Column 262tests were clear. But her blood pressure became raised at 27 weeks. It was then discovered, after exhaustive testing, that the foetus had severe spina bifida, urino-genital problems, a deformed rib cage, small lungs and numerous other problems. Seven doctors were involved in the diagnoses in that one day, and the following day she had an abortion.
I should not dream of casting a moral judgment on the painful choice that Meriel had to make and of saying that such an abortion was so morally wrong that it should be made a criminal offence. Nor would I dream of casting a moral judgment against a woman who is against abortion and decides that she will carry on with the pregnancy, despite knowing that the child will be born with a severe handicap. It must be for those women themselves to make that choice, and whatever choice they make, they deserve our compassion and our full support, not empty moral judgments from a distance.
If hon. Members share my view that there must be a choice for women such as Meriel and the other two cases that I have mentioned, they should vote for limits that are no more restrictive than the combination of the new clause and amendments, which together would give us the result that the House of Lords so recently supported in Lord Houghton's Bill, which commands wide support within the medical profession and, I believe, is anchored in public opinion. Lord Houghton's Bill implements the unanimous recommendations of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929. It lays down a time limit of 24 weeks. After that, abortion would not be legal as it is now up to 28 weeks, except that the Houghton Bill allows that, after 24 weeks a pregnancy may be lawfully terminated, if there is a risk to the life of the pregnant woman, or if two doctors believe that it is essential to prevent serious damage to the woman's health, or on the grounds of a substantial risk of such foetal abnormality as to involve serious handicap.
I should have thought that that could command a broad consensus. That formula is most nearly achieved by amending new clause 4 with amendments (b), (f), (i), (k), (m) and (q). I apologise for the publication of that list, but as hon. Members have said, it was not our choice that this procedure has been chosen.
The time limit of 24 weeks was not arrived at arbitrarily. When deciding on an abortion, doctors err on the side of caution and, in practice, a 24-week limit would mean something like a 22-week limit or even a 20-week limit. Medical opinion--and the view of the Department of Health--is that the chances of survival at 22 weeks are negligible. The presumption is that the foetus is not viable at 22 weeks, so a 24-week time limit would effectively be a 22-week time limit, at which, I repeat, medical opinion is agreed that the foetus is not viable. For the future, doctors believe that they can increase the chances of survival for babies after 24 weeks, but because of the insufficiency of development, they do not expect to be able to keep babies born at 22 weeks alive in the foreseeable future.
Making the time limit more restrictive than the present law or than Houghton would have another sad effect. It would increase the number of abortions on the grounds of foetal abnormality, because screening can show different things at different stages of the pregnancy. A blood test at 16 weeks can suggest the probability of an abnormality, but the doctors will advise the woman to hang on for a few further weeks because the child might be all right and a further conclusive test can then be carried out--
Column 263Miss Widdecombe rose--
Ms. Harman : Let me just finish this point about diagnostic tests. The woman is then able--this is a regular occurrence--to continue with the pregnancy knowing that, if her worst fears are realised and there is a serious abnormality, she can still have the pregnancy terminated. If the possibility of a later abortion is taken away--as it would be, for example, under amendment (j), which I know that the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) will support--the chances are that that woman will seek an abortion earlier than she otherwise would.
Miss Widdecombe rose--
Those who seek to cut the time limit to below 24 weeks for foetal abnormality will, paradoxically, have brought about a situation in which many more, possibly normal, pregnancies are terminated. There has been vociferous lobbying on the matter, but I believe that public opinion is clear. Four out of five people are against reducing the time limit below 24 weeks. Most Members of Parliament have never found themselves, as a teenager, lonely, afraid and pregnant. Most hon. Members have never had a pregnancy which, if they carried it on, would threaten them with a brain haemorrhage, blindness or a nervous breakdown. Most hon. Members have never faced the prospect that every woman dreads, that there is something terribly wrong with their baby. But there are women in this country who face that dilemma and will face it in future. Hon. Members must not vote that women who are in a position that they hope never to be in themselves, should lose the choice of having that pregnancy terminated.
Mr. Kenneth Clarke : I begin by agreeing with the hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman) on the general point with which she started. The first thing that we should all agree on in the Committee is that we should do everything possible to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies and late abortions and get to the root cause of the problem by making sure that as full and comprehensive as possible a range of family planning services, sex education and aid and support is available through the National Health Service so as to minimise the number of potential tragedies that all cases of abortion represent.
This is not the occasion for me to debate the comments of the hon. Member for Peckham about the changes taking place in the Health Service. However, I begin by making it clear that there is no difference of principle between us. The NHS provides free family planning services. About4 million patients per year take advantage of those services. Certainly, the services are changing, but all our guidance makes it clear that we expect the health authorities to continue to provide a full range of service and a balanced service. The service is bound to change over the years--above all, I hope, because it must reflect the preferences of women and whether they wish to obtain that service from their general practitioner or family planning clinic.
We know that there is sometimes much local controversy when changes to the pattern of family planning clinics are proposed, but those changes should
Column 264never be made purely on financial grounds. Sometimes they can be made on the basis of changes in patients' choice and the best use of resources. It is only since the 1970s that GPs have provided free family planning services. Now the majority go to their GP rather than to their clinic. It is inevitable that that gives rise to changes in some parts of the country.
For probably the only occasion in my speech, I must touch on the usual allegations that the hon. Member for Peckham made about a cash crisis, cuts in clinics, and so on. The cost to the NHS of family planning services was £33 million when we took over and £84 million for 1987-88, the last year for which we have figures.
The debate is not about family planning services, particularly as there is no difference of policy between the Opposition and the Government. It is about the Abortion Act 1967, whether the time has come to revise it and, if so, how. I arrived in the House just a year or two too late to vote for the 1967 Act. Ever since I have been a Member of Parliament, I have been an open and strong supporter of the Act. In my opinion, that Act was one of the more civilised and liberalising measures of the past few years and has made a profound change to our society which on balance has been beneficial. I am sorry that an urgent appointment stopped me from listening to the speech of the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel), but I have heard a summary of what he said. He went back to the underlying policy of the 1967 Act and no doubt repeated arguments with which, over the years, I have usually agreed whenever he has expounded the underlying philosophy of the 1967 Act.
In the past I have taken part in debates and voted in Divisions on abortion, and I have consistently been against the repeated attempts of many members of the pro-life lobby in the Committee to make changes to that Act. I remember voting against the Bill of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) and voting with many hon. Members on both sides of the Committee who have spoken against the spirit of that measure today.
The reason why we are voting on abortion today, despite the history with which we are all familiar, is that a change has taken place in the past year or two. Hon. Members who have always fundamentally opposed the 1967 Act clearly wish to keep returning to it. However, in recent years many supporters of the 1967 Act have felt that the time has come to make some changes to the law. In particular, there has been growing uncertainty about whether the time limits are wholly satisfactory.
I listened with care to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), but I am afraid that I do not always agree with her underlying philosophy, as she well knows. However, she is right about the unsatisfactory nature of the law and the relationship between the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 and the Abortion Act 1967. It is time to review the present time limit in the 1929 Act and the House has been trying to do that. I think that for some years all hon. Members have wanted to change it, regardless of their views on the underlying Act.
Certainly it has been a serious matter ever since 1985, when the working party of the Royal College said that in practice 24 weeks was a much better guide which doctors should use when considering whether a baby could be born alive. I was the Minister of Health who introduced the
Column 265arrangement which made it clear to private clinics licensed for late abortions that we would probably not renew licences if they persisted with them after 24 weeks. That is why the few operations after that date have been carried out in National Health Service hospitals.
For a long time many of us have waited for a Warnock Bill and an attempt to tackle the subject of embryo research. I must confess that in contemplating the Bill I was not instinctively attracted to the idea of debating the abortion law at the same time as discussing the introduction of law on embryo research. Even in the past month or two I have genuinely changed my mind, and today's debate has confirmed that. These subjects are so closely related that this is a suitable opportunity for the House to have a day at the end of which it can come to a conclusion, which should last a long time, on the time limits and future operation of the 1967 Act and its relationship with the Infant Life (Preservation) Act.
My right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House and I have tried to provide the best framework for a judgment to be reached on what is inevitably an extremely complex series of interrelated aspects of time limits for abortion. It is futile, particularly for the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) with whom I broadly agree on the underlying subject, to make all these attacks on the way in which we have devised the procedure.
It would have been difficult to start with Houghton because it is an extremely liberalising measure. It does not start down the middle of the strongly held passions that we have heard. It is more difficult to devise the range of options on both sides which hon. Members can use to construct their preferred solution if we start with Houghton rather than my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House's new clause and all the amendments. If hon. Members follow the debate and the guides to voting, and contemplate their personal positions seriously, as we all will, the Government have provided a perfectly adequate and probably overdue opportunity for us to exercise our undoubted duty to make our best judgment according to our own conscience on the matter.
We are not debating or voting on the policy of having legalised abortion under the 1967 Act-- [Interruption.] it seems that some people are-- not surprisingly, people do not leave their views behind. During the debate we have heard impassioned views from one side and the other--my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine), my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) on one side of the argument, and my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman), who probably made the most dramatic intervention, from the other. I do not agree with the position taken at either end of the argument. I am probably not the only hon. Member who on Saturday found my surgery being lobbied by two groups--the Socialist Workers party outside with a tannoy attacking Tory attempts to restrict a woman's right to choose, and the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children inside, presenting me with an embryo and demanding that we reduce the limit to 18 weeks.
My judgments are my own. I propose to make a complex series of judgments when voting for and against the various amendments. I shall not vote against my conscience and my judgments are not totally determined by what the majority of my constituents think. As it happens, I believe that the majority of my constituents
Column 266--pleasant, provincial, rural and suburban people in
Nottinghamshire--share my view. I believe that the vast majority believe that the present law is about right except that the time scales are wrong and need to be revised, and that we need to take some notice of the royal colleges' opinions. In a simple way, that represents the way in which I shall vote, although people will appreciate that the issues are more complex.
We are talking about late abortions and the time limit which should apply to the limited number of such abortions. How restrictive should we be in the generality of cases? What exceptions should we make to that restriction for what have been described as the hard cases where grave permanent injury might result to the mother should the pregnancy continue, severe foetal abnormalities are present, and so on. If we do not go too far in making change and if we keep close to the consensus of medical opinion, we shall improve the 1967 Act. Some argue that there is no need for change and that, despite the working group and the opinion of the royal colleges, everything is all right as it is. Those who believe that can take a simple step by voting against new clause 4 being read a Second time. If they are successful, everything will remain as it is in England and Scotland regarding the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 and the Abortion Act 1967.
If new clause 4 is passed, it is important to note the change that it will make to the law as it introduces time limits into the 1967 Act for the first time. Those new time limits for various purposes will exist alongside the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, which will continue with the rebuttable presumptions either way, unless amended, at the 28-week stage.
Attendance in the Chamber is now reaching its peak and hon. Members will want to know how to vote correctly during the next couple of hours. I trust that as many as possible will remain, as the final Division will be the clause stand part vote on whatever the House has decided.
In the three minutes remaining, I shall not add to the information given. Lest people outside argue that whatever view is decided was reached in ignorance, hon. Members should ensure that they have their copy of the explanatory note from my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House setting out what all the amendments mean. [Interruption.] For those who cannot understand it and, like me, believe that as a response to a request for an idiot's guide it did not quite fit the bill, the Government Whips Office will make available for the convenience of all hon. Members, regardless of views, a one-page document which simplifies the issues. It will be made available on application to my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight). If used in conjunction with detailed, careful reference to the guide issued by my right hon. and learned Friend the Leader of the House, that document will explain clearly what every vote is about.
The opening speech of my hon. Friend the Minister for Health is also available and she set all the issues extremely carefully. People outside should also know that my hon. Friends the Members for Maidstone and Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) produced their own guides for those who share their respective opinions. We can therefore begin on the process of settling the matter for some time.
The starting point of new clause 4, which I expect to be carried if the majority believe that the present law requires
Column 267some change--there can be no change unless it is carried--is a 24-week limit for the most important grounds upon which legal abortions are permitted. I want to see a 24-week solution because I am persuaded by the opinion of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists that that is the best limit to which to move now and I know that the royal college holds that view strongly. Those who believe that will vote against the succeeding five amendments from (a) to (e), but the amendments are perfectly clear as to the alternative limits that they would substitute if people do not want 24 weeks. A clear look will show that there are higher limits to cover most other eventualities.
I hope that amendment (q) will be carried and that the Infant Life (Preservation) Act is not left standing alongside the Abortion Act. To have two sets of time limits would be confusing in practice. I therefore hope that there will be a single test, with the Infant Life (Preservation) Act applying only to non-Abortion Act cases. We have had an adequate debate, with expressions of passion and desire, to settle the matter so that the public know that Parliament has given an up-to-date opinion as to what the law on this sensitive matter should be. I hope that in the next hour or two we can resolve the matter and live up to the high standards of debate that have prevailed for the past eight hours.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time :
The Committee divided : Ayes 409, Noes 152.
Division No. 168] [11 pm
Alison, Rt Hon Michael
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)
Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)
Baker, Rt Hon K. (Mole Valley)
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)
Banks, Robert (Harrogate)
Beith, A. J.
Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)
Bevan, David Gilroy
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Body, Sir Richard
Bonsor, Sir Nicholas
Boscawen, Hon Robert
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia
Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n)
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)
Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard
Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)
Browne, John (Winchester)
Bruce, Ian (Dorset South)
Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon Alick
Buck, Sir Antony
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Carlisle, John, (Luton N)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)
Channon, Rt Hon Paul