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20 May 2008 : Column 261

As I said, I believe that the woman has rights, but the baby has them also. I think that the baby’s rights kick in if it would have the chance of life if it were born and if it feels pain as part of the abortion procedure. At that point, the baby’s rights have parity with those of the mother.

9.30 pm

We have quoted Vincent Argent a few times this evening. He was the previous medical director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and wrote an incredibly good article this week. He talked about when women go to him for a late termination. He described how women who have been on IVF programmes ask him for a termination because they are expecting twins and would like one to be aborted. Some women go to him wanting a late termination with no good reason—they just demand a termination.

I was on “The Daily Politics” with the Minister at lunchtime today; it featured an example of someone who had had a late termination at 22 weeks because she felt that it was not the right time in her life. There comes a point when it has to be said that the baby also has a right to life.

I would like to talk about the various institutions because I know that many Members think that they have held on to what the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and faculties of neonatal medicine have said. First, I would like to talk about the Royal College of Nursing, of which I used to be a member. The RCN has taken the position of supporting the 24-week limit, but has not consulted its members. Two weeks ago I addressed a meeting of nurses, two thirds of whom were members of other health workers’ unions; they were not even members of the RCN. They were angry that the college was purporting to speak on their behalf, given that they were not even members of it. The nurses who were RCN members were very angry that it was taking a position without even having consulted them to find out their opinion. Given today’s technology, there is no excuse for doing that; members could be e-mailed and canvassed for their opinions very easily.

The British Medical Association is hugely influenced by its ethics committee, on which the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon sits. The association is definitely not representative of doctors’ grass-roots opinion, which has been demonstrated today in a poll by Some 31 per cent. of the doctors polled want a 24-week limit, 15 per cent. want a 22-week limit and 54 per cent. want a 20-week limit.

Dawn Primarolo rose—

Mrs. Dorries: Overall, 69 per cent. of those doctors want the limit to be reduced.

Dawn Primarolo rose—

Mrs. Dorries: Marie Stopes— [Interruption.]

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the hon. Lady, but the Committee must come to order. It is entirely up to the hon. Member who has the floor whether he or she gives way. The fact is that we should allow whoever is on their feet to be heard.

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Mrs. Dorries: In October 2007, Marie Stopes, one of the charities that carries out late abortions, did a poll of GPs.

Dawn Primarolo: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. She referred to a survey of 210 doctors by a subscription site that has more than 9,000 members—I cannot remember the exact figure, but that might have been it. There are 40,000-odd GPs in the health service, so her percentage is not very accurate.

Mrs. Dorries: That is fine—let us talk about the Marie Stopes survey of October last year. Marie Stopes is a charity that carries out a high percentage of late terminations. Its survey of GPs—I would imagine of all GPs—shows that two thirds of GPs want a reduction from 24 weeks.

During the previous debate, someone mentioned the faculty of sexual and reproductive healthcare of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. The medical director of that organisation, in a television interview last year, said that she did not perform terminations over 16 weeks because it was too much like a baby. That organisation has been cited as supporting 24 weeks. It is a fact that doctors do not like to perform late abortions. In the NHS, hardly any abortions over 16 weeks take place. We have a Government policy of 24 weeks, and an NHS that does not want to carry that policy out. We have a private abortion industry that has mushroomed around the NHS in order to carry out late terminations that doctors and nurses in the NHS do not want to do.

We have to ask ourselves this question: if we have a policy that states that we abort to 24 weeks, should we not be carrying out those operations in the NHS? Should we be encouraging a private industry to develop around it to carry out those abortions? Is that right? Is that what we should be doing? I do not think that any doctors train as doctors to end life. Most doctors and nurses train to save life and that is why, particularly now that doctors sub-specialise—doctors do not train in the way that they used to; they do not spend a long time in obs and gyny any more, but specialise very early—we are running out of doctors to perform late terminations in this country.

I have covered the issues that I want to deal with. I would like to finish on public opinion and public mood. Over the past six months or so, we have seen a huge swing in public opinion on this issue. The YouGov poll, the ComRes poll and others have shown, because the public are—

Dr. Gibson: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Dorries: I will.

Dr. Gibson: Where does the hon. Lady get the evidence that we are running out of doctors?

Mrs. Dorries: We are running out of doctors who want to perform late terminations: the majority of doctors who work in the BPAS and Marie Stopes clinics are coming in from abroad on six-month contracts. There are very few UK graduates performing late terminations in BPAS or Marie Stopes clinics — [ Interruption. ] There are only two, apparently.

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Public opinion has changed, which has a huge amount to do with the work of Professor Stuart Campbell in 3D imagery. Pregnant women have always wished that they had a window on their stomachs so that they could see what their baby looked like and what their baby was doing. Professor Campbell has provided that window. We can now see what a baby looks like at various stages of pregnancy. We can see it walk in the womb, we can see it suck its thumb, and we can see exactly what our baby looks like.

The public have been informed by the images of how a foetus develops, the knowledge that foetuses feel pain in the uterus earlier, the knowledge of what happens in a late termination, the fact that doctors do not want to perform abortions and the fact that they are not performed in the NHS but in private clinics, and they have taken a view. Their view is that they do not want any further late terminations at 24 weeks. The public do not say that they want the limit to come down from 24 weeks; the public—including three quarters of women—say that they want 20 weeks. They specify what they want.

I would like to press the new clause to a vote, but I would like to finish with the words of Professor Sunny Anand, who is the world’s leading authority on foetal pain. As a result of his work, neonates who are operated on now live. The consensus of opinion before was that neonates could not feel pain before they were due to be born. They were operated on and died during the operations. As a result of his research, neonates now live.

Mr. Burrowes: My hon. Friend is making a powerful case. Yesterday, the assertion was made in the discussion about saviour siblings, not least by the Minister, that she would move heaven and earth to ensure that a very sick child lived. How does my hon. Friend square that with the position today, whereby the Minister would not ensure that very sick children who are the victims of late abortion lived, by reducing the time limit?

Mrs. Dorries: The Minister may have selective preferences about which lives she wants to save.

Dawn Primarolo: The hon. Lady has asserted many things to be facts that are not. She is entirely at liberty to make the points that she wishes to raise. However, nobody in the Chamber, least of all me, has made any assertions about people picking and choosing. Some of the things that she is saying are not borne out by the evidence.

Mrs. Dorries: If the Minister feels that I have said anything tonight—cited any statistic or piece of information—that is not factual, I hope that she will challenge it.

I should like to finish with the words of Professor Anand. He recently said to me, “Nadine, your Parliament will be voting on setting a time limit on abortion. So much has happened in science in the last 20 years that, when you cast your vote, it will be like a snapshot in time. But science and research is like an ever-rolling movie.” Whereas we have experienced good statistical improvements for neonates at 24 and 25 weeks, the amendments that were passed yesterday
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and the resultant changes in the law mean that neonates may live very much younger, very much sooner.

Given that we have a vote on the subject only every 20 years or so, perhaps we should represent the will of the public and reduce the limit to 20 weeks now.

Dr. Palmer: I want to speak about new clause 8, which is in my name and those of other Labour and Conservative Members.

New clause 8 is the only amendment to focus on late abortion in the case of severe disability, and I give notice that I hope to press it.

Let me consider the other new clauses briefly. Given that there is no early term limit in cases of severe disability, I will not comment on the proposals to reduce the term limit, but I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) on his persuasive and balanced views.

Two new clauses cover information. The other is new clause 7, which my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas), who was here earlier, tabled. It may help the House if I explain the distinction between them. I think that my hon. Friend would agree that new clause 7 is intended to encourage women to think twice about abortion. New clause 8 would offer additional, strictly neutral information to help the woman at what may be the most difficult juncture in her life.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate) (Con): As a parent who found himself in circumstances that could have been caught by new clause 8, I find it patronising, onerous and unnecessary. It would probably do more damage than good. What position does the hon. Gentleman think parents who could be caught by new clause 8 are in? The Minister has made it clear that guidelines already cover that, and I sincerely hope that the hon. Gentleman will not press the new clause.

Dr. Palmer: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says, and I draw his attention to the contents of the proposed information. I shall go through them in detail.

New clause 8 would essentially require neutral scientific information and counselling on a diagnosed condition to be offered to any woman considering an abortion. In practice, the effect would be that the Department of Health would need to provide a briefing pack on the conditions that the tests can disclose—Down’s syndrome, club foot, cleft palate and so on—that also covered, for example, life expectancy, quality of life, availability of treatment and support groups. In response to the hon. Gentleman, I would say that any prospective parent in doubt about whether to have an abortion would surely wish to know those basic facts. They will want to ask, “What is the life expectancy if I go ahead? What kind of quality of life will the child have? What treatment is available and what support groups are there?”

9.45 pm

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge, Chryston and Bellshill) (Lab): I happen to believe that my hon. Friend’s new clause is one of the most important measures that we are being asked to consider this evening. Does he
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accept that many people in disability organisations— not all, but many—take the view that it is perfectly reasonable that a woman who has been informed that her child might have a mental or physical incapacity should, before she takes such a major decision, know what assistance, counselling, therapeutic response and much more society is prepared to offer? The woman is entitled to hear what society is prepared to offer.

Dr. Palmer: I entirely accept my right hon. Friend’s point. I stress that we are talking about the offer of information. Unlike some proposals that we have heard in the past, we are not saying, “We will not allow you an abortion unless you sit through this briefing that we insist on giving you.” We are not saying, “You must go away and come back after a certain period.” We are saying, “We have this information for you. If you would like to hear it and if you would like counselling, it is available.” We would make it mandatory—not for the woman, but for the health service—that such information must be available. If the woman and her partner felt that they had enough information already, they would be free to decline the offer without any delay.

Mr. Blunt: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Dr. Palmer: I am sorry, but in view of the shortage of time, I do not want to take more than one intervention per hon. Member.

My proposal would not impose any delay—the couple can immediately reject the offer—and would not create any hoops for people to jump through. In many of the 35,000 cases a year of diagnosed foetal abnormality, the information that I have described is already spontaneously provided by medical advisers, as we have heard, but in some cases it is not. Unless the parents press for that information—and let us face it, not every parent has the confidence in that stressful situation to press for detailed information—they are faced with an appalling dilemma, yet without the information that they need to resolve it.

Mr. Hugo Swire (East Devon) (Con): Given that we are all keen to back everything that we say this evening with evidence, can the hon. Gentleman give any examples that he has ever heard about or come across where a parent has not asked for that information at that critical point?

Dr. Palmer: Unlike some hon. Members, I am not able to give chapter and verse from individual conversations, but I have certainly spoken to constituents who have had abortions who said that they did not quite know the right questions to ask in that desperate situation. They asked what the implications of the condition were, but they were not spontaneously offered a detailed briefing of the kind that I propose. The hon. Gentleman may be underestimating the stress under which people are put and overestimating their ability to vocalise and communicate all the questions that they might have. There are many people who are a little scared of the health service and of the doctors to whom they talk. People are not universally as loquacious as the hon. Gentleman or as able to question energetically every doctor whom they meet. That is the difficulty. We need to be willing to provide the information without being pressed for it.

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I must declare a personal interest. I was born with a cleft palate, and my parents were advised by the surgeon that I could still have a decent quality of life so long as I did not make the mistake of choosing a career that involved public speaking. [Laughter.] I do not claim that all advice is good. It sometimes seems as though we as a society place too much emphasis on physical perfection. Looking around the Chamber, I see that all hon. Members present are exceptionally good-looking, but the sad truth is that none of us is perfect, however much we may look it. There are terrible foetal abnormalities that make the decision to have an abortion entirely understandable, but it is a great pity that potential parents, in a moment of acute distress, might be panicked into having an abortion when they could have had a happy child if they had been given more information.

On most of the amendments to the Bill, hon. Members have generally separated into quite clear pro-choice and pro-life camps. My new clause has attracted the support of pro-life groups because they believe that if more information about the support that is available were provided, it is likely that fewer parents would opt for abortion. There is, however, nothing anti-choice about it. I tabled it as someone who has no religious belief, much as I would like to, and who is not part of any organised group on the subject. It is simply about ensuring that there is informed choice. I hope that many colleagues who have been agonising over these issues will find it a helpful way forward.

Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): I rise to speak to new clause 9, which seeks to lower to 22 weeks the threshold for terminations. Like my hon. Friend—she is my friend—the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries), I agree with the principle of abortion. I believe that every child should be a wanted child, and I suspect that abortion is a terrifying experience involving trauma and stress for the woman involved. I also believe that even if one is against the principle of abortion, it should be the woman’s right to choose.

I invite the Committee to imagine a frightened young woman living in a bedsit somewhere on a housing estate in England who is pregnant, has no friends and has hostile parents. I believe that it is not for MPs to decide that she should be condemned to live with the consequences of that pregnancy for the rest of her life, or, indeed, that the child should be condemned to be an unwanted child. To me, it is for the woman to decide whether or not to have a termination. The issue is the circumstances in which abortion takes place.

I am the first to admit that the current law is far from perfect, but this is not a perfect world. With one exception, on balance, I do not favour either strengthening or liberalising the current law. That exception is the time limit for termination. I appreciate the briefings that have been given by the BMA, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Nursing, which conclude that there is no evidence of a significant improvement in the survival of pre-term infants at below 24 weeks’ gestation in the past 18 years. I have no grounds on which to dispute that, and I accept their evidence, but in my judgment that is not the point. The question is whether 24 weeks is the right threshold.

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