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In 1990, the House reduced the threshold from 28 weeks to 24 weeks. If the report of the Royal
20 May 2008 : Column 267
College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists is right and the situation is the same now as it was then, I am not sure that I would have supported 24 weeks then.

In reaching the judgment, there are conflicting pressures. I believe that a woman should be given as much time as possible to deal with the huge economic and health pressures to decide whether she wants the child. However, I am concerned that abortions are being carried out after the date of viability.

Dr. Desmond Turner: Under the Act, the concept of 24 weeks is different from that of 24 medical weeks, as recorded in medical records and referred to in the various studies, including the EPICure study. The 24 weeks referred to in the medical studies are, in legal terms, 25 weeks, as the period can be anything from 24 weeks and 0 days to 24 weeks and six days. However, “24 weeks” in the Act refers to anything between 23 and 24 weeks. That is critical, because this is a critical time of development—

The Chairman: Order. I think that the Committee has probably got the point.

Richard Ottaway: The hon. Gentleman has made his point, but it bears no resemblance to anything that I was talking about.

Emily Thornberry rose—

Richard Ottaway: I am sorry, I will not give way.

I want to concentrate on the definition of viability, which was well put by the Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) and by my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mike Penning) as: can the child survive at birth? The evidence from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists states that, at 23 weeks, the survival rate is about 7 or 8 per cent., with improved survival prospects thereafter. The evidence also states that there is no survival at 22 weeks, and that there has been no change in that regard. To me, that 7 or 8 per cent. is statistically significant. There is a choice between survival at 23 weeks and no survival at 22 weeks. It is my judgment that this is where the science comes in, and that viability lies somewhere between 22 and 23 weeks—hence my amendment proposing a limit of 22 weeks. That would give a woman as much time as possible to make her decision and for any genetic conditions to become apparent. It is worth noting that an overwhelming number of European countries have a limit of 12 weeks, so this proposal can hardly be described as liberal.

Emily Thornberry: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Richard Ottaway: I am not giving way again.

If anybody wants a cure for the quiet life, I suggest that they table an amendment on abortion. On the one hand, I have been criticised by the United Kingdom Family Planning Association, which has asked me to resign as a patron. On the other, I have been criticised behind my back for tabling what has been described as a wrecking amendment. I do not think that this is a wrecking amendment. I have not sought to lobby anyone, and I have not given any interviews. I simply believe that it would make the legislation workable.

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I have been a patron of the Family Planning Association for about a decade. I support its aims and objectives, which include preventing women from getting pregnant in the first place, and I regret its insistence on collective responsibility for every nuance of its policy. Given the criticism that I have received from both ends of the spectrum, however, I suspect that I have got this right. I urge colleagues to support new clause 9 and a term limit of 22 weeks.

Julie Morgan: I speak in support of the present abortion time limit and to oppose all the amendments to reduce it. It is now 40 years since the Abortion Act came into effect in April 1968, and we have had 40 years in which women have rightly been able to decide what is right for them, in consultation with doctors, and in which abortion has been legal and safe. I am pleased that we have been able to celebrate those 40 years on a cross-party basis, and that Sir David Steel, who introduced the original Bill, joined in those celebrations. He has made clear his support for retaining the 24-week limit.

Despite some of the comments that have been made tonight and in the newspapers, which seemed to imply that women had abortions on a whim, the decision to have an abortion is not one that is taken lightly or is easy to follow through. It is not easy to get an abortion: women in the UK do not get abortions on request, and the procedure has to be agreed by two doctors. Many people, including me, believe that abortion should be more accessible. There are no circumstances in which a woman wants to end up having to have an abortion, particularly if she is in an advanced state of pregnancy.

10 pm

It is very important to re-emphasise the number of abortions that take place late, as it is a minute number. About 89 per cent. take place in the first 13 weeks, as has already been said, and only a tiny number—1.45 per cent.—take place after 20 weeks. Clearly, it is extraordinary for late abortions to occur and it usually happens because of extraordinary sets of circumstances. For example, many women having late abortions have often not realised that they are pregnant or they may have gone into denial. It is quite common for women to deny that they are pregnant, ending up wanting a late abortion. Changes in personal circumstances may be relevant. Many Members have mentioned domestic abuse and changes in family circumstances.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Julie Morgan: Briefly, once.

Mr. Francois: Very briefly, strong views have been expressed on both sides of the House tonight, but none of the absolutist positions appears on the Order Paper. What we are being asked to do by definition is to take a decision at the margins. As the nub of the argument appears to be viability and, as we have already heard from a number of examples this evening, it is moving down to 23 or even 22 weeks, does it not make sense to move that margin to take account of that development? Should we not vote for 23 or even for 20 weeks?

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Julie Morgan: I disagree with the hon. Gentleman. A number of organisations have said very clearly that viability under 24 weeks is not improving. I am coming on to that point in a few moments. My argument now is that many of the different reasons why women present for late abortions are good and valid ones. Those reasons apply specifically to particular women. The decision to go ahead with an abortion should be made by that woman personally in tandem with her doctor on the basis of those particular issues.

I attended the British Medical Association meeting this morning and talked to gynaecologists and others who are practising in the field. They told me that even a reduction of two weeks would have a significant effect on a very small number of vulnerable women. As has already been said, they need time to talk to those women about the decision they have to make. It is so important not to reduce the opportunity for those vulnerable women to discuss those issues.

There is a clear consensus in the medical community on survival rates. Many Members have mentioned that consensus, but some have failed to acknowledge it as they should. [Interruption.] Certainly, the Royal College of Nursing, the British Medical Association and other organisations have come out with a clear statement that there has been no improvement in viability under 24 weeks.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con): Will the hon. Lady give way?

Julie Morgan: No, I am not giving way now.

The medical evidence is absolutely clear, but there is another important issue, which is a moral one. Is it right— [Interruption.]

The Chairman: Order. There is far too much conversation going on in the Committee. The hon. Lady has been waiting a long time to make her contribution and she should be heard.

Julie Morgan: Thank you, Sir Alan.

The moral issue is whether it is right to force a woman to carry on with a pregnancy if she feels that she cannot do so, perhaps because she feels it may threaten her family set-up or her other children. If she really feels unable to carry on, should she be forced into motherhood? Is that a good idea either for the mother or the child? Surely it is better to go with the judgment of the mother and the doctor, discussing the matter together in the light of her particular circumstances. It is all about women’s autonomy and control over their own bodies rather than being forced to continue with an unwanted pregnancy or to seek an unsafe abortion, which could be the consequence. The point was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Calder Valley (Chris McCafferty): “If you don’t believe in abortion, don’t have one.” I think that that sums up very well what the debate is about. It is about respecting another person’s right to choose, even if it is not a choice that one would make oneself.

I think we all know that many—not all—of those who seek to reduce the upper time limit are really against a woman’s right to choose at all, and are entering through the back door to begin the erosion of women’s control over their own bodies and their own
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lives. I believe that the campaign to cut the limit to 20, 22 or 16 weeks is not an anti-24-week campaign but, in reality, an anti-abortion campaign, and I think we have accepted that in tonight’s debate. I think we have accepted that any attempt to reduce the abortion limit from 24 weeks even to 22 weeks is an attack on abortion generally.

I hope that members of all parties, when they vote tonight, will remember that our rights over our bodies were hard won, and were supported at the time by members of all parties. I do not think we want to see tonight an erosion of those rights that we won. I think that we need to remain steadfast, accept the clear medical evidence and give these anti-abortion proposals—because they are all anti-abortion—a resounding no.

Miss Widdecombe: We have in this country at present a situation in which it is possible for this to happen to two children of exactly the same age and gestation: one is in a cot with all the resources of medical science being poured in to save it, while the other is quite deliberately being taken from the womb and destroyed. That is moral anarchy. That is a totally unjustifiable state of affairs. What is the difference between those two children? One thing only: the will of another human being. They are exactly the same age and of exactly the same gestation, but under the current law they are treated entirely differently.

A considerable smokescreen has been raised tonight about the woman’s right to choose. The law already limits that right. After 24 weeks, no matter how dire the woman’s situation and no matter how much she may not want to continue the pregnancy, the law says that at that point her right to have her wishes prevail is limited, indeed non-existent. So we already limit the right. The question is whether we should continue to limit the right at 24 weeks, or whether we should do so at an earlier point. There is no reason whatever why we should be driven only by the issue of viability. That is another smokescreen, because there is also the issue of the humanity of the child.

John Bercow: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Miss Widdecombe: Very briefly.

John Bercow: I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend. She is concerned about humanity; so are other right hon. and hon. Members. Does she not accept that if there is a two-week reduction, very, very frightened and vulnerable women will unquestionably suffer? We should stick with the status quo.

Miss Widdecombe: I cannot believe the way in which my hon. Friend has simply dismissed the humanity of the child. Because of the 24-week limit, that situation already arises. What limits the period to 24 weeks? The humanity of the child; the ability to feel pain, on which there is now a vast body of scientific evidence; the ability to feel distress. I ask again, why do we need to give a lethal injection to a child if it is not living in the womb? It may not be living outside the womb, but it is living in the womb. Those who believe in preserving life acknowledge the life of what is living, even though we cannot see it. If we could see the children that are being taken for abortion, there would be a national outcry.

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That is why Professor Campbell’s pictures have had such an impact. Suddenly we can see what we are so wantonly—and I would say wickedly—destroying. Therefore, I commend any reduction, but especially that proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh). I sincerely hope that tonight we will strike a blow for the weakest in our midst—those who have no other voice but ours.

Mr. Leigh: I thank all Members who have taken part. This has been a fine, serious and good-natured debate in which Members have spoken with passion and conscience for what they believe in. The Committee must now divide. We all accept, of course, that women have rights. I hope, also, that we will ponder before we vote the fact that unborn children have rights, too.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 71, Noes 393.
Division No. 199]
[10.10 pm


Bacon, Mr. Richard
Battle, rh John
Bellingham, Mr. Henry
Benton, Mr. Joe
Binley, Mr. Brian
Bone, Mr. Peter
Brazier, Mr. Julian
Browne, rh Des
Burrowes, Mr. David
Campbell, Mr. Gregory
Cash, Mr. William
Clarke, rh Mr. Tom
Conway, Derek
Cormack, Sir Patrick
Crabb, Mr. Stephen
Cummings, John
Curtis-Thomas, Mrs. Claire
Davies, David T.C. (Monmouth)
Dodds, Mr. Nigel
Dorries, Mrs. Nadine
Drew, Mr. David
Durkan, Mark
Evans, Mr. Nigel
Fox, Dr. Liam
Goodman, Mr. Paul
Green, Damian
Grieve, Mr. Dominic
Gummer, rh Mr. John
Harper, Mr. Mark
Hayes, Mr. John
Herbert, Nick
Hoban, Mr. Mark
Hollobone, Mr. Philip
Holloway, Mr. Adam
Hunt, Mr. Jeremy
Kawczynski, Daniel
Kelly, rh Ruth
Leigh, Mr. Edward
Lidington, Mr. David
Lilley, rh Mr. Peter
Mackinlay, Andrew
MacNeil, Mr. Angus
McAvoy, rh Mr. Thomas
McCrea, Dr. William
McDonnell, Dr. Alasdair
McFall, rh John
McGovern, Mr. Jim
McGrady, Mr. Eddie
McLoughlin, rh Mr. Patrick
Mulholland, Greg
Murphy, rh Mr. Paul
Paterson, Mr. Owen
Pritchard, Mark
Pugh, Dr. John
Robertson, Mr. Laurence
Robinson, Mrs. Iris
Roy, Mr. Frank
Russell, Bob
Selous, Andrew
Simpson, David
Smith, Geraldine
Streeter, Mr. Gary
Swayne, Mr. Desmond
Touhig, rh Mr. Don
Turner, Mr. Andrew
Vaz, rh Keith
Walker, Mr. Charles
Waterson, Mr. Nigel
Watkinson, Angela
Widdecombe, rh Miss Ann
Wilson, Sammy
Tellers for the Ayes:

Anne Main and
Mr. David Amess

Abbott, Ms Diane
Afriyie, Adam
Ainsworth, rh Mr. Bob
Ainsworth, Mr. Peter
Alexander, Danny
Alexander, rh Mr. Douglas
Arbuthnot, rh Mr. James
Armstrong, rh Hilary
Atkinson, Mr. Peter
Austin, Mr. Ian
Austin, John
Bailey, Mr. Adrian

Baker, Norman
Baldry, Tony
Balls, rh Ed
Banks, Gordon
Barker, Gregory
Barlow, Ms Celia
Baron, Mr. John
Barrett, John
Barron, rh Mr. Kevin
Bayley, Hugh
Beckett, rh Margaret
Begg, Miss Anne
Benn, rh Hilary
Bercow, John
Beresford, Sir Paul
Berry, Roger
Betts, Mr. Clive
Blackman, Liz
Blackman-Woods, Dr. Roberta
Blears, rh Hazel
Blizzard, Mr. Bob
Blunkett, rh Mr. David
Blunt, Mr. Crispin
Borrow, Mr. David S.
Bradshaw, Mr. Ben
Brake, Tom
Brennan, Kevin
Brokenshire, James
Brooke, Annette
Brown, rh Mr. Gordon
Brown, Lyn
Brown, rh Mr. Nicholas
Brown, Mr. Russell
Bruce, rh Malcolm
Bryant, Chris
Buck, Ms Karen
Burden, Richard
Burgon, Colin
Burnham, rh Andy
Burstow, Mr. Paul
Burt, Lorely
Butler, Ms Dawn
Byers, rh Mr. Stephen
Byrne, Mr. Liam
Caborn, rh Mr. Richard
Cameron, rh Mr. David
Campbell, Mr. Alan
Campbell, rh Sir Menzies
Campbell, Mr. Ronnie
Carmichael, Mr. Alistair
Cawsey, Mr. Ian
Challen, Colin
Chaytor, Mr. David
Clapham, Mr. Michael
Clark, Ms Katy
Clark, Paul
Clarke, rh Mr. Charles
Clegg, rh Mr. Nick
Clelland, Mr. David
Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey
Coaker, Mr. Vernon
Coffey, Ann
Cohen, Harry
Connarty, Michael
Cooper, rh Yvette
Corbyn, Jeremy
Cousins, Jim
Creagh, Mary
Cruddas, Jon
Cryer, Mrs. Ann
Cunningham, Mr. Jim
Curry, rh Mr. David
Darling, rh Mr. Alistair
Davey, Mr. Edward
David, Mr. Wayne
Davidson, Mr. Ian
Davies, Mr. Dai
Davies, Mr. Quentin
Dean, Mrs. Janet
Denham, rh Mr. John
Devine, Mr. Jim
Dhanda, Mr. Parmjit
Dismore, Mr. Andrew
Djanogly, Mr. Jonathan
Dobson, rh Frank
Donohoe, Mr. Brian H.
Doran, Mr. Frank
Dorrell, rh Mr. Stephen
Dowd, Jim
Duddridge, James
Dunne, Mr. Philip
Eagle, Angela
Eagle, Maria
Efford, Clive
Ellman, Mrs. Louise
Ellwood, Mr. Tobias
Engel, Natascha
Ennis, Jeff
Etherington, Bill
Featherstone, Lynne
Fisher, Mark
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Flint, rh Caroline
Flynn, Paul
Foster, Mr. Don
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester)
Francis, Dr. Hywel
Gapes, Mike
Garnier, Mr. Edward
Gauke, Mr. David
George, Andrew
Gerrard, Mr. Neil
Gibson, Dr. Ian
Gidley, Sandra
Gilroy, Linda
Godsiff, Mr. Roger
Goldsworthy, Julia
Goodman, Helen
Goodwill, Mr. Robert
Gray, Mr. James
Greening, Justine
Griffith, Nia
Griffiths, Nigel
Hain, rh Mr. Peter
Hall, Patrick
Hamilton, Mr. David
Hamilton, Mr. Fabian
Hammond, Mr. Philip
Hammond, Stephen
Hancock, Mr. Mike
Hands, Mr. Greg
Hanson, rh Mr. David
Harman, rh Ms Harriet
Harris, Dr. Evan
Harris, Mr. Tom
Harvey, Nick
Havard, Mr. Dai
Healey, John
Heathcoat-Amory, rh Mr. David
Hemming, John
Henderson, Mr. Doug
Hepburn, Mr. Stephen

Hewitt, rh Ms Patricia
Heyes, David
Hill, rh Keith
Hodge, rh Margaret
Hodgson, Mrs. Sharon
Hoey, Kate
Holmes, Paul
Hope, Phil
Hopkins, Kelvin
Horam, Mr. John
Horwood, Martin
Hosie, Stewart
Howard, rh Mr. Michael
Howarth, David
Howarth, rh Mr. George
Howells, Dr. Kim
Hughes, rh Beverley
Hughes, Simon
Huhne, Chris
Humble, Mrs. Joan
Hunter, Mark
Hurd, Mr. Nick
Hutton, rh Mr. John
Iddon, Dr. Brian
Illsley, Mr. Eric
Ingram, rh Mr. Adam
Irranca-Davies, Huw
Jack, rh Mr. Michael
Jackson, Glenda
James, Mrs. Siân C.
Jenkins, Mr. Brian
Johnson, rh Alan
Johnson, Ms Diana R.
Jones, Mr. Kevan
Jones, Lynne
Jones, Mr. Martyn
Jowell, rh Tessa
Joyce, Mr. Eric
Keeble, Ms Sally
Keeley, Barbara
Keen, Ann
Keetch, Mr. Paul
Kemp, Mr. Fraser
Kennedy, rh Jane
Key, Robert
Khan, Mr. Sadiq
Kidney, Mr. David
Kilfoyle, Mr. Peter
Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Knight, rh Mr. Greg
Knight, Jim
Kramer, Susan
Kumar, Dr. Ashok
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor
Lait, Mrs. Jacqui
Lamb, Norman
Lammy, Mr. David
Lansley, Mr. Andrew
Laws, Mr. David
Lazarowicz, Mark
Leech, Mr. John
Lepper, David
Letwin, rh Mr. Oliver
Levitt, Tom
Lewis, Mr. Ivan
Lewis, Dr. Julian
Linton, Martin
Llwyd, Mr. Elfyn
Love, Mr. Andrew
Lucas, Ian
Mackay, rh Mr. Andrew
MacShane, rh Mr. Denis
Mactaggart, Fiona
Malik, Mr. Shahid
Mallaber, Judy
Mann, John
Maples, Mr. John
Marris, Rob
Martlew, Mr. Eric
Mates, rh Mr. Michael
McCafferty, Chris
McCarthy, Kerry
McCarthy-Fry, Sarah
McDonnell, John
McFadden, Mr. Pat
McIntosh, Miss Anne
McIsaac, Shona
McKechin, Ann
McNulty, rh Mr. Tony
Meacher, rh Mr. Michael
Meale, Mr. Alan
Mercer, Patrick
Merron, Gillian
Milburn, rh Mr. Alan
Miliband, rh Edward
Miller, Andrew
Miller, Mrs. Maria
Milton, Anne
Mitchell, Mr. Austin
Moffat, Anne
Moffatt, Laura
Mole, Chris
Moon, Mrs. Madeleine
Moore, Mr. Michael
Moran, Margaret
Morden, Jessica
Morgan, Julie
Moss, Mr. Malcolm
Mountford, Kali
Mullin, Mr. Chris
Mundell, David
Munn, Meg
Murphy, Mr. Denis
Murrison, Dr. Andrew
Naysmith, Dr. Doug
Norris, Dan
O'Brien, Mr. Mike
O'Hara, Mr. Edward
Öpik, Lembit
Osborne, Mr. George
Osborne, Sandra
Ottaway, Richard
Palmer, Dr. Nick
Pearson, Ian
Pelling, Mr. Andrew
Penning, Mike
Penrose, John
Plaskitt, Mr. James
Pope, Mr. Greg
Prentice, Bridget
Prentice, Mr. Gordon
Prescott, rh Mr. John
Primarolo, rh Dawn
Prosser, Gwyn
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Purnell, rh James
Rammell, Bill
Raynsford, rh Mr. Nick
Redwood, rh Mr. John

Reed, Mr. Jamie
Reid, Mr. Alan
Rennie, Willie
Rifkind, rh Sir Malcolm
Riordan, Mrs. Linda
Robertson, Angus
Robertson, Hugh
Robertson, John
Robinson, Mr. Geoffrey
Ruddock, Joan
Russell, Christine
Ryan, rh Joan
Salmond, rh Mr. Alex
Salter, Martin
Seabeck, Alison
Shapps, Grant
Shaw, Jonathan
Sheerman, Mr. Barry
Sheridan, Jim
Short, rh Clare
Simmonds, Mark
Simon, Mr. Siôn
Simpson, Alan
Singh, Mr. Marsha
Skinner, Mr. Dennis
Slaughter, Mr. Andy
Smith, rh Mr. Andrew
Smith, Angela E. (Basildon)
Smith, rh Jacqui
Smith, Sir Robert
Snelgrove, Anne
Soames, Mr. Nicholas
Soulsby, Sir Peter
Southworth, Helen
Spellar, rh Mr. John
Stanley, rh Sir John
Starkey, Dr. Phyllis
Stewart, Ian
Stoate, Dr. Howard
Strang, rh Dr. Gavin
Straw, rh Mr. Jack
Stuart, Mr. Graham
Stunell, Andrew
Sutcliffe, Mr. Gerry
Swinson, Jo
Swire, Mr. Hugo
Tami, Mark
Taylor, Ms Dari
Taylor, Matthew
Taylor, Dr. Richard
Thomas, Mr. Gareth
Thornberry, Emily
Thurso, John
Timms, rh Mr. Stephen
Tipping, Paddy
Todd, Mr. Mark
Tredinnick, David
Trickett, Jon
Truswell, Mr. Paul
Turner, Dr. Desmond
Turner, Mr. Neil
Tyrie, Mr. Andrew
Ussher, Kitty
Vaizey, Mr. Edward
Vara, Mr. Shailesh
Viggers, Peter
Villiers, Mrs. Theresa
Vis, Dr. Rudi
Walley, Joan
Walter, Mr. Robert
Waltho, Lynda
Ward, Claire
Wareing, Mr. Robert N.
Webb, Steve
Weir, Mr. Mike
Whitehead, Dr. Alan
Wicks, Malcolm
Wiggin, Bill
Williams, rh Mr. Alan
Williams, Mrs. Betty
Williams, Hywel
Williams, Mark
Williams, Mr. Roger
Williams, Stephen
Willis, Mr. Phil
Willott, Jenny
Wills, Mr. Michael
Wilson, Phil
Winnick, Mr. David
Winterton, rh Ms Rosie
Wishart, Pete
Wood, Mike
Woolas, Mr. Phil
Wright, Mr. Anthony
Wright, David
Wright, Mr. Iain
Wright, Dr. Tony
Young, rh Sir George
Younger-Ross, Richard
Tellers for the Noes:

Ms Angela C. Smith and
Tony Lloyd
Question accordingly negatived.
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