|Previous Section||Home Page|
I bitterly regret the fact that we have a small number of women Members in this House. Women bear children. They also rear them. It is a great pity that on this of all subjects we do not have more women Members. Women have a special problem because they cannot, as men can, create a child and then disappear.
I shall now deal with the people who wrote to me who were for abortion, with reservations. They may share my
Column 1250view that it is the lesser of two evils. Whether abortion is legal or not, it will always continue. Nature herself aborts many pregnancies. One in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage and a far greater number--30 to 50 per cent.--end too early to be reported or even recorded. More than 50 per cent. of pre-embryos abort or fail to implant. Mother nature is unbelievably profligate with potential human lives. Many people, therefore, believe that abortion, with reservations, is the lesser of two evils when a mother feels that she cannot cope with the coming addition to her family.
If we can accept the principle that the needs of the living take priority over potential lives and over the chance of a reasonable life, we should wonder whether we should allow abortion. We may think about social needs, rape--for which the average sentence is now six years--incest, to which I referred just now, and acute poverty in which hunger and squalor prevail, particularly in the developing countries. I use the phrase "developing countries" rather than the old-fashioned phrase "Third world" which the Father of the house, my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) used, because those countries are part of our world. It is proper that we should encourage women in developing countries to have access to medication such as depo provera, which allows them to control their fertility with far less trouble than the methods used in this country. We should also consider the medical needs. Will the life of the mother come first?
I was interested to see that the wife of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill, in an interview at the time of her marriage, said that if her life were threatened when she was pregnant, she would think seriously about an abortion. That was a brave and honourable remark. We should also consider the pain-free life of the coming child. Is it right that we should allow children to come to full term when we know that they will have a lifetime of acute pain and misery because modern science is able to keep them alive? There is even a reasonable chance of life for a child who is born without a brain. A parent in my constituency who came to see me has such a child, who is being reared at home. I believe that in all such cases, the mother's views should be paramount, given all the facts.
Perhaps because of the work that so many hon. Members, including myself, have carried out with disabled people, I strongly support the proposal in the Warnock report that scientific investigation is carried out before the embryo reaches 14 days because that gives us the first real chance to break the chain of human suffering, which probably none of us in the House has experienced.
Doctors and scientists are often unfairly blackened when we talk about scientific experimentation. I shall speak about immunisation techniques. I was close to a group of scientists in the Netherlands, the Institute of Public Health, and their triumph when they found a new form of creating the polio vaccine, which reduced the need for experimentation on animals from 40,000 to 4,000 monkeys a year, had to be seen to be believed. Can we not allow scientists and doctors the keen knowledge that the possibility of human life is in their hands when they are carrying out experiments and allow them to continue under proper licence?
I shall now describe my own thoughts on abortion generally, and on the motion in particular. I put forward an amendment, which was not accepted because it was outside the narrow scope of the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill. The amendment sought to
Column 1251make abortion easier in the first trimester, in which 84 per cent. of all abortions now take place, by reducing from two to one the number of doctors' signatures needed. That would meet circumstances in which poverty, or the inadequacy of current or future motherhood, mean that abortion is perhaps the best way forward in the interests of those already alive.
I would make abortion more difficult to obtain thereafter, and provide for it only in cases of medical need, rape and acute disability. If we cannot reach that position, which is in line with that of the House of Lords Committee and of our partners in the European Community, we should retain the 1967 Act and honour and respect the mother and her doctor, who should be making these most difficult decisions themselves.
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) for introducing the debate. I am especially grateful for this opportunity to speak because, as the House will doubtless know, I propose to introduce a private Member's Bill to allow us once again to consider the control of late abortions as originally proposed by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), who is not in his place but who explained earlier that he would have to leave.
I should like to explain why--contrary to the views advanced by my hon. Friends the Members for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) and for Bolton, North- East (Mr. Thurnham)--we should not go for a compromise of 24 weeks but instead should reconsider the original Alton Bill, as it came to be known. Whatever our views on abortion, and however sincerely and deeply held are the differing opinions in the House, there is a growing consensus that the Abortion Act 1967 is not working properly and that revision is urgently needed. If any hon. Member had given the descriptions of late abortions that the hon. Member for Mossley Hill gave when the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) introduced his Bill, the cry would not have been, "Same old stuff". In those days, such descriptions would have been unbelievable ; they would have been considered to be scaremongering and distortion of what the future might bring.
Mr. Steel : First, I did not say, "Same old stuff," which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) thought I said. I said, "Same old speech" because my hon. Friend was citing the same figures as he cited during our debates in the last Session. Before I introduced my Bill, I went, at the invitation of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and accompanied by a medical person who was then a Member of this House, to see an abortion operation and I have subsequently seen one in a private clinic. I am in no doubt about the horrors of the operation itself but I do not think that exaggerated and graphic descriptions help the debate. So far as I know, none of the opponents of the Act has seen such an operation. They rely on the television, photographs and the rest. Of course it is a very unpleasant process.
Column 1252performed so late and on fully sentient babies, that the facts are repeated time and time again by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill and others who want the public to be fully aware of what goes on. The majorities against the 1967 Act have grown ever since that Act has been questioned and debated in the House. The last Bill got further than any previous attempt at reform. That is because the vast majority of hon. Members believe that that Act is no longer effective. My hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East and others have said that it is deceitful that people like me, who do not believe in abortion, should bring forward measures to control late abortions. That is like saying that it is not right for a teetotaller to join forces with a moderate drinker to curb alcohol abuse. We do not deny that we are against abortion, but there is common ground with people who do not fully share our views. We are trying to find that common ground and to control the abuses of the 1967 Act. As always, today we have heard the slogan--"a woman's right to choose". I have decided that the Bill that I introduce will be in exactly the form that the Bill of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill left the House. We recognise the limitation of a woman's right to choose. If a woman gives birth to a handicapped child, no matter what terrible distress may be caused to her and the rest of her family, and no matter what suffering may face that child, we would never say that she had a right to choose whether the child continued to live. There is a point at which we recognise that the child's rights are paramount.
If we go back two months into the pregnancy and if, after the 28th week, a woman discovered that she had a severely handicapped child, no matter what distress it would cause to the woman, she does not have the right to choose. At that point, we recognise the baby as a child and as having full civil rights, the most basic of which is the right to life.
If we go back a few weeks more, we enter a grey area. The Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 says that it is illegal to destroy a child that is capable of being born alive. At that point, we start to argue about what is capable of being born alive. We know that it is usually possible to preserve the life of a child born at 24 weeks. If the child is put in an incubator and is given the right intensive care, it will live. Very few abortions are carried out after 24 weeks because the child has a right to live.
The question asked by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill--it is a question on which the House should decide--is whether we have the line right or whether it should be lower. One factor that influenced me in considering a limit of 20 or 22 weeks was the Carlisle baby case. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Amos) wishes to mention that case in some detail as it happened in his regional health authority. The Carlisle baby was not 28 weeks, 24 weeks or 22 weeks--it was 21 weeks and it was born alive. It was not just capable of being born alive--it was alive. We are told that the child lay gasping on a kidney dish for three hours before dying. That means that the child lived. The local coroner was sufficiently convinced of that to recommend an inquest, and the Department was sufficiently convinced of it to believe that the child should be registered.
We have been told that we are raising an emotive issue. We are indeed, and I make no apology for it. That child was not held in her mother's arms for those three hours. She was not put into an incubator while medical science tried to save here. She was not even decently tucked up in
Column 1253a warm cot for the few hours of her little life. She was left on a kidney dish, and her mother did not even know that she was alive. That is emotive, and a society which allows it is a brutalised one. That is why I sincerely believe that the House must have an opportunity to vote on limits of 18 or 20 weeks as well as limits of 22 or 24 weeks.
In a similar vein, although I do not intend to cover it in my Bill, the mover of this motion has introduced embryology. I believe that we are worried not so much about whether the experiments should take place-- although that is a major cause of worry--but how far things will run away from us, how far medical research will escalate and whether the medical profession can be trusted to contain its enthusiasm if we do not obtain early controls. We are worried because of what happened with the Abortion Act 1967. Only a handful of people opposed that Act because they believed that it would be used with great
discrimination. They did not believe that nearly 3 million unborn children would be destroyed. They did not believe that there would be abortions right up to and beyond 24 weeks. People did not seriously believe that that would happen, but it has and we therefore need time to amend what is a very unsatisfactory Act.
Mr. Cash rose --
Miss Widdecombe : No, I shall not give way. That is not because I do not respect my hon. Friend, but I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Amos) wishes to speak about the Carlisle baby.
I believe that we did keep faith with the House when we went into Committee last time, because the Second Reading debate showed that the vast majority of the objections coming from those opposing us were centred on the handicapped baby issue. When we went into Committee, we had a choice. We could take that on board and, in the teeth of our own views--we might not like the amendment that we passed--seek to meet those objections and tell the House that we had met those objections and exempted all severe handicaps, or we could put on some upper limit and take within it all those that were not handicapped. We tried to take into account what was said on Second Reading. I accept that the Second Reading vote was one of principle, but we kept faith with those who were worried. That is why we received the majorities that we did through the Report stage and why I believe that--if we can come back again to the House we shall not need 24 weeks--I am convinced that we shall get a majority for 20 or 22 weeks. If anybody asks me why we should be allowed to vote on those lower limits, I say to them : "Suppose that the Carlisle baby had been your granddaughter or your daughter" That was a baby, not a foetus.
We have a completely dual standard. We have two children of exactly the same age. One is put in an incubator, loved, and all the resources of the Health Service are used to try to save it. The other is wantonly destroyed and dismembered in the mother's womb. We cannot say that one is a baby and the other is a foetus--they are both exactly the same. It is either a baby that we are destroying in the womb or it is the foetus that we have in the incubator.
I have been grateful for the opportunity to put my views.
Column 12541.27 pm
Mr. Alan Amos (Hexham) : I am glad that we have another opportunity to look at the Carlisle baby case, because it is outrageous and appalling. I want to describe the case and put it on the record, because it took place in the Northern regional health authority area in which my constituency is situated, and many of my constituents use Carlisle city general hospital. In so doing, I want to show the House that the existing lax law on abortion needs reform and that even the meagre protection that the existing law is supposed to provide is a sham. As the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) said earlier, he had heard many familiar arguments. We shall continue to hear these familiar arguments until the House resolves the matter by voting on it and until we get answers to all the questions that have been asked unsuccessfully.
I hope that at the end of the debate we shall get an answer as to why the Home Office decided not to hold an inquest into this matter, although the coroner said that there should be one. What criteria were used? I asked the Home Office the question yesterday, and I received a long and detailed answer. I was told :
"The conclusion was reached after careful consideration of all the information provided by the Coroner."
The criteria used remain a secret and it is only because I am so respectful and trustful of the Establishment on this issue that I did not take that answer to be an insult or a cover-up.
Who is protecting whom? The Daily Express this morning said that 3,763 youngsters, some of them 10 and 11, have received abortions. Who is carrying out those abortions? I have already named nine of those doctors, but I will be interested to know who else has carried out such operations. Doubtless we shall get no answers. The information will be unavailable as it is confidential or not held in the required form.
The facts about the Carlisle baby are becoming well known and I am delighted about that. The baby was born at 21 weeks, she was making "gasping movements" and had a pulse rate of 80 beats a minute. That child was alive. The nurses, hardened to the outrage of abortion, then decided to do something about it. The first of many questions that I wish to pose to my hon. and learned Friend is why the registrar refused to go to the ward. Why did he refuse to attend that case, leaving it to an inexperienced houseman? I gather that, shortly after this incident, the registrar moved to Newcastle--lucky Newcastle.
Eventually the baby was placed in a metal dish and put in a side room. Half an hour later the doctor was again called because the baby was alive. One member of staff baptised the girl who lived for three hours in her sorry state. The poor little thing eventually died and was put in an incinerator.
Thus ended the tragically sad and short life of a little girl who had been cruelly neglected. She died in the most dubious and wickedly suspicious circumstances. The third special report of the Select Committee on the Abortion (Amendment) Bill said that no abortions should be carried out after the 20th week of pregnancy
"except in places specifically approved by Secretaries of State where there is appropriate equipment including resuscitation equipment, and staff trained in its use".
Column 1255That recommendation was accepted by the Secretary of State. So, why was a 21 week-old baby aborted in a department where resuscitation equipment was not to hand?
The nurses were extremely distressed and they contacted Father Peter Houghton--incidentally he is the hospital chaplain at a different hospital. The East Cumbria health authority sacked Father Peter Houghton, not because he had done anything wrong, but because he knew the truth and had had the audacity to tell the world. Clearly, that abortion contravened the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 that defines the crime of child destruction as
"the killing of a baby capable of being born alive".
The Carlisle baby was not capable of being born alive ; it was alive.
On what grounds did the DPP fail to bring a case? Why was the child not registered as a live birth? That omission is another clear breach of the law on the registration of births and deaths.
Unfortunately, this rotten saga gets even worse because the mother was not informed that her baby had lived until six months later. She was told then only because the press had printed the story. Why were the details of the birth deliberately withheld from the mother? That question will be asked again and again until an answer is given. I gather that the mother is taking legal action, but I am unsure of the outcome.
What about the grounds for that abortion? The mother was told that there was a 50 : 50 chance that the child would inherit the father's skin disease. That disease is not life-threatening and only a small number of people with the syndrome are diagnosed as sufferers because the symptoms are usually extremely mild. The mother, however, under the clear impression that the child would be severely deformed, decided to have an abortion.
According to the Abortion Act termination can be carried out if there is substantial risk that the child could be seriously handicapped. The abortion was carried out under the terms of that Act. However, no substantial risk was involved. Why was no charge brought against the consultant for carrying out an abortion that was in breach of section 1(1)(b) of the Abortion Act?
Finally, earlier this year the Home Secretary was asked, in view of the baby's having been born alive and having survived for three hours, whether there could be an inquest into its death. That has been refused time and again. On what grounds did the Home Secretary decide that there should be no inquest? The abortion contravened the Infant Life (Preservation) Act and section 1(1)(b) of the Abortion Act and was contrary to all the requirements of the Department of Health that resuscitation equipment should be available. The birth and death were not registered. This is a matter of such major public concern that the whole case should be investigated. Answers barely two lines long are not satisfactory. What were the criteria for refusal? These arguments will not go away. We shall hold these debates time and again. Questions will be asked until we receive answers. I plead with everyone responsible to stop this cover-up and this inbuilt bias which allows abortions on demand. I know of no case of a person who wanted an abortion being refused one. A few doctors carry them out for profit. This is a scandal, and until the House resolves the matter we shall keep returning to it until we have a resolution.
Column 12561.36 pm
Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke) : I am delighted to have an opportunity for the first time to debate abortion on the Floor of the House. I served on the Standing Committee on the Abortion (Amendment) Bill, but was unfortunate in not catching Mr. Speaker's eye in the debates at Second Reading, on Report and at Third Reading. I am concerned about the muddled thinking of the proponents of abortion who oppose this motion. My hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay), who has disappeared since he made his speech, talked much about freedom of choice, a subject on which my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) also touched. Of course, we believe in freedom of choice, but that choice is limited by its effects on other people. No choice is completely unrestrained ; one must examine its implications for other people. With abortion, we are talking about the effects on the unborn child and the rest of the family. None of those who support abortion mentioned that in their speeches today.
I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East did not mention children, except to make a muddled and unworthy attack on those of us who oppose abortion, by suggesting that we were not concerned about protecting children who have been born. We are equally concerned about them ; but we are also concerned about the rights of the unborn child.
I am also worried about abortion's implications in society for those who have been born. It is no accident--the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) touched on this--that child abuse has increased since 1967, because the abortion mentality says that it is all right to abort unborn children. This consumerist attitude to children carries over into attitudes towards the children who have been lucky enough to be born.
I also feel strongly about the misrepresentation of the attitude of those of us who supported the Alton Bill, which runs as follows : we could have had the Bill if we had gone for 24 weeks. That is nonsense. If we had gone for 24 weeks, we should not have saved the lives of the unborn, and the scandal of late abortions would have continued. To suggest that inflexibility or obstructiveness on the part of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill and of those who supported him prevented us from getting the Bill passed is arrant nonsense. We would not have achieved the Bill's objective, which was to reduce the number of late abortions.
Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West) rose--
Mr. Bennett : I would love to give way, but my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) is waiting to speak and there is an agreement, for which I am grateful, between Front Bench spokesmen on both sides to restrict the time of their speeches.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) talked of the fundamentalist approach. I take such an approach and have never made a secret of it. I happen to believe that abortion is morally wrong. I stand by that, but I recognise that I live in a pluralist society. Not everybody agrees with this approach. The majority of hon. Members do not agree with that point of view, but that does not mean that I am not entitled to start from the moral basis of being opposed to abortion and then seeking to find the point at which we can carry the House on the question of abortion. That is
Column 1257what the hon. Member for Mossley Hill sought to do and what my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone will seek to do. We shall seek to find the point at which a majority of hon. Members will support reform of the abortion law.
We should be concerned about where our society is going. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone says, the process of abortion brutalises society. It also brutalises and dehumanises the people who are forced to take part in the operation. It takes away from the staff of the hospitals their human compassion because day in, day out nurses and doctors take part in abortions. I shall describe to the House part of a late abortion operation. I have no doubt that hon. Members who oppose our stand will say that this is emotive. Let us have on the record what we are talking about in a late abortion, the sort of abortions that my hon. Friend the Member for Mossley Hill wishes to restrict. The dilation and evacuation method is as follows. By this method the cervix is dilated and the baby removed piece by piece. No anaesthetic of any kind is administered to the baby. We know that children of that age are capable of feeling pain and are hurt in this process. At this stage of pregnancy, the cervix is described as "green," unready for the dilation that will come naturally at birth. The doctor has to dilate the cervix up to 22 mm while inserting the instrument that is used to dismember the baby. This dismemberment is necessary because the baby has a fully calcified skeleton, is about a foot in length and cannot be removed in one piece. After the abortion a nurse will reassemble the baby's body to make sure that no bits have been left behind in the womb that might cause infection.
That is what goes on in our National Health Service hospitals day after day, week in and week out in late abortions. Nurses, some of them 22 or 23 years of age, are asked to reassemble bits of carefully formed babies on the operating table to make sure that no bits are left inside the mother. I shall quote from an eye-witness account of dilation and evacuation done at 22 weeks in a London hospital. "First came an arm, perfectly formed, a tiny baby's hand, fingers curled. A limb was extracted, then two limbs lay in the bowl. The intestines, brain tissue, liver and lungs came away. Last of all, the most difficult part was the brain. The skin was torn and there was not much more than a skull."
That is done every day in our name in British hospitals. Hon. Members who support abortion think that we should not discuss that and put it on the record. The crux of the debate is about what we are asking our nurses to do. If that does not brutalise the people who have to take part in these operations day in day out I do not know what does.
I should like to draw attention to a couple of other unfortunate facts about which hon. Members who support abortion have been quiet. We have not heard much about multiple abortions. In April, I asked my right hon. Friend the then Minister for Health, now the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, about abortions. He told me that 23,838 residents of the United Kingdom had had a previous abortion. The number of non-residents who had had a previous abortion was 3,042. A further 3,228 had had two previous abortions ; 548 were on their fourth abortion ; 131 were on their fifth abortion and 23 people who went for an abortion had already had five previous abortions.
Column 1258During the debate on the Bill that led to the Abortion Act 1967 some hon. Members told us that abortion would not be used as a means of contraception. Abortion is used time and again by the same women and if that is not contraception I do not know what is.
I should now like to deal with late abortions. We know that no fewer than 92 per cent. are carried out on perfectly healthy children, but time and again we hear nonsense about how late abortions are necessary to save the life of the mother, because the baby is the result of rape or because the child will be handicapped. I am concerned about the victims of rape and incest, but the statistics show that fewer than 100 of more than 170,000 abortions carried out in the early 1970s, when the figures were last published, were of foetuses that were the result of rape or incest. We should be concerned about what is done in our name and about ensuring that this law, which has manifestly failed to operate properly, is repealed. 1.45 pm
Mr. David Amess (Basildon) : It is difficult to follow the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett), but I shall do my best. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr. Watts), and I congratulate him on the motion, which I wholeheartedly support. Unlike me, he cannot be accused of being involved in a papist plot. This is not a party political matter. I suspect that many people in my constituency support me on wider issues while not sharing my view on this one, but I am not prepared to compromise myself on this fundamental issue.
I shall first examine why hon. Members reach the House. I am an avid reader of The House Magazine, and I particularly enjoy the parliamentary profile. It is interesting to learn what it was that encouraged hon. Members to go into politics and become Members of Parliament. Some say they did so because they enjoy being involved in the legislative process. Some are more blunt, and say that they enjoy the concept of power. Some say that it is because they enjoy helping people. At the end of the day, it is about people that we are talking, whether we debate social legislation, education or whatever. As hon. Members, we are all involved in a process that recognises life, and we are all trying to work together to improve our constituents' quality of life. Each and every one of us is saying that life itself is the fundamental.
I was delighted with the frank response that my hon. Friend the Under- Secretary of State for the Home Department gave me yesterday when I asked a question about the Infant Life (Preservation) Act yesterday. I shall not read it out, but he more or less said that the Government thought that the limit should be 24 weeks, although he also said that it would be best to achieve that through a private Member's Bill. Since the Abortion Act 1967, some 2.7 million abortions have been performed. A number of hon. Members have spoken about the small number of women Members of Parliament. We now have 41, which is many more than there were in 1967. In the debates on the 1967 Act arguments about that legislation being taken successfully through a House with fewer women Members than we now have were not raised.
I do not believe in the equality of men and women. I am not a supporter of women's rights. If I were pressed, I would probably say that I believe that women are superior to men. They now outlive us by 10 years, and they take
Column 1259stress and anxiety far better than we do. I have seen my wife deliver three children, and anyone who can go through that experience must be superior to men. I hope that we shall not raise the red herring of the number of women Members in the House when in future, we discuss legislation on this subject. I understand the arguments advanced in favour of abortion, such as the right of women to choose, which my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) mentioned, disability, rape, social problems and backstreet abortions.
My view is that life begins at conception. I am sure that the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) would say that that is a fundamental and pure view and that by voting, for instance, in favour of the Bill that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) advanced in the previous Session I am compromising my principles. The hon. Gentleman was right when he said that politics is the art of the possible. When I arrived in the House, I did not believe that I could change the world. I am happy to work within the system and chip away. That is why I am happy to support the motion and legislation on similar lines. I know that hon. Members who take the opposite view think that this is a conspiracy and that if we get away with 26, 24, 20 or 18 weeks we shall not let the matter rest there. Our opponents feel that at the end of the day we do not want abortion.
I should be content if that which my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) told us earlier were legislated for. It is a nonsense that in special care baby units 24-week-old babies are kept alive on ventilators--my wife is raising money to provide an extra piece of equipment for the special care unit in Basildon hospital--when in the same hospital we allow the abortion of babies of the same age.
I entirely understand the terrible physical and mental ordeal of women who undergo abortions. I have met a number of such women at my surgery and I am unhappy with the level of counselling that some of them have received. There is no follow-up to the traumatic experience. In the previous Parliament I concentrated on the subject of late abortions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Sir B. Hayhoe) answered an Adjournment debate on that subject. He said that guidelines would be given to clinics. That was two years ago and no progress has been made.
Mr. Hind : Does my hon. Friend agree that the strength of feeling on these Benches about late abortions and research on embryos is such that neither we nor the public outside who feel as we do can allow the issue to rest until there is some much needed reform. Such reform would have to allay the worries of the public and meet the needs of medical science.
Mr. Amess : I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that none of my hon. Friends will take offence when I say that Members of Parliament are not modest people. We are all vain, and we display that vanity in different ways. The idea that we are dragged to this place because we attend meetings at which everyone insists that a particular individual should stand as a Member of Parliament is nonsense. I ask the House to show some humility and courage, and not to deny others what we certainly would not deny ourselves. Let us join together and protect the unborn child.
Column 12601.54 pm
Let me first say to the hon. Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) that, although he was fortunate to come first in the ballot, I regret his decision to merge the two distinct issues of pre-embryo research and the Abortion Act 1967 in a single motion. Most of the speeches today have concentrated on either one or the other issue, which shows that they are separate in some people's minds.
Let me also say how sorry I am that yet again the inflammatory language of "abuses" and "killings" has been resorted to both in the motion and in speeches. I hoped that at least one lesson had been learnt from the debate forced on the House earlier this year, that unsubstantiated claims of abuse of the Abortion Act either by the medical profession or by women in need of safe legal abortion add nothing constructive to the debate or, indeed, to the esteem in which the House would like to be held.
I shall deal with the question of reform of the Abortion Act a little later. As I have said, I am sorry that the motion did not cover the issue of pre-embryo research on its own. Many hon. Members, including myself, were shocked and disappointed that the Government did not give time for this important matter when they introduced the Queen's Speech. Although hon. Members' reasons for wanting a decision and legislation differ, and although our views on the outcome are opposed to those of the hon. Member for Slough, I think that we all agree that a decision on the whole question of Warnock and the White Paper is essential to the health, wellbeing and integrity of all concerned--those with sub-fertility problems, those who face the actual or potential threat of hereditary congenital defects, scientists, doctors and all informed and concerned opinion. As the Royal Society has said, since the birth of the world's first test-tube baby Louise Brown over 10 years ago about 10,000 babies have been born successfully, thanks to the techniques of in vitro fertilisation. Thousands of otherwise childless couples have been able to start a family. The procedure of IVF, which has benefited large numbers of infertile couples, was developed only after many years of research on animal and human embryos. Until there was reasonable certainty about its safety and efficacy, IVF could not ethically have been offered as a treatment to an infertile couple, and even now the chance of any one treatment cycle resulting in a child is only 10 to 15 per cent. Further research is therefore essential.
It is of course true that the fundamental principles of human IVF were established with the use of animal models, but different animal species-- including the human--differ from each other in biochemical and developmental details. That means that, however much enormously useful information can be provided by animal models, there will ultimately be a point in the research when the human system must be directly examined. That is why it is necessary that we ensure that there is an opportunity for the research to continue.
We know that it is hard fully to estimate the scale of the problem of infertility. However, it is widely reported and generally accepted that it affects one in six couples in this country, three quarters of whom may benefit from IVF
Column 1261and associated techniques. At present those working in the area know that the relatively low success rate of IVF means that people embarking on the treatment are taking a gamble, with the odds stacked against them. The possibility of improving that rests on continued research, using the human pre-embryo so that ultimately every woman treated will have a realistic chance of becoming pregnant. In the past year I have been fortunate in having been invited to discuss the problems that infertile couples face with two different groups in two different fertility clinics in London--one in Hammersmith and one at St. Bartholomew's hospital. Such people are looking anxiously to Parliament to legislate positively to ensure that the problems and tragedies that they face in their lives can be solved by continued research.
We all know that the development of such techniques is at an early stage, especially in terms of genetic disease. Scientists, clinicians and doctors need the opportunity of research up to 14 days--I entirely accept that limit--to ensure that their diagnostic techniques can continue to progress to the benefit of all. We have all read and heard this week--it has been referred to this morning--about Professor Robert Winston and his pioneering unit at Hammersmith hospital and the work that it is preparing to carry out in the next few days. I heard him speak on the radio this morning and it was thrilling. We must ensure that what was stated in the White Paper, and what the Government propose to do about Warnock, are brought into the House in the form of a Bill. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Slough that the Government should have brought forward a Bill. I have no disagreement with that part of his motion. However, I suspect that when the time comes, we shall vote in different Lobbies about the options in relation to research.
I have my eye on the time and shall deal now with the subject of abortion. In many ways, that issue has occupied a disproportionate amount of time in the debate. I wish to put the Abortion Act 1967 into context. I remind hon. Members that that Act marked a milestone in women's history. There had been years of struggle and campaigning throughout the country before the legislation giving safe, legal National Health Service abortion rights was finally enacted. That Act freed British women from the dangers of illegal back-street abortions and self-induced abortions which, for some, had caused severe illness, subsequent infertility and even death. Between 1952 and 1953--only two years--110 deaths were recorded from abortion, compared with only six between 1983 and 1985. Surely that shows the progress that has been made in terms of women's deaths. It is a substantial and significant decrease and a direct result of the fact that abortion is legislated for and carried out safely and legally.
In answer to a point made by the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine)--I know that he has had to leave--there is no such thing under the Abortion Act as abortion on demand. We do not have abortion on demand in this country. British women have no right in law either to contraception or to abortion. The Act merely makes abortion legal within specified limits, which are entirely at the discretion of doctors. Women are dependent on two doctors agreeing that there are legal grounds for abortion before it can be performed.
Column 1262Some hon. Members may agree with me that a way of ensuring safe, early abortions would be to have some sort of self- referral up to 12 or 14 weeks. Alas, we are not yet at that stage in the House, but still defending the 1967 Act. The law does not require health authorities to provide an abortion service. As a result, the level of provision varies considerably between districts. In some areas 90 per cent. of abortions are carried out on the National Health Service and in others the figure is shamefully less than 10 per cent. That is why the private sector has had to have a role. The private abortion sector developed after the 1967 Act to meet the needs which could not be met by the NHS. I keep abreast of events and I know that private clinics would be only too glad if the NHS had the resources and was allowed to take over the facilities that the clinics have to provide. So please let us not go round accusing the private sector, as hon. Members do so intemperately, of making millions out of women's misery.
The control of fertility is fundamental to women achieving real equality and choice in their lives. The hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) spoke not of equality but of the superiority of women. If women cannot decide freely whether and when to have a child, they are constrained in all the other important decisions of their lives. They cannot decide about personal relationships, the type of job that they want or the size of their families. They cannot decide on participation in a whole range of social and political activities. In many ways, that is why there are so few women in the House. Because women do not have that control over their lives they cannot say, "For this period of my life I shall do that and for that period I shall do such and such." I beg hon. Members to believe that until we accord women dignity and respect, and until we say to them, "You can make the decision--one hopes in conjunction with your partner or husband--about what you will do with your life and the size of your family", women can never achieve genuine equality.
Some have continued to say that the majority of abortions are carried out for what they call social reasons. Others have gone further and renamed the social reasons "trivial reasons". I do not regard the reasons of the majority of women having an abortion as trivial. They think carefully about it. Some are mothers, and both their families' and their own futures are involved. They have to make difficult, complicated and sometimes unpleasant decisions, so let us not look at them with disrespect but accord them some dignity in their decisionmaking. Let us not trivialise this difficult subject. Women do not want an abortion if they can avoid it, but there are many reasons why it may be necessary. Slip-ups occur and difficulties are created which are not always of their own making. For Conservative Members who support the totality of the motion, which I do not, to suggest that women are trivial is to demean women's dignity. I do not believe that they are trivial, so I hope that the motion will fall. Once again, we have aired the argument about abortion--linked, unfortunately, with the issue of research. I hope that the research question will at some stage be resolved. For the time being, we should leave the Abortion Act 1967 as it is. 2.10 pm
Column 1263my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) in winning the opportunity to bring this motion forward. As a relative newcomer to this issue, my learning curve has been raised by several notches thanks to the detail with which the issue has been considered today. I congratulate those who have taken part in the debate on the way in which it has been conducted.
The conduct of the debate reflected a deep awareness on both sides of the argument. The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) who sponsored the Abortion Act 1967 participated in the debate as did his hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton). I am glad that cordial relations have been resumed and that they are now sitting together on the same Bench. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill made a valiant attempt to change the 1967 Act last Session. We also heard contributions today from several of my hon. Friends. I know that some hon. Members have formidable family experiences of matters that are central to this issue. One of my colleagues had the enormously distressing experience of seeing two children die of a severe degenerative condition. Another of my colleagues has adopted a severely handicapped child. Therefore, it is with some diffidence that I seek to respond to the debate. Time is limited and I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Slough an opportunity to reply. If I miss any points, I trust that I shall be reminded of them and brought to account later. Life has a funny way of treating us. I first became a friend of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough when I assisted him in selling banana lollies to the unsuspecting population of Hayes as a holiday job. Little did we think then that we would find ourselves here 21 years later debating such important topics. Certainly our customers could have had no such inkling. I shall deal first with some of the points that arose about the Warnock report and the Government's intentions on legislation. I will then consider abortion. A number of hon. Members raised the important matter of new legislation. We stand completely by the stated intention of legislation during this Parliament. We intend to do so and we have taken some comfort from the fact that, following the publication of the White Paper in November 1987, the debate last February and some of the points raised today, there is a basis on which to proceed. There is a clear recognition on both sides of the question of the need for a framework within which such research and development as is permitted can be taken forward. There is also recognition that the House will have to nerve itself to make a central decision. Leaving on one side the work to deal with the problems of infertility, the House must decide whether further research should be permitted on an embryo up to the age of 14 days. We stand by our proposal that, when the Bill is presented in due course, alternative clauses should be presented, which would permit the House to make its decision on what should be within the law and what should be within the scope of the statutory licensing authority.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay), whose courage and vigour on these issues I admire--I say that sincerely--has challenged whether that is a sensible course to adopt. My reply is that there is no other principled basis on which we could proceed. At heart, it is for hon. Members to decide on the basis of individual conscience at what point the work of embryos should not be permitted. The Government are not
Column 1264abdicating responsibility in offering the House, as we propose to do, a clear choice. A framework will be established, which the Government and the House believe is important and necessary, because it will have the effect of bringing under regulation matters that cannot merely be left to develop haphazardly and which are already being examined carefully through the work of the Voluntary Licensing Authority. That has been commended by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) and others and I shall deal briefly with its work in a moment.
Mr. Wigley : I am grateful to the Minister for his earlier remarks. Can the Minister tell the House whether, as we all accept the validity of having a free vote on an issue that crosses party lines and see why such a vote might be facilitated by having alternative clauses presented by the Government, his Department will give its opinion on the best way forward, as it has responsibility for these matters?
Mr. Mellor : As I understand it--and I am sure that hon. Members whose experience is greater than mine will correct me if I am wrong--my predecessors have never hesitated to give their personal opinion on the question of research. I must say that I am impressed by the quality of some of the research that is being carried out and, plainly, it would be part of the Department's duty to give such assistance as it could on the factual basis of that research and its aims, rather in the way that Home Secretaries have to set out some of the factual background to the decision on capital punishment, although the decision is left to individual choice. The Home Secretary makes his views clear as well. That is part and parcel of being a Minister because a Minister does not lose the right to his or her individual conscience on such issues.
I want to deal briefly with the Voluntary Licensing Authority. It has functioned well and I thank those who serve on it for demonstrating the highest standards of public service and integrity. It has shown clearly, in a practical way, that the statutory licensing authority, with which we intend to replace it in time, could work well and make difficult decisions. Although the Medical Research Council and others have been able to support the work of the Voluntary Licensing Authority from public funds, the authority has recently made an application for further financial help. I am glad to be able to announce today that the Government have agreed to contribute to the authority's costs in the next financial year a sum in the region of £45,000, to assist it in carrying out its important work.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East not only raised the question of the benefits of research but sought re-confirmation of the fact that no genetic engineering would be permitted. I am happy to be able to confirm that. Whatever else may or may not be agreed to, that will not be.
Mr. Mellor : I hope that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) can contain himself. The debate has been serious. I am anxious to treat it seriously and to give answers to some of those who have spoken. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not propose to disrupt this debate to make a cheap and facile point. I, myself, shall speak for no more than a further five minutes to make way for others.
Column 1265Let me deal with the question of abortion. All of us know how difficult it has proved in recent years for the House to agree whether the 1967 Act needs changing. I am afraid that I cannot say anything today that is different from what has been said by my predecessors and others on a number of occasions. We continue to regard abortion as a matter for private Member's business, and to believe that it would not be appropriate for the Government in any way to seek to take over the responsibility.
We also stand by the decision that we have always reached in these difficult matters that no private Members' legislation should be given Government time. The House will fully understand our difficulty. Where does one draw the line? While abortion for example, is a very important topic, there are many other important topics. I recognise the difficulties of introducing private Member's legislation when there is a significant body of opinion against it, but I nevertheless feel that we would depart from that view at our peril.
My hon. Friend the member for Slough drew an analogy between the proposals post-Warnock and the abortion proposals. In effect, he asked, "Why should not a range of choices be offered within the framework of a Government Bill?" That argument was advanced skilfully by my hon. Friend and by others but, with respect, I believe that the two matters are different in kind. In the case of abortion a well-established procedure has been accepted in the house for several decades. With the follow-up to Warnock, on the other hand, we are dealing with the way in which the frontiers of science have been pushed back to permit a range of potential experiments that we would not have dreamt possible a few years ago. Such matters have at their heart questions of conscience, but they are also matters on which the Government should be expected to move forward. They are different in kind from the abortion issue, on which tradition is entirely different.