Column 236her Tory friends in the coming elections she may help them stir up some fervour for their candidate, who will nevertheless lose his deposit. However, I am sure that we will welcome her to Portadown in the near future : she campaigned there in the previous European election against my Unionist colleague and myself. She did not do too well, but that is a story for another day.
We need to dwell on one question for a while tonight : should the life of the babe in the womb, at whatever stage, be protected, safeguarded and preserved? Or should it be destroyed--at times wantonly and ruthlessly? It is not enough for people to say that they do not like descriptions of what happens during an abortion ; such descriptions are based on well- established facts. The most telling point that I have heard in this debate was made by the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), who pioneers this issue with great zeal. She said that if the baby was outside the mother's womb--say, in an incubator--and a member of the general public or of the medical profession came along and deliberately slaughtered it, such a person would be in breach of the law and would be tried for murder. Yet because the child is inside the mother's womb, we are asked to legislate tonight so that it can be slaughtered. All of us, no matter what our views, should think seriously about that.
A mother can make a decision. A woman can speak. She makes a choice about the sexual act that may bring about conception. She makes a further choice of whether to conceive a child, and so on, but the child itself has no choice. We are speaking about a child who feels, who can recognise its mother's voice, who can know pain and who is a member of the human family and has been given the unique gift of human life. We cannot get away from that. We might like to, but we should consider it seriously.
Who will plead the case of the child? That relates to the reason why some people misjudge the passion of those who feel strongly about the life of the child. They feel so because it cannot speak or make its own ideas known. Today, the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) spoke of 3,000 women who wanted to put forward their views but were unable to come to Parliament and vote on the issue, but they could lobby their Members of Parliament and put forward their views in that way. Who will lobby for the child? Tonight we should listen to the plea of those who cannot make a plea and hear the voice of those who cannot speak. No matter how we vote at the end of the debate we should all realise that we are on solemn ground.
Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley) : Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the only significant piece of medical research, done over a 21-year period in Aberdeen by the Medical Research Council, to have looked at the experience of women who had unwanted pregnancies? It discovered that a considerable proportion of the children born to mothers who did not want the pregnancies subsequently became battered children. Is not the hon. Gentleman concerned about those children, as he protests about the rights of the child?
Rev. Ian Paisley : Of course I am. Having been a minister of religion for 40 years in a very large parish with hundreds of families, I certainly know about all such tragedies. One cannot be a pastor in a large city and not know what human nature is. I certainly feel as much for such children as I do for the unborn child. It has been
Column 237forcefully argued that the children who are being aborted are largely those of married women who cannot face the prospect of another member in the family, but I notice different statistics in a document from the Library, dated 19 January 1988, which deals with research into abortion. It says :
"74 per cent. of abortions after 18 weeks are on single women, disproving the argument that many are on women who cannot face the prospect of another birth."
We must take that into account. I assure the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) that I am concerned.
The former leader of the Liberal party, the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) said that many people did not care about back-street abortions. In my early days, all the Churches campaigned vigorously against such abortions. No one who is against legal abortion in the sense of trying to limit the number of abortions and deal with the matter of weeks and so on, could be accused of being in favour of back-street abortions. Such abortions were horrible, a curse on society. It is wrong to say that the Churches and other organisations closed their eyes to them. It may have been so in Scotland, where the right hon. Gentleman comes from, but it was not true in Northern Ireland.
Mr. Flannery : The hon. Gentleman is putting his view forcefully and honourably. Does he agree that if legal abortion is made more difficult, back-street abortions will flourish? That is the harsh reality that we have to face. Some hon. Members who are in the Chamber will not admit that they are totally against abortion, and they are the merchants who would create back-street abortions and bring them up to the level that we had in the Victorian era. That is what they are after.
Rev. Ian Paisley : I do not accept that everybody in the Chamber who will vote for a reduction in the number of weeks wants to see a return to back-street abortions. That is a blanket condemnation of decent people.
Rev. Ian Paisley : Why did it happen? I agree with Opposition Members who said that the men responsible should not have been dealt with in the way that they were. In Victorian society a man could have been a leech or a rascal, but he could move in the highest society and nobody pointed the finger at him. It was the poor woman who had to bear the brunt of his sexual appetite. I utterly condemn that, as did all the Churches. It should not be thought that the Churches closed their eyes to that.
Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber) : The hon. Gentleman has wide experience as a minister in Northern Ireland and must know about many of these cases. He must also know that simply preventing things, making them illegal, is likely to make the situation worse, not better, because people will find some way around the law. That will mean looking for back-street abortionists. The present proposition simply seeks to deal with something that it is impossible to prevent, and seeks to do that in a decent, legal and reasonable fashion.
Rev. Ian Paisley : That depends on how the House votes, and the hon. Gentleman'a vote is a matter for him. I was answering a point made by his former leader and colleague, and if he reads Hansard he will understand that. I resent the picture being painted of some hon. Members closing their eyes to back-street abortions.
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I have experience of people who have had abortions and it has not been the answer to their problems. I know of a young man and woman in a common-law marriage. The woman became pregnant and they came to me. She said that she wanted to have an abortion. I said, "I would not advise it, but you have to make your own decision. I am totally opposed to it. You know my view." She went ahead and had the abortion and the physical impact shattered her completely. Her common-law husband had a complete breakdown and committed suicide, and that young woman has been under constant pastoral and medical care ever since. It was not the answer in her case, and we should never pretend to anybody that abortion is an answer.
I agree with the many hon. Members who have said that the present law on abortion removed from people's minds the seriousness of what they were doing when they were going for abortions. I assure hon. Ladies in the Opposition that I did not vote for cuts in the Health Service. We need better health facilities, and more money needs to be spent in that area. There is a voice that should be loud in our ears and it utters a cry for protection. It says, "Let me live." I should like to take the part of those who say that.
The Bible is the most ancient of all books and I am old fashioned enough to believe that it is the Word of God. That will come as no surprise to any hon. Member. The book of Psalms is part of the Hebrew scriptures and therefore covers Judaism and Christianity. The Psalmist said :
"I will praise thee ; for I am fearfully and wonderfully made : marvellous are thy works ; and that my soul knoweth right well. My substance was not hid from thee, when I was made in secret, and curiously wrought in the lowest parts of the earth. Thine eyes did see my substance, yet being unperfect ; and in thy book all my members were written, which in continuance were fashioned, when as yet there was none of them."
That is the most beautiful description of life and the sacredness of human life. That is why I plead with hon. Members not to take upon themselves the destruction of God's handiwork. We should not take it upon ourselves to terminate that God-breathed vitality, nor should we lift our hand against the continuance of that special sanctity. Clearly, there are circumstances when physical and health problems must be considered. That has always been the traditional view of the Protestant Church. I emphasise the priority of the mother whose life must come first in all circumstances. In ordinary physical circumstances, when a proper and normal birth can take place, it should take place.
Scores of families in my parish would love to have children. As the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) knows, many families in Northern Ireland cannot adopt children because of the proscriptions and the scarcity of children. I have been to Romania and tried to get some children there to Northern Ireland. Scores of families would love to take unwanted children.
Ms. Gordon : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that more than half the children born with handicaps have to live out their lives in institutions and that there are no happy homes waiting for them? I wish that there were. It is not always the people who call themselves pro-life who are the first to come forward to help handicapped people and handicapped children.
Rev. Ian Paisley : I have some handicapped children in my parish and they are happy because they have love, comfort and dedication. I have often said that the best can be brought of a father and mother who have a handicapped child. However, I should not like anyone to think that those who take my view would close their eyes to other important matters. It is essential that consideration is given to all matters when it is known that a child will be very seriously handicapped. Of course there is some division on that, but I take the same view on incest and rape. I may differ from some of my colleagues on those issues, but I feel strongly about them.
The number of weeks is important. How will we decide where to set the limit? The Father of the House made an important point when he said that the Government new clause suggesting 24 weeks does nothing. Those who are somewhat worked up about the new clause need not be so because it does nothing. It will not reduce the number of children who will be slaughtered in their mothers' wombs. There is a case for setting the limit at 18 or 20 weeks.
The hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) said that the only reason why a mother was offered a funeral service for her 20-week child was to soothe her feelings. It is a terrible indictment upon any Christian minister who would soothe a mother with a lie. The law recognises that child as a human being. It should not be simply dismissed as though the Church was prepared to join in some falsehood to cover up what had happened. The solace given to a mother in those circumstances must be genuine. It is not speech that calms a person--it is the pressure of a hand, the silent tear, the communication of deep feelings when one weeps with that person in his or her hardship.
I should not want anyone to think that the majority of ministers, of whatever Church, would carry on some farce over a body that was 20 weeks old just to give some false comfort to the parent. That view should not be put forward as a genuine point in any debate on this important subject.
We need seriously to consider the amendments suggesting 18 weeks and 20 weeks. I should prefer 18 weeks. The Committee will decide. We have been told tonight that some of the pro-life supporters will come back to the House time and again. That is their democratic right. The hon. Member for Billericay said that women would not abide whatever limit we set. Although we must bow to what the House decides, after the Divisions everyone is still entitled to continue to campaign for his point of view. If people can get some other House of Parliament to agree with them, that is their right. That is democracy. Surely I have the support of both sides of the House in that.
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South) : As a mere man, I am happy to be called, because I also represent women. People may say that men are making their opinions heard in the House, but they should recognise that many of those who lobby us either for or against any issue, and especially this issue, are women.
We have been lobbied at various levels. One interesting suggestion was that I should not vote tonight unless the Abortion Act 1967 is extended to Northern Ireland. I wonder whether that would be applicable to English and Welsh Members who deal with Northern Ireland issues although they do not live there. Does it, perhaps, reflect the fact that this House should not be making laws for
Column 240Northern Ireland unless we are given the same rights of citizenship and representation as the remainder of the country? There are those who would even seek to limit further our representative capacity in this House. Tonight, we are representing part of this nation. We have been lobbied by people from throughout the country, both for and against the issue. I shall seek to make my comments accordingly. I was amused by the revelation of historical perspective of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). Perhaps she appeared as a libertarian or an Amazon in her presentation tonight, but the harsh reality was her quotation from a father of the early Church. He was a medievalist, and certainly could not have been a father of the Church. I regret the fact that she extended her background into the debate without giving due consideration to the arguments--
Mr. Mallon : I found the remarks of the hon. Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) disturbing and confusing, especially as she referred to the north of Ireland and to one specific religious denomination. The hon. Gentleman has a vast knowledge of the people of the north of Ireland. Does he agree that neither he nor the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) could in any way be described as misogynistic, medievalist, Jesuitical Catholics?
Rev. Martin Smyth : I said that I regretted the fact that the hon. Member for Billericay transferred some of her background into the debate and completely misrepresented the issues. Perhaps we are misogynists--it depends on how we are viewed. Hon. Members tonight have referred to extremists. I was always taught that there were various extremes, so we must decide where we stand when calling someone else an extremist.
Ms. Short : There is no doubt when one looks at writings from the days of the early fathers of the Church that some of them are horrendous in its hatred of women, and rejection of their sexuality and any rights. That is all pre-reformation and forms part of the origins of the hon. Member's Church, as of the Catholic Church. It is part of the ancestry of the hon. Gentleman's religion and it does inform part of its Christian tradition.
Rev. Martin Smyth : We are being asked to have a theological discussion, as the hon. Member for Billericay desired. The harsh reality is that some politicians in the House put forward their own position, and I pray to God that their position, whatever the subject matter may be, may never be immediately extended and attributed to the rest of us.
There are those in the early Church who, for their own reasons, took a particular line, but the line described tonight was certainly not one taken by the early fathers. I have no hesitation in welcoming a tradition that goes right back, particularly to those who turned to the scriptures and sought to order their lives. Calvin was one of the best quoters of the early fathers, and he did not allow himself to be misled.
One issue that has not been considered carefully enough is that, for whatever reason, pregnant women may be in a traumatic state, so that, when a medical adviser suggests that an abortion might be wise, the woman's thoughts immediately turn down that road.
Column 241Yesterday, the hon. Member for Greenwich (Mrs. Barnes) said that she had had to decide whether to go through with a pregnancy, having been advised that the child might be deformed. In the end, thank God, there was little deformity. In my pastoral experience, I have had similar experiences.
I am not, as some may be, an absolutist on abortion, but I have always found it difficult to counsel the taking of life. Therefore, I have had to consider the issues with those whom I have counselled, and stand by them. I can think of several who have decided to have an abortion and others who have decided to allow their pregnancies to go full term and, thankfully, they have never looked back, although I do not say that life has been easy for them.
I think of one young nurse who returned to Belfast from England for her confinement about a year ago, having been told that her unborn child might be deformed. She was advised to have an abortion, but she chose not to and she now has a delightful little girl, who was named Joy because of the joy that she brought to the family. Thank God again that, despite the prognosis of medical science, the handicap was not as severe as had been suggested.
That is why we must ask questions. Even with the advance of medical science, doctors, like the rest of us, make mistakes. It is not right to say that if, for example, there is a severe handicap, an abortion must automatically be considered. Therefore, I support the lowering of the time limit within which an abortion must be carried out. It is 23 years since the 1967 Act., and 61 years since the 1929 Act. Despite the fears that some hon. Members have expressed tonight, that the matter will be brought up again next year and the year after, I suspect that it will be another 20 years before we have a debate of this nature in the House again. The way of politics is such that it is unlikely that we shall have another opportunity to come to a decision on such an issue in an open debate with a free vote.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Does the hon. Gentleman agree that medical techniques are advancing so rapidly that, long before 20 years is up, we shall regard a termination within 20 weeks as ludicrous? By that time, medical techniques will be so good that a foetus will be viable much earlier than that.
Rev. Martin Smyth : I accept the hon. Lady's argument. It is the very one that I was about to come to. But no matter how fast medical science advances, I cannot imagine, with my limited knowledge of the House after eight years, that it will move with any speed to deal with the issue.
There have been advances in medical science over the past 20 years, and the House has been presented with opportunity after opportunity in the form of private Members' Bills to take them into account--but abuse of our procedures has made it impossible to do so. That is why I doubt that we shall have another opportunity to debate the matter for 20 years. I take the hon. Lady's point.
It would be wrong to let the limit remain at 24 weeks. We should look ahead and adopt the limit defined by the judge--who interprets the laws that we make--who said that life is viable after 18 weeks. The Committee now has an opportunity to go down that road.
Column 242the stages of the embryo, separate from man or woman, does the hon. Gentleman think that that would be acceptable?
Rev. Martin Smyth : I was not making any such proposition. The hon. Lady has been long enough in politics to know that one should never answer a hypothetical question. I was speaking of a recent decision and of the prospects for medical science, and asking the Committee to consider carefully before making a decision to leave the limit at 24 weeks. I believe that it should be reduced to 20 weeks, and preferably to 18 weeks.
Part of the difficulty stems from the climate in society. The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) compared the attitude in Scotland with that in England and Wales. There is in Scottish common law a prohibition on killing. I wonder to what degree that has influenced the opinions held in Scotland. It was pointed out by the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran) that there have been fewer abortions in Scotland than in England and Wales since the 1967 Act. Perhaps that is a consequence of the attitudes that have grown from the 1967 Act rather than because of the Act itself. I refer to the attitude that human life is cheap, with the consequence that decisions are taken to dispose of a baby before thinking through all the consequences.
One is talking not just of the woman's choice--and one must remember that the foetus might be female. At times, the debate has resembled a contest between male and female. The tragedy is that the selective abortion techniques that are now available could be used not only to breed heirs for the Upper House but to reduce the number of women in a society that did not value them as much as our society does today. Reference has been made to back-street abortions. Were they more horrendous in the way that they disposed of babes in the womb than the methods used by modern medical science?
Rev. Martin Smyth : Well, I recognise the brutality of back-street abortions, but do not modern techniques also involve the battering of a babe--as described tonight by several right hon. and hon. Members? We should not allow ourselves to be conditioned in that way.
Rev. Martin Smyth : I accept the point about the mother. However, someone talked about sticking pins into a foetus. The methods of abortion may be more refined today, but the attack on the baby is similar. I am puzzled because we do not have any hard evidence one way or the other to substantiate some of the conclusions that have been reached tonight, including the conclusion that there may be a return to back-street abortions in areas where abortion is not available. Even where abortions are available, women still take the lives of their babies or induce others to do so.
As we make laws in this House, one of our fundamental concerns must be to re-establish standards and values. I do not believe that anyone would suggest that, because people do not keep laws, we should not make them. That idea appeared in the arguments tonight. Our laws are guidelines for society.
Column 243When we consider older women who are seeking abortions, we must also consider the figures provided by the Library, which were quoted by the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley). Those figures show that a high percentage of abortions occur among single women. I wonder how far the attitude of men and of families affects younger women particularly and encourages them to take the easy way out to avoid the social scandal and stigma which still exist in our society whether we like to admit it or not. I wonder how far that attitude encourages the taking of human life when those children should be nurtured and their families and society enriched.
Mr. Andrew MacKay : It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth) even though on this occasion he knows that I fundamentally disagree with him on this important issue. The House will be aware of my close involvement with the Province of Northern Ireland. I believe that the hon. Member for Belfast, South and all other Northern Ireland Members have every right to take part in and vote in this debate even though, as the hon. Member for Belfast, South pointed out, the present legislation in my view mistakenly does not cover the Province.
I hope that the hon. Member for Belfast, South and the hon. Member for Newry and Armagh (Mr. Mallon) will not take it amiss if I say that when I find that all the politicians agree in the Province, I am always a little worried. This is one of those occasions when they will clearly all be in the same Lobby.
Our very serious debate has been badly let down by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, which committed a gross act of bad taste yesterday when it sent a plastic model of a 20-week foetus to virtually every Member of the House. It is already a matter of record that at least one of our secretaries who had recently had a miscarriage found the prospect of that foetus highly offensive and deeply upsetting when she opened the parcel.
I hope that all those involved in sending the foetuses are thoroughly ashamed of themselves, and I hope that Mr. Godfrey Bradman will find a better use for his money in future. The only small silver lining to the incident is that it has clearly alienated a large number of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who were perhaps not entirely committed to voting in this important debate. It has illustrated to many the paucity of the arguments of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and of some of the people who organise it.
I wish to reiterate to the House my position on this issue. I am neither in favour nor against abortion--I am in favour of women having the chance to decide, in most circumstances, whether they should have an abortion. It is a traumatic decision for the mother and father of the potential child to conclude that there should be an abortion, but that decision is not made easier by meddling and interference by politicians. The politicising of the abortion issue is deeply regrettable. I hope that after today, if there is some sensible voting in the early hours, the issue can be put to bed once and for all.
If we follow the anti-abortion lobby and make it difficult for women to have an abortion in this country, or if we make it illegal for them to have an abortion, which
Column 244is what the SPUC supporters want, it will be the worst piece of class legislation that Parliament has ever allowed. My mainly affluent, middle-class electors would still be able to obtain an abortion, whether legal or not, and would not have to go to the back streets. They have the money and the wherewithal to know where to go.
The people most affected are the most vulnerable members of society, such as the young girl who does not realise that she is pregnant until late in the day. Such a young girl may have an IQ which is not so high as it might be. She may have unhelpful parents and an unhelpful doctor, and she may find herself driven to the back streets. I do not need to emphasise, because other hon. Members have done so, the traumas and horrors of back- street abortions. Do we really want to go back to that?
The problem was well illustrated by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) and the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) when they rightly pointed out to the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) that if we make it difficult for people to obtain abortions, abortions will still take place, but there will be increasingly large numbers of back-street abortions causing grave damage, mentally and physically, to the women on whom they are performed.
Mr. Thurnham : There is not only a problem of back-street abortion-- there is the problem that the Bill threatens doctors with gaol sentences. Those who are opposed to abortion want to send doctors to prison rather than let them help women. The real problem is the million women in this country who are at risk of an unplanned pregnancy. In any year, one in three of those women becomes pregnant. Half then go through with an unplanned pregnancy and the other half go through the trauma of abortion.
Is it not better to look to the example of countries such as Holland, where there are more liberal laws, a far better awareness and understanding, and a culture which does not encourage unplanned pregnancies?
Mr. MacKay : I realise, Mr. Walker, that you will not want me to take up every point raised by my hon. Friend. Nevertheless, I thank him for his intervention. One of the more regrettable aspects of the debate has been the anti-abortion lobby's attack on many members of the medical profession. We all acknowledge that there must be some bad doctors, as there are bad members of any profession, but the slanderous attacks in this debate on various doctors and the even stronger attacks by the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children have been disgraceful and do not add to its case.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) is right to say that we should prefer to have fewer and earlier abortions. He is also right to say that doctors are concerned about breaking the law, and that seems to be the key to the voting today. Many of my hon. Friends, and some Opposition Members, want a reduction in the time limit because of the advance of medical science. I share that view, and I am a
Column 245sponsor of the Houghton Bill which would put a 24-week limit on abortions, with medical exceptions. I would have moved an amendment--it was not selected--on the Alton measure two years ago to reduce the time limit to 24 weeks, taking into account the advances in medical science.
Many hon. Members ask whether it matters whether the limit is 24 or 22 weeks. In the way in which the amendments have fallen on the Order Paper, we shall be voting on 22 weeks before a decision is taken on 24. It might be helpful, therefore, if I explain why 22 weeks would be unsatisfactory.
Most surgeons allow a four-week or, at the least, a two-week margin on their diagnosis of gestational age so as to avoid inadvertently breaking the law. Therefore, if we vote for 22 weeks tonight, in practice there will be no more abortions after 18 weeks. If we were foolish enough to follow the advice of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) and vote for 18 weeks, in practice we should be voting for 14 weeks, as the hon. Gentleman knows--that is what he wants, and he is on record as saying that he would rather there were no abortions at all.
If we vote for 24 weeks, as I encourage hon. Members to do, in practice that will be 20 or at the most 22 weeks, and we shall then have to vote for medical exceptions. Let it be clearly remembered that hon. Members who think that 22 weeks is all right should vote for 24 weeks.
Hon. Members on both sides of the argument deplore late abortions and believe that they should occur only in the most dire circumstances. With better family planning, a better educated population, and doctors who more readily refer pregnant women to abortion clinics for advice, we should have earlier abortions. From all the talk about late abortions, one would imagine that a large number occur in Britain, but the figures for 1988, the last recorded for a full year, show that 84 per cent. of all abortions were performed at under 13 weeks and 14 per cent. between 13 and 20 weeks, leaving only 1.7 per cent. at over 20 weeks.
No woman wants or welcomes the need to terminate a pregnancy, still less to have a late abortion. Very late abortions are the most traumatic and usually the most needed. Broadly, they involve two categories who are the most vulnerable people in society. The first are those who find that they would have a severely or potentially severely or grossly handicapped child.
I have said before that I have every admiration for parents who feel that they can cope with a grossly disabled child. My wife and I took the decision twice when she was pregnant that we could not do that--that we were not sufficient people to cope with that--and if she and I had known that either of our children would be grossly handicapped or disabled, we would have sought an abortion at the first possible opportunity. I therefore believe that it is the right of parents to decide whether to have an abortion if the child would be grossly disabled. In most circumstances, that decision can only be taken quite late in pregnancy.
The second category of late pregnancies are, by and large, the young girls to whom I referred who, unfortunately, due to a lack of education are not aware that they are pregnant until late in the day. They are often scared and have no idea where to turn. They probably cannot turn to parents or family or to their local doctor. By the time they arrive at a consultant or an abortion clinic, they are very heavily pregnant and therefore need a late abortion.
Column 246Reducing the time limit for abortion below 24 weeks would penalise the two most vulnerable groups who require abortion --those who would have severely handicapped children and those, by and large young girls, who are not aware that they are pregnant. I remind the Committee that, in 1988, such late abortions represented no more than 1.7 per cent. of the total.
I take issue with hon. Members who are anti-abortion. They have perhaps been gently and inadvertently misleading in the Committee and in their press comments. They have given the impression or have trailed their coat to the effect that if we settle a 22-week limit they will go away, pack their bags and be quite happy--"We will not trouble you again. You will not have any more nasty mail from the awful SPUC people. All will be well. There will be no more ten-minute Bills and no more private Members' Bills. We will not demand more time from the Government." If we believe that, we will believe anything. It is absolutely clear that the SPUC anti-abortion lobby is against abortion in principle, and I do not begrudge that--it is a deeply held view which I respect but with which I totally disagree--but they should be honest enough to say so. They have referred to the ratchet effect--in other words, 22 weeks will be the first turn of the ratchet, moving downwards towards the aim of complete abolition.
For perfectly genuine reasons, my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) cannot be present at the moment. She told us that very story in the Sunday newspapers--"Don't worry. Vote for 22 weeks and we will all go away." Unfortunately, our hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) let the cat out of the bag when she said, "She has no right to say that--no right at all. We shall be back." I suspect that, on this occasion, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton is being slightly more honest with the House. I now refer to another lady, the national director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children--one Phyllis Bowman, who, on teletext today, after the embryo research result last night, was quoted as saying, "The campaign to reverse it starts today." Does anyone honestly believe that if the vote on abortion does not go their way tonight, Mrs. Bowman and her supporters will not be saying exactly the same thing? I think not.
I strongly urge hon Members to vote for 24 weeks with medical exceptions and to look carefully at what some of my colleagues have said about whether the issue will go away. Frankly, I do not believe them.
Several Hon. Members rose--
The Chairman of Ways and Means : I see seven hon. Members trying to catch my eye. We have roughly 60 minutes of debating time left. I hope that hon. Members will recognise the obvious arithmetic and play fair by their colleagues.
Ms. Primarolo : I shall try to be reasonably brief. To hear many hon. Members speak, one would think that only they possess a conscience and that the thousands of women who take the difficult and traumatic decision to have an abortion do not. That is a travesty of the truth and a massive insult to the women of this country, who are perfectly capable of exercising their consciences over what they do with their bodies.
If we are so concerned about abortions and about reducing the number of abortions, there is another solution that does not interfere with women's rights over
Column 247their sexuality ; it interferes with men's rights over theirs. That way of reducing abortions is to have men sterilised. However, that is not the proposal that we are considering-- perhaps that is because most hon. Members are men. I would not support such a proposal because I do not think that we have any more right to interfere in men's sexuality than we have a right to interfere in women's sexuality. 9.30 pm
It is interesting that it has been alleged, by implication, that women do not have consciences because we have abortions and we therefore have little regard for life. It is suggested that the lowering of the standard of the sanctity of life has been brought about by women exercising our rights to have abortions. It has also been implied that women are baby machines and that we have no rights over our bodies because of our sexuality and our biology. That view has to be refuted in the House. Women must say--hon. Members who are women must say--that we have consciences and that we exercise them daily as women and that women exercise their consciences when making choices about abortion. We do not need the men in the Chamber to borrow our consciences for us and to take that decision.
As a Parliament, we need to say whether we agree with the legal right to abortion. The debate would be a lot clearer and a lot more honest if it was about whether we agreed with that right to legal abortion. The time limit question is not relevant to the debate. The medical decision and the woman's decision are what is relevant. What is relevant is that it is against the law to terminate a pregnancy where the foetus is viable.
There is no upper time limit in Scotland, yet women in Scotland do not have less sense of responsibility or better consciences than the women in England and Wales when they exercise difficult choices about access to abortion. Whether or not a time limit exists is irrelevant.
Much play has been made about late abortions. The hon. Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) pointed out that only a tiny proportion of abortions are late abortions. We need to remind ourselves of some of the circumstances in which very late abortions--post-24 week abortions--occur. I shall give just two brief examples. The first relates to a young woman who went to see her doctor when she was two weeks pregnant. She did not know that her doctor was an anti-abortionist. The doctor was a man and he did not declare his conscience. By the time that young woman finally managed to get through the bureaucracy and to have the abortion that she had sought at two weeks, she was 22 weeks pregnant. That happened through no fault of her own. Hon. Members who claim the sanctity of their consciences are seeking to impose constraints on the life of such young women because of delays that are no fault of their own. My second example is that of a woman who took part in a television programme on abortion in which I, too, participated. She was a woman in her mid to late thirties. She and her husband desperately wanted a child. She had suffered 10 years of infertility. At 27 weeks into the pregnancy of a much-wanted child, it was discovered, even though all the tests had been done, that the baby was suffering from spina bifida of the upper spine. She was paralysed from the neck down, had only one kidney, a deformed chest cavity and no urinary system. That child
Column 248was not capable of sustaining life separately from the mother. The time limit meant that that woman was forced to make a decision quickly about what was best for her child and for her. Without an upper time limit, the condition of that unborn foetus would give grounds for termination. But if we move the time limit it may not. Not only Christians have a conscience and value life and the quality of life. Those of us who do not quote the Bible and are not Christians do not value life any the less. Many of us value the lives of the women who live now and struggle with inadequate and ever-decreasing family planning centres and related advice, and the fact that for many of us contraception is unsafe and threatens our health.
We need the right to access to abortion within the law as it is currently stated. We do not say that lightly or without using our consciences, but on the basis of what is best for our lives and those of others. it is appalling that hon. Members should insinuate or say directly that women do not live by those principles and do not have those basic understandings. We have heard slurs against doctors and accusations about their practices. The courts have been quoted in favour of deciding what the upper time limit should be and quoted the other way in the case of the woman run over on a zebra crossing when she was seven months pregnant.
Parliament must decide whether it agrees to legal abortion. If we do, who are the best people to decide on those abortions? It is the women and the doctors whom they consult. To terminate a viable foetus is against the law. That will not be changed. I support new clause 3 in my name, which proposes that the law in Scotland be adopted to create the same law in England and Wales so that there will be no upper time limit. Abortion is a medical decision and a woman's choice. We should examine the abortion law and recognise that, of course, abortion is not a legitimate form of contraception. It is a desperate measure for desperate situations. We must make sure that women have speedy, quick, efficient and safe access to legal abortion.
With, perhaps, a few exceptions, hon. Members are not medically qualified. They are not consultants and they are not the best people to make medical decisions. We should recognise that. We should not attempt to play God and impose our consciences on others. We should create an environment where women can excercise their consciences safely and legally.