare service Marie Stopes International, welcomed the vote as a "victory for common sense" and a defeat for a "minority religious lobby". She added: "(This vote] spells relief for women across the country.
"It is reassuring that a majority of MPs were wise to the emotive and misleading campaign that sought to chip away at women's reproductive rights, and disregarded it in exercising their votes."
Undeterred, pro-life campaigners vowed to start lobbying afresh to reduce the time limit on abortions.
Josephine Quintavalle, a spokeswoman for the Alive and Kicking Alliance, said: "It was always going to be a numbers game.
"We are not disappointed – this has shone the spotlight on the abortion debate for the first time in 18 years and we have seen how Labour MPs line up. This will influence our activities in the run up to the next election."
Ian Lucas, the campaign coordinator of the All Party Parliamentary Pro Life Group, said: "We are disappointed MPs have not seen fit to recognise the wishes of three quarters of the population by lowering the time limit. This comes despite pleas from many to recognise research which has shown that children younger than 24 weeks can survive."