There is rightly much talk in the House about human rights and the rights of the vulnerable. In my personal view, there is just one, overwhelming, fundamental human right: the right to life. I must confess that my views have changed over the years. If I am to be honest with myself, I have to take an entirely consistent position. If a vote were to be held on capital punishment, I would vote against it. That is why I voted against all the recent wars, and why I am voting as I am on the Bill. I believe that one can only take a
consistent position based on humanity, with all its faults and disabilities. That is where I stand; I do not know any other way. I hope that the House will forgive those of us who take that position.
We sometimes feel that the ghosts of great parliamentarians are looking down on us in our great debates on the social issues of the day. The great-great-grandson of William Wilberforce said recently that he thought that if that great parliamentarian were here now, he would support us. Wilberforce fought against entrenched opposition, moneyed interests and a world view according to which some people were not fully human. We know that we are up against it tonight; we know that the pro-choice lobby dominates the establishment, and that we are talking about a multi-million-pound industry, but for all that, we feel that our voice has to be heard. It is not perhaps the voice of the leading members of the medical establishment, or the voice of the majority in the House of Commons, but it is the voice of many people in our country, and the views expressed by that voice have to be put on record.
We believe that an unborn child of 12 weeks gestation has undeniable human characteristics. Her organs, muscles and nerves have begun to function. She has fingernails and toenails. To become a child, she needs nothing more than to stay for a few months in the safety of her mothers womb. We will all take different views. Some will not share our opinion, but undeniably the view is developing in this country that what I say is more and more true of unborn children at 16, 18 or 20 weeks. We must accept that in this instance we are dealing with a human life. If we cannot deny the humanity of babies at 12 weeks, we cannot deny our duty to protect them.
Those are our views, and I set them out at the beginning of the debate, but I know that many people will not accept them. However, I think that they will accept that public opinion is changing in this country. That is why I tabled the new clause. The public are beginning to realise that we are out of step with many other countries. That is partly because, as a result of advances in modern medical science, we know so much more about what goes on in the womb.
Only this week, I read a moving article by Vincent Argent, the former medical director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. He is not a religious person. He has carried out many abortions, and he is presumably pro-choice. He was critical of the euphemistic way we talk of foetuses when we discuss abortions, whereas when we refer to IVF we talk of babies. He said:
Most people do not realise just how distressing late abortions can be. The procedure remains the last taboo. While heart and brain surgery are regularly shown on television, the reality of a late abortion has never been seen on British screens...It is hard to describe how it feels to pull out parts of a baby, to see arms, and bits of leg, and finally the head.
I know that it is distressing to read that; I do not want to cause distress, but we have to accept that there is a double standard. We are so careful about the life of a baby when it is wanted, and so concerned about the
mothers health, but we are dismissive of the rights of an unborn child when it is not wanted. Of course we would like every child to be a wanted child, and of course we appreciate the enormous pressures on women, and the difficulties that they face. However, an unwanted foetus can become a wanted child, but a dead foetus can never become a living one. That is our position.
Anne Moffat (East Lothian) (Lab): The hon. Gentleman talked about double standards. Is it not a double standard for him, a total anti-abortionist, to use the new clause to chip away at legislation that is required for the safety of women and children? As an ex-nursean ex-professionalI have seen things at first hand. A woman who has an abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy does so because of extreme medical circumstances.
Mr. Leigh: That is the hon. Ladys view. I think that everybody knows where I stand, and many people in the Chamber will have religious convictions. As we know, the fact is that politics is about practical realities.
The practical reality is that in this country we have a 24-week abortion limit, which is one of the highest in Europe. As public opinion changes, we as parliamentarians are entitled to give the House a chance to vote on various options to reduce it, from 12 weeks to 22 weeks. That is all we are doing. We know that whatever our personal views, religious or otherwisemany people who believe strongly in abortion are not religiouswe know that abortion on demand up to 10 or 12 weeks is the reality in every country in Europe, apart from Ireland and Malta. It is not a question of chipping away; we are giving the House the opportunity to vote.
There are double standards about the unborn child. Whatever ones views on abortionsI understand the strongly held views of many people who feel that they have to defend the rights of women to make a choice about something in their own bodysurely everyone in the Chamber feels depressed about what is going on in Europe. It presents a bleak picture of our country that we have one of the highest abortion rates in Europe200,000 a year. In modern Britain, the most dangerous place to be is in ones mothers womb, which should be a place of sanctity. Ninety-eight per cent. of abortions are social. Only 1.3 per cent. are because of foetal handicap and 0.4 per cent. are because of the risk to the mothers life. It is a bleak picture of modern Britain.
We read in our newspapers this week that some women have multiple abortions: 4,000 women have had four abortions, and scores have had eight. Is that the sort of Britain to be proud of? I know that I will not get the support of many people when I say this, but fewer abortions will mean fewer women suffering. It is pro-women to take the position that we take. The Royal College of Psychiatrists recently issued a statement about the mental and physical damage to womens health caused by abortions.
That is our principled stand. We have set it out, knowing that it is not shared by everybody, but it is the view of many of our fellow countrymen and country ladies, and that view must be put forward.
Why do I speak of 12 weeks? I know many hon. Members will be doubtful about voting for the motion. They will say that it represents an extreme point of view, but is it so extreme? The limit of 10 to 12 weeks
applies in France, Portugal, Sloveniaalthough in Slovenia there is an appeal to a committeeAustria, Belgium. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia and Spain. In Romania the limit is 14 weeks, and in Sweden 18 weeks.
The 24-week limit applies only in the United Kingdom, Holland, Latvia, Lithuania and Cyprus. Do we want to be up there in that league? Germany, Austria and France are great countries with wonderful Parliaments and democracies. They debate these matters and, after mature debate, they have all taken the view that a limit of 10 or 12 weeks is about right.
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): My hon. Friend will be aware that even in the United Kingdom abortion is not available on demand everywhere. In Northern Ireland, as the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentlemen sitting on the Benches in front of me will testify, abortion is still illegal.
Mr. Leigh: I hope that if we still believe strongly in the right of the people of Northern Ireland to have control of their own affairs, we will let them make that decision in the way that most of their leading political parties want to make it.
Given what is happening in the rest of Europe, it is not surprising that public opinion is changing. A recent ComRes poll showed that 58 per cent. of the people, including three out of four women, think that abortion should be limited to 20 weeks or less, and 41 per cent. of women think that the abortion limit should be lowered to 12 weeks or less, so ours is not an extreme view. I know that opinion polls are not conclusive and one can throw doubt on a particular poll, but I am sure everybody will accept that there is a genuine change in public opinion and we should reflect that in this House.
Forty years ago the House was asked by a Member: Would the sponsors of the Bill think it right to kill a baby they can see? Of course they would not. Why then do they think it right to kill one they cannot see? Since 1990, despite what we were promised way back in 1966 and 1967, we have effectively had abortion on demand, certainly up to 18 or 20 weeks and, under the law, up to 24 weeks. But since 1990 we have learned so much more about what goes on in the womb. We can see babies walking and sucking their thumbs. I have seen that with my own six children.
Forty years ago, another right hon. Member made this telling statement: When a decision about abortion is taken, the mother can speak, the doctor can speak, the father may well speak, but what can the child in the womb say? The child cannot speak. She cannot say, I want to live. I believe that we should give that silent child a voice.
Mrs. Claire Curtis-Thomas (Crosby) (Lab): I shall speak to new clauses 7 and 1, and other new clauses relating to a reduction in the limit beyond which an abortion may not take place. I share the views of the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). I am sorry that we do not all have the same view on this issue.
In 2006, 193,000 women in this country had abortions. Under new clause 7, the next 200,000 women who will probably elect to have an abortion next year would have
the right to appropriate support and information before making a final decision. Obtaining an abortion is incredibly easy. I know that at first hand, having recently accompanied my friend to an NHS-sponsored clinic. Consultations at the hairdressers have taken longer than the time it took to make a decision to have an abortion.
For the record, and contrary to many of the statements that I have read this week which purport to know my views, I am not opposed to abortion. I believe that women should have the right to choose; I just hope that they do not choose to have an abortion. I hope that all of us here are working to create an environment in which economic and social abortions are unnecessary, and that babies who are disabled or who are not considered acceptable because they may be handicapped in one way or another are no longer considered to be such a burden on society that we must get rid of them at all costs.
I would very much like it if we could change the rules and regulations so that the same rules applied to babies in the womb who have a disability as to those who do not. I do not understand why we continue to discriminate against them. For me, all individuals are born equal, irrespective of the disabilities they manifest. That is irrelevant. We are all of the same value.
Having an abortion is a very serious undertaking, and women who have had one rarely ever mention it again. I suppose that for many it is something that they would prefer to forget, but even for them, echoes of that day will live with them for ever. Some will come to bitterly regret their decision. Some women will invariably develop depressive anxiety or other mental health disorders as a direct result of a five-minute decision.
The new clause seeks to ensure that women presenting themselves for an abortion are given the sort of information that women should have had since the introduction of the law. I am arguing that at least five days before a woman finally makes any decision to have an abortion, a doctor should be required to offer her counselling and the details of the embryonic and foetal development of her baby at two-weekly intervals. She should also have information about the physical, psychological and psychiatric risks associated with the termination of pregnancy, including a description of the methods of termination of different types of pregnancies and any risks associated with those methods. Finally, the woman should have a right to know about adoption services and other sources of help and advice, including information on any disability or abnormality from which the pregnant womans embryo or foetus is at risk of suffering if born.
Dr. Evan Harris: Does the hon. Lady accept, first, that the existing consent forms and information sheets approved by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists provide information about the risks associated with abortion and as much information as the woman needs? Secondly, does she accept that it cannot be right to force doctors to give information that a woman says she does not want because she would find it distressing? Does the hon. Lady accept that the role of the doctor is not to hector or impose on women burdensome information, which they do not want to know, about the methods of abortion? That does not happen in any other form of medicine, and it should not happen in the one that we are discussing.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: But it does happen, does it not? When a man presents for a vasectomy at a doctors surgery, the doctor does not say, Come in, sit down and take your trousers off. He says, I think you ought to think about this for a little while. If the man involved is under the age of 30, childless and not yet married, the doctor may well say to him, I think you ought to think about this seriously. I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman; on many occasions, a doctor will take his patient to one side and say, Think about this very seriously.
Ms Angela C. Smith (Sheffield, Hillsborough) (Lab): I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Is she ready to acknowledge the very good work that is already done by a range of services in respect of counselling and carefully advising women before they make their decision?
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Yes, well, there are such services, of course, and I am aware of them. However, as I said earlier, I took my friend along for an abortion and no such services were available where we went. As for reading the small print, I happen to think that the event is so traumatic that many women are incapable of reading what is put in front of them. [Interruption.] That is the truth of it. Abortion is a very traumatic event and, as with other traumatic events, people require an opportunity to reflect on what is being said.
Those of us who have gone with relatives who are suffering from or diagnosed with cancer recognise those circumstances. The diagnosis is so traumatic and the impact on the individual so enormous that they are frequently precluded from understanding the significance of the decisions in front of them. That is why they elect to take somebody with them, and that is why I was pleased to accompany my friend.
Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings and Rye) (Lab): Is it not the case that one has to have informed consent in respect of almost every profession? When we go to a lawyer, he does not say, Im going to give you one half of the story but not the other. Is informed consent not a prerequisite for any treatment of most medical conditions?
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: It most certainly is. I have consulted a number of my medical friends about this issue. In other procedures, particularly those involving children, parents will often be sat down and invited to consider the consequences of the childs condition and of any operation. Then they will be encouraged to go home and talk to friends and family about them.
I believe that informed consent is a natural part of a whole range of medical procedures in this country. I just do not understand why it has been omitted in respect of what we are discussing. I understand that abortion is very traumatic and that women will find themselves in a terrible predicament, but I do not think that we will help them in the long term by expediting the process so quickly that we do not give due respect to what is being considered and undertaken.
Susan Kramer (Richmond Park) (LD):
I appreciate the hon. Ladys giving way. She will be aware that the doctor is required to offer counselling and that the
forms are structured around informed consent. Does she not agree that attempts to reduce the time limit for abortions remove from women the opportunity to think through the issues? Will she join us in pursuing that issue?
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I have heard that argument frequently this week. Frankly, the notion that we are limiting choice by suggesting that the limit for terminations should be reduced from 24 to 12 weeks is farcical. Nobody in the House is suggesting that we should extend the limit for legal abortions to 30 weeks to allow women another six weeks to consider their position. The issue of 24 weeks is about viability. I believe that many Members on both sides of the House are convinced that, given the opportunity, far more babies born and delivered at 23 weeks would be viable, and that we therefore have to protect them.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I hear from a sedentary position that that is not true, but a baby who was born at 22 weeks and six days is alive today. I do not know where science will take us; I am told that we can expect improvements in the care given to children in neonatal units. I hope so, but I do not believe that it is wrong to curtail the time available for a woman to decide whether she is going to have an abortion.
All the information that a woman needs about whether a baby has a physical or learning difficulty is available to her long before the 24-week cut-off date. I speak as a woman who has undergone those procedures, and I have two children with severe learning difficulties.
Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham) (Con): I am most grateful to the hon. Lady. I do not want to trade personal cases with her, but a constituent of mine has told me that at 22 weeks it was suggested to her that her baby had foetal abnormalities and that only at 23 weeks and three days was that confirmed. If the hon. Ladys proposal was put in place, I suggest that it would have made things extraordinarily difficult for my constituent.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I think that that was due to the timing of the tests, which might take place later in the pregnancy. However, as I know myself, tests are taken at 12, 14 and 16 weeks. If the tests are conducted then, their outcome can be known in the 20th week.
Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: I am most certainly aware of that because, unlike my hon. Friend, I have personally been through the procedure. I am very clued up about when the results of the tests can be received. Actually, the tests relate to the development of cultures. If the cultures are taken early enough, the results come at 20 weeks. By the way, I feel that I should tell Members that when I was given the results of my tests, it was immediately suggested to me that I should have an abortion.