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I agree with the hon. Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) about the necessity for time to think. Indeed, I have voted for such provisions myself since I came to the House. She also made an important point about gentlemen who have vasectomies. I had a vasectomy on the national health. I went to see my GP,
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who said, “I want to speak to your wife.” My wife and I both sat there and agreed that a vasectomy was the way forward for us as our own personal form of contraception. The GP then sent us away for three or four days, after which my wife and I both saw the consultant, and again we both agreed that a vasectomy was the way forward. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that if that time for thought is right for a man having a vasectomy—which, by the way, can be reversed, albeit painfully—there must be a provision for more time to think and consult when it comes to such a serious decision as having an abortion.

I also agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) said in his thoughtful speech on Second Reading last week. He rightly called for society to step forward and address its failings, particularly in relation to young people, to the poor, to those who have suffered a family breakdown, and to inadequate social support, especially in education. I am not just talking about sex education in schools. Education covers a wide variety of aspects, and it particularly needs to address the lack of knowledge about contraception, particularly in the most vulnerable and economically deprived areas of the country. I am not going to baffle the Committee with more figures—that is going to happen all through this debate—but the vast majority of people who end up having an abortion come from the most socially deprived parts of the country.

The hon. Member for Calder Valley said earlier that those who could afford to pay for an abortion would do so, and she was quite right. However, if we look at the figures, it is those who can least afford— [ Interruption. ]

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Michael Lord): Order. It would be helpful if hon. Members could listen to this part of the debate.

Mike Penning: Thank you, Sir Michael. As this is such an important debate, I would have thought any meetings that needed to take place could take place outside the Chamber.

Sex education is extremely important, but my own daughters tell me that when they had sex education at school, it was useless. I served in the military at the age of 16, and when I meet servicemen and women around the country, they tell me that more sex education is being given to the troops of this country than ever has been to pupils in school. If we are more proactive about giving sex education to the military than to those in our schools and colleges, there is something missing here.

Mr. Cash: I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the need for education. Does he agree that, apart from any technical advice that might be offered, it is absolutely essential to get right the question of social responsibility in that educational process? The question of right and wrong, in relation to when sex should be engaged in and when it should not, is one of the main reasons why we are in such difficulty today.

Mike Penning: I completely agree with my hon. Friend; with the choice of whether to have sex with one’s partner comes responsibility.

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On the question of viability, we have heard a great deal about studies of the viability of the foetus—or the baby, in some hon. Members’ terminology; I think that I agree with that terminology. If there were any doubt in my mind that a baby might be viable, I find it difficult to see how the Committee would not vote to lower the limit. Viability is everything. If even a single baby could live, with the help of modern medical science, that baby deserves the chance to live. That is where I, personally, am coming from this evening.

I have not taken up any time in the debate to talk about the individual contributions that have been made this evening. This is not a winding-up speech; it is a contribution. However, we have heard passionate speeches from those with deep-seated personal views, be they religious or non-religious, pro-life or pro-choice.

I leave the Committee not with the full text of what was sent to one of my hon. Friends this evening, but with a summary of it, which I do to protect the relevant consultant. This consultant e-mailed one of my colleagues this evening to say that in one room in the hospital where he worked they were successfully looking after premature babies of 23 and 24 weeks, who were going on to live normal lives.

Ms Angela C. Smith: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

8.30 pm

Mike Penning: No. He continued by saying that in the next room, his colleagues were terminating babies of the same age.

Ms Angela C. Smith: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mike Penning: No. This consultant said that that was morally unacceptable and asked us please to vote for 20 weeks. That is what I am going to do this evening.

Dawn Primarolo: This is a very important debate, even if I have expressed views outside the House and as an individual Member about what I think is the appropriate place for this discussion. I congratulate the hon. Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) on his opening remarks. I do not agree with him, but he made clear what is going on in this evening’s debate.

There are those in the House who oppose abortion; there are those who oppose abortion, but who believe that in order to prevent it they should support a series of incremental reductions in what is currently available; and there are those who support abortion and seek to find a reference point or an anchor on which to decide the availability of abortions with reference to time limits and other criteria. Although I think it is very important for us to approach the issue from the position of our personal experiences as well, in my opinion it is dangerous to replace evidence by anecdotes and then move to general assertions about the best way to make informed decisions in this difficult debate.

One issue repeatedly cropping up this evening is that of the evidence for a reduction in the upper gestational limit for abortions of 24 weeks. We have heard and will continue to hear arguments ranging from maintaining the 24-week upper limit to various reductions. The hon.
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Member for Gainsborough made it clear where he thought it should be, on the basis of his personal choice rather than evidence.

The upper gestational limit for termination of pregnancy under section 1(1)(a) of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 was set by Parliament at 24 weeks because the scientific evidence at the time was that the threshold of viability had increased and babies were increasingly surviving at 24 weeks and above. I make that point to make it clear that the upper gestational limit for abortions on ground (a) has always been linked to the potential viability of the foetus outside the womb .

Miss Widdecombe rose—

Dawn Primarolo: Just one moment. That was the case in 1967, it was the case in 1990, and it is certainly the case now. I am happy to give way to the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe), who entered the House in the same year I did. In every debate on abortion, she has been clear that she is against it, just as I have been clear that I believe it is a woman’s right to choose. I am happy to give way to her.

Miss Widdecombe: I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady. She has said that viability is the determining factor, but does she accept that there is a genuine debate as to whether that should be the only determining factor? Since 1990, there has been a very substantial body of evidence—and I do mean evidence—about foetal pain and distress. If the child being aborted cannot live, what on earth is the point of the lethal injection?

Dawn Primarolo: The right hon. Lady does not need to stress her words; I can understand the word “evidence” whether she says it slowly or quickly. My point was that on every occasion that the House has considered this issue, it has used viability, as determined by the evidence from the medical profession, in order to provide its starting point. I would absolutely agree with the right hon. Lady and other Members that this is a very difficult decision to make and that a series of points need to be considered. The right hon. Lady happens to come out in a different place in the argument from me.

Miss Widdecombe rose—

Mr. Charles Walker (Broxbourne) (Con) rose—

Dawn Primarolo: No; if I can make a little progress, I will give way if I have time later. I want to be brief so that other Members can speak.

My main point about the time limit is that in the late ’80s there was a clear consensus from the medical profession that the age at which a foetus should be presumed to be viable should be changed from 28 to 24 weeks, and there is no evidence at the present time that that position has changed. In fact, the British Association of Perinatal Medicine, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and the faculty for sexual and reproductive healthcare of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists all concur with that view.

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The current clinical evidence shows that although there have been medical advances in caring for premature babies, only a small number of babies born at under 24 weeks’ gestation can survive. For those that do, there may be many questions about their quality of life—most have severe problems—whereas the situation improves markedly at 24 to 25 weeks, which reaffirms why the limit of 24 weeks was chosen.

Mr. Walker: Does the right hon. Lady not accept that some children—not many, but some—born prematurely between 22 and 24 weeks go on to adulthood and have productive lives? They are living between 22 and 24 weeks.

Dawn Primarolo: That is not the issue that I was putting to the Committee.

Mr. Walker rose—

Dawn Primarolo: No, just a minute. I was making the point that nothing has changed over that time period. The difficult choices that the hon. Member for Broxbourne (Mr. Walker) and others have identified existed in 1990 and they exist now. We all know that the circumstances in which women have abortions are not easy; the decision is difficult, there are many complex reasons, but up until this evening the House has chosen to base its judgment on the evidence. We have heard mention of that evidence from the EPICure studies and, most recently, from the Trent regional study, which continues to demonstrate that despite improvements in some neonatal units, there is no improvement in the survival rates of those very young babies.

Reducing the current time limit would have a significant impact on a small number of women who seek late abortions. The Committee must face the fact that some of those women, if forced to give birth to unwanted children, will continue not to wish to do so. Having made that decision, they will travel abroad and seek abortions elsewhere. Would it not be appalling if we drove women back to where they were before the 1967 Act?

Pete Wishart: Will the Minister give way?

Dawn Primarolo: I will give way briefly, but then I must make progress.

Pete Wishart: I wonder whether the Minister has seen the results of a study by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. It conducted an audit of women seeking late abortion services, and what it found was truly appalling. Its findings showed that it was the most vulnerable women—those who had been subject to domestic abuse, those who were teenagers, those who had all sorts of chaotic lifestyle and drug issues—who would be punished by any reduction in the time limit.

Dawn Primarolo: I have seen the results of that study, and I agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said.

This is the challenge that is presented to the Committee. If life were always only about simple choices and clear-cut decisions it would be so much easier, but we are talking about complex lives. I am thinking particularly of very vulnerable young women,
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or older women who, for a number of reasons, may not have discovered their pregnancy. I am also thinking about foetal abnormality. Does the Committee really believe that it should remove consideration of those few but none the less vulnerable women as individuals without the support of evidence? Of course, for Members who are completely opposed to abortion the answer is yes, they would take those rights away, but I think that that would be a retrograde step.

Mr. Willis: Will the Minister give way?

Dawn Primarolo: I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but then I really must make some progress.

Mr. Willis: I am grateful to the Minister. Is it not worth putting on record the fact that only roughly 1 per cent. of babies born to mums who go into labour at 22 weeks are born alive and leave the maternity unit, and that half those babies have severe abnormalities? Moreover, people presenting for abortion at 22 or 23 weeks would have had to be in the system at least two weeks earlier, which means that they are probably presenting to the clinicians at 20 or 21 weeks.

Dawn Primarolo: As the hon. Gentleman has put the figures on the record, I shall not waste the Committee’s time by repeating them, but he went on to make a very important point about the complex reasons for which some women may present late after deciding on an abortion. They may have struggled greatly with that decision.

I do not accept the idea that women do this lightly. I cannot believe that I heard it said it was like going to the hairdresser. I cannot believe that women would make the decision in that way. I know that they do not. [Interruption.] I am not arguing with those who are absolutely opposed to abortion. They will put their case here tonight. I am addressing only the case which I have made clear that I support—

Miss Widdecombe: On a point of order, Sir Michael. Is it in order for a Member, even a Minister, to misrepresent deeply something said during the debate by a Member who is not here to correct what has been said?

The Second Deputy Chairman: I think that these are basically matters for debate, not matters for the Chair. I also think that all Members must take serious responsibility for the words that they use.

Dawn Primarolo: Thank you, Sir Michael.

Mrs. Iris Robinson: On a point of order, Sir Michael. Is it right for the Minister to indicate that she will not hear anyone who takes a view that is opposed to that of those who oppose the right to life?

The Second Deputy Chairman: These are very serious matters. Clearly, it is entirely up to the Member who has the Floor to decide whether to give way to any other Member. [Interruption.] I repeat that that these are very serious matters. The debate has been civilised and organised until now, but I think that all Members should choose their words very carefully.

Dawn Primarolo: Thank you, Sir Michael.

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Mrs. Robinson rose—

Dawn Primarolo: I will give way to the hon. Lady, but let me say first, Sir Michael, that I was following your suggestion that our contributions should be short so that others could join in the debate. Continuing to take interventions will prolong my speech, but I am happy—as I have been in previous debates—to take an intervention from the hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson).

Mrs. Robinson: I thank the Minister. May I suggest that she visit a special needs school in her constituency, where she can see some beautiful and wonderful children with Down’s syndrome and other “special needs” disabilities? Is she telling us that it is right to decide, just because there is some abnormality in the foetus, that that eliminates a child’s right to life?


Dawn Primarolo: I did not say that, I would not say that, and the hon. Lady is trying to put words into my mouth that conform with what she thinks the argument should be. The point I am making is that there is no scientific evidence to warrant a reduction in the time limit. Of course it will be up to the House to decide, after examining the evidence, whether it feels there is a strong case for that and it is necessary. My point is that the evidence does not support that, even if some Members feel that they personally should vote for a reduction.

Mark Durkan: The right hon. Lady has placed a lot of emphasis on the viability test having been the basis on which the House has in the past decided on term limits, as though for anybody to think about any other reference point is somehow beyond the law and subversive, but will she answer the question that I think the hon. Member for Strangford (Mrs. Robinson) was asking: why does the viability test go out of the window for foetuses that are deemed to have a foetal abnormality? Why do the viability test and the term limit go out of the window for them, so that there can be terminations up to the point of birth?

Dawn Primarolo: Because the 1967 Act, as amended, provided for that, and I am making my comments only with regard to the legislation as it currently operates and whether or not there is any indication that there should be a change in the criteria.

New clause 6 seeks to remove disability as a ground for abortion and to extend the excluded grounds to include gender, race and sexuality. If that ground is repealed, those women carrying a child with a serious handicap may be forced against their wishes to continue with the pregnancy. In some cases, that will increase the risk to the woman as well. We must remember that we are talking here about very serious handicaps, such as the absence of a large part of the brain. Is it right to force a woman to carry such a child until it dies in the womb or is born with no chance of survival? That is the kind of very difficult question that we need to confront this evening.

Mr. Burrowes: Will the right hon. Lady give way?

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