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Mrs. Audrey Wise (Preston) : Has my hon. Friend also considered the difficult legal cases and controversies which may well result if time limits become restrictive, because it is not possible to prove beyond doubt when a pregnancy commences? It cannot be done by scans. Doctors do not always agree with their patients or believe them. Who will decide beyond all doubt when the pregnancy started? That is not necessary now because of the flexibility in the time limits. Has my hon. Friend considered that problem?
Ms. Primarolo : It makes my blood run cold to think that the courts may make that decision with such ill-qualified judges as the one who recently said in a rape trial that women did not know their mind when refusing sexual intercourse and that sometimes no meant yes. Presumably the courts would tell women that the women did not know when pregnancy started.
Column 249Women in Bristol feel strongly, as do all women, about the right which Parliament seeks to take from us. A large petition was collected in Bristol where the women have a clear view on this issue. The 1967 Act is working as well as it can within the definitions for controlling legal abortion. Abortions beyond 24 weeks are not conducted without grave reason. It is a travesty of the truth for hon. Members to read out horror stories and describe most horrific events to frighten Members of Parliament into an ill-judged, incorrect decision.
I hope that hon. Members will vote not to amend the 1967 Act, but to leave it as it is. If they want to improve it, they should vote for new clause 3 which removes all time limits and leaves the decision to the women and the doctors.
Several Hon. Members rose --
Miss Emma Nicholson : It may seem to the House that we have already discussed every facet of abortion law tonight, but there is a new form of thinking to which we should address ourselves, which is more rigorous thinking about the whole Abortion Act 1967.
Tonight we have been placating our consciences by concentrating our attention, as always, on the upper time limit. That argument is close to the medieval debate on how many angels can dance on the point of a pin. In the same way, there is no real-life answer. On the other hand, if we look carefully at the worries that are troubling people outside the House, we might reach a rational and wholly different solution.
Although this is the tenth debate on this subject in 16 years, I do not think that there will not be another debate in a short time, because we shall not reach a practical solution tonight. I draw the attention of the Committee to new clause 5. Although we shall not vote on it, I feel strongly that hon. Members should consider it carefully to see whether it strikes a more realistic chord. New clause 5 starts from the premise that we should separate social abortions from other abortions. After all, social abortions and other abortions are sought for two wholly different reasons. The hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) talked of identical babies whose only difference at 20 weeks was that one was visible and the other invisible to the naked eye. That is not true because the baby invisible to the naked eye may be hideously deformed and if born and brought to life, may face a future of unimaginable suffering. It may be visible to the naked eye through modern machinery and perhaps it can be kept alive, despite its wretched existence, for many years. Earlier I mentioned the case of a child born with no brain who has now reached the age of nine. In nobody's terms can that child be considered to have a life since the essence of human life is the brain. Abortions for medical reasons represent a different style of need to those abortions on what are broadly termed social grounds. 9.45 pm
The Committee should step away immediately from the fiction that the 1967 Act does not provide abortions on request--of course it does. The woman requests that abortion. Abortion on demand is just a more fearful way
Column 250of describing abortion on request. General practitioners in my constituency and elsewhere tell me that it is virtually impossible for a doctor to refuse an abortion under the workings of the 1967 Act. However, the Act places a succession of minor hurdles in the way of the pregnant mother trying to obtain an abortion. I know of a good example of that. I hope that I will not fall into the same trap as many other hon. Members tonight who have taken extreme examples and used them to support a generality. My example is a straight, middle-of-the-road one.
A girl in the village next door to mine became pregnant. She was single and 18 and the boy who had made her pregnant did not marry her, nor did he want to. She started to seek an abortion at five weeks after she had missed her period. The general practitioner in that particular village is not sympathetic to abortions. She had no car and the rural bus service is appalling. In addition, the two general practices in the nearby market town are full. By the time she obtained two signatures, her pregnancy was visible to everyone in the village. Her credibility was wrecked, and more to the point for the purposes of this debate, it was 18 weeks before she got that abortion. That is the price paid by that woman for us salving our consciences here by pretending that we do not have abortion on demand. We do, but we draw it out in a cruel and lengthy way. It is my view--I recognise the problem that it will cause to members of the Catholic Church whose views I recognise and honour, though I do not share--that up to 12 weeks the mother's wish, in conjunction with her general practitioner's decision, should be sufficient to allow her an abortion. Why should she have her GP's agreement? Solely so that society can satisfy itself that she is not using the medical profession as a source of late contraception. We should remember that this should not be a debate on the funding of the National Health Service since more than half of abortions are not carried out by the NHS. I am talking about the use of medical resources.
It is worth reminding hon. Members that the population of reproductive age in the United Kingdom are rapidly diminishing ; they have become a significant minority. I believe that their quality of life and rights must be protected. Similarly, the mother's family, her life and her future must come first.
It is interesting to compare my proposal with the practice in the remainder of Europe, Scandinavia and north America. In this regard my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) was in some confusion. He told us quite correctly that in terms of late abortions after 12 or 13 weeks we scored badly with the rest of Europe, Scandinavia and north America. He omitted to tell the House, however, that since 1975 in France abortions up to 12 weeks have been available on demand and the same is true in Sweden.
Incidentally, once abortion was made available on demand in Sweden, up to 18 weeks, 95 per cent. of abortions since then have been carried out pre-13 weeks. If one eases up the bureaucracy at the beginning women have abortions earlier and that must be to the benefit of the NHS, the private health service and the mother. That is the time limit--about 12 weeks-- around which most debates take place in other civilised countries. Beyond that time limit there must be specific criteria and a consultant's judgment should be required. Therefore, I propose that, for up to 12 weeks, the judgment of the woman's own GP should be sufficient. That would hasten abortions and provide a large economy
Column 251of private emotion, and private and public money, and take out of the debate about the upper limit the simple social ground of abortion.
It becomes harder and harder for hon. Members to justify later abortions on purely social grounds. It will never become harder to say, unless one is a Catholic, when it is wholly understandable, that between 12 and 24 weeks, when grotesque deformities occur, abortion should not take place. I believe that it should. I have therefore listed a range of exceptions, including significant handicaps, the mother's severe disability, whether mental or physical, and the classic exceptions of rape, incest and under-age pregnancy. Between 12 and 24 weeks, such exceptions should suffice.
The pro-life group's calling card rests on its validation of the over- arching importance of life, but is that really so? Would some of those babies wish to be born alive had they the ability to tell us? In sone of those circumstances, I do not believe that life is such a gift if abominable handicaps and pain are to be the new child's predestined future. On those grounds I justify abortion up to 24 weeks, and until the birth, only if the mother would either die or have significant, permanent, acute disability if the birth were to go ahead.
I commend those points to the Committee. They are in line with the legislation of Europe, Scandinavia, North America and, oddly enough, with the House of Lords' report of the year before last.
Mr. Duffy : The debate amply demonstrates that no issue raises more agonies of doubt and conscience than abortion. On the one side there is the natural revulsion at the destruction of life, and on the other side, the certain tragedies of desperate women. For nearly 2,000 years of Christian civilisation, taking the life of an unborn child was regarded as a vile and heinous moral offence that degraded humanity. The Hippocratic oath that preceded that view forbade abortion. There is no more reactionary deed, because abortion turns life into death.
Every unborn child that is aborted is witness to our failure to have created a society in which every child can be received into our world with love and affection. Worst of all, abortion is a defeat for women. Far from offering an extension of women's freedom, it is often an enslavement, given the pressures that come from family and other quarters.
At bottom, every abortion is a grave issue of fundamental morality, not simply a matter of amoral social convenience. However, hon. Members do not like grappling with truly moral issues, whether they involve destructive embryonic experimentation, divorce, homosexuality or even hanging. It is the arguments of social utility, rather than essential morality, on which hon. Members ultimately prefer to rest their case. Even hon. Members who wish to reform the 1967 Act, too often shrink from making the assertion that lies beneath their unease, that abortion is a morally wrong act that can be justified, if ever, only by a greater moral imperative.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) rose
Column 252shows that 82 per cent. of women who have had their pregnancy terminated suffer from post-abortion syndrome?
Is it not illogical of Parliament to provide legal protection for human embryos from two weeks onwards yet not to be concerned for the future of that protected embryo at 18, 20, 24, 26 or 28 weeks? As in yesterday's debate on embryonic research, the issue today turns first on the question of when life really begins. Clearly the onus of proof lay yesterday with the embryonic researchers : they evaded it. Similarly, the onus of proof lies overwhelmingly tonight with those who want to terminate pregnancies. When do they say life begins? If at 28 weeks, why not at 27 or 20? If not at 20, why not at 40? If, moreover, it is proper to defend the life of the unborn child when it is damaged in the womb by a drug such as thalidomide, why is it so illiberal to defend it against being aborted? Yet it would be an ignoble sort of Member who possessed no moral code about life or death or who failed to give that code precedence over social convenience.
The conscience of the nation is plainly uneasy. The once extremist goal of abortion on demand has long since been realised, at least for those with enough persistence or private funding. Deeming the decision to be one of medicine only stands revealed as the legal fiction it always was. The de facto ground for abortion in the great mass of cases is now that of serious inconvenience to the mother--nothing more or less.
Mrs. Wise : My hon. Friend has said that abortion takes place on grounds of serious inconvenience. He is therefore suggesting that women have an extremely frivolous attitude to the whole matter. Does he think that a woman who would undertake an abortion on such grounds would suitably be compelled to be a mother? If that is his opinion of women, I tremble for the children of this nation.
As I have mentioned Sheffield, perhaps I could add that Dr. R. E. J. Ryder, now at the Hallamshire hospital in that city and a former senior registrar in medicine at the Northern general hospital, informs me that 18 weeks is the time when the mother commonly starts to feel her baby moving. Bonding begins, and abortion takes on a more traumatic character. Even if we still have doubts, Dr. Ryder insists that the case that the entity is not a living human being will always be shrouded with uncertainty. Thus, in our society, in which one is innocent until proved guilty, it must be wrong to kill a baby in utero if there is any possibility that it is a live human being. Those who oppose any amendment do so because they fear that women will return to the back streets or because they fear that it will penalise married women who already have enough children. But back-street abortion deaths were dropping before the Abortion Act came into
Column 253operation. Surveys of class profiles show that the section of the population most opposed to abortion are working- class women ; the section most in favour of it are upper-class men. Free and easy abortion is in the interests of men because it removes the problem of pregnancy, and women are well aware of that. As for penalising married women, the majority of abortions after 18 weeks are on single women and the largest number of abortions at this stage are upon women who have no children.
Given the exemptions, the Bill deals with social abortions after 18 weeks, for the most part of perfectly healthy babies. Are they necessary? That is the issue before the House. The issue is not late referrals. In 1986, young girls and menopausal women accounted for only about 5 per cent. of late abortions. The report entitled "Late Abortions in England and Wales" which was published by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1984 says on page 39 that it absolves NHS facilities and referring doctors from responsibility for a delayed abortion. It blames
"late presentation to a doctor by the women."
All that is borne out in my city of Sheffield, where, over the five years from 1984 to 1988, the number of abortions increased by 7 per cent. Over the period from 1980 to 1986, the increase was of the order of 14 per cent. Some 71 per cent. of Sheffield women having abortions are single, and that is well above the average in the Trent region and in England and Wales. The percentage of Sheffield women having abortions who are married is lower than in the rest of the region and in England and Wales. Within the National Health Service in Sheffield, abortion has increased from 54 per cent. to nearly 60 per cent. over the past five years.
My inference from the information that is available to me about present practices in Sheffield is that there have been no cases during the period that I have mentioned of abortions to save the life of the mother. In 1986, there were 10 handicap exemptions, which is less than 1 per cent. More than 80 per cent. involved women in the three age groups 16 to 19, 20 to 24, and 25 to 34 and, as I have said, almost 70 per cent. of them were single girls. That leaves approximately 10 per cent., which is accounted for by women over 35, and 4 per cent. by girls under 16.
It is not possible to ascertain how compelling or trivial are the social reasons that constitute ground 2 on which most of those abortions are now taking place in Sheffield and how many involved the same women. If the Minister had given way to me earlier in the debate, I would have asked her to help the House, because, although the medical statistics division of the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys is more helpful now than it was in recent years, it will still not entertain such questions.
Without more information, none of us, with the possible exception of the Secretary of State, can know what is happening to ground 2. It is certain that ground 2 covers the great majority of abortions in Sheffield and, presumably, involves healthy children. Abortions are making growing and unjustified claims on the National Health Service in Sheffield at a time of scarce medical resources.
Yesterday, the House discussed the problem of infertility and I mentioned the child work in the fertility clinic in Sheffield and in the corresponding department of the Jessop hospital for women, linked with the university.
Column 254I described the pains that those responsible for that work in Sheffield are taking and the direction in which they are moving to get around some of the ethical objections voiced by hon. Members in yesterday's debate. It is plain that scarce resources are being used for ground 2 claims for abortion in Sheffield. Those resources might go to relieve the anxiety of infertile and childless couples. In trying to assess the impact of the Bill on Sheffield, I can arrive only at approximate figures. It appears that some 80 babies will be affected by the 18-week limit : 40 by the 20-week limit, 20 by the 22-week limit ; and hardly any by the 24-week limit. Not all those babies will be linked with Sheffield. Apart from exemptions, they will all be perfectly healthy children. What will be their future? That is the central question facing hon. Members when they vote. Has not the time arrived for the House to reconsider the time limits for abortion, and preferably to agree upon lower limits? I shall vote for the lowest limit.
Mr. David Amess (Basildon) : This is the most important debate in which I have taken part since I became a Member of Parliament. It is about the sanctity of life and all that that means. I want to draw on my personal experiences. My wife has not suffered a miscarriage, nor has she suffered an abortion. We are very fortunate in having four healthy children. Indeed, our last baby was delivered only two weeks ago. I was present at the birth and also throughout the labour. I witnessed the miracle of life. Any hon. Member who has experienced that will recognise the emotion and the euphoria felt on the occasion of the safe delivery of a child.
When I look at our baby Alexandra, I clearly recall the stage when I and my wife went to our excellent hospital in Basildon for a scan. It was at the 18th week of gestation. We clearly saw a picture of the baby. We saw our baby's head moving, her arms moving, her legs moving, and then we saw our baby, at 18 weeks, sucking her thumb. There was no doubt in our minds that she was a human being. She was real : she was our baby. When she was delivered to my wife at 40 weeks, the only real difference was that she was larger. She looked exactly the same. I have a picture of that scan to prove it.
This is very much a debate about the sanctity of life. I am confused about how hon. Members square their views on these issues. I entered politics because I actually care about people's lives--
Mr. Amess : I shall comment on that remark in a moment. I care about people's lives and I was sent here to represent the people of Basildon. I am not prepared to speak on behalf of the men of Basildon and I would not dream of saying that I speak on behalf of the women of Basildon. I was sent here to represent all the people in my constituency. We spend all our time discussing laws, education, defence and the economy, all of which affect people's lives. There is no dispute that we all regard life as precious. In fact, I should be surprised if there were any hon. Members who were not extremely glad to be here. At the time of their conception, there was no question about the right to choose.
The hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) referred to the fact that I am a Conservative. In an ideal world I would hope that abortion would be avoided in every case. I am not an idealist and that is probably why
Column 255I support the party that I do. I am a realist and I accept what I have to cope with in the House when we come to vote.
Therefore, despite the remarks that were made earlier about the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children and other organisations, all of which I regret because they rather spoilt the debate, I shall not be returning year after year. There is no plot among those who share my views to keep returning to the House. What are people frightened of? They are wrong to be frightened. Tonight we shall have the opportunity democratically to vote. Let us not personalise the debate.
I despair at the way in which the 1967 Act has worked in practice. I am sure that the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) introduced that legislation with the best intentions, but it has resulted in 170,000 abortions each year, 96 per cent. of which are undertaken for social reasons. I fully recognise that no woman would lightly undertake an abortion. There are no circumstances under which an abortion
I understand the arguments made earlier about a woman's right to choose, disability, the time delay in medical diagnosis, back-street abortions and every child being a wanted child. But I find it impossible to reconcile my respect for life with all the matters that have been raised. Twenty-three years after the 1967 Act, 22 -week-old babies are being kept alive in our special baby care units. I have heard the remarks about the NHS, but that is certainly the case at Basildon. How on earth can we have special baby care units fighting to keep babies alive at 22 weeks while, for whatever reason, they can still be destroyed in the same hospital?
Sadly, we live in an aggressive and violent society. I meet aggression every day of the week. We see it on the tube. We experience it among drivers. There is no longer respect for humanity. That is highlighted by what the House has done since 1967. I do not regard a reduction of four weeks in the time limit for abortion as a fair reflection of 23 years of advancement in medical science. Therefore, please let us take the opportunity tonight to restore the esteem of the House by recognising the dignity of life. Let us make this a proud day for Parliament and at least legislate to protect babies who are capable of being born alive.
Ms. Short : The problem throughout this deeply unimpressive debate-- I say that in all seriousness--is that we are not discussing where the real division of opinion in the Committee lies. A substantial minority of hon. Members believe that abortion should never, ever be allowed. I disagree with that view, but I respect it. I come from an Irish Catholic background. I was brought up in the Catholic Church. My mother lives with me and goes to mass every morning. She does not believe in abortion and I respect that position. I do not agree with her and neither do any of her other four daughters, but we all get along with and respect each other. What I do not respect is a debate led by people of that view--the hon. Members for Maidstone (Miss
Column 256Widdecombe) and for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), the Father of the House and my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy)--who believe that abortion should never be allowed but who, instead of having the integrity, honesty and straightforwardness to put that position before the House and to argue for it, pretend to talk about time limits. Because they are absolute fundamentalists and hold the view that all abortions should be prohibited, the evidence that they present to the Committee is biased, and they distort fact and reality.
I pay tribute to Lord Houghton and to the quality of his reports, which many right hon. and hon. Members have not even read. Viability is reached at 24 weeks. My local hospital has one of those wonderful baby care units in which precious and wanted babies are kept alive by tubes. The problem is that most of them do not survive, and those who do are brain-damaged for the rest of their lives. If one studies the development of a baby, it is clear that it cannot independently sustain life much before 24 weeks because its lungs are not formed. Those are the medical facts, but so- called right hon. and hon. Members, who really want all abortions to be made illegal, try to trick the Committee and the public into accepting a lower time limit than is defensible. They distort reality and put false information before the Committee. I do not respect that, and it does little credit to Parliament itself.
Mr. Mallon : In fairness to the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. Duffy) who spoke in yesterday's debate, and whose contribution is in Hansard, and to myself, we both made very clear the views that we hold. We were not hiding our light under any bushel, but making clear our belief that the destruction of a human being is wrong in any circumstances.
Ms. Short : I am sorry, but I have no respect for right hon. and hon. Members who hold that view and who do not have the guts to state their position. If there was a vote, they know that they would be overwhelmingly defeated. We could then have a rational debate on the proper framework of the law.
I do not believe that I have a right to make moral decisions for every individual in our society. What is needed is a sensible, defensible and serious legal framework within which individual women and families can make their own decisions--given all the pressures, aspects of morality and worries that confront them. Part of that defensible framework of law would be to say that once a foetus is capable of independent survival and no longer dependent on its mother, it has a right to live. That is the framework of previous law. In current law, the time limit is 24 weeks, other than in exceptional cases. The law says that one cannot abort a foetus that is capable of being born alive. Because of advances in medical science, the limit has fallen to 24 weeks, and the number of post-24 week abortions is now minute. They relate to hard cases such as very late detection of severe abnormalities on the very young girl who has been sexually abused and did not know that she was pregnant. They are tiny in number. We already have a good framework of law that operates sensibly.
I also have no respect for the Government's action ; they had no need to bring this clause before the House. As
Column 257a result of the lies presented in SPUC's case, which was designed to confuse public opinion and to suggest that there are many late abortions, the Government are trying to appease its supporters. The Government thought about and talked about tabling Lord Houghton's Bill in this House. I would have supported that very constructive move, but there were internal divisions in the Tory party, the SPUC supporters made their views known in the Whips' Office, and there were conflicts with the Secretary of State for Health. The result is the nonsense that is before the Committee tonight.
There will be a whole series of Divisions tonight from which many right hon. and hon. Members will be absent, while others will not really know what they are voting for. Rational decisions will not be made--[ Hon. Members :-- "Speak for yourself."] I am speaking for myself.
I agree with the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) that we should seek to improve our law and prevent preventable late abortions. It is sinful and unforgiveable that many women who come forward for abortions before 12 weeks have post-18 weeks abortions because of delays in our National Health system and because of delays caused by doctors processing their cases. That is outrageous and disgraceful.
If the rhetoric and regret about late abortions were true, the hon. Members for Maidstone and for Mossley Hill would be queuing up to demand the right of women to have an abortion up to 12 weeks with reference to one doctor. That is what they would do if they really wanted to prevent late abortions. Many preventable late abortions would then be prevented. Instead, those hon. Members are trying to trick and fib. They are trying to make all abortions illegal. Whatever the outcome of our Divisions tonight, this will not be the end of the issue. The hon. Members to whom I have referred will be back. If it is not those hon. Members because they have made promises, it will be others. I am surprised that the Secretary of State for Health has involved himself in this shabby game, with such an irrational method of inviting the House to reach a decision. The case of SPUC is encapsulated in the postcard that it used for so long. That postcard carried an attractive picture, which had been coloured, of a foetus which was supposedly sucking its thumb. Of course that picture was a complete lie. That 22-year-old picture of a natural miscarriage had been taken in a laboratory in Sweden. It had been tinted and coloured up. That is the SPUC case. It is misleading and pretending to the public that lots of late abortions are like that. That is not true.
The present framework of practice in Britain is reasonable. Post 24-week abortions do not happen except in the most extreme and distressing cases. The only change that we need to that law is to speed up abortion at the early end so that young women who come forward early do not end up having late abortions. That change is not on offer to the Committee today and that is deeply regrettable.
Column 258I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) that we have a very reasonable law with regard to termination. That law has stood the test of time for the vast majority of people. The Lancet reported in December last year that 75 per cent. of the people in this country are satisfied with the working of the Abortion Act 1967. However, I do not want to see restrictions on women's access to abortions. I want to see an improvement in financing and facilities to reduce the number of later abortions. I hope that all hon. Members would agree that we should be aiming for that.
Eighty-seven per cent. of late abortions in this country take place within 12 weeks of pregnancy, and less than 2 per cent. take place when a pregnancy is over 20 weeks. According to the 1988 figures, only 23 abortions in England, Wales and Scotland were performed over the present 24 -week limit.
In a recent survey, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists found that only 3 per cent. of its members were in favour of an 18-week time limit, which appears in an amendment tonight. Organisations representing the medical profession have said that the limit for clinical practice--what doctors actually do--will be between two and four weeks lower than the legal limit, allowing for a margin of error in calculating the duration of pregnancy. People are saying to the House that, in effect, 14 weeks, 12 weeks or even less will be the time limit for the termination of pregnancy.
Those who talk about their despair about the Abortion Act 1967 and how it has been implemented do not recognise the despair caused by the fact that abortion is again on the agenda. People did not believe that the law would be changed, as is proposed. Some hon. Members will support the limit of 18 weeks tonight. When they have achieved that, they will attack another aspect of the 1967 Act and then another, until they have whittled away women's rights to abortion. Those hon. Members doing this at a time when the deficiencies of the National Health Service are stark. We hear reports of delays of four weeks in reporting pregnancy test results. We see headlines in the newpapers, such as one in The Guardian on 2 April : "Birth control hit by cash squeeze".
When the lack of contraceptive services, especially for young people, is becoming acute in some areas, we are being asked to support punitive measures.
The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) said that a survey reported on national television this week showed that one third of health authorities were reducing their family planning services. In 1982, a study by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists revealed that a significant number of abortions performed after 20 weeks were the result of avoidable delays by general practitioners and failures in the organisation of NHS services. In addition, women have no way of knowing, when they first visit their general practitioner, what that doctor's non-medical views on abortion are.
I wish that those hon. Members who threaten people who are in dire need and have been for many years would argue for the betterment within the National Health Service of counselling and contraceptive services, so that people are not led into wanting an abortion in the first place. Since the introduction of the 1967 Act, any retreat
Column 259to the back-street abortionist to whom women had to go before we had legal termination in this country must be avoided.
Ms. Mildred Gordon (Bow and Poplar) : It has been difficult to listen with equanimity to some of the speeches today, particularly a speech which cast a slur on women by saying that since the Abortion Act 1967 their concern for the sanctity of life had been lessened. It is poverty which reduces the value of life, and those who voted for the freezing of child benefit might bear that in mind. Women are pro-life. They bear the children and take the main responsibility for bringing them up. They do the unpaid work of managing the family and they should make the decision on what is best for their family. This has been a phoney debate. We have seen the opportunism of hon. Members who have made sanctimonious speeches but are prepared to compromise to get their foot in the door. They intend eventually not just to attack all abortion rights, but to attack contraceptive rights. They have already attacked the French contraceptive pill. If they really cared about doing away with late abortions and did their best to prevent the few late abortions that there are, they would be in favour of abortion on request. Unfortunately, we are unable to discuss or vote on that tonight. Those hon. Members would be in favour of improved sex education and of all the points outlined by my hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron).
Above all, those hon. Members would want to improve social conditions. Instead of sending round plastic foetuses, why do they not think of the real world, where so many miscarriages take place in the first few months of pregnancy and where still-births take place at seven months because mothers are dragging babies and prams up flights of stairs or have to live on poor diets? Why do those hon. Members not concern themselves with saving lives by improving the conditions for such people?
Those who have been spearheading the SPUC campaign are concerned not so much with saving life as with control over women's lives. Let us remember that the women of Romania, in fighting for freedom, want above all the freedom to have legal abortions. That should be a lesson to us.
To reduce the number of weeks within which abortion is legal would be a form of cruelty to women. My generation and that of my mother remember the shadow that was cast over women's lives by the fear of pregnancy, particularly when they were not in a position to have more children and when their health and social conditions, already extremely low, could not tolerate larger families. Every month their relations with their partners were crippled and there were severe burdens on doctors, who either had to break the law or turn away desperate patients, and then deal with the mess of septicaemia and other causes of death resulting from back-street abortions, which a whittling down of the present law would bring back.
Women should have the right to choose. All women are pro-life. Women do not enter abortions lightly because their very nature bonds them to the life that they are carrying. They have the right to decide what is best for their families--and almost all women, given the chance, choose correctly.
Column 26010.30 pm
Ms. Harman : The votes that will take place tonight will be on the time limit up to which abortion can lawfully take place and the grounds on which it can be justified. But many hon. Members have spoken about the number of abortions that take place, and that is the subject with which I shall start.
Nobody believes that a high abortion rate is good, and of course it is desirable to reduce the number of abortions, but the matter must be put in perspective. As the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) said, the abortion rate in the United Kingdom is lower than the rate in France, Norway, Italy, Germany and numerous other countries. We are by no means high in the international league table of abortion rates.
I agree with those who say that it is still too high, but what divides us is the way in which we might reduce the number of abortions. Some argue that the rate should be cut by forcing women to continue with unwanted pregnancies. I argue that we should help women to avoid unwanted pregnancies. There are 200,000 unplanned and regretted pregnancies every year in this country. Contraception is no easy matter. An unwanted pregnancy is not the result of fecklessness on the part of a woman.
The battle for safe, effective, accessible contraceptive services is far from won. Yet across England, Scotland and Wales, family planning services are being cut. Cash-starved district health authorities, desperate to avoid closing another hospital or ward, desperate to avoid again reporting longer waiting lists to the Department of Health, are picking on family planning services as a soft option for cuts.
The scale of those cuts, year after year, has been disastrous : Sheffield, 31 per cent.; Gravesend, 50 per cent.; Chichester, 50 per cent.; Cheltenham, 55 per cent.; Mid-Essex, 48 per cent. cut. The list is endless. Unless the Government step in now, the cash crisis in health authorities will spell the destruction of family planning clinics and lead to more unwanted pregnancies.
Where has been the protest of those who say that they want to reduce the number of abortions? Those who, like us, want fewer women having to seek abortion, should join us in demanding that the Government call a halt to cuts in the family planning service, that they review the number of unplanned and regretted pregnancies, particularly among teenagers, and that they step up the contraceptive training of GPs and nurses, thereby developing a strategy for reducing the large number of unplanned and regretted pregnancies. Such action would reduce the number of abortions far more dramatically than would reducing the time limit to 20 or even 18 weeks.
Some health authorities have tried to take such steps, despite the current cash crisis. South Warwickshire health authority, for example, concerned about the high level of abortions in its district, has developed a strategy which it hopes will reduce the number of abortions by a quarter before the end of the century. It includes work with local schools to improve sex education, better advertising of family planning services and increased access to services. We should look at the Netherlands, for example, where there are fewer restrictions on time limits than we have, but, because there are better planning services there, there are far fewer unwanted pregnancies and fewer abortions as
Column 261a result. That is the way to cut the number of abortions, not by restricting access to abortion to those who find themselves with an unplanned pregnancy.
Concern has been expressed about the number of late abortions. The case has been put that cutting time limits will cut the number of late abortions, but that would solve the problem of late abortions at the expense of the women who seek them. As my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon) said, the way to reduce the number of late abortions is not to deny abortions to the women who need a late abortion but to try to deal with the cause of late abortions, and that is to improve services so that, when abortion is necessary, it can be carried out as early as possible in the pregnancy. It is not as though the Government do not know that. Countless reports have shown up the inadequacies of the Health Service as a substantial cause of late abortion.
In 1981 and in 1985 Isobel Allen of the Policy Studies Institute reported on delays caused by GPs and consultants. As the anecdote related by the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson) about the girl in the next village demonstrated, in 1984 the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists reported that one in five women who had abortions later than 20 weeks had approached their doctor asking for an abortion more than eight weeks earlier--before 12 weeks. What is needed in practical terms--if hon. Members are interested in practical ways of reducing the toll of late abortions--is better diagnosis of pregnancy, quicker referral for women who seek abortions and better abortion services throughout the United Kingdom. That is the way to cut late abortions, not by restricting access to abortion for those women whom the Health Service has failed.
However good our family planning services, however good our referral system, however good access throughout the country, there will still be some cases when women will seek abortion after 20 weeks, after 22 weeks, and even after 24 weeks. That is where the debate has become most heated. We are talking about only a small percentage of the total number of abortions, so I should like to put the matter in perspective. Eighty-four per cent. of all abortions were performed at under 13 weeks, 14 per cent. were performed between 13 and 20 weeks, and only 1.7 per cent were performed at over 20 weeks. In the whole of last year, only 22 abortions were carried out after 24 weeks.
Among later abortions we see the most tragic and the most difficult cases-- first, young girls who at first do not realise that they are pregnant, and although desperate to end the pregnancy, are afraid to seek help and therefore do not go to the doctor until the pregnancy is 22 weeks, say, because they are afraid that they might be kicked out of the home and they do not know where to turn ; and, secondly, women who develop pregnancy- induced hypertension, who continue with a planned pregnancy for as long as possible, but it becomes clear at 24 weeks, say, that the continuation of the pregnancy could mean kidney damage for the woman or even permanent blindness.
I should like hon, Members to consider the case of a woman called Meriel Gillman, whom I had the chance of meeting last week. She had a son and had been trying for another child for 10 years. When she finally became pregnant at 40, she and her husband were overjoyed. She told me, "No one could have wanted a baby more than we wanted that baby." Because she was 40, she was offered extensive ante-natal screening--blood tests, urine tests, corionic villus sampling, blood pressure tests, and all the