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3.40 pm

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): Partial-birth abortion, more correctly described by doctors as intact dilatation and evacuation, is a procedure used on rare occasions by some doctors in the United States of America when they believe it to be in the best interests of the woman. It is not currently used in the United Kingdom. Members may have already noted from the Official Report that on several occasions Conservative Members have asked how many times partial-birth abortions have taken place. On each of those occasions, Ministers have repeatedly confirmed that they are not aware of that procedure being used in the United Kingdom. A Bill therefore to prohibit its use is clearly unnecessary and a misuse of the valuable time of the House.

The descriptions of the procedure, as it is supposedly carried out in the United States, are both inaccurate and misleading. Descriptions such as the one we have just heard contain horrific accounts of the foetus being partially delivered while alive. It is my understanding that, on the rare occasions when intact dilatation and evacuation is carried out in the United States, the foetal heart is humanely stopped before the procedure. President Clinton himself has recently vetoed attempts to ban the procedure, referring to it as a potentially life-saving, certainly health-saving, measure for a small but extremely vulnerable group of women and families.

Emotive, grisly descriptions of abortion procedures are often used by those who oppose abortion to shock and repulse people. The anti-choice movement considers it an important tactic because it believes that those who are

4 Dec 1996 : Column 1044

pro-choice attempt to deny what is involved when a pregnancy is ended. That is not the case. Those of us who support legal abortion do so because we believe that it is necessary for the well-being of the woman.

It seems that the Bill proposed by the hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) is an attempt to reintroduce the topic of abortion to the House. She may expect that the emphasis on the details of that technique--her version--will attract support for further legislation to limit the availability of legal abortion. The present abortion law was accepted as necessary by a majority of both Houses in 1990. Nothing has changed since to justify any amendment.

Abortion at any stage of pregnancy is performed only after careful consideration and within the grounds permitted by law. Late abortions are often of wanted pregnancies, terminated because a severe foetal abnormality has been detected. Those women are especially vulnerable and it is important that when decisions are taken by doctors about the management of their care, they are free to act in the best interests of their patients.

When, earlier this year in another place, Lord Braine introduced a private Member's Bill to prohibit partial-birth abortion, it was opposed by the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. Those organisations support the view, which has also been expressed by Ministers in response to questions on the matter, that methods of abortion are a matter of clinical judgment.

As the procedure referred to as intact dilatation and evacuation is not used in this country, the Bill that the hon. Lady seeks leave to introduce would not affect abortion practice directly. It would, however, undermine the principle that a clinician should have freedom to choose the method of abortion most appropriate to a specific clinical situation.

That could interfere with doctors' ability to act in the interests of their patients. A gynaecologist or obstetrician could be convicted of a criminal offence, even when his or her peers considered the actions taken to be the safest and most appropriate management of an abortion. The clinical decisions taken by doctors could be influenced by their fear of prosecution. That would be an unacceptable outcome, and I ask the House to oppose the motion.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 19 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business), and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock, Sir Andrew Bowden, Mrs. Ann Winterton, Mr. Thomas McAvoy, Mr. A. J. Beith, Ms Liz Lynne, Mr. Toby Jessel, Mr. Keith Vaz, Mr. David Atkinson, Mr. Joe Benton, Sir Michael Grylls, and Rev. Martin Smyth.

Partial-Birth Abortion

Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock accordingly presented a Bill to prohibit partial-birth abortions: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 14 February, and to be printed [Bill No. 37].

4 Dec 1996 : Column 1045

Points of Order

3.46 pm

Sir Jim Spicer (West Dorset): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. The House noted with concern the demonstration that occurred yesterday, but it was with far greater concern that we noted another factor. We have seen demonstrations over many years, but we have seldom seen a demonstration that has had the support of Members within the Chamber. You made your views known very firmly, Madam Speaker, and I wonder whether those views might be reinforced if we could establish which Member of the House issued the tickets concerned. What further action might you be prepared to take to make it clear that the House will not accept support for demonstrations?

Madam Speaker: I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has raised that point of order. It has been the custom of the House and all its Members to pay no attention on the infrequent occasions when demonstrations take place in the Gallery. I hope that that custom will be followed in future by all Members of the House. I might add that the tickets yesterday were provided by an Opposition Member; those today were provided by a Government Member.

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West): Further to that point of order, Madam Speaker. It is important not only who issued the tickets but whether, as you said, the demonstrators had support from the Floor of the House. When I went into the Members Lobby after the demonstration yesterday, I was concerned to see that the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) appeared to have a great deal of knowledge when she briefed the press about what had happened. Clearly she knew what was on the banner, which had not been unfurled and so could not have been read from inside the Chamber. If Members were aiding and abetting such a demonstration, I hope that you will take the most serious view.

Madam Speaker: Of course I would, but I must have evidence. I have no reason to believe that Members of the House were aiding and abetting anything yesterday. I think that they were over-enthusiastic, and did not recognise their responsibilities to the House.

Mr. Nicholas Budgen (Wolverhampton, South-West): On a point of order, Madam Speaker. It is normal for there to be a period of reflection between Report and Third Reading of any Bill. This gives an opportunity for those who are affected to advise their Member of Parliament as to whether they wish him or her to support the Third Reading or not. This period of reflection will not be allowed in respect of the Firearms (Amendment) Bill, which is just another indication of how the Bill is being rushed through the House. In those circumstances, will you suggest to the Government that they explain how those affected can be consulted if there is no gap between the two stages?

Madam Speaker: It is not always the case that there is a period of reflection between one reading and another. Indeed, the House itself came to a conclusion that we should deal with the Bill in this way.

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Mr. Andrew Faulds (Warley, East): Further to the earlier point of order, Madam Speaker. As you will recall, I wrote you an extraordinarily warm, gracious and gentle letter yesterday, pointing out that as an old, old Member of the House, I do remember that the practice was that the Gallery does not exist. Yesterday--I regret having to make this point--there were two breaches of this practice. There was the recognition of Dame Vera Lynn--God bless her, but she should not be recognised as having sat in the Gallery. The second offence was not clapping the demonstration--Members are entitled to do that, in my view--but recognising that a demonstration had taken place. That was totally out of order. I will give as much muscle as I can to your powerful right arm if you enforce these regulations.

Madam Speaker: I have already made my views clear on one of the points. The hon. Gentleman is quite right--in this Chamber, we do not recognise what goes on in the Gallery. On his second point, the hon. Gentleman wrote me a charming letter. But, unhappily, I have to say that he is quite wrong about Dame Vera Lynn. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink), who put the question, did not make the point that the lady was in the Gallery, but that she was in the precincts of the House. There is a very clear distinction.

Mr. Faulds: I stand corrected, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker: Another charming letter tomorrow will be appreciated.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): Further to the point of order raised by the hon. Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Hughes), Madam Speaker. Since he named me specifically, may I say that I had no knowledge of the demonstration yesterday, nor of the demonstration today? However, I am well aware of the issues that were being raised. It is a question of genocide, and I have campaigned on this issue since 1989. It is regrettable that, in order to draw the attention of this House and the press to the issue and to the policy of the British Government, people have been forced to demonstrate in the Gallery.

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