Previous Section Index Home Page

20 May 2008 : Column 237

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Chris McCafferty: No, I will not give way. [Hon. Members: “Ah!”] I will not give way—it is important to make this point. Those guidelines say:

which is medical speak for up to 21 weeks, with the emphasis on “ideally”. We all routinely campaign for NICE guidelines to be implemented, do we not? I therefore have to assume that hon. Members also believe in those guidelines, or perhaps they are the exception.

What has been proven to reduce abortions is comprehensive sex education and unrestricted access to effective contraception and early safe abortion services. Opposition Members might not like it, but it is an established fact that Dutch women have the lowest abortion rates in the world, and that is because they have that access. Far from reducing the frequency of unwanted pregnancies and abortions, restricting abortion forces women to resort to illegal and mostly unsafe abortions, which endangers their health and their lives. That is why virtually all developed countries legalised abortions in the previous century—because they could no longer accept the tragic suffering and loss of their female population.

If women have no access to legal abortion, they resort to illegal means. Women will go to any lengths and will take any risk to end an unwanted pregnancy—and “any” means exactly that.

David Taylor: Will my hon. Friend give way?

Chris McCafferty: No; I want to make some progress.

Illegal abortion is extremely risky. It is usually performed late and is frequently performed by an untrained person. Besides the medical risks, abortions performed under illegal conditions are socially unjust, because women with means can and will pay for safe abortions, leaving poor women at the mercy of illegal settings and the high risk that they bring.

Another fundamental misconception in the abortion debate is that society needs to intervene to ensure that pregnant women make the right decision. All restrictions in reproductive health imply that pregnant women must be protected from themselves, so that they do not make a hasty decision against having a child; we have heard about that this evening. Total strangers declare themselves advocates of a pregnant woman’s foetus. Such a position not only violates the fundamental rights of women but is an incredible insult to women, being based on an arrogant and unthinking assumption that women in general are inferior to men.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Chris McCafferty: No, I am not giving way.

The pregnant woman is the only person who can make a responsible decision in the best interests of herself, her family and her foetus. Abortion should be a
20 May 2008 : Column 238
private decision, between the patient and her doctor, just like any other medical treatment. Why is it so difficult for societies, even those such as ours, to give the power to decide to those who carry the consequences? That is another basic misconception—that women with an unwanted pregnancy should enter into the decision-making process only after counselling with someone they do not know. Apparently, a total stranger is in a better position to judge what is in the best interests of the woman. How ridiculous.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: Would my hon. Friend say that a child of 12 is a woman who knows her own mind and is capable of making a decision of that kind?

Chris McCafferty: No, we cannot say that a child of 12 is a woman.

Mrs. Curtis-Thomas: But she can be pregnant.

Chris McCafferty: She could be pregnant; but I would like to think that she would not be. If we had compulsory sexual health and relationship education in all our schools, there might be a better chance of that child not being pregnant. However, I accept that that does not preclude rape, incest or the unfortunate situations in which young girls can find themselves. I would hope that such a young person would be advised carefully by her family, not a stranger. That is my point entirely. Such decisions are always best taken within the framework of the family, not with strangers.

Mrs. Iris Robinson: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Chris McCafferty: No, I am not giving way again.

Restrictions may be well intended. I understand about the religious views of many hon. Members speaking in this debate and I know that they are well intentioned, but obviously I take a different view. The problem with restrictions, however well intended, is that they do not lead to a reduced frequency of unwanted pregnancies or abortions.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Chris McCafferty: No, I am not giving way.

Restrictions do not even lead to an improvement in the quality of care, and they certainly do not lead to an increase in the birth of wanted children. What restrictions do is delay gestational age at abortion, increase the risks to the physical and psychological health of the woman and increase the costs, but without any obvious benefits.

Miss Widdecombe: I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. The logic of her argument about restrictions being inappropriate is that women should be able to have abortion on demand right up to birth. Do I take it that she would not approve of that?

Chris McCafferty: I do not recall having said that. What I am saying is that putting restrictions in the way of women who have already made a difficult and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) said, traumatic decision—she used that word
20 May 2008 : Column 239
about three times—is just prolonging the agony. Doing so is cruel and unnecessary. There are increased costs to society, but no benefits.

Mr. Gale— [ Interruption. ] Sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker—[Hon. Members: “Sir Michael!”]—I mean Sir Michael; I am not sure how to address you in this debate. Society has shown impressive creativity in the past, in introducing all sorts of ingenious restrictions on access to abortion, none of which have shown any evidence-based benefit to the people involved. In most countries, and indeed here, the legal framework and the requirements for an abortion do not reflect the needs of women with an unwanted pregnancy; rather, they reflect the personal morality and the misconceptions of people who are both professionally inexperienced and personally not involved. Why is it so difficult to do the most obvious thing—give the power to decide to those who are most directly involved? Women carry a completely disproportionate share of the burden in reproduction, but where are their rights? And tonight we are talking about taking them away.

I say to the male Members of this House—they are in the considerable majority—that I recognise that they cannot get pregnant, let alone have an abortion themselves. I suspect that most of them are profoundly relieved that that is the case. Most women would believe that we would not be here having this debate if men could do that, but it is in men’s own interests to maintain the reproductive health of women, because most are directly affected by and dependent on it. They should, therefore, be arguing not to restrict women’s rights to choose, but for conditions that permit women to end an unwanted pregnancy, if necessary, in the best way possible for them and without unnecessary suffering. As we heard earlier, termination of a wanted pregnancy must be one of the very hardest decisions that women and couples have to make. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby said, it is traumatic.

The NICE guidelines, which I mentioned earlier, are very clear. Those new guidelines say that pregnant women should ideally—I stress that word—be offered an ultrasound scan at between 18 weeks and 20 weeks, which means up to 21 weeks. As I said, Members in all parts of the House always campaign for NICE guidelines, and I have to assume that that one is not an exception. I also say to Members that unless they do not accept the NICE guidance in this particular case, it would be wholly inconsistent for them to vote to lower the upper limit to 22 weeks or even less, because they would clearly be removing any element of choice from the process. Any reduction below the current 24-week limit would leave little or no room for women and couples to make a responsible, considered choice when a potentially serious abnormality is detected.

Of course, I agree that legislation should always adapt to take account of scientific and technical progress, but all the recent independent peer-reviewed research has shown very clearly that survival at below 24 weeks’ gestation has not improved, despite advances in other aspects of antenatal care and the care of premature babies. When the 24-week limit was approved by Parliament in 1990, a key argument was that that was the stage at which the foetus was considered viable. It is the considered view of the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Nursing and the British Association of Perinatal
20 May 2008 : Column 240
Medicine that there is no evidence of a significant improvement in the survival of extremely premature babies below 24 weeks’ gestation in the UK within the last 18 years. The recent EPICure and Trent studies that were referred to earlier also say the same thing. There is no significant statistical improvement in survival under 24 weeks.

I have said many times in this Chamber—I will keep on saying it until Members start to listen—that the best way of reducing the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions is to improve women’s access to contraception, as well as educating women and men about sexual health, and to make sexual health and relationship education compulsory in all our schools. In contrast, any reduction in the upper time limit would force a very small number of vulnerable women to continue a pregnancy against their will. Proposals to reduce the time limit do not even take into consideration the terrible plight of women who have a wanted pregnancy but discover a foetal abnormality at a later stage.

I, too, want to see a reduction in the number of women seeking abortion—I imagine that all Members in all parts of the Committee do—and a reduction in the gestation period at which abortions take place, but late-term abortions are very rare. In 2006, less than 1.5 per cent. of all abortions took place after 20 weeks, and of those, a mere 0.7 per cent.—a tiny fraction—were carried out at 22 weeks or later.

8.15 pm

I say to Members that they should vote for 22 weeks or less if they really are anti-choice. They should vote for 22 weeks or less if they really believe that a woman should be required to continue a late-diagnosed pregnancy even if her health is at risk or the foetus is abnormal. They should vote for 22 weeks or less if they do not believe that such difficult decisions should, wherever possible, be made within the family. For the purposes of giving the Committee an opportunity to vote positively on 24 weeks—23 weeks and six days is the medical definition of 24 weeks, the status quo—I say to Members that they should support the status quo if they are pro-life, pro-quality of life or pro a woman’s life. They should support the status quo if they are pro women’s rights—after all, women’s rights are human rights. They should support the status quo if they are pro reproductive rights, because reproductive rights are also human rights. They should support the status quo if they are pro-humanity, because any reduction of the upper limit would be cynical, cruel, ill-informed and inhumane.

Mike Penning (Hemel Hempstead) (Con): May I say what an honour and privilege it is, as a relatively new Member of the House, to stand at the Dispatch Box and speak in such an important debate?

I know that it is normal to make kind comments about the previous speaker, and I will do my level best. Every hon. Member has the right to their own personal views, and I listened intently to the comments of the hon. Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty). I agreed with her in part but not on most of what she said. She made very important points about contraception, which I will come back to later in my speech. There was one fundamental point that she got wrong—saying that this was all about religion. I am speaking at this Dispatch Box not from a religious
20 May 2008 : Column 241
standpoint, but from a moral standpoint. From that perspective, I must emphasise that the views that I am expressing this evening are my personal views, not those of my party. I have not discussed with any member of my party, the leadership or those on my Front Bench how I should vote later this evening. I think that that is exactly the way in which the Committee should be making those decisions.

It is a shame that Members have not been given the opportunity to speak for much longer than the three hours allowed for. That is not in any way a party political view; it is obvious from what Chairmen of the Committee have said this evening that many Members wish to speak. Many would have liked to speak for much longer than they had the opportunity to do and, sadly, it seems that some hon. Members will not have the opportunity to speak.

Stewart Hosie (Dundee, East) (SNP): The hon. Gentleman makes a point about the time that we have to debate these matters. Does he agree that bolting abortion on to the Bill in the first place was a big mistake, and that it would be perfectly honourable for Members to decide on a free-vote basis to vote tonight against every single amendment concerned with abortion on the basis that it has been tagged on to the HFE Bill in the absence of a royal commission and proper independent assessment of all the aspects concerning abortion?

Mike Penning: The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It appears that we may have 10 sittings on the Bill on the Committee Corridor. We are where we are: the amendments have been tabled, and we have got three hours. With that in mind, I will not take a huge number of interventions. Other hon. Members have been very generous in giving way, but I am conscious of those Members who wish to contribute.

Since 1968—I apologise if I am using figures that have been used earlier, although I do not think they have—5.5 million pregnancies in this country have been terminated. As we heard earlier, the latest available figures show that nearly 200,000 were terminated in 2006. The figure has risen dramatically since 1969, when 5.2 women in 1,000 had an abortion. The figure is now 18.3 per 1,000, which is a huge number. I believe that everyone in the House would like to see a massive reduction in the number of abortions taking place in this country. This is not about choice; I want everybody to have a choice, but surely, in a compassionate society such as ours, we would all want to see fewer terminations taking place.

Mr. Swayne: May I ask my hon. Friend to be careful in the language that he uses? A great many euphemisms have been used in the debate, including babies being referred to as “foetuses” and abortions being referred to as “terminations”. Does he recall that, when the Russians finally admitted to having downed the Korean jumbo jet, they said that they had terminated it, rather than having shot it down? Is it not grotesque that “family planning” is used as a euphemism for abortion in this country?

20 May 2008 : Column 242

Mike Penning: My hon. Friend has every right to his own views, although I happen to disagree with them. I will use the terminology with which I feel happy, and I am sure that he will use the terminology with which he feels happy.

Mrs. Iris Robinson rose—

Mike Penning: I should like to make a little progress.

I want to move on to the sheer quantity of abortions taking place in this country today, and to the fact that 32 per cent. of women who have an abortion have had an abortion before. I find that enormously disturbing, both as a father and as a husband. Earlier today, I was having a conversation with an old friend who has daughters of a similar age to my own daughters. My daughters are 17 and 19 years old. This gentleman is not a politician, and he asked me how I was going to vote this evening. He told me that, the other evening, he had had a disturbing conversation with his 19-year-old daughter, who had been on Facebook, having a conversation with one of her friends from college. Her friend is already a single mother, and she told my friend’s daughter that she was now pregnant again. My friend’s daughter said to her, “This is really serious. What are you going to do?” Her friend replied that she was going to have an abortion. When my friend’s daughter observed that this was a very serious matter, her friend replied that she had had two abortions already. I accept that that is not the norm, but it illustrates the failure of this country to address that problem.

I am not in any way taking a view on that person’s individual circumstances. I am not there; I am not her father—I do not know whether she has a father. We do know, however, that it is not good for her to be in that position, and we must do everything that we possibly can—

Judy Mallaber rose—

Mike Penning: I should like to make some progress.

I know that, in some of her TV interviews, the Minister has communicated the priority of reducing the time that women have to wait for an abortion. I agree with her. Much of our debate tonight has been about how long people have had to wait for results and to find out whether their baby is in some way deformed. I find it difficult to understand why, in this country in the 21st century, we cannot get medical science to move forward.

The hon. Member for Calder Valley said earlier that we must listen to NICE. I wish that she would be kind enough to listen to me; I listened to quite a lot of her contribution to the debate. NICE can only work with the legislation that is set before it by the House. If NICE had a limit of 20 or 22 weeks to work with, I have no doubt that it would bring down its recommendations in order to conform with the House’s legislation. NICE can only work within the framework of the laws that the House sets out. I would very much like to see NICE recommending much earlier results from scans.

Next Section Index Home Page