Home Page

Column 1199

House of Commons

Friday 16 December 1988

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Mr. Speaker-- in the Chair ]

Egg Industry

9.35 am

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Like myself and others, you will probably have heard that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is very concerned about the state of the egg industry, and that it has been widely trailed that a Minister's job is on the line. We hear that a £10 million package is being drawn up by the Government as a result of the statements made by the Under-Secretary of State for Health. In view of all the controversy, I think that it is necessary for the Government to intervene at some point today and make a statement about this supposed £10 million package of taxpayers' money. We hear the Prime Minister saying constantly that taxpayers' money should not be used to subsidise this, that or the other. After the 150,000 bankruptcies that have taken place in the 10 years of the Thatcher regime, if egg producers are to be subsidised because of Government policy I think that the Government should be subsidising a lot of others and saving a lot of jobs, and paying compensation as well. Is there to be a statement, Mr. Speaker?

Mr. Speaker : I have not heard yet, but I may hear before 10 am, which is the appropriate time.

Column 1200

The Unborn Child

9.36 am

Mr. John Watts (Slough) : I beg to move,

That this House notes the growing public concern about experiments on unborn children and abuses of the Abortion Act 1967 ; recalls the substantial and sustained majorities given to the Abortion (Amendment) Bill in the last Session and to the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill in successive Sessions ; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to bring forward at an early date the proposed legislation concerning research on human embryos and to consider introducing a Bill with alternative sets of clauses to reform the Abortion Act 1967 in order to allow the House, on a free vote, to reach a decision on this important matter.

It is with a measure of sadness that I move the motion. After 21 inglorious years of the Abortion Act 1967, introduced by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), 2.6 million unborn children have been killed under cover of that Act. Only 123 abortions out of that appalling total--0.005 per cent.--have been performed in emergencies to save the mother's life. Four out of five abortions are performed for social reasons under ground two-- "risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the woman".

That cover is used to allow abortion effectively on demand. I do not believe that the House intended in 1967 to legalise abortion on demand, but in practice that is what has happened. The House demonstrated in the last Session with a substantial majority for the Abortion (Amendment) Bill that it has the will to act to curb the practice of late abortions, many of which must be in contravention of the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929. I am very concerned at the apparent unwillingness of Her Majesty's Government to take action to enforce effectively the provisions of that Act. I wrote to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health about the matter. In her reply, she said :

"The Infant Life (Preservation) Act protects any child capable of being born alive, regardless of the gestational age at which this point is reached."

That is a clear and precise explanation of the letter of the law and of the intentions of the law. However, the objective is not achieved if the Director of Public Prosecutions is unwilling to prosecute doctors who commit offences by aborting a baby who, despite their worst endeavours, is born alive and who then compound their offence by failing to take the necessary steps to sustain that life. Although I was not in the House at Question Time yesterday, I understand that this matter was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) and other right hon. and hon. Friends. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health said that she did not see the need for action by her Department to remind doctors of the law. Perhaps of late her mind has been too much on other things and if she were in her place, my advice to her would be--

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South) : Resign.

Mr. Watts : Well, I would not go quite as far as the hon. Gentleman suggests. My advice to her would be to switch her attention from embryonic chickens to embryonic human beings.

Column 1201

There is clearly a will in the House at least to tackle some of the worst abuses of abortion, yet our procedures frustrate us in that desire, and meanwhile abortions continue at the rate of 170,000 per year. If just a fraction of that number of babies die every year because of inadequate medical care or from curable or preventable diseases, there would be an outcry in the country and in this House. However, supporters of the status quo in abortion law and those who support its further relaxation are capable of drawing a distinction between the death of a wanted baby and the legalised killing of a baby who would be a social inconvenience. It is not a distinction that I can understand.

I do not hope or expect that there could be agreement within the House on the rights and wrongs of abortion because I know that just as I hold my views deeply, many of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members hold contrary views with equal sincerity. It is important that we respect each other's views on such weighty issues.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : My hon. Friend and I share great concern about the care of the born--we are not concerned only about the unborn. In many cases the unborn may be severely handicapped. I do not know my hon. Friend's views about a mother who does not want to give birth to a severely handicapped child, but perhaps he could say a little more about care for the born who are severely handicapped and who may be so severely handicapped that there parents cannot manage to look after them and they are in institutional care.

Does my hon. Friend know that there are hundreds--no, thousands--of severely handicapped children in institutions because their parents cannot manage to look after them and that there is great difficulty in finding foster parents or people to adopt them? Would my hon. Friend put his children into an institution?

Do not handicapped children deserve just as much love and care--or even more love and care--than ordinary children? Can he give me the names of a mere 100 families who would be prepared to adopt or foster a handicapped child?

Mr. Watts : I cannot answer my hon. Friend in the terms in which he asked his question. I know that many thousands of both physically and mentally handicapped children are loved and cared for by their parents or foster parents. I hope that my hon. Friend is not trying to lead me down the route of agreeing that any child who is likely to be born severely handicapped--either mentally or physically--should automatically be aborted.

Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point) : In order that this matter might be kept in perspective, is it not a fact that of late abortions--that is to say, after 18 weeks--92 per cent., if allowed to have been born would have been perfectly fit and healthy children, and that of those who were aborted for so-called handicap reasons, quite a high proportion were aborted for trivial handicap reasons? That does not minimise the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) properly made a moment ago, but for goodness sake, let's keep it in perspective.

Mr. Watts : My hon. Friend is entirely right. The number of abortions performed because there is concern

Column 1202

that the child will be born severely physically or mentally handicapped are miniscule against the appalling death total of 2.6 million since the Abortion Act was passed in 1967.

These difficult issues face parents every time they are expecting a child. My wife and I made a conscious decision not to seek to find out by tests whether any of our four children was likely to be born handicapped because we did not wish to put ourselves in the position of having the pressure of that knowledge upon us before the birth. However, all parents must be able to consider such matters for themselves.

As I said before my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) intervened, it is important that we recognise the differences of opinion within the House and have a mutual respect for the views that each of us holds. However, I hope that there can be some agreement within the House on the issue of reform of the Abortion Act 1967 because it should be resolved by the House. It is our procedures that have prevented us from coming to a conclusion. I say "our procedures" rather than our opponents, if that is how I may refer to those who take a different view from me. I accept that the procedures of the House are there to be used. I say frankly that if a Bill were to be introduced in the House to make abortion legal on demand, I would use every device that I could think of to try to prevent it from reaching the statute book. Therefore, I make no criticism of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members who used the procedures of the House to prevent the law from being reformed in a way of which they would not approve.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East) : Is my hon. Friend aware that in the proceedings on the Bill in the previous Session to which he has referred, a clear majority in the House was in favour of my amendment of 24 weeks-- [Interruption.] Well, it was absolutely clear that if the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) had so wanted to get his Bill on to the statute book, the 24-week amendment would have ensured that, but he and other supporters of his Bill had no desire to do that because they wanted to make abortion illegal.

Mr. Watts : I am not sure whether what my hon. Friend says is correct. I am sure that there was a majority in the House for 24 weeks, instead of for a significantly lower limit.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill) : Is it not the case that on 22 January when the House voted there was a majority of 45, with 296 hon. Members--the biggest pro-life vote ever--voting for 18 weeks? If hon. Members of all parties had not decided to try to frustrate the Report stage by using procedural devices, we could have had a vote not just on 20 weeks or 22 weeks, but on 24 weeks. We would have been happy to have that vote because we are certain that we would have won something far less than a time limit, which would not have saved a single life.

Mr. Watts : I am inclined to agree with the hon. Gentleman that the majority in this House favours a limit lower than 24 weeks, and probably a limit that is much closer to 18 weeks--

Sir Bernard Braine : So does the majority in the country.

Column 1203

Mr. Watts : The sadness is that the House was not enabled to bring the debate to a conclusion and to enact its will.

Mr. Cryer : The hon. Gentleman is fair in his comment on the behaviour of the House. Does he think it unfair and unwarranted for Members who took part in the proceedings, which were carried out perfectly in accordance with the rules of the House, to go outside and talk about parliamentary skulduggery and cheating?

Mr. Watts : Right hon. and hon. Members must be answerable for their views on these matters. I did not indulge in any criticism of those who opposed the reform which I supported because if there were a reform of which I disapproved, I would use the same tactics to prevent it from being enacted. The use of parliamentary procedure is a perfectly fair way for right hon. and hon. Members to seek to block legislation of which they disapprove.

Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West) : Does my hon. Friend agree, therefore, that it was improper for the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) to write to my constituents--he subsequently apologised, for which I am grateful--accusing me of filibustering and delaying the passage of the Bill by speaking at length to delay the Committee stage of another Bill on which I spoke for less than one minute? Does he agree that it was disgraceful conduct to send that letter to my constituents without my knowledge?

Mr. Watts : I do not wish to be drawn into a disagreement between my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Mossley Hill. If this is still a live issue for them, no doubt they can slug it out later. Our procedures should not prevent the will of a substantial majority of the House from prevailing. If Session after Session there is the will to reform this appalling Act but the procedures prevent it, it will lower the standing of the House in the eyes of the public whom we serve. We shall look foolish as an institution if we cannot allow the will of the majority to prevail.

Last Session, at a late stage in the proceedings on the Abortion (Amendment) Bill, it was suggested to the Government that they should provide extra time to allow the Bill to complete its stages. At that time I supported the proposal, partly because it was clear that the disastrous 1967 Act would never have reached the statute book had it not received extra time from the Labour Government. Last year my right hon. Friends in Government resisted that proposal and I can see that granting extra time to one private Member's Bill could be the start of a slippery slope. If one Bill were favoured, why should not every private Member's Bill that could not succeed for lack of time also be given more time?

Two wrongs would not make a right. The first wrong was for extra time to have been granted in 1967. In effect, that Bill was not a private Member's Bill but a Government Bill which the Labour Government lacked the courage to introduce. The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale was merely the stalking horse for that Labour measure.

In order to amend what was effectively a Government Bill in private Member's clothing, we need a Government Bill to allow reform to proceed. We have a model in the Government's proposals to introduce a Bill to regulate research on human embryos. They have told the House

Column 1204

that they intend to introduce a Bill during this Parliament which has alternative sets of clauses so that the House can reach a decision on a free vote. As it is a Government Bill, it will have both time and the weight of Government behind it so that it can reach the statute book.

I urge my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider whether a Bill of similar format could be introduced to permit the reform of the Abortion Act 1967 which the House has often clearly shown it wishes to reform. If there were a Government Bill, even with unlimited time, the worry is that it, as with private Members' attempts to reform the law, would be obstructed by whichever side of the debate did not like the outcome of the free votes on its constituent clauses. Clearly that is a danger, but it does not present an insuperable problem. I have always been in favour of timetable motions for all legislation. I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will not allow me to sidetrack the House into a debate on that broader issue this morning, but the danger of obstruction to such a Bill could be overcome with prior agreement on a generous timetable to cover all its stages. In that way, the House would decide that a Bill to reform the 1967 Act would reach the statute book. We would agree on the amount of time that would be needed to debate its provisions and we would know before Second Reading that it would reach the statute book. That would bring to a conclusion our long-running and consecutive debates on this issue. The House would then have an opportunity for a full and fair debate on the issue and to reach a final conclusion.

I hope that there will be a consensus in the House on the desirability of finding a means to reach a conclusion on this. Otherwise, in successive Sessions, much of private Members' time will be taken up by private Members' Bills to reform the Abortion Act which cannot succeed because we are essentially seeking to reform a Government Bill in private Members' clothing. Without the time which a Government Bill can command, such a reform will never find its way on to the statute book, although I shall continue to come to the House on every occasion when such a Bill is before it to vote in support of reform.

I am aware that many right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak on this motion and possibly even on following motions if time allows. One of my purposes this morning is to provide an opportunity for a wide-ranging debate on the pro-life issues and I do not wish to prevent others from taking part by speaking for too long. I have already been on my feet for close on half an hour, so I shall touch only briefly on research on human embryos.

Over four years ago the House debated the Warnock report. On that occasion the time available to me was limited. I had about three minutes at 1.45 pm. I concluded my brief speech by saying : "there is urgent need for legislation to outlaw any experimentation on human embryos and to provide full protection for all human embryos."--[ Official Report, 23 November 1984 ; Vol. 68, c. 580.]

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale) : Whatever may be the strong feelings in this House on it, we recognise that this is a very difficult ethical consideration. Will the hon. Gentleman address himself to the latest opinion published the other day which was repeated this morning on the radio by Professor Robert Winston of Hammersmith hospital? He told us of a patient who had watched four brothers and a nephew die from a form of

Column 1205

muscular dystrophy and in addition had had two late abortions at 20 weeks after it was discovered that the foetus was affected by muscular dystrophy. Professor Winston is conducting research into embryos to provide a way to allow women to carry healthy embryos to term. He made the point that if embryo research is outlawed, late abortions will continue. People who campaign to ban embryo research are encouraging late abortions to continue by preventing medical research. Another purpose of embryo research is to get to the root of natural abortion which greatly exceeds the rate of medical abortion in this country. The campaigners never address themselves to that.

Mr. Watts : I did not hear the radio interview to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Of course there are always persuasive arguments that benefits may arise from such research. However, at the end of the day we must decide whether the ends justify the means. I do not think that they do.

Mr. Alton : I urge the hon. Member not to be misled by the bogus arguments put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel). My right hon. Friend's comments are totally misleading because 92 per cent. of late abortions are on perfectly healthy children who are aborted under the social clause. That has nothing to do with disability. The hon. Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) should be aware of the comments of Professor Jerome Lejeune, professor of fundamental genetics, who said :

"I explained that human embryo research as recommended by the Warnock Committee could not produce any positive results in the investigation and treatment of congenital and genetic diseases because at 14 days the organs and systems affected by these conditions have not yet developed."

Mr. Watts : As the hon. Gentleman has expressed so clearly, medical and scientific opinion on the necessity for such experiments is divided. We can find supporters on both sides of the argument to support our case. For example, I am persuaded by the views of Sir John Peel, the Queen's former gynaecologist, and 26 fellows of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists--including two of the college's past presidents--who issued a statement which read : "The rejection of experimentation on human embryos is implicit in the code of professional ethics, relating to all human

experimentation, which has from time immemorial been endorsed by the medical profession and repeatedly confirmed by the World Medical Association and other professional bodies. The central principle of this code is that concern for the interests of the subject, namely the patient, must always prevail over the interests of science or society. The human embryo conceived by in vitro fertilisation is the subject of the doctors concerned, and as with an adult patient, may not be put at risk for any reason other than to enhance his or her own well-being.

The effective investigation of pathological conditions developing during pre-natal life should not require the killing of human embryos."

I prefer to align myself with that professional and ethical opinion.

That view is put even more succinctly by the Royal College of Nursing, which described all such research techniques as

"repugnant and unacceptable and in direct conflict with the RCN's view that basic human rights are applicable from the moment of conception."

Column 1206

I am not a scientist and I am not burdened by their knowledge. However, it seems to me that from the moment of conception there is no other significant event in the development of human life before it reaches the stage at which a child can be born. Arguments such as those rehearsed in the Warnock report about whether experiments on an embryo up to 14 days are acceptable, but not beyond, or perhaps at 40 days or two months are an attempt at moral hair splitting. I see no moral or logical difference in experimenting on human life at any stage. I reject such proposals.

Inevitably there are widely differing views on whether experiments on human embryos should be allowed and in what circumstances. Whatever view one takes, there should be a general agreement that it is totally unsatisfactory for such experiments to be conducted outside the law because this House has failed to provide a legislative framework.

The Government have undertaken to ensure that a Bill will be introduced during this Parliament. However, we are already into the second Session and there is still no sign of it. I recognise that the legislative timetable is crowded and that the Department of Health has a very important Bill this Session, the Children Bill, which deals with protection of the born child. It will be a pity if that Bill comes forward only at the expense of a Bill to protect the unborn child. If my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is looking for some space in the legislative programme, I suggest that the Department of the Environment is overburdened with legislation this Session. Perhaps the half-baked proposal for a football membership scheme could be dropped to make way for this much more important Bill for which the House has been waiting for more than four years.

No matter how it may be achieved, I urge the business managers to provide the House with an early opportunity to consider a Bill on embryo research. If my proposal for reforming the Abortion Act 1967 finds favour, there is a prospect that progress could be made in this Parliament to provide comprehensive protection for the unborn child at every stage of its development. I believe that my supporters are in the majority in this House. I ask the Government to provide the House with the time.

10.7 am

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill) : We are all indebted to the hon. Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) for giving us the opportunity to debate these important questions this morning. Far too often there is a conspiracy of silence about the unborn child. The media as well as the House regularly minimise and eliminate the importance of these questions. It is shocking that the second most widely practised operation in the National Health Service, abortion, is never seen on our television screens. If the video, "The Eclipse of Reason", which was sent to hon. Members earlier this year, was seen by the British public, it would radically alter attitudes and change minds. Far too many people in the media and in this House are still steeped in 1960s attitudes and reflect the sterile slogans that were chanted then. They are not looking more deeply at the questions raised by pro-life supporters.

Attitudes have been changing. It is not without significance that when my Abortion (Amendment) Bill came to the House earlier this year, we achieved the biggest pro-life vote ever and 296 hon. Members are now in favour of pro-life legislation compared with only 29 hon.

Column 1207

Members who opposed the Third Reading of the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) in 1967. That shows how attitudes have changed. Since 1974, there have been 15 pro-life Bills and not one was defeated on a fair and free vote. They were all defeated by the use of procedural devices, techniques and tactics. However legitimate that may be in terms of parliamentary procedure, there is a growing body of opinion in this House and elsewhere that Parliament is brought into disrepute when tactics and not arguments can win the day.

Mr. Thurnham : The hon. Gentleman is talking about tactics. Will he say a little more about the tactics in which he engaged in the last Session? He and his hon. Friends were up to such tricks as writing to constituents, making false allegations and issuing a "list of shame". Will he say more about that "list of shame" and why he did not retract it?

Mr. Alton : As the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) knows I spoke to hundreds of people in his constituency who were very much in favour of the Bill that I promoted. All over the country. thousands of people supported the Bill. I received 18,000 letters in favour of my Bill and only 2,000 against it. Every opinion poll showed a massive majority in favour of what we were trying to do, yet the hon. Member for Bolton, North- East expects me to say, naively, that it was mere coincidence that the Committee that considered the Licensing Bill, which was just ahead of my Bill in the Committee queue, was made up of the same people who were doing their best to try to thwart the progress of the Bill. An actuary tells me that the mathematical probability was millions to one against the likelihood of that happening. All this may be fair in terms of the way in which Parliament operates, but I ask hon. Members to consider whether that is the way to deal with important, life and death questions.

Mr. Andrew MacKay : I promoted the Licensing Bill. I do not mind if the hon. Gentleman abuses me, but I object when he abuses a senior and distinguished Member of the House who chaired the Committee extremely well- -my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, (South (Mr. Cormack)--who knows that filibustering is not allowed. the hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that my hon. Friend, who is a distinguished member of the Chairman's Panel, was incompetent and did not chair the Committee properly. I refute that and put on record that I have every faith in my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire South.

Mr. Alton : So have I. That is not the issue. Hon. Members know that it is a question not of filibustering but of using legitimate procedures. Hon. Members can talk on and on and can move as many amendments as they want. That is perfectly in order. Then there is injured innocence, as though they had no intention of trying to prevent my Bill from making progress. They must think that I have just got off the banana boat.

Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West) : When talking about the composition of Committees, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it was perfectly proper for me, as a sponsor of the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) on cruelty to animals--a subject on which I have a long-term interest as witnessed by my own private Member's Bill on the slaughter of deer

Column 1208

in the same parliamentary Session--to sit on that Committee? I was immensely restrained in speaking for less than one minute in that Committee. Will the hon. Gentleman explain, therefore, to the House rather than in a private apology, why he wrote to my constituents behind my back--and to people all over the country--from whom I subsequently received letters accusing me of action that I had not taken? Will he explain how, when he cannot conduct a case honestly himself, he expects me to respect his own parliamentary concept?

Mr. Alton : I understand the strength of feeling of the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), but she will remember that many members of the Committee--such as the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen)--spoke at length on many amendments. Although I am happy to recognise that the hon. Lady was not one of the people who were speaking at length in that Committee, other people were. It was my right, as a Member of Parliament, to write to constituents to explain that some members of the Committee were speaking at length, and although I am happy to say that the hon. Lady was not one of those who sought to draw out proceedings, others did.

Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking) : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) was intervening in the previous Animal Protection (Amendment) Bill, he actually effected some improvements to that Bill? If he had not persisted, that might not have happened.

Mr. Alton : The hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) is right. I know that the hon. Member for Leyton has an interest in such questions, but if the hon. Lady examines the record, she will come to the same conclusion as I have--that it was unnecessary to protract the proceedings at such length. Hon. Members should not be frightened of a vote on the substantive question about whether there should be a lower time limit. If we could have moved to that vote--we were a tantalising twelve and a half minutes away-- we could have subsequently decided whether the vote should have been on 18, 22 or 24 weeks. That would have been a matter for the House to decide, if people had wanted genuinely to arrive at a conclusion.

We must contrast what happened in January 1988 with what happened in 1967, when the Government provided 25 hours for the Bill promoted by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) to become law. The hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) said yesterday, at Question Time, that he thought that the proper way to proceed with the matter was through a private Member's Bill. We are caught in a constitutional lacuna. The original Bill was neither private nor public legislation. It became law because it received public time, as the hon. Member for Slough has pointed out. It is in a unique constitutional position and has been turned into a great untouchable. It will not do for Ministers to say that we should bring in more private Member's Bills.

I will support the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) when she brings in her Bill to limit the time for abortions, but the Government should face the issue head on and introduce a Bill on which the House could debate the merits of the argument rather than allowing the Bill to fail as a result of being frustrated in Committee. If it will always be a matter of tactics, I am afraid that people

Column 1209

will grow increasingly frustrated and angry at the barbarism that takes place daily in our name with the full connivance of British law.

Mr. Steel : I think that my hon. Friend was not in the House yesterday when the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office said :

"My hon. Friend puts his point very firmly. The 1929 Act provides that at 28 weeks of development, there is a rebuttable presumption that the foetus is capable of survival. There is quite clear and compelling evidence that the rebuttable presumption should arise not at 28 weeks, but at 24 weeks, but the House may feel that this matter could be best tackled by Private Member's legislation."--[ Official Report, 15 December 1988; Vol. 143, c. 1077.]

The 1929 Act is a Government measure. Does my hon. Friend agree that the matter could be resolved if Ministers in the Department of Health and the Home Office were to bring forward an amendment, in one of the criminal Bills, to the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 for a 24 week limit, which the House could then discuss? My hon. Friend and others could press for a lower limit. That would get rid of the matter and we could then leave the Abortion Act 1967 alone.

Mr. Alton : I shall not be tempted down that road. The legislation that needs to be amended is the right hon. Gentleman's 1967 legislation and not the flimsy legislation that exists to protect the unborn child. I am interested to see the Minister of State for Health agreeing with a 24-week limit.

The Minister of State for Health (Mr. David Mellor) : I do not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman inadvertently. I was agreeing with the statement by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, which was quoted by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), which describes the position as we understand it. I agree with the diagnosis, but not with the remedy.

Mr. Alton : I feel reassured by that because a limit of 24 weeks would not save a single life. That is why those who introduced the 1967 legislation are so enthusiastic about such a limit. We should search our hearts occasionally about the double standards that we apply. The slogan makers confidently demand the right to choose. Can it ever be right to take the life of someone else on the spurious ground of choice? Choices should be made earlier. The right to life must always be paramount. Plainly, it is inconsistent to demand rights for animals, welfare rights, women's rights and minority rights and yet to ignore the basic right to life.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby is a great opponent of any pro-life legislation, but he is also the president of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Vivisection. He said in its 1987 report : "In other fields of animal welfare higher standards of human behaviour towards animals are emerging. There are no Victorian values we can fall back upon. We are now having to formulate our own against a background of conventional indifference and cruelty."

Page 58 of the report shows a chimpanzee foetus. People could say it was an emotive photograph if it showed an unborn child. It shows a chimpanzee foetus at 126 days--just 18 weeks gestation. It is inconsistent to oppose the practice of vivisection on an animal--which I, too, oppose--while giving the unborn child no protection whatever.

Column 1210

Last week, Parliament square was decked out in United Nations flags as we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. We should remember the depravity, barbarism inhumanity and indifference that necessitated that declaration. After all that had gone before, during the preceeding 20 years, it was thought necessary to affirm the right to life. We said 40 years ago that everyone had a right to life, and that right is being affirmed again today by those of us who recognise the consistency of protecting the rights of the vulnerable, weak and powerless by protecting those of unborn children.

Paradoxically, during a debate on the reintroduction of capital punishment the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), who speaks on home affairs matters, said that all our laws were based on the principle of the sanctity of human life. How inconsistent it is to oppose capital punishment and yet to be in favour of abortion. A society that condones experiments on the unborn child and abortions of its own species condemns itself and loses the right to call itself civilised.

What do we allow under British law? We allow abortions later than any other western European country--up to seven months into pregnancy. The average EEC time limit is 12 to 14 weeks. We do not believe that the compromise that we are told is necessary falls at 24 weeks. The House must recognise that there is a difference between humanity and viability.

Yesterday we raked over the entrails of the Carlisle baby case. That baby would not have been saved if there had been a time limit of 21 weeks. Last year, at Carlisle general hospital, a baby was aborted after 21 weeks gestation because its mother had been told that it would be "a monster". She was told that it would have a life-threatening disease. In fact, no life-threatening disability was involved ; it was a non-recurrent skin disorder which was not a serious disability in the terms of the disability clause of the 1967 Act. No resuscitation equipment was available in the ward where that abortion took place. They subsequently failed to tell the mother that the baby had struggled for three hours for life. There was no registration of that baby's birth, after those events had taken place. In an answer given on 13 June the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State said :

"Following the decision made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department not to direct that an inquest should be held"--

although the local coroner took the view that an inquest should be held and referred the matter to the Home Office

"the Registrar General has made her own inquiries and these indicate that the requirements of the legislation governing the registration of births and deaths do apply in this case."--[ Official Report, 13 June 1988 ; Vol. 135 c. 64. ]

I hope that the Minister will explain why that birth has still not been registered, as implied in the written answer on 13 June. My right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale referred to the 1929 Act, which refers to a baby being protected if it is capable of being born alive. What did happen in the Carlisle case if the baby was not born alive? It could not survive beccause it was not sufficiently developed. It had not reached the 23 or 24 weeks of gestation that meet the criteria that hon. Members constantly cite. It was at 21 weeks, but it

Column 1211

struggled for life for three hours. It had undisputed life for three hours and then it was unceremoniously put into a black sack and incinerated.

What else do we allow under our law? We know that 88 per cent. of late abortions are carried out in private clinics rather than in the National Health Service. We know that the majority of them are done using dilation and evacuation. We can only consider as barabric and uncivilised the mutilation of children which we allow. Everyone knows what happens in the procedure. The baby is between 10 and 12 ins long and pumps 50 pints of blood a day. All its organs are in place and it is clearly recognisable as a human being. A pliars-like instrument is inserted, the baby's skull is crushed and it is removed piece by piece.

Mr. Steel : Same old speech.

Mr. Alton : Yes, it is the same old stuff and I make no apology for it. Since the legislation of the right hon. Gentleman--whom I often call my right hon. Friend--has been introduced, 3 million babies have been aborted in this country at a rate of 174,000 a year or 600 every working day. I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman thought that that would happen when he introduced his Bill in 1967. In the procedures, no anaesthetic is used and no account is taken of the pain inflicted on the child. The publication entitled "Human Procreation--Ethical Aspects of the New Techniques", published by the Council for Science and Society, says that pain is experienced "after the foetus has developed a nervous system, six weeks after pregnancy being the earliest."

Mr. Peter McCulloch, an eminent immunologist says :

"babies can be in agony during abortions."

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : I am the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend on this matter. Can he confirm that no less than 60 per cent. of late abortions are carried out by the same 11 doctors and that there is clear evidence of abuse?

Mr. Alton : Yes, and last year they netted £2 million for their efforts. It is inconsistent that the Opposition who complain about the private sector and the profit motive, to be the first to jump into the breach to defend those people. In the first three months of this year alone, £4.5 million changed hands in the abortion business. There are financial links between the clinics and counselling agencies : 32 of the people who run counselling agencies run clinics as well, and they have a clear profit motive in sending people to have abortions. Those financial links should be severed and the financial exploitation of women ended.

Only the pro-lifers in the House can say that they care for both the woman and the child. We are the only ones who can point to the mounting evidence of the massive increase in post-abortion trauma. I should like to read some letters that I have received in the past few months. One lady wrote :

"I was only 7 weeks pregnant when I had a termination many years ago, but the trauma and nightmare are still with me. The damages mentally and physically are awful, but no one bothered to tell me the facts and that it could affect my chances of having a normal pregnancy"

Another wrote :

"I had an abortion which nearly destroyed me and that was eight years ago. I was an older mother and therefore high risk. I panicked a bit as I already had three children and had heard that older mothers have more disabled babies. The

Next Section

  Home Page