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to set up a joint committee to consider the scientific, medical and social changes in relation to abortion that have taken place since 1967, with a view to presenting options for new legislation.
I take the opportunity to examine that recommendation, and particularly the suggestion that there might be a case for reducing the time limit. I want to put on record some facts about how many late abortions there are, and I want to consider whether there really have been scientific, medical or social changes of sufficient importance to warrant serious consideration of changes in the law. I do not believe that there have been.
It is important to recognise the passion that is provoked by the subject. It confronts many peoples core beliefs, and that includes me. It is one of my core beliefs that it is important for every woman to be able to control her fertility. Without such a basic right, women have no chance of equality. No contraceptive method is 100 per cent. effective, and no woman should be forced to carry and bear a child that she profoundly does not want. Abortions must therefore be available. It is right for everyone involved in the debate to declare their own interests, not in the Alda Barry sense of declaring an interest, but as regards their core beliefs.
It is important that those on the other side of the debate make it clear where they are coming from on the issue. One of the reasons the argument for restricting the time limit is so unconvincing is that it is often put by people who themselves are not convinced by it, and who take the pragmatic stance that if they cannot make abortion illegal or criminal, they will do their best to restrict access as much as they can.
Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): The hon. Lady says that all women should have the right to have an abortion. What about the right of the father if he desperately wants to have a child and does not want his partner to have an abortion? What rights does he have?
Emily Thornberry: The right is fundamentally that of the woman who carries and bears the child. We are not going to agree on that, just as I am not likely to agree with Cardinal Keith OBrien who, as I understand it, is arguing for a restriction on the time during which abortion would be possible I presume that he believes that abortion should be illegal and that there should be no abortions, yet he joins the debate. I believe it is women, not Parliament or the Church, who should be making such decisions.
On the question whether there have been sufficient scientific or medical changes to support a change in the law, let me start with a few facts about late abortions. No one wants to have a late abortion if there is any other realistic option. Less than 1 per cent. of abortions take place after 22 weeks, and 87 per cent. of abortions take place before 13 weeks.
Mr. Walker: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The hon. Lady says that only 1 per cent. of abortions take place after 22 weeks. Can she give a rough breakdown to explain why those abortions take place so late?
Emily Thornberry: Yes. Women who have abortions late are very young, or women going through the menopause, women who do not speak English, women who come across the one fifth of GPs who say they are broadly anti-abortion, women who have had difficulty accessing services and women who are scared, ill educated or marginalised. It is those people who are confronted with such a decision and who, with the assistance and support of medical services, make that extremely difficult decision. It is for them and not for the hon. Gentleman to make that decision.
There have not been any dramatic scientific breakthroughs in recent years. The survival rates are still very low for babies born before 24 weeks, and those that do survive frequently survive with severe disabilities. Last June, doctors at the annual conference of the British Medical Association overwhelmingly rejected a motion calling for the upper limit to be cut from 24 to 20 weeks77 per cent. of doctors voted against it.
The spark that has reignited the debate on time limits is not medical advances, but the beautiful and highly emotive 4D images of foetuses offered by Professor Campbell in his private London clinic. Foetuses can be seen opening their eyes, kicking their legs and sucking their thumbs, but as Allan Templeton, the secretary of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has said, the images add little to the science. If we want a debate about the science, let us talk about the science. He says:
Observing these developments and physiological movements is not changing anything about the time of viability. These images however have given rise again to the question as to
whether or not there should be a reduction in the time limit of 24 weeks. It is distressing that so much of the comment has been so ill-informed.
Mr. Newmark: What scientific evidence was there for the doctors who made that decisionthe 77 per cent. who voted against reducing the time limit for abortion from 24 weeks to 22 weeks? Was there any scientific evidence behind that decision? [Interruption.]
Emily Thornberry: I am advised that there was a full report of the matter in the Evening Standard. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson). I do not have with me a copy of that well known scientific journal. The point is that there has not been a breakthrough in the science to prompt the Committee to claim that we should re-examine the matter.
At the beginning of the debate, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) was asked what particular medical or scientific changes his Committee refers to when it recommends reconsidering legislation. As I understand it from his response, there is none.
Mr. Willis: My response was that I do not know of any such changes. That is different. The purpose of an inquiry would be to put the issue to bed. If the hon. Lady is right and there is no new scientific evidence, that would come out in such an inquiry and would be laid before the House. If she is wrong and there is new evidence, that would come out in the inquiry and be laid before the House. For the life of me I cannot understand why the hon. Lady should even question the principle of re-examining the evidence after 16 years.
Emily Thornberry: My central point is this: if we want to have a cool and rational debate on the subject and we want it to be prompted by the science, come to us with the science. If not, the debate descends into raw emotion and prejudice. I stated my position at the beginning. We have heard from other hon. Members what their position is. In the end, the decision often comes down to emotion, how people feel and their own sense of what is right or wrong. That is why I believe it is for individual women to make the decision, because it is a profoundly personal decision.
The Marie Stopes International study on late abortion provides many of the figures and stories that I have quoted. I will be happy to provide the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough with a copy. There have been studies about why women have late abortions and the circumstances that provoke those late abortions.
Every time I have been pregnant, I have had the great good fortune that my children were wanted and we eagerly anticipated them. It is difficult to imagine how it must be for women who profoundly do not want to be pregnant, who do not know what to do, who do not speak English, who may be 14, or who may be 48 and already have four grown-up children. Abortion is already so stigmatised that we must be very careful when we tread down this path.
In the end, although we have many disagreements, I presume we all agree that every abortion is a tragedy, and that every child should be born into a home that wants it and loves it. At least we can all agree with the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) when he said that if we want to try to make life easier for families, the most important thing for us to do is to improve sex education in schools and relationship education so that people treat one another with respect, so that young girls know that they do not need to sleep with their boyfriends in order to be important and in order for their boyfriends to love them, and so that people have respect for themselves and one another. That should be comprehensively taught in our schools, and we should also ensure that people have access to abortion and to information, so that we can all aspire together to ensure that when a child is born, it is wanted and loved.
Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): With 104 recommendations, the report by the Science and Technology Committee is as deep as it is wide. As a current member of the Committee, I did not play a part in its production. Given its size, I am quite glad about that. I thank the original members of the Committee, especially its former Chairman, the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), for the inquiry and for the clear report and recommendations.
The report rightly and necessarily challenges our emotional, ethical and religious boundaries. In the field of human fertilisation and embryology, scientific advances, developments and possibilities arise almost daily. I am concerned about the group of people who donate in order to help childless couples to conceive and have children. Recommendation 33 criticises the Government in relation to the removal of anonymity for those donors. It states:
We regret the Departments poor use of evidence in policy-making and its failure to commission and have published the necessary research underpinning its decision on the removal of donor anonymity.
One could argue that there is now a threat to the flow of donors who have been giving willingly. In their response, the Government reject the recommendation on the basis that they used questionnaires, consultations and surveys to discover the views of interested parties. However, discoveries in social, behavioural and economic science often require concerted effort through research or the commissioning of research for science-based evidence.
My question to the Ministerif she would please listenis this: what scientific evidence was used to inform the Governments decision completely and retrospectively to change the policy on the disclosure of information on donors? The service provided by donors to couples struggling to conceive is undeniable and self-evident. If the policy is not based on appropriate evidence, the Government may undermine the supply of donors and create a great deal of unhappiness for childless couples in future.
Dr. Evan Harris (Oxford, West and Abingdon) (LD):
It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I tried to catch your eye for several reasons, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have a long-standing interest in this issue. I was
mentioned several times earlier in the debate. I was a member of the Science and Technology Committee that worked on the reportwork being the operative wordand I am a current member of the Committee. I am a member of the British Medical Associations ethics committee, having been re-elected by doctors last week. In addition to all that, I am the Front-Bench spokesman.
The introductory speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) was all-encompassing of the main points of the report and a very fair version of it. He inherited the report and cannot claim that it is his baby, to coin a phrase, but he described it well.
The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson), who chaired the Committee, did a fantastic job in difficult circumstances. I hugely admire his commitment to science and to his work in the Committee. I extend those remarks to the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key), for whom I have huge admiration that increased, were that possible, as I listened to his speech.
Producing the report was difficult, because five people supported many of the recommendations and five people opposed them. The difficulty faced by those of us in the notional majority was that when it came to debating and voting on the recommendations, the minority had found it difficult to turn up because of the pressures that have been described. It is hard to develop coherence when people vote four against one in some sittings and five against five in others.
I do not accept that the report is libertarian. It is liberalising. However, it does not argue for a change in the 14-day limit, which is the fundamental limit in the 1990 settlement and in Warnock; it does not argue against the Warnock consensus on the gradual acquisition of rights in consideration of the interests of the embryo and the foetus; and it does not argue, as it could have done, for liberalisation of abortion law. It was not extremist or libertarian, but it is fair to say that it was brave.
The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority felt that it was attacked in the report, but it was not, as the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Newmark) explained. I must be careful about the HFEA, because two of its last three chairs are constituents of mine. The estimable Ruth Deech and the estimable Bishop of Oxford, recently retired, are extremely senior people in their field and brook no unjustified criticism. However, the report should not be seen as a criticism of the HFEA, which does a difficult job using a law that is 16 years old and creaking at the seams and should not be dragged through the courts.
I greatly enjoyed the speech by the hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton). Although I disagree with her, she speaks for many people. She made several points that are worth responding to, including some in which she mentioned me. She talked about societys distaste for some of the reports recommendations, although she did not provide data to back that up, except in the case of sex selection, which I accept that a majority of people currently oppose. However, it is not good enough for us to base our law and lawmaking on the yuck factor, particularly when it involves fundamental rights such as the reproductive rights of other adult human beings. That is why the Government were right to legislate to permit gay adoption although
a majority of people found that distasteful and something that they did not understand. I am fairly sure that the hon. Lady voted against permitting adoption of children by gay couples. The Conservative approach is usually to argue for less state intervention in private lives unless there is good evidence of harm that requires it. That is a reasonable position. However, it was suggested in several well reasoned contributions that the instinct on some of these issues is to regulate and to legislate to restrict freedom, in which case it is necessary to provide the relevant evidence.
Much has been said about abortion and whether we should debate it. Recommendation 77 argues for a future debate after a review of the law. The hon. Members for Brighton, Kemptown (Dr. Turner) and for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), who are assiduous members of the Committee, spoke well and clearly on the subject. I do not agree with the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East that there have been lots of debates on abortion, in Government time or otherwise. There have not. We had the Abortion Act 1967 and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990, and last July I called an Adjournment debate on abortion time limits. Other than that, I can find no record of parliamentary time devoted specifically to abortion, other than on ten-minute Bills. We need to have such a debate in order to retain public confidence.
The hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Emily Thornberry) gave a full-blooded pro-choice speech that I greatly enjoyed. It is important that that view, which reflects the majority view in the country, is heard. We do not often hear it because the other side is well organised and feels equally strongly about such matters. However, the hon. Lady must acknowledge that her argumentand the reasons that she gave and that the Stopes report set outthat the individual decisions are for women to make applies at 25 weeks as well as 24, and that Parliament must set a limit. The question is how Parliament determines that limit.
In 1990, the limit was based on viability at 24 weeks. If that period has reduced, the hon. Lady may continue to vote for 24 weeks as a practical limit, and I might support her, having listened to the arguments for why any such reduction should cut across the rights of women in difficult positions. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said, Parliament must debate that and make its decision: for a practical limit of 24 weeks, a viability limit of 24 weeks or a lower limit, if it believes, on the basis of scientific evidence, that the limit on which viability was previously based has reduced.
I share the hon. Ladys scepticism about whether medical advances have reduced the time on which viability is basedif we believe that to mean a reasonable chance of surviving a reasonable length of time without unreasonable disabilityfrom 24 weeks. However, like my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, I do not know the answer and Parliament should have an opportunity of examining the science before deciding.
Our recommendation in the report went beyond viability and considered other issues, including medical and social advances that suggest that, for example, access to early medical abortion, which is an easier way to have abortionsif we are to accept abortions, we should not force women to go through more difficulty
than necessaryreduces later abortions. There is a good argument for making access to early medical abortion easier.
The hon. Member for Bolton, South-East set out why we believed that sex selection for social reasons might be considered, and that good arguments against it would have to be made. He also clearly set out our reasons for supporting research.
It has been said that I have strong views on the suggested welfare of the child provision. That also applies to the rest of the Committee. I believe that a provision for considering the welfare of a potential child when dealing with the creation of families by the small group of people who are infertile is discriminatory. It is the wrong way to protect the welfare of the child, which we must do. Social services and child protection bodies are best placed, when a child is born, to make a risk assessment, especially if they have had a warning when someone began the treatment process that there was some anxiety. Experts should make such an assessment, not gynaecologists or general practitioners who hardly know their patients and are not in a good position to make such decisions. We heard evidence in Committee that such intervention was pointless because it was ineffective and ignored, and that the birth of only 10 children a year was avoided through the process. They could be looked after through the other means that I described. Do we want state regulation of fertility? I do not believe that we do, certainly not without good evidence that it would be better to do that. Are we genuinely arguing that it is better not to be born than to take such steps?
On the need for a father, I believe that it is discriminatory and restrictive to subject some women to such a test. The state must have good reason for intervening in such matters and there is no good evidence to show that the children of lesbian parents or single women who specifically seek reproductive treatment are any the worse off for that background. Evidence exists to show that children born to poor families do worse than those born to rich families. Would hon. Members call for clinics to check on the need for cash in the family before offering fertility treatment? No, of course we would not do that. That would also be discriminatory, even though there is more evidence of poor welfare in those circumstances.
Providing for the need for a father creates a market for internet services such as Man Not Included. If we start regulating those services, women will turn to strangers to be impregnated, and there is no protection in such cases. I do not believe that it is a matter of common sense because one persons common sense is anothers prejudice.
Daniel Kawczynski: The hon. Gentleman says that we should not discriminate against lesbian couples but, unfortunately, life is discriminatory. The Almighty decided that children would be made through intercourse between a man and a woman. That is natures way of creating children. Why does he discount that?
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