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Ms. Richardson : I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) had to say about disabled foetuses. She shows great concern for disabled people, so I was surprised when it was drawn to my attention that the hon. Lady voted against the last report of the Select Committee on Social Services on community care. All hon. Members want the interests of carers to be safeguarded. However, the hon. Lady was the only member of the Select Committee to vote against the report. That is extraordinary, especially when one remembers that she has expressed support for the handicapped and the need for the House to think about how Parliament and the Government can help the disabled.
The subject with which we are dealing amounts to a re-run of what happened on 24 April. That is extremely distressing. I have been a Member of Parliament for about 15 years. I cannot recall another occasion when cool, decisive decisions have been taken and then, six to eight weeks later, reversed because, it is said, many hon. Members did not know what they were doing. A few hon. Members may have been confused ; it was, in many respects, a confusing evening. For about two and a half hours we were trooping through the Division Lobbies. However, I was extremely pleased and surprised to see that hon. Members seemed to know what they were doing. I did not find that hon. Members were saying to one another, "Gosh, I don't know what I'm voting about tonight. Should I be in this Lobby? Oh, no, I am in the wrong Lobby." That did not seem to be happening.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : The hon. Lady was not in the same Lobby that I was in. Her side of the argument suddenly withdrew the tellers in their Lobby, which admittedly threw our Lobby into confusion. There was a quick succession of votes and the fact that the hon. Lady's Lobby suddenly withdrew tellers on a Division on one amendment threw people into confusion.
Column 1197Ms. Richardson : The hon. Lady is apparently saying that something that we did on our side of the argument threw her side into disarray.
Ms. Richardson : I am very sorry, but this is the House of Commons and I should have thought that hon. Members were used to reading the Order Paper to know what they were doing. The hon. Lady's comments are quite an admission. It is not our job to say, "Stop, are you sure you know what you're doing? Are you sure that you really want to withdraw this?" I am not suggesting that the hon. Lady is stupid, because I am sure that she is not. I am really sure about that. I honestly believe that by and large, with possibly a few exceptions--one or two hon. Members have admitted that they were in the wrong Lobby on the wrong occasion--hon. Members knew what they were doing. The fact that the clause stand part debate was carried by such an overwhelming majority and that hon. Members stayed to the very end to register their votes must be significant. Nearly two months later, we are effectively having a re-run of that issue.
Ms. Richardson : The danger is that we shall undo what we did less than two months ago. I do not know whether the hon. Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) can recall an occasion when the House has taken two different stances within such a short period. I certainly cannot recall such an occasion.
Mrs. Edwina Currie (Derbyshire, South) : Does the hon. Lady recognise that some of us knew what we were doing on that night? I abstained then, and I am grateful for the opportunity to think again about the issue. Although I disagree with a great deal of what I have heard tonight and I particularly deplore the personal insults which have been flying around on both sides of the House, I have concluded that amendment No. 4 should be supported.
Ms. Richardson : Well, okay, people are entitled to change their minds. The hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) is honest and gutsy enough to get up and say that she wants to change her mind. However, I do not believe that the House as a whole wants a re-run. If we were to take that practice to its logical conclusion, we would be re-running votes that we had taken during the week.
Ms. Richardson : I do not really want to give way, because I do not want to spend all the short time available to me on this constitutional issue. However, as the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) so ably chaired the Standing Committee on the Abortion Bill and was so kind to us, I will certainly give way to him.
We are dealing with this Report stage and during the passage of Bills hon. Members have the opportunity and the duty to keep thinking about the issues under discussion. I happen to believe that there was an element
Column 1198of confusion on that night of the long votes, and that we will prove it this evening. Hon. Members will vote and the Bill has not yet completed its passage through the House. What we are doing tonight is entirely constitutional and proper. At the end of this evening, we will know where we stand.
Ms. Richardson : I did not suggest that this was unconstitutional. I said that it was unusual and that I could not remember it happening before. We must remember that the Leader of the House specifically gave the House, as the Department gave the House, a clear opportunity to vote on this issue on 24 April after a full day's debate. The majority of hon. Members who participated that day--and there were many--feel that, although it is perfectly true that we are today discussing the Bill on Report, we are entitled to re-discuss issues and I acknowledge that. The fact that we had a Committee of the whole House with not just one child's guide from the Leader of the House, but child's guides all over the place meant that the House knew what it was doing. Not only hon. Members who supported my argument but hon. Members who supported the other side of the argument have expressed surprise that the whole matter should be re-run. 9.15 pm
The effect of what was passed that night was the same as the provisions of Lord Houghton's Abortion (Amendments) Bill in the other place. A considerable amount of briefing material explaining its provisions had crossed hon. Members' desks well in advance of the debate on 24 April. Some hon. Members actually tabled that Bill as a new clause so hon. Members were not unfamiliar with the arguments and proposals. The Houghton Bill was supported unanimously by the House of Lords and was based on the report of a Select Committee that had sat for two years. The members of that Select Committee took the same position as the House has taken today.
There are two reasons why the House of Lords thought that a woman's health and foetal handicap should be exempt from time limits. It is difficult to distinguish between life and health. Doctors cannot be sure whether a pregnancy will kill a woman immediately, but it could shorten her life considerably, and that must be taken into account. Pregnancy could damage a woman severely. It could put her in a wheelchair or induce illness such as multiple sclerosis. Some handicaps are so severe that the foetus cannot survive. In a dramatic case, the brain or some other vital organ may be missing. It is difficult to define the phrase
"capable of being born alive".
There have, quite rightly, been many judgments and much case law and discussion on this. The recent judgment in the Rance case, for example, has extended case law in this area. It now appears that, if a foetus is capable of drawing a few breaths, the law can regard it as viable. We must tackle that decision, because a foetus with no brain may be capable of being born alive, but it cannot survive for more than a few hours. We must face these difficult problems, and the House did so on 24 April with enormous good sense.
There is no evidence that doctors have ever performed late abortions for trivial reasons--not even in the case of the Carlisle baby, which is often referred to in the House. On investigation, it was found that there was no case to
Column 1199answer. The upshot of the Carlisle case was that the woman concerned, having had to make a terribly difficult decision, had her case investigated by the Director of Public Prosecutions and the whole thing was splashed across the British press. That woman was put through enormous agony.
I do not understand why those hon. Members who are anti-abortion cannot accept a decision that was taken by this House in good faith and with substantial votes so recently. I think that I heard those hon. Members say before 24 April that if the House had an opportunity to vote on that matter, they would accept the results of that vote. I believe that the hon. Member for Maidstone said that. I hate to say that they suggested that they would go away, but they certainly suggested that they would not raise the matter in the regular way that they have been raising it for the past several years--as I know to my cost.
I was pleased this morning to receive a copy of a letter from Sir George Pinker, the president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which was addressed and faxed to the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham). It stated :
"I am writing before tomorrow's debate to confirm that the College's view would be in support of Lord Brightman's committee's findings and we would support his letter of 19th June in the Times." I am sure that hon. Members who are interested enough to be in the Chamber now will have read the letter.
Sir George Pinker continued :
"We would not like to see the Infant Life (Preservation) Act insinuated into the provisions of the Abortion Act."
That is a clear and informed decision. The House has a duty to take note-- as we usually do--of the views of the RCOG because it is composed of a large number of distinguished people.
I hope tonight that we shall decisively reject amendment No. 4, just as on 24 April we decisively decided to vote as we did. We shall support the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). Although there is possibly a technical drafting problem with one of them, I am sure that it could be put right--
Mr. Key indicated dissent.
On balance, we feel that his amendments should be supported. I hope that my hon. Friends will join me in the Lobby to defeat this dangerous amendment, amendment No. 4.
Mr. Kenneth Clarke : I begin by confirming that all four of the amendments that have been selected are the subject of a free vote as far as the Government are concerned. No Whip is being applied to my right hon. and hon. Friends or--as far as I am aware--to any hon. Member. When we refer to Whips in this context, we are talking about briefs that people take from colleagues who are sympathetic to their point of view, which will help to guide them through the amendments. As this is one of our last debates at this stage of our deliberations on the Bill, I am pleased to record the fact
Column 1200that the House has so far handled the Bill with considerable care. Although there are strong feelings among hon. Members, I am sure that we all regret that a slight note of abuse has begun to creep into the debate.
Although I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) on most of these issues--I have, however, voted with her three times this evening--I have the highest regard for the way in which she puts her case and for the strength of her convictions. Similarly, my right hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) is a long-time colleague, for whose views I have the highest regard. I wish to make a few brief factual points about the three less important amendments and shall then deal as briefly as I can with amendment No. 4. First, the amendment tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), on selective reduction-- amendment No. 30--is correctly drafted.
Mr. Clarke : Some doubt has been raised about that. Secondly, the amendment would have the effect of clarifying the law as we believe it stands. The best advice that we can obtain is that selective reduction is subject to the Abortion Act 1967 but that there is considerable doubt about the matter. The effect of the amendment would be to clarify the position. The only effect of not accepting it would be to leave the law shrouded in doubt.
Mr. Clarke : We have taken advice from parliamentary counsel and others. The difficulty of deciding exactly what selective reduction is, when the foetus is killed inside the womb, makes the position different from that of ordinary abortion. Therefore, miscarriage is regarded as the legally correct description. I am advised that the amendment is correctly drafted to catch selective reduction. It makes it clear that selective reduction can be carried out only if the practitioner complies with the abortion legislation in whatever form it emerges from Parliament.
Amendment No. 29, also tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, would give the Secretary of State the power to approve a place in relation to treatment consisting primarily in the use of such medicines as may be specified. The amendment anticipates the possibility that drugs such as RU486 will be licensed and approved for use in this country. As the House knows, in France about 30,000 women have chosen that method of lawful abortion. It does not involve surgery or general anaesthesia. If that drug is ever introduced here, it will extend the range of choice available to women and to doctors who prescribe treatment. As the law stands, if no power such as that contained in the amendment is provided, it will continue to be necessary for the patient to have the drug administered in a hospital or other approved place. There is no medical reason for that. My hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone mistakenly suggested that the abortion pill will be given out and taken home. First, no such pill is yet licensed here. It will not be licensed unless the Committee on Safety of Medicines is satisfied when the application is made that it should be
Column 1201licensed. Such a pill would be administered only in closely regulated circumstances under the supervision of a registered medical practitioner.
A question was asked earlier about what type of premises would be used for administering such a drug. It is possible that the pill could be administered in a GP's surgery under the supervision of a registered medical practitioner. The patient would still have to return two days later to be given the pessary.
All that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury seeks to ensure is that, if such a drug is licensed, the Secretary of State will at least have the power in primary legislation to approve the places and circumstances in which it might be used. If we do not address that matter this evening and if the drug is licensed in a year or two, there will be a private Member's Bill on every Friday for several years about whether the circumstances in which the drug is administered should be changed. It is for the House to decide.
Mr. Clarke : I apologise to the Father of the House, to whom I should normally give way out of respect. However, I am sure that the House does not want me to spend so long on these three amendments that I cut other hon. Members out on amendment No. 4.
There is hardly any difference between my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone and me on amendment No. 28. It deals with whether it should be necessary to record the handicap in the case of abortions carried out on the ground of handicap of the child. There is some point to the amendment. It would finally answer one way or the other the continual claim that abortion is carried out for a hare lip or other such condition. I share the doubts of those who say that that does not take place. My hon. Friend is convinced that it takes place, but we do not know because no one is required to notify what the handicap is. The only argument for the House to consider is how to go about recording handicap.
If amendment No. 28 is accepted, it will be necessary on the green form, a certificate which must be filled in before the operation is carried out, to specify the handicap in every case from no weeks to 28 weeks, or however many weeks we allow. I give an undertaking to the House that if that amendment is defeated the Government intend to introduce regulations to make it necessary for the nature of the handicap to be specified on the notification for a late abortion after 24 weeks. I shall not argue the point because people can reflect on that and decide which method they prefer. I believe that it will be necessary to introduce a record of the nature of the handicap.
Everyone who has spoken tonight will agree that amendment No. 4 is the one that matters most. We must first be clear about the factual effect of amendment No. 4. Unlike the other three, amendment No. 4 does not relate to a new issue. My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby and my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone are trying to reverse the effects of amendments (i) and (f) that were carried on 24 April. They openly acknowledge that that is their intention, together with the decoupling of the Infant
Column 1202Life (Preservation) Act 1929, which resulted from the acceptance of amendment (q). My hon. Friends want to reverse the combination of those three amendments.
Let us be clear what the House did on that occasion, upon which we are now being asked to reflect. The amendments introduced, without time limit, the right to an abortion on the new ground of preventing "grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman"
Recently some constituents told me that that means abortion on demand, without a time limit, up to birth. That is a travesty of the truth. The amendment deals with cases where the mother is having such difficulties, for example because of hypertension, that she is running the risk of severe permanent damage to her brain, heart, or kidneys. The doctor then feels the need to intervene to terminate the pregnancy, as he must intervene if the life of the mother is plainly threatened. The letter that was quoted in the debate has already revealed that the most reputable practitioners would attempt to do so in a way that saved the life of a viable foetus, if possible.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept that in those particular circum-stances, where the blood pressure of the mother threatens to damage her kidneys, the doctor could induce the birth without killing the baby?
Mr. Clarke : In effect, that is what the doctor will try to do and that will have the effect of terminating the pregnancy. The doctor will terminate the pregnancy while attempting to save the life of the baby if he can. I believe that there will be few cases in which that will happen, but we must consider them.
On the previous occasion when we considered the Bill the House allowed, without time limit, abortions on the existing ground of the substantial risk
"that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped."
The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) has already said that that covers cases where the child may be capable of life and have the ability to breathe and move after birth, but have no brain. It would be incapable of sustained existence and in that case an abortion could be carried out without a time limit.
I understand how strongly and sincerely hon. Members are arguing that that decision should be reversed. Tonight, the House will vote on whether to reverse the decision to introduce no time limit on the two grounds that I have specified.
It appears that we are being asked to reconsider because people were confused on the previous occasion that we considered the Bill. I must address that point because the Leader of the House and I were responsible for the ordering of that debate and for the attempts to inform hon. Members about what was happening. I have obtained the two documents that we circulated. One was from the Leader of the House--a copious document--and, because people said that it was long and difficult, a short document was published by the Whip responsible for the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Knight), which was distributed to hon. Members on both sides of the House who wanted to know for what they were voting.
As I said in an earlier intervention, the diagram was absolutely clear. It explained that in relation to grave permanent injury to the health of the woman, amendment (f) imposed no limit, (g) would be 28 weeks, and in the case
Column 1203of a substantial risk of serious handicap, the relevant amendment would introduce no limit, compared with the 28 weeks in the Bill. The guide produced by the Whip, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North--it was described as an idiot guide--described amendment (f) as "Liberalising--provides no time limit in those cases where mother risks grave injury."
That was carried by 337 votes to 146, with myself voting with the majority. Amendment (i) was described in that guide as
"Liberalising--provides no time limit for abortion if child is likely to be seriously handicapped."
That was carried by 277 votes to 201. I voted on the losing side on that occasion, as did the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale, because I should have preferred 28 weeks for handicapped cases.
I checked the Division lists. My right hon. Friend the Member for Selby voted the wrong way on both occasions. Knowing his views and convictions and examining those Division lists, I am sure that he did not intend to vote the way that he did on those occasions. I cannot but help think that that is why my right hon. Friend has been asked to move the amendment, for he is the only one who appears to have voted the wrong way.
My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Sir M. McNair-Wilson) voted the wrong way once ; he got one wrong and one right. All other hon. Members who voted on that occasion voted then as they are speaking now. They knew exactly what they were doing, and they went down--I went down with them--by 76 votes in one Division, they had a majority of almost 190 against them in the other.
An attempt is now being made to reverse the situation--giving the House a second opportunity, as has been said--but to avoid putting the same Question for the second time, those in favour of that course are using the mechanism of the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929. They are bringing a confused method back into the Bill by reversing the former decision.
To reintroduce the Infant Life (Preservation) Act, as amendment No. 4 would do, would take us back to the strange feature of that Act, in that before 28 weeks it is necessary for the prosecution to prove that the child was capable of being born alive, and after 28 weeks there is a rebuttable presumption. That has always been confusing, as we all know. I do not claim that it is unintelligible to lawyers. It has not existed in Scotland, although I am sure that Scottish lawyers would have no more difficulty in understanding it than English lawyers.
If the amendment were made, taking the concept of grave permanent injury to the health of the mother back to 24 weeks--I did not vote for that on the previous occasion--the effect would be that between 24 and 28 weeks there would be an offence under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act if it were proved that the child was capable of being born alive ; above 28 weeks there would be an offence under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act unless it was shown that the child was not capable of being born alive ; and in the case of the child born with serious physical or mental abnormalities, there would be no offence if it was under 28 weeks--none of the long-term protection to which my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone was, I think, referring when she said that she was trying to defend
Column 1204that aspect--but above 28 weeks there would be an offence under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act unless it was shown that the child was not capable of being born alive.
I have selected from a large table circumstances describing the effects of amendment No. 4 on termination under different grounds after 24 weeks. I said on the previous occasion that the legal consequence of reversing the provision in the way suggested would be unbelievably confusing. As was made clear by my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone--the Whip for the evening, if I may use that expression--the effect for doctors would be so confusing that they would know that above 24 weeks they would be at risk from the law if they carried out an abortion in the case of proven brain damage to the woman and above 28 weeks they would be at risk from the law if the child was suffering from severe foetal handicap.
Mr. Alison : My right hon. and learned Friend is drawing our attention to this important document, which is meant to throw light on the path that we have been trying to tread in this complicated debate. The very last sentence of the last annex on the last page of the descriptive brochure issued by the Leader of the House--I refer to annex D--states :
"Where the Abortion Act set a limit of 24 weeks or less, ILPA would apply above that time limit and would put the burden of proof on the defence from 24 weeks onwards instead of from 28."
Because my right hon. and learned Friend has himself introduced subsection (1) (a), which specifies 24 weeks as one of the limited options in respect of so-called social abortions, by that very definition the ILPA has become involved on his initiative, exactly as defined in the specification issued by the Leader of the House. So my right hon. and learned Friend cannot complain that by introducing the 24 weeks to the other three subsections we are creating confusion.
Mr. Clarke : The paragraph from which my right hon. Friend is reading is the last of a series dealing with the last two amendments. It raised the question of what would happen if the House voted to decouple the Infant Life (Preservation) Act, and whether it would then be sensible to go on to vote for another amendment to reduce the ILPA to 24 weeks for non- Abortion Act cases. The sentence to which my right hon. Friend referred makes it clear that that would be logical if it were wanted. By general agreement--I remember consulting my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone-- we did not move that amendment because nobody particularly wanted to move it, so the sentence deals with a hypothesis in which no one was interested and which was never moved--and which has not been mentioned since. It does not undermine my basic point.
Furthermore, turning to the page on which my right hon. Friend claims there is a mistake, which deals with exceptions for emergency situations, we read :"no limit (amendment i)". Three sentences below the paragraph about which my right hon. Friend complained we read : "Amendment (f), if carried, would provide that there should be no time limit to the exception on the grounds of grave permanent injury."
If this amendment is carried, the House will have flatly contradicted the two amendments that it passed by large majorities on an earlier occasion. We shall then have to decide what happens next, but I still argue that the House must come to a resolution of all those matters and of the law. Personally, I should continue to go for 28 weeks in the
Column 1205case of handicap to the child. There has been no such operation recently, but we are debating no amendment that would allow us to return to 28 weeks, so, although I lost last time, I should have left the matter there.
I do not agree with a reduction to 24 weeks when there is a risk of grave permanent injury to the mother. If doctors are dealing with a mother who will suffer grave permanent injury if her pregnancy is continued, I cannot believe it moral to make it illegal to terminate her pregnancy while doing everything possible to save the life of the child.
The House was right before ; I await the judgment of the House on a free vote later tonight.
Mr. Alton : Four amendments are before us, and before dealing with amendment No. 4, the most controversial, I should like to support the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), who spoke to amendment No. 28, which would give the House the chance to make case-specific the recommendations made by a doctor carrying out an abortion, so that we can clearly know in future debates whether an abortion has been carried out for seemingly trivial reasons.
There have been disagreements about whether abortions have occurred for reasons such as club foot, cleft palate or harelip. I suppose that to some extent we all rely on our postbags and anecdotal evidence. In one case where the child is my godson, it was recommended that the mother should have an amniocentesis test for the following child because the first had been born with a cleft palate. When she asked why she should have the test, she was told that it would be irresponsible not to do so. The woman, who is a constituent of the hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), was then told that she would jeopardise the pregnancy if she did not proceed with the test. Of course the opposite is the case, because amniocentesis carries a 3 per cent. risk of a spontaneous abortion.
The fact that a doctor would put pressure on a mother to have such a test is reprehensible. The fact that he tried to justify it by saying that an earlier child had been born with a cleft palate and that therefore the next child might have some disability shows the route down which we have gone. It is the eugenics route, a justification of abortion on the ground that in some way the baby may be born disabled.
Anyone listening to our debates and to debates outside would think that the vast majority of abortions were for disability reasons. That is not true, because 98 per cent. of all abortions are on perfectly healthy children and even 92 per cent. of late abortions are on perfectly healthy children and the disability issue does not arise. Amendment No. 28 would at least require the nature of the disability to be specified, and it would end this argument once and for all because each year we could table parliamentary questions asking the Secretary of State about the returns for that year and we would know the precise reasons for abortions.
Amendment No. 29 was tabled by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and concerns the drug RU486. The Secretary of State for Health said that the amendment would pave the way for RU486 and would avoid the need for the House to return to the subject if it so wished.
Column 1206Anyone would think that RU486 was not available in Britain but that is not the case because trials have been undertaken and it is significant that the clinic chosen for the trials is in my constituency.
Clinical trials have shown that in most cases it is also necessary to administer prostaglandin. The pill has side effects such as incomplete abortion and severe bleeding in the mother. It has been suggested that the mother is more likely to suffer from post-abortion trauma after delivering a complete but dead baby. If the amendment is accepted, RU486 will become available.
It is worth bearing in mind that there has been some wide-scale experience in France. The French medical journal of 30 April says that Roussel, the company which manufactures RU486, has sent a circular to abortionists in France telling them of one heart attack and another cardiac anomaly that have occurred in a woman after she had undergone an RU486 abortion.
The company also reported knowledge of more than 3,000 further cases of less serious side effects and said that women must be assessed for risk of cardiac problems before taking the drug, that the procedures in use must be tightened, and that resuscitation equipment must be available and ready for use wherever the drug is administered. We all know that in private clinics such facilities are rarely available.
Let us be clear about the area that we are entering by paving the way in the manner that the Secretary of State has suggested. Amendment No. 30 also stands in the name of the hon. Member for Salisbury ; it deals with selective reduction. We often use euphemisms in debates to disguise what we really mean. The Lancet recently published a letter which suggested that the term "selective reduction" might be politically unacceptable to the House and suggested that it would be better to use the phrase "pregnancy enhancement".
We should be clear what selective reduction means. It means that, where there is a multiple pregnancy with too many foetuses, or where one is thought to be handicapped, the surplus or handicapped babies can be removed. A doctor using ultrasound to guide the needle stabs the heart of one of the babies and injects potassium chloride. That is usually carried out at nine to 12 weeks gestation, but in some cases--the House has already had drawn to its attention tonight the case of the King's college baby--at 27 weeks' gestation. Not years ago, but this year, a baby was aborted at 27 weeks' gestation. That case is currently the subject of a police inquiry.
Mr. Key : It is precisely because of the unclearness of the law at present and precisely because there is enormous dispute in the medical and the legal professions that I am seeking, through the amendment, to clarify the law so that the medical and legal professions know exactly where they stand. We cannot go on ducking those responsibilities.
Mr. Alton : That is precisely the point that I am making. The hon. Gentleman wants us to make legal what I believe the House should outlaw because it is wrong. At 27 weeks' gestation, the King's college baby was aborted because it was one of twins which would have been infertile for the rest of its life. In no way was that a life-threatening disability or a handicap.
Column 1207Mr. Alton : It is true. I shall give the hon. Lady further details.
Mr. Kenneth Clarke : Such an abortion would have been illegal if it did not comply with the Abortion Act. What my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) is saying is that the abortion being graphically described by the hon. Gentleman must comply with the Abortion Act. I will not comment on the particular case, but anything of the kind that the hon. Gentleman is decribing would be unlawful.
Mr. Alton : The very reason that the Secretary of State describes is a disability. If that disability is given as the reason for an abortion, it will be perfectly legal to selectively reduce using the handicap provision right the way up to birth unless amendment No. 4 is carried this evening. Therefore, it is all the more imperative that we consider amendment No. 4 in the context of the new amendments that have been placed before the House for consideration only today. It is vital that we reverse the bad decision that was taken. Whether that was the result of confusion or whether the House knew the reason for it is immaterial. The whole point of a Report stage is so that we can reconsider matters after we have pondered them. But in the context of the other amendment on selective reduction, it is even more important that we ensure that, right the way up to birth, there is protection for the child that might otherwise be removed. In opposing amendment No. 4, various arguments have been placed before the House. One was that the letter from Professor Finnis and Dr. Keown was in some way misleading. My right hon. Friend referred to the first part of the letter, which says that abortions would be allowed until birth in a wide range of cases, markedly altering the existing law which allows the destruction of a viable foetus only to save the mother's life. Let us be clear that that is precisely what the House has authorised by uncoupling the Infant Life (Preservation) Act from the Abortion Act which my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Sir D. Steel) put in place in 1967. We ensure that a perfectly viable baby of, say, 23 weeks' gestation would have to be saved. Under the terms of what the House has agreed, that would no longer be the case.
The Scottish question has constantly been thrown in tonight as though that is a reason why, as the hon. Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Doran) and the right hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Alison) said, we in some way or other should not ensure that the law does the most to maximise the protections and safeguards for the unborn child. I took the trouble to speak to the Scottish Office during the passage of my Bill. The Infant Life (Preservation) Act did not apply in Scotland but other provisions did, and it is worth bearing those in mind. The then Solicitor-General, responding to the Corrie Bill, as it was known, in 1979, explained the law as it applied in Scotland. He said in Committee on that Bill :
"In Scotland the medical operation by surgery is essentially an assault if it is not cured by proper medical care and proper medical motivations. The motive must be a proper medical motive in the proper circumstances. The law governs late abortions."
So the law was different in those circumstances.
In this country, abortions are not regarded as an assault. Also, there are joint committees of the BMA, both Scottish and English, which together have drawn up guidelines that have been applied in England, Scotland