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20 May 2008 : Column 249

Dawn Primarolo: With respect, I have given way quite a lot, and I need to conclude my points.

I shall now turn to the measure preventing abortion on the grounds of gender, race or sexual orientation. That is unnecessary, as abortion on the grounds of gender alone is already illegal and it is not possible to determine the race or sexual orientation of a foetus.

New clause 7 seeks to require doctors to provide set information to women and introduce a five-day waiting period. The fact is that every woman’s circumstances and level of understanding are different, and the information and support provided should be impartial and tailored to the woman’s individual needs. I think the Committee would agree that forcing a very young girl whose pregnancy is due to sexual abuse to receive information on the development of the foetus—which the doctor would be legally obliged to do if this amendment were accepted—would be very distressing and, to many of us, unacceptable. This new clause would also effectively introduce a five-day waiting period, which would affect over 98 per cent. of women, causing further delays and unwanted stress and anxiety.

As has been mentioned, new clause 8 would require that information and counselling be available, but that is required now. The professional regulatory bodies lay down statutory guidance to health professionals on what information should be provided so that the woman is properly informed.

Tonight every Member present has to make a series of difficult and complex decisions on highly sensitive issues, and I recognise how challenging that is for all of us, including me. In reaching a decision, it seems to me that each Member must assess the evidence that has been presented and vote accordingly. However, in doing so, first, they must be satisfied that the scientific evidence has changed, and we have heard that the consensus regarding medical evidence has not changed: there is no new evidence. Any reduction in the time limit will have a greater impact on teenagers and the very vulnerable who do not recognise their pregnancy, giving them untold additional anxiety and challenges. The Committee has the right, of course, to do this, but in doing so it must ask itself, “Is there any real evidence for a change, or is it just that Members of the House are against abortion?”

Dr. Pugh: I want to make it clear, as my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) did, that I stand here as a Liberal Democrat but not for the Liberal Democrats; I speak in a personal capacity. Although there is policy here, and although a former leader of the Liberals, Lord Steel, piloted the Abortion Act, the Committee will be aware that other prominent Liberals, such as Lord Alton, left the Liberal party over the Act. I personally believe that there is a Liberal case to be put for a review of current legislation. I should also point out that as a man, I necessarily speak on this issue with a degree of natural caution and reticence. I can have no clear idea at all what it is like to be pregnant.

The most depressing thing that I read recently on this topic was in yesterday’s edition of The Guardian. The usually sound journalist, Jackie Ashley, after contrasting opposing views and the very different beliefs behind them, wrote:

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That is borne out by my own observation of the House so far in debating any abortion issue. Such debates are emotive; related ten-minute Bills, unusually, are voted down without consideration; slogans replace arguments; the absolute right to life is starkly set against the absolute right to choose; rhetorical assassination replaces reasoned arguments. It is to be regretted that in the run-up to this debate, personal remarks by Members about Members have served to disfigure and to some extent to inflame debate.

Despite profound moral differences, there is some common ground: we all believe that the abortion rate in the UK is far too high; we would all prefer a world in which there was no abortion, nor demand for it; we all recognise that our laws are among the most permissive; and we all qualify the rights that we claim: even the Catholic Church sanctions therapeutic abortion, and even pro-choice charities object to some choices. Where we differ is over the grounds, and consequently the limits, of abortion. I argue that, irrespective of any religious view, the justification for abortion becomes enormously harder from the moment when the foetus becomes conscious or responsive to pain. I also argue that we cannot be completely certain when that moment occurs, but that a precautionary principle should apply, and, where consciousness may exist, we must act as though it does. Frankly, there is no basis for giving anything a right other than that it is conscious, and there is no more significant event in the life of any being than becoming conscious.

I note, too, the long and undistinguished history of denying full consciousness, or degrees of sentience, to those whom we choose to exploit, whether it is animals, fellow primates—or slaves. I accept, however, that the area of foetal sentience is a grey one and that the Committee, sadly, does not want to build the law around it or to apply a precautionary principle. The issue for the Committee is independent viability.

My hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon has made the point that breaking the link between viability and abortion limits would leave legislators groping around for another criterion on which to base limits. He is fundamentally right on that point, although viability is not to be understood here in the ordinary sense. Most babies, and some adults, are not capable of surviving without massive intervention from parents or carers. They are not independently viable. My one-year-old grandchild is not independently viable. Viability here is used in the technical sense:

Everyone agrees that such a definition self-evidently must cover different cases as medical technology improves, and need not be related—should not be related—to a fixed gestation period, which is why few rational people can object to a review of the law.

Some people think that the dates should be changed, if some foetuses are viable at a given date, for example, 23 weeks; we are talking about a significant percentage in that regard. Some think that the dates should be changed if any foetuses are viable at a given date, and others, including, I believe, my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, think that the dates should be changed if most or the gross
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average of foetuses are viable. People choose their own option, but anyone who thinks that the dates should be changed if, and only if, foetuses show themselves to be viable on average at a particular stage must also bear in mind the fact that the foetuses that nature delivers early—the research group that we have all been talking about—are most likely to have had clinically troubled pregnancies and individual problems, which is not the case with aborted babies or babies in general at that stage.

Dr. Harris: My hon. Friend is making a thoughtful speech. The vast majority of premature births are due to maternal factors, not to foetal factors; the foetuses are not sick in those cases. Different definitions of viability exist, and mine might be different from others, but surely it is best to follow the one provided by paediatricians and neonatologists, who devote their lives to dealing with those tiny babies. They are clear about their definition, which is that the viability threshold is the point at which a foetus would have a decent chance—a more than 15 per cent. chance, for example—of surviving outside the woman. That is why they say that there is no evidence of a significant improvement in the survival levels of pre-term infants below 24 weeks’ gestation in the past 18 years. The paediatricians say that, and we should follow their advice.

Dr. Pugh: I have discussed clinically troubled pregnancies, and I presume that that covers the maternal factor. I see no reason why the Committee must use the same definition as clinicians.

The moral reality is that someone who aborts a baby at 22 weeks, might be—they cannot know that this is not the case—aborting a baby or foetus that is viable, within the narrow meaning of the legislation, which is indisputably the case, or in any other sense. There are people in our world who are in no way inferior to us in capacity, intelligence and beauty, despite being born at 22 weeks. That is a fact, and it ought to give us cause for reflection.

Quantitatively, as the EPICure 2 study shows—the Minister and I saw the draft findings last week—there is a statistically significant increase in the survival rate of premature babies at 24 weeks and an increase, although not a statistically significant one, in respect of 23 weeks. We need to explore further exactly why that is happening. It is false to say that no new evidence is available. EPICure 2 differs markedly from the Trent study; it is more widely based and it shows something different. I freely admit that the EPICure 2 study does not show a decrease in the level of disabilities that, sadly, premature babies endure. However, morality in this case is not a numbers game; the exact percentage surviving is not the big issue. One cannot easily argue on Monday that the percentage mix of a human-animal embryo is of no decisive moral significance, and then on Tuesday argue that percentages matter.

May I conclude by addressing three counter-arguments? I sense—this came across in what the Minister said—that many who are opposed to even modest reform feel obliged to hold an imaginary line; they feel that if they concede 23 weeks or 22 weeks, who knows where the case for abortion may go. The Minister said that we could be right back at the pre-1967 situation. Again, that is the mirror image of
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the slippery slope argument that we had yesterday: if we allow pointless experiments to be carried out on hybrid embryos until 14 days, some scientists will make progress in creating human-animal embryos. As in yesterday’s case, all one can say is that the law says what the law says. It clearly does not follow from the fact that the law forbids something at 25 weeks that it is bound to forbid it at 23, 22 or 20 weeks. If it forbids something at 22 weeks, it might still allow it to happen at 20 weeks.

Another argument was made on Second Reading by the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mrs. Lait), and I take it very seriously. She argued that many, but by no means all, late abortions are special cases; I believe that she mentioned under-age girls, menopausal women and foetuses with late-detected abnormalities. I think that the statistics show that 40 per cent. of such cases result, in a sense, from late choices. That is what is odd about them; they involve people who made a late choice to have an abortion.

Mrs. Lait: The hon. Gentleman has paraphrased the list that I suggested on Second Reading, because it included women who were menopausal, very young girls and those who have mental health or learning disability problems. I think that he agrees that all those people are very vulnerable.

9 pm

Dr. Pugh: I do not dispute that, but one can always have exceptions to legislation. We have always set a limit for exceptions, and that is not an argument against a general lowering of the point of termination.

Finally, I was genuinely shocked by a disgraceful argument in the briefing note circulated by the British Pregnancy Advisory Society. As an argument for no reduction in the time, the letter sent to Members stated that

If we set aside the obvious fact that non-aborted foetuses do not end up on life support machines, it is unacceptable to make our decisions on life and death depending on current funding arrangements in the NHS. That illustrates what I said earlier. To some extent, the special pleading is characteristic of a closed mind. If minds are closed, we will have the usual tribal stand-off. If they are not, we may yet have some useful legislation.

Judy Mallaber: Like others, I regret that this debate has been tagged on to the important and complex debates on updating the regulatory framework for scientific research. In those debates over the past two days, I have sought to follow the science, and I wish to do so tonight, too. As we have heard and would expect, however, the issues have a highly emotional impact and reflect different ethical and religious views.

Many of those who have tabled amendments to cut the time limit hold strong views that the foetus is a person and any abortion is wrong. However, even within the Catholic Church, there are different opinions, as has been mentioned. The theological debate can be traced back over the centuries to St. Thomas Aquinas, and
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Catholics for Choice have sent hon. Members the results of the latest poll of UK faith groups, showing that the majority of UK Catholics and Protestants support a woman’s right to have an abortion when she has an unwanted pregnancy. As Catholics for Choice has said, Church teaching is neither definitive nor final on this subject.

The hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) pointed out that this is not just about religion. Many hon. Members have strongly held views based on a range of arguments for cutting the limit. All too often, however, the woman is left out of this discussion, and she becomes invisible. Women have different moral views on whether abortion is acceptable and in which circumstances. I respect those views, and I also know that I am highly unlikely to change the views of those who do not agree with me, so I have to respect those views.

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

Judy Mallaber: If I may finish this part of my argument, I shall allow the hon. Lady to intervene later.

We know that women do not have abortions lightly. It is always a difficult decision. I have one set of views that leads me to think that we should retain the current 24-week limit, but I would never dream of saying to another woman that she should have an abortion, if she felt that that was wrong. I respect her moral views, and all I ask is that the same respect be shown to those who take a different view. Parliamentarians should not say to a woman who does not think that abortion is wrong that their views should prevail over hers. We will not convince each other, and if moral views are so divided, we should not seek to impose our views on each other. We also take different views on several of the practical issues, and we will not convince each other. Neither side should seek to impose its moral and practical views on those who take a different view faced with a decision that will affect their personal circumstances.

Mr. Cash: Will the hon. Lady explain why more than half the doctors in the NHS refuse to carry out late abortions and 67 per cent. of abortions are carried out in private clinics, albeit under NHS contracts? Is it because those doctors find it repugnant?

Judy Mallaber: I am afraid that that is not relevant to my argument, which is that different views can be put forward. I do not think that the hon. Gentleman should impose his views on a woman who has a different set of views. That is the main point of my argument.

Mrs. Iris Robinson rose—

Mr. Angus MacNeil (Na h-Eileanan an Iar) (SNP) rose—

Judy Mallaber: May I finish my arguments? Otherwise, others will not get the chance to contribute to the debate.

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Earlier today, I took part in a debate for Central TV with one of the hon. Members who has put their name to the amendment on the 16-week limit. Such reductions would lead not to an end to abortions, but to a return to backstreet abortions. [ Interruption. ] It is no good saying no. That is exactly what was said in the debate in which I took part earlier. I was told that we would not see a return to backstreet abortions. I cannot understand on what basis Members would say that. Some Members will have seen the film “Vera Drake”, and although she might update her clothes from the 1950s to the 21st century, there will be an increase in the number of illegal abortions.

David Taylor: This is the second occasion during this debate when an assertion has been made that lowering the limit will necessarily drive up the number of illegal abortions. Will my hon. Friend tell the Committee whether similar suggestions were made during the 1990 debate on the reduction of the limit from 28 weeks to 24 weeks? Will she also tell us whether there has been an increased number of illegal abortions? There is no evidence of the second.

Judy Mallaber: A different set of arguments can probably be made about the relationship between the 24-week period and the 28-week period, because of the kind of abortions that would have to take place at that stage and the question of whether they could be carried out on the backstreets. It was odd for the person with whom I was debating the subject of reducing the limit to 16 weeks to say that that would not lead to women trying to find a way to terminate a pregnancy that they felt unable to go through.

Several hon. Members rose

Judy Mallaber: I intend to proceed, rather than carry on with that discussion. I do not believe that hon. Members who hold views that are opposite to mine can find an argument that will justify the statement that there would not be an increase in the number of women seeking abortions.

Miss Widdecombe: As that argument has always been made, studies and evidence were sought. In the 10 years before the passing of the 1967 Act—these are Government figures, not mine—the number of abortions carried out in the backstreets that resulted in injury or admission to hospital declined at the same rate as it did in the 10 years following the Act. In other words, the 1967 Act was not a panacea that cured backstreet abortions, which were already declining because of greater education and health advice.

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