In 1990, the House reduced the threshold from 28 weeks to 24 weeks. If the report of the Royal
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
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 weekshence 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.
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.
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.
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 number1.45 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. 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?
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.
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 womens 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 dont believe in abortion, dont have one. I think that that sums up very well what the debate is about. It is about respecting another persons right to choose, even if it is not a choice that one would make oneself.
I think we all know that manynot allof those who seek to reduce the upper time limit are really against a womans right to choose at all, and are entering through the back door to begin the erosion of womens control over their own bodies and their own
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 tonights 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 proposalsbecause they are all anti-abortiona 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 womans right to choose. The law already limits that right. After 24 weeks, no matter how dire the womans 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: 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.
That is why Professor Campbells pictures have had such an impact. Suddenly we can see what we are so wantonlyand I would say wickedlydestroying. 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 midstthose 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.