Ministers lead drive for lower abortion limit
SEVERAL Cabinet ministers are expected join a parliamentary drive tonight to cut the legal time limit for abortions.
MPs vote today on the abortion laws for the first time in nearly 20 years and are expected to lower the current limit of 24 weeks of pregnancy.
A number of amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill will be debated in the House of Commons, probably into the early hours. Advocates of tighter curbs on abortion will seek to cut the time limit to as few as 12 weeks, though that has little chance of success. Instead, attention will focus on attempts to set the limit at 20 or 22 weeks.
In accordance with parliamentary tradition on “conscience” issues, the leaders of all the major parties have given their MPs a free vote on the abortion amendments.
Labour whips monitoring the mood of the Commons expect MPs to back a modest reduction in the time limit, with 22 weeks seen as the most likely outcome.
MPs who want to cut the limit say advances in neo-natal care mean that more pregnancies that could legally be terminated under current rules are now viable.
Opponents, including the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nurses and the Royal College of Paediatricians, say that there is no evidence showing an improvement in viability.
This week, in a poll carried out on Doctors.net, an online forum for registered doctors, more than half thought the abortion limit should be lowered to 20 weeks.
Gordon Brown has indicated that he will not support a reduction in the time limit but several of his ministers are expected to back a change in the laws.
Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, Ruth Kelly, the Transport Secretary, Paul Murphy, the Welsh Secretary, and Andy Burnham, the Culture Secretary, are all Catholics who have come under intense pressure from church leaders to vote for a lower limit. Several ministers outside the Cabinet are also expected to support a change.
Liam Byrne, the immigration minister, and Paul Goggins, a Northern Ireland minister, are said to favour lower limits. Tom Harris, a transport minister, revealed on his personal web diary at the weekend that he favours a reduction in the time limit.
He said: “I am uncomfortable with the notion that a 24-week-old foetus can be both ‘viable’ and can also be legally terminated. Surely better to remove this argument altogether by making sure that no ‘viable’ foetus could ever be terminated.”
Catholic Cardinals have lobbied MPs for a lower limit but not all Catholics support that stance.
Catholics for Choice, a US-based group, wrote to all MPs yesterday urging them to reject the cardinals’ pressure and keep the law unchanged.
Jon O’Brien, the group’s president, said: “The hierarchy’s teaching on abortion is theologically unsafe because it rests on coercion and not on a consensus emerging from the use of sound moral reason.”
Meanwhile, a leading British Muslim group has backed the call for lower limits.
Mohammed Shafiq, director of the Ramadhan Foundation, said: “I am horrified that the rate of abortions has increased drastically to levels not seen ever before.
“We respect those pro-abortion views but strongly disagree with them on the basic principle of our faith that human life is sacred and should be protected.”
The case for lower limits was dealt a blow earlier this month when the Epicure 2 analysis of birth statistics by Nottingham University showed that the number of babies surviving after being born within the legal limit for abortion has not increased significantly since 1995.
This article originally appeared in the 20 May 2008 edition of the Daily Telegraph.