'In section 1(1)(a) of the Abortion Act 1967 (c. 87) (medical termination of pregnancy), for "twenty-fourth week" substitute "twelfth week".'.— [Mr. Leigh.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
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I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
The Temporary Chairman (Mr. Roger Gale): With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: New clause 2— Amendment of the law relating to abortion (No. 2)—
'In section 1(1)(a) of the Abortion Act 1967 (c. 87) (medical termination of pregnancy), for "twenty-fourth week" substitute "fourteenth week".'.
New clause 3— Amendment of the law relating to abortion (No. 3)—
'In section 1(1)(a) of the Abortion Act 1967 (c. 87) (medical termination of pregnancy), for "twenty-fourth week" substitute "sixteenth week".'.
New clause 4— Amendment of the law relating to abortion (No. 4)—
'In section 1(1)(a) of the Abortion Act 1967 (c. 87) (medical termination of pregnancy), for "twenty-fourth week" substitute "eighteenth week".'.
New clause 5— Amendment of the law relating to abortion (No. 5)—
'In section 1(1)(a) of the Abortion Act 1967 (c. 87) (medical termination of pregnancy), for "twenty-fourth week" substitute "twentieth week".'.
New clause 6— Medical termination of pregnancy: Amendment of the Abortion Act 1967—
'(1) Section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967 (c.87) (medical termination of pregnancy) is amended as follows—
(a) in subsection (1), omit paragraph (d),
(b) after subsection (2), insert—
"(2A) No treatment for the termination of pregnancy shall be carried out under subsection (1) of this section on the grounds of the disability, gender, race or (should it become identifiable before birth) sexual orientation of the child.".
(2) In section 5 of that Act (supplementary provisions) omit subsection (2)(a).'.
New clause 7— Amendment of the law relating to abortion (No. 6)—
'After section 2 of the Abortion Act 1967 (c.87) insert—
"2A Informed Consent
(1) Subsections (2), (3) and (4) of this section shall not apply in the case of a medical emergency under section 1(4) of this Act.
(2) At an appointment with a registered medical practitioner, on receipt of an initial request for a termination of pregnancy from a pregnant woman, or for initial advice regarding the potential termination of a pregnancy, a registered medical practitioner shall, as soon as reasonably practical, and in any event at least five calendar days prior to a termination of pregnancy taking place (where such a termination of pregnancy is applicable), fulfil the following informed consent requirements—
(a) offer the pregnant woman counselling from a suitably qualified health professional; and
(b) provide the pregnant woman with the following information:—
(i) the embryonic and foetal development at two weekly intervals;
(ii) the physical, psychological and psychiatric risks associated with the termination of pregnancy, including a description of the methods of termination at different stages of pregnancy and any risks associated with such methods; and
(iii) the contact details of adoption services and other sources of help and advice, (including information on any disability or abnormality that the pregnant woman's embryo or foetus is at risk of suffering from if born).
(3) A registered medical practitioner must provide the pregnant woman with a written form, of which he must retain a copy, as soon as is reasonably practicable, certifying the date upon which paragraphs (2)(a) and (2)(b) of this section were complied with, and in the case of a termination of the pregnancy, the form must be completed prior to any such termination.
(4) Any persons who wilfully contravenes or fails to comply with the requirements of informed consent under subsections (2) or (3) of this section shall be liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding level 5 on the standard scale.
(5) The Secretary of State shall by statutory instrument make regulations to provide for informed consent as specified in subsections (1) to (4) of this section and shall make provisions concerning the procedure, the requirement for date certification by a practitioner or practitioners, the information requirements and any other ancillary matters as are necessary to ensure the fulfilment of the informed consent requirements.
(6) Any statutory instrument made by virtue of this section shall be subject to annulment in pursuance of a resolution by either House of Parliament."'.
New clause 8— Foetal physical or mental abnormalities: Information and counselling—
'After section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967 (c. 87) (Medical termination of pregnancy) insert—
"1A (1) If tests of a foetus reveal that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped, a registered medical practitioner or a suitably qualified health professional expeditiously shall provide the pregnant woman with—
(a) current, scientific information in a written form concerning:
(i) the life expectancy of;
(ii) the expected intellectual and functional development of; and
(iii) the treatment options for;
a foetus diagnosed with, or a child born with, the physical or mental abnormalities identified as a risk by those tests,
(b) contact details for, where available, supportive service providers, including telephone help lines specific to the physical or mental abnormalities identified as a risk by those tests, and
(c) the offer of a suitable opportunity to receive relevant counselling and such other information as they deem proper.
(2) If, subsequent to the receipt of test results referred to under subsection (1), the pregnant woman notifies a registered medical practitioner that she is considering terminating the pregnancy, either wholly or partly as a result of those test results, then the termination must not take place until the information and offer set out in subsections (1)(a) to (c) have been provided.'.
New clause 9— Amendment of the law relating to abortion (No. 7)—
'In section 1(1)(a) of the Abortion Act 1967 (c. 87) (medical termination of pregnancy), for "twenty-fourth week" substitute "twenty-second week".'.
New clause 11— Amendment of the law relating to abortion (No. 9)—
'In section 1(1)(a) of the Abortion Act 1967 Abortion Act for "its twenty-fourth" week", substitute "23 weeks and 6 days".'.
Mr. Gale— [Interruption.]
The Temporary Chairman: Order. Will Members who are leaving the Chamber do so quietly, please?
Mr. Gale, it is an honour to open this debate. The only reason why new clause 1 is being considered first, and I am speaking to it, is that we wanted to give the Committee a chance to vote on all the new clauses in ascending numerical order at 10 o'clock; that, I think, is best and most convenient for the Committee.
My new clause 1 will limit social abortions to those carried out before 12 weeks' gestation. In Europe, the most common position is for abortions to take place before 12 weeks. The new clause would not affect some 89 per cent. of abortions.
The minds of most people in the Chamber will be made up. We each know where we stand, according to our conscience. We know when we think life begins, and whether we think it begins at conception or not. That is probably true of the so-called strongly pro-choice or pro-life people. For many of us, there are strong points of principle involved. Later in the debate, we will come on to the detail of the issue of when people think that an unborn child is viable. I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I spend a few moments setting out the principles that motivate us.
There is rightly much talk in the House about human rights and the rights of the vulnerable. In my personal view, there is just one, overwhelming, fundamental human right: the right to life. I must confess that my views have changed over the years. If I am to be honest with myself, I have to take an entirely consistent position. If a vote were to be held on capital punishment, I would vote against it. That is why I voted against all the recent wars, and why I am voting as I am on the Bill. I believe that one can only take a consistent position based on humanity, with all its faults and disabilities. That is where I stand; I do not know any other way. I hope that the House will forgive those of us who take that position.
We sometimes feel that the ghosts of great parliamentarians are looking down on us in our great debates on the social issues of the day. The great-great-grandson of William Wilberforce said recently that he thought that if that great parliamentarian were here now, he would support us. Wilberforce fought against entrenched opposition, moneyed interests and a world view according to which some people were not fully human. We know that we are up against it tonight; we know that the pro-choice lobby dominates the establishment, and that we are talking about a multi-million-pound industry, but for all that, we feel that our voice has to be heard. It is not perhaps the voice of the leading members of the medical establishment, or the voice of the majority in the House of Commons, but it is the voice of many people in our country, and the views expressed by that voice have to be put on record.
We believe that an unborn child of 12 weeks' gestation has undeniable human characteristics. Her organs, muscles and nerves have begun to function. She has fingernails and toenails. To become a child, she needs nothing more than to stay for a few months in the safety of her mother's womb. We will all take different views. Some will not share our opinion, but undeniably the view is developing in this country that what I say is more and more true of unborn children at 16, 18 or 20 weeks. We must accept that in this instance we are dealing with a human life. If we cannot deny the humanity of babies at 12 weeks, we cannot deny our duty to protect them.
Those are our views, and I set them out at the beginning of the debate, but I know that many people will not accept them. However, I think that they will accept that public opinion is changing in this country. That is why I tabled the new clause. The public are beginning to realise that we are out of step with many other countries. That is partly because, as a result of advances in modern medical science, we know so much more about what goes on in the womb.
Only this week, I read a moving article by Vincent Argent, the former medical director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. He is not a religious person. He has carried out many abortions, and he is presumably pro-choice. He was critical of the euphemistic way we talk of foetuses when we discuss abortions, whereas when we refer to IVF we talk of babies. He said:
"Most people do not realise just how distressing late abortions can be. The procedure remains the last taboo. While heart and brain surgery are regularly shown on television, the reality of a late abortion has never been seen on British screens...It is hard to describe how it feels to pull out parts of a baby, to see arms, and bits of leg, and finally the head."
I know that it is distressing to read that; I do not want to cause distress, but we have to accept that there is a double standard. We are so careful about the life of a baby when it is wanted, and so concerned about the mother's health, but we are dismissive of the rights of an unborn child when it is not wanted. Of course we would like every child to be a wanted child, and of course we appreciate the enormous pressures on women, and the difficulties that they face. However, an unwanted foetus can become a wanted child, but a dead foetus can never become a living one. That is our position.
The hon. Gentleman talked about double standards. Is it not a double standard for him, a total anti-abortionist, to use the new clause to chip away at legislation that is required for the safety of women and children? As an ex-nurse—an ex-professional—I have seen things at first hand. A woman who has an abortion after 24 weeks of pregnancy does so because of extreme medical circumstances.
That is the hon. Lady's view. I think that everybody knows where I stand, and many people in the Chamber will have religious convictions. As we know, the fact is that politics is about practical realities.
The practical reality is that in this country we have a 24-week abortion limit, which is one of the highest in Europe. As public opinion changes, we as parliamentarians are entitled to give the House a chance to vote on various options to reduce it, from 12 weeks to 22 weeks. That is all we are doing. We know that whatever our personal views, religious or otherwise—many people who believe strongly in abortion are not religious—we know that abortion on demand up to 10 or 12 weeks is the reality in every country in Europe, apart from Ireland and Malta. It is not a question of chipping away; we are giving the House the opportunity to vote.
There are double standards about the unborn child. Whatever one's views on abortions—I understand the strongly held views of many people who feel that they have to defend the rights of women to make a choice about something in their own body—surely everyone in the Chamber feels depressed about what is going on in Europe. It presents a bleak picture of our country that we have one of the highest abortion rates in Europe—200,000 a year. In modern Britain, the most dangerous place to be is in one's mother's womb, which should be a place of sanctity. Ninety-eight per cent. of abortions are social. Only 1.3 per cent. are because of foetal handicap and 0.4 per cent. are because of the risk to the mother's life. It is a bleak picture of modern Britain.
We read in our newspapers this week that some women have multiple abortions: 4,000 women have had four abortions, and scores have had eight. Is that the sort of Britain to be proud of? I know that I will not get the support of many people when I say this, but fewer abortions will mean fewer women suffering. It is pro-women to take the position that we take. The Royal College of Psychiatrists recently issued a statement about the mental and physical damage to women's health caused by abortions.
That is our principled stand. We have set it out, knowing that it is not shared by everybody, but it is the view of many of our fellow countrymen and country ladies, and that view must be put forward.
Why do I speak of 12 weeks? I know many hon. Members will be doubtful about voting for the motion. They will say that it represents an extreme point of view, but is it so extreme? The limit of 10 to 12 weeks applies in France, Portugal, Slovenia—although in Slovenia there is an appeal to a committee—Austria, Belgium. Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Luxembourg, Poland, Slovakia and Spain. In Romania the limit is 14 weeks, and in Sweden 18 weeks.
The 24-week limit applies only in the United Kingdom, Holland, Latvia, Lithuania and Cyprus. Do we want to be up there in that league? Germany, Austria and France are great countries with wonderful Parliaments and democracies. They debate these matters and, after mature debate, they have all taken the view that a limit of 10 or 12 weeks is about right.
My hon. Friend will be aware that even in the United Kingdom abortion is not available on demand everywhere. In Northern Ireland, as the hon. Lady and the hon. Gentlemen sitting on the Benches in front of me will testify, abortion is still illegal.
I hope that if we still believe strongly in the right of the people of Northern Ireland to have control of their own affairs, we will let them make that decision in the way that most of their leading political parties want to make it.
Given what is happening in the rest of Europe, it is not surprising that public opinion is changing. A recent ComRes poll showed that 58 per cent. of the people, including three out of four women, think that abortion should be limited to 20 weeks or less, and 41 per cent. of women think that the abortion limit should be lowered to 12 weeks or less, so ours is not an extreme view. I know that opinion polls are not conclusive and one can throw doubt on a particular poll, but I am sure everybody will accept that there is a genuine change in public opinion and we should reflect that in this House.
Forty years ago the House was asked by a Member: "Would the sponsors of the Bill think it right to kill a baby they can see? Of course they would not. Why then do they think it right to kill one they cannot see?" Since 1990, despite what we were promised way back in 1966 and 1967, we have effectively had abortion on demand, certainly up to 18 or 20 weeks and, under the law, up to 24 weeks. But since 1990 we have learned so much more about what goes on in the womb. We can see babies walking and sucking their thumbs. I have seen that with my own six children.
Forty years ago, another right hon. Member made this telling statement: "When a decision about abortion is taken, the mother can speak, the doctor can speak, the father may well speak, but what can the child in the womb say? The child cannot speak. She cannot say, 'I want to live.'" I believe that we should give that silent child a voice.
I shall speak to new clauses 7 and 1, and other new clauses relating to a reduction in the limit beyond which an abortion may not take place. I share the views of Mr. Leigh. I am sorry that we do not all have the same view on this issue.
In 2006, 193,000 women in this country had abortions. Under new clause 7, the next 200,000 women who will probably elect to have an abortion next year would have the right to appropriate support and information before making a final decision. Obtaining an abortion is incredibly easy. I know that at first hand, having recently accompanied my friend to an NHS-sponsored clinic. Consultations at the hairdresser's have taken longer than the time it took to make a decision to have an abortion.
For the record, and contrary to many of the statements that I have read this week which purport to know my views, I am not opposed to abortion. I believe that women should have the right to choose; I just hope that they do not choose to have an abortion. I hope that all of us here are working to create an environment in which economic and social abortions are unnecessary, and that babies who are disabled or who are not considered acceptable because they may be handicapped in one way or another are no longer considered to be such a burden on society that we must get rid of them at all costs.
I would very much like it if we could change the rules and regulations so that the same rules applied to babies in the womb who have a disability as to those who do not. I do not understand why we continue to discriminate against them. For me, all individuals are born equal, irrespective of the disabilities they manifest. That is irrelevant. We are all of the same value.
Having an abortion is a very serious undertaking, and women who have had one rarely ever mention it again. I suppose that for many it is something that they would prefer to forget, but even for them, echoes of that day will live with them for ever. Some will come to bitterly regret their decision. Some women will invariably develop depressive anxiety or other mental health disorders as a direct result of a five-minute decision.
The new clause seeks to ensure that women presenting themselves for an abortion are given the sort of information that women should have had since the introduction of the law. I am arguing that at least five days before a woman finally makes any decision to have an abortion, a doctor should be required to offer her counselling and the details of the embryonic and foetal development of her baby at two-weekly intervals. She should also have information about the physical, psychological and psychiatric risks associated with the termination of pregnancy, including a description of the methods of termination of different types of pregnancies and any risks associated with those methods. Finally, the woman should have a right to know about adoption services and other sources of help and advice, including information on any disability or abnormality from which the pregnant woman's embryo or foetus is at risk of suffering if born.
Does the hon. Lady accept, first, that the existing consent forms and information sheets approved by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists provide information about the risks associated with abortion and as much information as the woman needs? Secondly, does she accept that it cannot be right to force doctors to give information that a woman says she does not want because she would find it distressing? Does the hon. Lady accept that the role of the doctor is not to hector or impose on women burdensome information, which they do not want to know, about the methods of abortion? That does not happen in any other form of medicine, and it should not happen in the one that we are discussing.
But it does happen, does it not? When a man presents for a vasectomy at a doctor's surgery, the doctor does not say, "Come in, sit down and take your trousers off." He says, "I think you ought to think about this for a little while." If the man involved is under the age of 30, childless and not yet married, the doctor may well say to him, "I think you ought to think about this seriously." I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman; on many occasions, a doctor will take his patient to one side and say, "Think about this very seriously."
I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. Is she ready to acknowledge the very good work that is already done by a range of services in respect of counselling and carefully advising women before they make their decision?
Yes, well, there are such services, of course, and I am aware of them. However, as I said earlier, I took my friend along for an abortion and no such services were available where we went. As for reading the small print, I happen to think that the event is so traumatic that many women are incapable of reading what is put in front of them. [Interruption.] That is the truth of it. Abortion is a very traumatic event and, as with other traumatic events, people require an opportunity to reflect on what is being said.
Those of us who have gone with relatives who are suffering from or diagnosed with cancer recognise those circumstances. The diagnosis is so traumatic and the impact on the individual so enormous that they are frequently precluded from understanding the significance of the decisions in front of them. That is why they elect to take somebody with them, and that is why I was pleased to accompany my friend.
Is it not the case that one has to have informed consent in respect of almost every profession? When we go to a lawyer, he does not say, "I'm going to give you one half of the story but not the other." Is informed consent not a prerequisite for any treatment of most medical conditions?
It most certainly is. I have consulted a number of my medical friends about this issue. In other procedures, particularly those involving children, parents will often be sat down and invited to consider the consequences of the child's condition and of any operation. Then they will be encouraged to go home and talk to friends and family about them.
I believe that informed consent is a natural part of a whole range of medical procedures in this country. I just do not understand why it has been omitted in respect of what we are discussing. I understand that abortion is very traumatic and that women will find themselves in a terrible predicament, but I do not think that we will help them in the long term by expediting the process so quickly that we do not give due respect to what is being considered and undertaken.
I appreciate the hon. Lady's giving way. She will be aware that the doctor is required to offer counselling and that the forms are structured around informed consent. Does she not agree that attempts to reduce the time limit for abortions remove from women the opportunity to think through the issues? Will she join us in pursuing that issue?
I have heard that argument frequently this week. Frankly, the notion that we are limiting choice by suggesting that the limit for terminations should be reduced from 24 to 12 weeks is farcical. Nobody in the House is suggesting that we should extend the limit for legal abortions to 30 weeks to allow women another six weeks to consider their position. The issue of 24 weeks is about viability. I believe that many Members on both sides of the House are convinced that, given the opportunity, far more babies born and delivered at 23 weeks would be viable, and that we therefore have to protect them.
No, that is not true.
I hear from a sedentary position that that is not true, but a baby who was born at 22 weeks and six days is alive today. I do not know where science will take us; I am told that we can expect improvements in the care given to children in neonatal units. I hope so, but I do not believe that it is wrong to curtail the time available for a woman to decide whether she is going to have an abortion.
All the information that a woman needs about whether a baby has a physical or learning difficulty is available to her long before the 24-week cut-off date. I speak as a woman who has undergone those procedures, and I have two children with severe learning difficulties.
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady. I do not want to trade personal cases with her, but a constituent of mine has told me that at 22 weeks it was suggested to her that her baby had foetal abnormalities and that only at 23 weeks and three days was that confirmed. If the hon. Lady's proposal was put in place, I suggest that it would have made things extraordinarily difficult for my constituent.
I think that that was due to the timing of the tests, which might take place later in the pregnancy. However, as I know myself, tests are taken at 12, 14 and 16 weeks. If the tests are conducted then, their outcome can be known in the 20th week.
It is a medical fact that it is not possible to diagnose certain foetal abnormalities until about 22 weeks. Is the hon. Lady aware of that?
I am most certainly aware of that because, unlike my hon. Friend, I have personally been through the procedure. I am very clued up about when the results of the tests can be received. Actually, the tests relate to the development of cultures. If the cultures are taken early enough, the results come at 20 weeks. By the way, I feel that I should tell Members that when I was given the results of my tests, it was immediately suggested to me that I should have an abortion.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I hope that she will agree that it is important early in this debate for us to put the science before the Committee and agree on some of the facts. The two major reports that look at viability—the EPICure 1 and EPICure 2 studies, the latter of which came out this year—confirmed that very few pre-term babies of less than 23 weeks come out of hospital and that virtually none at 22 weeks do. The Trent study, which has just been published, also says that no babies came out of hospital at 22 weeks. Is the hon. Lady saying that that body of evidence—the largest studies of the issue in this country, and among the largest in the world—should be disregarded? Does she not feel that all the people involved actually want—
The Temporary Chairman:
Order. Could I ask hon. Members to keep interventions brief? There are a huge number of Members wishing to take part in the debate.
I cannot disagree with a body of evidence, but neither can I agree that abortion at 24 weeks is acceptable.
The hon. Lady may not know that the recent drafts of the EPICure 2 study show a difference from the Trent study. They show an increased viability beyond 20 weeks.
The hon. Gentleman is sitting there, and I concur with his views. [ Interruption. ] Well, there is dissent, whether we like it or not. Mr. Willis has said that some babies born at 23 weeks are viable. Of the 193,000 abortions that we had last year, some of the late stage abortions, which have to be lethally injected in vitro before they are delivered, might have been viable, although I accept that the number itself would be small. I cannot stand here and say that it is all right to take those lives; I cannot do that. I would be much happier with 12 weeks—that is where I stand. Let women have the choice, but make it at 12 weeks.
There is a choice. Pregnancy can be diagnosed days before a woman misses her period, let alone a few days afterwards. I cannot accept that we should keep the limit where it stands, when there is a possibility of a viable life being taken. I cannot accept that, and the vast majority of people in this country find that prospect deeply uncomfortable. Even if it were only one life, it could not be justified, but it is not just one. Within that 193,000, there are considerably more lives that could be viable, and our job is to protect the vulnerable. It is not for us to expedite what happens for the convenience of parents. For me, they have a right to life, and at that age, we should respect the fact that they should be with us.
Is it not true that it is so easy to dehumanise these children—these people—because we cannot hear their voice and we do not see their form?
In the article referred to by the hon. Member for Gainsborough, the eminent doctor stated that no person seeking IVF treatment going for their first scan is told, "Oh, I can see your foetus." What is said is, "I can see your baby, and here is his feet, here is his head and here is his spine, and it is all looking fine." It is very convenient to hide behind the word "foetus" and other non-descriptors, because it makes it far easier to bear an abortion. It makes it far easier for all concerned to deal with the termination of a baby, which can go on to be a child—a very happy and loved child. Other studies suggest that those mothers who first elected to have an abortion and then changed their minds would have bitterly regretted such a decision a few years down the line, because the experience of the child is a different reality from the spectre sometimes painted by individuals in a hospital who think that they know what is best for a mother.
I want to bring my comments to an end. I understand that lots of Members want to contribute to the debate today. I do not think that it is wrong to argue for a woman to have more information and advice at the most critical time in her life. It is not wrong to argue for a few days of rest time to consider what will be a profound decision. I hope that the House will agree to support my new clause.
I rise to discuss new clause 3, but I will support any reduction in the current term limit, from 20 weeks downwards.
Abortion is a sensitive and complex issue. It is a subject best debated in moderate and respectful language, and I believe that it has been thus far in this debate. Members of all parties have strongly held views, as we have already heard. They are views that I respect, although I may disagree with some of them. I would like to put a question to the Committee today. Has the common practice of abortion moved away from the spirit of the original Abortion Act 1967, which was amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990?
The 1967 Act makes it crystal clear that when the termination of the unborn takes place, it should be
"to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman; or"
if the pregnancy would put the mother's life at risk; or
"if the child...would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped.".
I think that most hon. Members accept those reasons, as well as reasons of incest and rape. There is, however, increasing concern inside and outside this House that far too many abortions are being carried out for social, rather than medical, reasons. Is it right that Britain carries out 200,000 abortions a year—600 abortions a day—and 6,200 of those abortions between 16 and 20 weeks? Is it right that 4,000 women in 2006 had had four repeat abortions, that nearly 1,000 women had had more than five abortions, and that some had had up to eight abortions, as my hon. Friend Mr. Leigh has already pointed out? Is that what our predecessors in 1967 set out to achieve in the original Act? There have been 6.7 million abortions in the United Kingdom since 1967.
Far too many babies are terminated in the second and third trimesters. For those in the third trimester, abortion can often mean a lethal injection to the heart, and then the carving and slicing of the unborn child's body parts, tearing limb from limb, cracking the infant's skull and discarding the baby's body parts into a blood-filled plastic bucket. I challenge the media, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough: let us see on prime-time network television a late-term abortion for everybody to see. It is in the public interest, with millions of pounds of taxpayers' money being spent on abortion every year. Let the people of this country decide what goes on, what they will pay for and what they will stand for. Let us have these investigative reporters, these brave journalists who speak about the public interest on the BBC, ITV, Channel 4 or independent and Sky television put on that programme and let the people of this country decide for themselves. Why are they afraid of it? Why are they shying away? Let us see some real broadcasting for the public good.
I will in a moment.
The Government have an important part to play. For example, they could improve sex education and provide better access to contraceptive services. Nearly 70 per cent. of GPs do not offer a full choice of contraceptive methods. For too long, contraceptive services have been seen as the Cinderella service of public health, and I hope that all primary care trusts that are represented in this House today will do more to improve those services.
In a moment, if I may. The hon. Lady has intervened already, and I want to give other hon. Members an opportunity later.
A lot has been heard in this House and in the media about women's rights. I am happy to affirm those rights today, but a cursory glance at 19th-century and even early 20th-century social history reveals that it was the feminist movement, alarmed by a male-dominated medical profession, that led the charge against liberalising abortion laws. Proponents of liberal abortion laws—perhaps outdated now, given the advances in science in recent years—should tread carefully when invoking women en masse. Yes, I am a man, but that does not mean that I cannot represent the overwhelming opinion of women in my constituency, three quarters of whom support a reduction in the current limit. Hon. Ladies who hold a particular view should not say that they speak for all women in this country—they clearly do not.
I am happy to give way to another hon. Member, but one or two are dominating the debate.
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that those who seek late abortions are often the most desperate and vulnerable—sometimes very young—women, who would never wish to be in that position? Would he criminalise them?
No, I would not. The hon. Lady makes an important point, but she underlines my earlier case for better sex education, better family health services and better options, as Mrs. Curtis-Thomas has set out, such as adoption services. It is a tragic paradox that, in ward A of a hospital, doctors paid for by the taxpayer are trying to create life while, in ward B, other doctors paid for by the taxpayer are terminating it. At some point, we need joined-up thinking about how to help those who are working so hard to have a baby. We are discarding babies by the thousand, yet would-be parents in my constituency—and, doubtless, in the great city of Cardiff—want to adopt a child. Why are we terminating so many unborn children?
I should like to pay tribute to many hon. Members, but I start with my right hon. Friend Mr. Cameron. Unlike many leaders, he has shown courage and leadership in standing up and saying that he supports a reduction in the term limit. The Prime Minister has said that he will start to listen. If he wants to do that, he should listen to the two thirds of the British public who support a reduction in the abortion term limit, including three quarters of women. The overwhelming majority of GPs also support that reduction. Indeed, many are not prepared to perform abortions over 16 weeks, in which case people have to be brought over from abroad. If the Prime Minister is serious about listening, he will listen to the women of this country.
I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is assisting his argument by introducing a political element. Does he agree that, whatever term limit we determine, the sort of neutral information for which my new clause provides will help women in the desperate position whereby they suddenly learn of a danger to their child about which they did not know?
Absolutely. I look forward to considering new clause 8, which I fully support. I was not being partisan or party political—I simply stated the facts. If that is inconvenient or uncomfortable for hon. Members, I make no apology. The issue is important for the nation, and I was considering national leadership, not partisan politics. New clause 3 shows that I have cross-party support.
There are consequences for mothers. Abortion is not risk free or without cost to the mother. We have heard about higher rates of mental illness, an increased risk of breast cancer and the possibility of future premature births. All the facts need to be presented to women, informing them of the risks of abortion and the associated costs, possibly later in their lives.
Why 16 weeks? Scientific evidence increasingly suggests that unborn children feel pain at 16 weeks. That is not simply a stress response; it is a physiological response, perhaps not the same as in a fully grown adult, but a physical and even emotional response beyond the norms of passive reflex. Pain is felt, which is why specialist, gifted surgeons who perform surgery on babies in the womb use anaesthetic. Now, 4D imaging reveals that 16-week-old unborn babies are very much alive and kicking, although their limbs are too small to be felt by the mothers. Those who have had children know that they are likely to feel kicking at around 17 weeks in the case of a second baby and 19 weeks in the case of a first baby. However, just because the mother does not feel kicking, it does not mean that there is no leg kicking.
Sixteen-week-old unborn babies are very small human beings, but they have many of the faculties of newborn babies. I will probably get told off for doing this, but I have a picture of a 16-week-old unborn baby. It speaks for itself.
I am always being told off, Mr. Gale, so I shall simply add that to the list.
That picture, like the one on my website, is not a tissue blob or an unrecognisable collection of cells, but a living, small human being. Even some botched abortions between 16 and 20 weeks' gestation revealed the extent of their humanity. One study in the west midlands revealed that 14.7 per cent. of the abortions undertaken ended in a live birth. Indeed, babies born alive after failed abortions are increasingly common.
An expert from the International Association for the Study of Pain wrote in volume XIV of the "Clinical Updates":
"Our current understanding of development provides the anatomical structures, the physiological mechanisms and the functional evidence for pain perception developing in the second trimester."
I believe that the unborn are fearfully and wonderfully made. Terminating a child that has been woven and knitted in the womb should be a choice of last resort, not the latest manifestation of Britain's throwaway society.
I have been sitting here throughout. Does the hon. Gentleman agree with me, as someone who was adopted in 1964 three years before the 1967 Act, that—to revert to his original concept—we want a massive reduction in the number of abortions? It is emotive to talk about the number of weeks. Would it not be better if the Committee were to return to the original concept of the law, which the hon. Gentleman has rightly read out, and ensure that abortions are not a matter of convenience, but are undertaken for the reasons in the original Act. Would that not serve the country better than talking about the number of weeks?
The Temporary Chairman:
Order. Again, I appeal to hon. Members to keep interventions brief. We have three Front-Bench spokesman waiting to speak, two hours of debate and at least 15 hon. Members wishing to contribute. We must show each other some courtesy.
Thank you, Mr. Gale. It was a long intervention, but it was worth while, because the hon. Gentleman has made some personal and valid points. My answer is that I hope that we can do both those things.
I often wonder, given Britain's skills shortage, how many of the 200,000 aborted last year could have been the engineers and maths teachers that we need. Indeed—and not on a light note—how many could have been the English cricketers and football players that we need? A lot of talent has been lost.
I hope that, given the cross-party support for new clause 3, we will have an opportunity to divide on the matter and to enter the same Lobby. I hope that the House will have a chance to express its view on foetal pain, sentience, the sanctity of life and public opinion.
Because Mark Pritchard made some political points, may I say at the outset how sad I am that the former hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, the late Gwyneth Dunwoody, cannot be here to speak in this debate? Gwyneth was a great champion of women's rights. I think that she would have been disappointed, as I am, that this debate is, with some very honourable exceptions, dividing on party political lines. [Hon. Members: "Oh!"] It is true.
It is clear from the last three speeches that abortion is an emotional topic. It provokes strong reactions in almost all societies and is clearly doing so in the House this evening. There seems to be an unspoken agreement that women should be patronised when they become pregnant and steered towards the expected outcome of carrying that pregnancy to term. People who are not directly involved with unwanted pregnancies dominate the public debate. Not surprisingly, they operate on wrong assumptions about how a pregnant woman should be treated and cared for.
The first gross misconception is the assumption that restricting abortion or making it illegal would in some way be pro-life. The error in that argument is that the exclusive focus is on the foetus. The woman is totally ignored, as if she does not count. A clear example of the low value put on women's health by the anti-choice lobby is the recent Polish court case in which a woman was forced to become nearly blind as a direct result of being denied an abortion. That woman's sight had less value than upholding her pregnancy. I hope that hon. Members will not go down that route tonight, because that position implies that one can protect life by restricting access to abortion or making it illegal. However, there is no evidence at all that restricting abortion reduces the numbers.
Is my hon. Friend not pursuing a false premise? No one is suggesting that the life or the health of the mother should be compromised. We are talking about healthy mothers and healthy babies.
Perhaps my hon. Friend is not aware of the recent National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines on scans, which are quite clear. The recent guidelines, in "Antenatal care: Routine care for the healthy pregnant woman", from March 2008—
No, I will not give way. [Hon. Members: "Ah!"] I will not give way—it is important to make this point. Those guidelines say:
"Pregnant women should be offered an ultrasound scan to screen for structural anomalies, ideally between 18 and 20 weeks' gestation",
which is medical speak for up to 21 weeks, with the emphasis on "ideally". We all routinely campaign for NICE guidelines to be implemented, do we not? I therefore have to assume that hon. Members also believe in those guidelines, or perhaps they are the exception.
What has been proven to reduce abortions is comprehensive sex education and unrestricted access to effective contraception and early safe abortion services. Opposition Members might not like it, but it is an established fact that Dutch women have the lowest abortion rates in the world, and that is because they have that access. Far from reducing the frequency of unwanted pregnancies and abortions, restricting abortion forces women to resort to illegal and mostly unsafe abortions, which endangers their health and their lives. That is why virtually all developed countries legalised abortions in the previous century—because they could no longer accept the tragic suffering and loss of their female population.
If women have no access to legal abortion, they resort to illegal means. Women will go to any lengths and will take any risk to end an unwanted pregnancy—and "any" means exactly that.
No; I want to make some progress.
Illegal abortion is extremely risky. It is usually performed late and is frequently performed by an untrained person. Besides the medical risks, abortions performed under illegal conditions are socially unjust, because women with means can and will pay for safe abortions, leaving poor women at the mercy of illegal settings and the high risk that they bring.
Another fundamental misconception in the abortion debate is that society needs to intervene to ensure that pregnant women make the right decision. All restrictions in reproductive health imply that pregnant women must be protected from themselves, so that they do not make a hasty decision against having a child; we have heard about that this evening. Total strangers declare themselves advocates of a pregnant woman's foetus. Such a position not only violates the fundamental rights of women but is an incredible insult to women, being based on an arrogant and unthinking assumption that women in general are inferior to men.
No, I am not giving way.
The pregnant woman is the only person who can make a responsible decision in the best interests of herself, her family and her foetus. Abortion should be a private decision, between the patient and her doctor, just like any other medical treatment. Why is it so difficult for societies, even those such as ours, to give the power to decide to those who carry the consequences? That is another basic misconception—that women with an unwanted pregnancy should enter into the decision-making process only after counselling with someone they do not know. Apparently, a total stranger is in a better position to judge what is in the best interests of the woman. How ridiculous.
Would my hon. Friend say that a child of 12 is a woman who knows her own mind and is capable of making a decision of that kind?
She could be pregnant; but I would like to think that she would not be. If we had compulsory sexual health and relationship education in all our schools, there might be a better chance of that child not being pregnant. However, I accept that that does not preclude rape, incest or the unfortunate situations in which young girls can find themselves. I would hope that such a young person would be advised carefully by her family, not a stranger. That is my point entirely. Such decisions are always best taken within the framework of the family, not with strangers.
No, I am not giving way again.
Restrictions may be well intended. I understand about the religious views of many hon. Members speaking in this debate and I know that they are well intentioned, but obviously I take a different view. The problem with restrictions, however well intended, is that they do not lead to a reduced frequency of unwanted pregnancies or abortions.
No, I am not giving way.
Restrictions do not even lead to an improvement in the quality of care, and they certainly do not lead to an increase in the birth of wanted children. What restrictions do is delay gestational age at abortion, increase the risks to the physical and psychological health of the woman and increase the costs, but without any obvious benefits.
I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. The logic of her argument about restrictions being inappropriate is that women should be able to have abortion on demand right up to birth. Do I take it that she would not approve of that?
I do not recall having said that. What I am saying is that putting restrictions in the way of women who have already made a difficult and, as my hon. Friend Mrs. Curtis-Thomas said, traumatic decision—she used that word about three times—is just prolonging the agony. Doing so is cruel and unnecessary. There are increased costs to society, but no benefits.
Mr. Gale— [ Interruption. ] Sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker—[Hon. Members: "Sir Michael!"]—I mean Sir Michael; I am not sure how to address you in this debate. Society has shown impressive creativity in the past, in introducing all sorts of ingenious restrictions on access to abortion, none of which have shown any evidence-based benefit to the people involved. In most countries, and indeed here, the legal framework and the requirements for an abortion do not reflect the needs of women with an unwanted pregnancy; rather, they reflect the personal morality and the misconceptions of people who are both professionally inexperienced and personally not involved. Why is it so difficult to do the most obvious thing—give the power to decide to those who are most directly involved? Women carry a completely disproportionate share of the burden in reproduction, but where are their rights? And tonight we are talking about taking them away.
I say to the male Members of this House—they are in the considerable majority—that I recognise that they cannot get pregnant, let alone have an abortion themselves. I suspect that most of them are profoundly relieved that that is the case. Most women would believe that we would not be here having this debate if men could do that, but it is in men's own interests to maintain the reproductive health of women, because most are directly affected by and dependent on it. They should, therefore, be arguing not to restrict women's rights to choose, but for conditions that permit women to end an unwanted pregnancy, if necessary, in the best way possible for them and without unnecessary suffering. As we heard earlier, termination of a wanted pregnancy must be one of the very hardest decisions that women and couples have to make. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby said, it is traumatic.
The NICE guidelines, which I mentioned earlier, are very clear. Those new guidelines say that pregnant women should ideally—I stress that word—be offered an ultrasound scan at between 18 weeks and 20 weeks, which means up to 21 weeks. As I said, Members in all parts of the House always campaign for NICE guidelines, and I have to assume that that one is not an exception. I also say to Members that unless they do not accept the NICE guidance in this particular case, it would be wholly inconsistent for them to vote to lower the upper limit to 22 weeks or even less, because they would clearly be removing any element of choice from the process. Any reduction below the current 24-week limit would leave little or no room for women and couples to make a responsible, considered choice when a potentially serious abnormality is detected.
Of course, I agree that legislation should always adapt to take account of scientific and technical progress, but all the recent independent peer-reviewed research has shown very clearly that survival at below 24 weeks' gestation has not improved, despite advances in other aspects of antenatal care and the care of premature babies. When the 24-week limit was approved by Parliament in 1990, a key argument was that that was the stage at which the foetus was considered viable. It is the considered view of the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Nursing and the British Association of Perinatal Medicine that there is no evidence of a significant improvement in the survival of extremely premature babies below 24 weeks' gestation in the UK within the last 18 years. The recent EPICure and Trent studies that were referred to earlier also say the same thing. There is no significant statistical improvement in survival under 24 weeks.
I have said many times in this Chamber—I will keep on saying it until Members start to listen—that the best way of reducing the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions is to improve women's access to contraception, as well as educating women and men about sexual health, and to make sexual health and relationship education compulsory in all our schools. In contrast, any reduction in the upper time limit would force a very small number of vulnerable women to continue a pregnancy against their will. Proposals to reduce the time limit do not even take into consideration the terrible plight of women who have a wanted pregnancy but discover a foetal abnormality at a later stage.
I, too, want to see a reduction in the number of women seeking abortion—I imagine that all Members in all parts of the Committee do—and a reduction in the gestation period at which abortions take place, but late-term abortions are very rare. In 2006, less than 1.5 per cent. of all abortions took place after 20 weeks, and of those, a mere 0.7 per cent.—a tiny fraction—were carried out at 22 weeks or later.
I say to Members that they should vote for 22 weeks or less if they really are anti-choice. They should vote for 22 weeks or less if they really believe that a woman should be required to continue a late-diagnosed pregnancy even if her health is at risk or the foetus is abnormal. They should vote for 22 weeks or less if they do not believe that such difficult decisions should, wherever possible, be made within the family. For the purposes of giving the Committee an opportunity to vote positively on 24 weeks—23 weeks and six days is the medical definition of 24 weeks, the status quo—I say to Members that they should support the status quo if they are pro-life, pro-quality of life or pro a woman's life. They should support the status quo if they are pro women's rights—after all, women's rights are human rights. They should support the status quo if they are pro reproductive rights, because reproductive rights are also human rights. They should support the status quo if they are pro-humanity, because any reduction of the upper limit would be cynical, cruel, ill-informed and inhumane.
May I say what an honour and privilege it is, as a relatively new Member of the House, to stand at the Dispatch Box and speak in such an important debate?
I know that it is normal to make kind comments about the previous speaker, and I will do my level best. Every hon. Member has the right to their own personal views, and I listened intently to the comments of Chris McCafferty. I agreed with her in part but not on most of what she said. She made very important points about contraception, which I will come back to later in my speech. There was one fundamental point that she got wrong—saying that this was all about religion. I am speaking at this Dispatch Box not from a religious standpoint, but from a moral standpoint. From that perspective, I must emphasise that the views that I am expressing this evening are my personal views, not those of my party. I have not discussed with any member of my party, the leadership or those on my Front Bench how I should vote later this evening. I think that that is exactly the way in which the Committee should be making those decisions.
It is a shame that Members have not been given the opportunity to speak for much longer than the three hours allowed for. That is not in any way a party political view; it is obvious from what Chairmen of the Committee have said this evening that many Members wish to speak. Many would have liked to speak for much longer than they had the opportunity to do and, sadly, it seems that some hon. Members will not have the opportunity to speak.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point about the time that we have to debate these matters. Does he agree that bolting abortion on to the Bill in the first place was a big mistake, and that it would be perfectly honourable for Members to decide on a free-vote basis to vote tonight against every single amendment concerned with abortion on the basis that it has been tagged on to the HFE Bill in the absence of a royal commission and proper independent assessment of all the aspects concerning abortion?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point. It appears that we may have 10 sittings on the Bill on the Committee Corridor. We are where we are: the amendments have been tabled, and we have got three hours. With that in mind, I will not take a huge number of interventions. Other hon. Members have been very generous in giving way, but I am conscious of those Members who wish to contribute.
Since 1968—I apologise if I am using figures that have been used earlier, although I do not think they have—5.5 million pregnancies in this country have been terminated. As we heard earlier, the latest available figures show that nearly 200,000 were terminated in 2006. The figure has risen dramatically since 1969, when 5.2 women in 1,000 had an abortion. The figure is now 18.3 per 1,000, which is a huge number. I believe that everyone in the House would like to see a massive reduction in the number of abortions taking place in this country. This is not about choice; I want everybody to have a choice, but surely, in a compassionate society such as ours, we would all want to see fewer terminations taking place.
May I ask my hon. Friend to be careful in the language that he uses? A great many euphemisms have been used in the debate, including babies being referred to as "foetuses" and abortions being referred to as "terminations". Does he recall that, when the Russians finally admitted to having downed the Korean jumbo jet, they said that they had terminated it, rather than having shot it down? Is it not grotesque that "family planning" is used as a euphemism for abortion in this country?
I should like to make a little progress.
I want to move on to the sheer quantity of abortions taking place in this country today, and to the fact that 32 per cent. of women who have an abortion have had an abortion before. I find that enormously disturbing, both as a father and as a husband. Earlier today, I was having a conversation with an old friend who has daughters of a similar age to my own daughters. My daughters are 17 and 19 years old. This gentleman is not a politician, and he asked me how I was going to vote this evening. He told me that, the other evening, he had had a disturbing conversation with his 19-year-old daughter, who had been on Facebook, having a conversation with one of her friends from college. Her friend is already a single mother, and she told my friend's daughter that she was now pregnant again. My friend's daughter said to her, "This is really serious. What are you going to do?" Her friend replied that she was going to have an abortion. When my friend's daughter observed that this was a very serious matter, her friend replied that she had had two abortions already. I accept that that is not the norm, but it illustrates the failure of this country to address that problem.
I am not in any way taking a view on that person's individual circumstances. I am not there; I am not her father—I do not know whether she has a father. We do know, however, that it is not good for her to be in that position, and we must do everything that we possibly can—
I should like to make some progress.
I know that, in some of her TV interviews, the Minister has communicated the priority of reducing the time that women have to wait for an abortion. I agree with her. Much of our debate tonight has been about how long people have had to wait for results and to find out whether their baby is in some way deformed. I find it difficult to understand why, in this country in the 21st century, we cannot get medical science to move forward.
The hon. Member for Calder Valley said earlier that we must listen to NICE. I wish that she would be kind enough to listen to me; I listened to quite a lot of her contribution to the debate. NICE can only work with the legislation that is set before it by the House. If NICE had a limit of 20 or 22 weeks to work with, I have no doubt that it would bring down its recommendations in order to conform with the House's legislation. NICE can only work within the framework of the laws that the House sets out. I would very much like to see NICE recommending much earlier results from scans.
I agree with Mrs. Curtis-Thomas about the necessity for time to think. Indeed, I have voted for such provisions myself since I came to the House. She also made an important point about gentlemen who have vasectomies. I had a vasectomy on the national health. I went to see my GP, who said, "I want to speak to your wife." My wife and I both sat there and agreed that a vasectomy was the way forward for us as our own personal form of contraception. The GP then sent us away for three or four days, after which my wife and I both saw the consultant, and again we both agreed that a vasectomy was the way forward. I entirely agree with the hon. Lady that if that time for thought is right for a man having a vasectomy—which, by the way, can be reversed, albeit painfully—there must be a provision for more time to think and consult when it comes to such a serious decision as having an abortion.
I also agree with what my hon. Friend Mr. Lansley said in his thoughtful speech on Second Reading last week. He rightly called for society to step forward and address its failings, particularly in relation to young people, to the poor, to those who have suffered a family breakdown, and to inadequate social support, especially in education. I am not just talking about sex education in schools. Education covers a wide variety of aspects, and it particularly needs to address the lack of knowledge about contraception, particularly in the most vulnerable and economically deprived areas of the country. I am not going to baffle the Committee with more figures—that is going to happen all through this debate—but the vast majority of people who end up having an abortion come from the most socially deprived parts of the country.
The hon. Member for Calder Valley said earlier that those who could afford to pay for an abortion would do so, and she was quite right. However, if we look at the figures, it is those who can least afford— [ Interruption. ]
Thank you, Sir Michael. As this is such an important debate, I would have thought any meetings that needed to take place could take place outside the Chamber.
Sex education is extremely important, but my own daughters tell me that when they had sex education at school, it was useless. I served in the military at the age of 16, and when I meet servicemen and women around the country, they tell me that more sex education is being given to the troops of this country than ever has been to pupils in school. If we are more proactive about giving sex education to the military than to those in our schools and colleges, there is something missing here.
I very much agree with my hon. Friend about the need for education. Does he agree that, apart from any technical advice that might be offered, it is absolutely essential to get right the question of social responsibility in that educational process? The question of right and wrong, in relation to when sex should be engaged in and when it should not, is one of the main reasons why we are in such difficulty today.
I completely agree with my hon. Friend; with the choice of whether to have sex with one's partner comes responsibility.
On the question of viability, we have heard a great deal about studies of the viability of the foetus—or the baby, in some hon. Members' terminology; I think that I agree with that terminology. If there were any doubt in my mind that a baby might be viable, I find it difficult to see how the Committee would not vote to lower the limit. Viability is everything. If even a single baby could live, with the help of modern medical science, that baby deserves the chance to live. That is where I, personally, am coming from this evening.
I have not taken up any time in the debate to talk about the individual contributions that have been made this evening. This is not a winding-up speech; it is a contribution. However, we have heard passionate speeches from those with deep-seated personal views, be they religious or non-religious, pro-life or pro-choice.
I leave the Committee not with the full text of what was sent to one of my hon. Friends this evening, but with a summary of it, which I do to protect the relevant consultant. This consultant e-mailed one of my colleagues this evening to say that in one room in the hospital where he worked they were successfully looking after premature babies of 23 and 24 weeks, who were going on to live normal lives.
This is a very important debate, even if I have expressed views outside the House and as an individual Member about what I think is the appropriate place for this discussion. I congratulate Mr. Leigh on his opening remarks. I do not agree with him, but he made clear what is going on in this evening's debate.
There are those in the House who oppose abortion; there are those who oppose abortion, but who believe that in order to prevent it they should support a series of incremental reductions in what is currently available; and there are those who support abortion and seek to find a reference point or an anchor on which to decide the availability of abortions with reference to time limits and other criteria. Although I think it is very important for us to approach the issue from the position of our personal experiences as well, in my opinion it is dangerous to replace evidence by anecdotes and then move to general assertions about the best way to make informed decisions in this difficult debate.
One issue repeatedly cropping up this evening is that of the evidence for a reduction in the upper gestational limit for abortions of 24 weeks. We have heard and will continue to hear arguments ranging from maintaining the 24-week upper limit to various reductions. The hon. Member for Gainsborough made it clear where he thought it should be, on the basis of his personal choice rather than evidence.
The upper gestational limit for termination of pregnancy under section 1(1)(a) of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 was set by Parliament at 24 weeks because the scientific evidence at the time was that the threshold of viability had increased and babies were increasingly surviving at 24 weeks and above. I make that point to make it clear that the upper gestational limit for abortions on ground (a) has always been linked to the potential viability of the foetus outside the womb .
Just one moment. That was the case in 1967, it was the case in 1990, and it is certainly the case now. I am happy to give way to Miss Widdecombe, who entered the House in the same year I did. In every debate on abortion, she has been clear that she is against it, just as I have been clear that I believe it is a woman's right to choose. I am happy to give way to her.
I am very grateful to the right hon. Lady. She has said that viability is the determining factor, but does she accept that there is a genuine debate as to whether that should be the only determining factor? Since 1990, there has been a very substantial body of evidence—and I do mean evidence—about foetal pain and distress. If the child being aborted cannot live, what on earth is the point of the lethal injection?
The right hon. Lady does not need to stress her words; I can understand the word "evidence" whether she says it slowly or quickly. My point was that on every occasion that the House has considered this issue, it has used viability, as determined by the evidence from the medical profession, in order to provide its starting point. I would absolutely agree with the right hon. Lady and other Members that this is a very difficult decision to make and that a series of points need to be considered. The right hon. Lady happens to come out in a different place in the argument from me.
No; if I can make a little progress, I will give way if I have time later. I want to be brief so that other Members can speak.
My main point about the time limit is that in the late '80s there was a clear consensus from the medical profession that the age at which a foetus should be presumed to be viable should be changed from 28 to 24 weeks, and there is no evidence at the present time that that position has changed. In fact, the British Association of Perinatal Medicine, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Nursing and the faculty for sexual and reproductive healthcare of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists all concur with that view.
The current clinical evidence shows that although there have been medical advances in caring for premature babies, only a small number of babies born at under 24 weeks' gestation can survive. For those that do, there may be many questions about their quality of life—most have severe problems—whereas the situation improves markedly at 24 to 25 weeks, which reaffirms why the limit of 24 weeks was chosen.
Does the right hon. Lady not accept that some children—not many, but some—born prematurely between 22 and 24 weeks go on to adulthood and have productive lives? They are living between 22 and 24 weeks.
That is not the issue that I was putting to the Committee.
No, just a minute. I was making the point that nothing has changed over that time period. The difficult choices that Mr. Walker and others have identified existed in 1990 and they exist now. We all know that the circumstances in which women have abortions are not easy; the decision is difficult, there are many complex reasons, but up until this evening the House has chosen to base its judgment on the evidence. We have heard mention of that evidence from the EPICure studies and, most recently, from the Trent regional study, which continues to demonstrate that despite improvements in some neonatal units, there is no improvement in the survival rates of those very young babies.
Reducing the current time limit would have a significant impact on a small number of women who seek late abortions. The Committee must face the fact that some of those women, if forced to give birth to unwanted children, will continue not to wish to do so. Having made that decision, they will travel abroad and seek abortions elsewhere. Would it not be appalling if we drove women back to where they were before the 1967 Act?
I will give way briefly, but then I must make progress.
I wonder whether the Minister has seen the results of a study by the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. It conducted an audit of women seeking late abortion services, and what it found was truly appalling. Its findings showed that it was the most vulnerable women—those who had been subject to domestic abuse, those who were teenagers, those who had all sorts of chaotic lifestyle and drug issues—who would be punished by any reduction in the time limit.
I have seen the results of that study, and I agree with what the hon. Gentleman has said.
This is the challenge that is presented to the Committee. If life were always only about simple choices and clear-cut decisions it would be so much easier, but we are talking about complex lives. I am thinking particularly of very vulnerable young women, or older women who, for a number of reasons, may not have discovered their pregnancy. I am also thinking about foetal abnormality. Does the Committee really believe that it should remove consideration of those few but none the less vulnerable women as individuals without the support of evidence? Of course, for Members who are completely opposed to abortion the answer is yes, they would take those rights away, but I think that that would be a retrograde step.
I will give way to the hon. Gentleman, but then I really must make some progress.
I am grateful to the Minister. Is it not worth putting on record the fact that only roughly 1 per cent. of babies born to mums who go into labour at 22 weeks are born alive and leave the maternity unit, and that half those babies have severe abnormalities? Moreover, people presenting for abortion at 22 or 23 weeks would have had to be in the system at least two weeks earlier, which means that they are probably presenting to the clinicians at 20 or 21 weeks.
As the hon. Gentleman has put the figures on the record, I shall not waste the Committee's time by repeating them, but he went on to make a very important point about the complex reasons for which some women may present late after deciding on an abortion. They may have struggled greatly with that decision.
I do not accept the idea that women do this lightly. I cannot believe that I heard it said it was like going to the hairdresser. I cannot believe that women would make the decision in that way. I know that they do not. [Interruption.] I am not arguing with those who are absolutely opposed to abortion. They will put their case here tonight. I am addressing only the case which I have made clear that I support—
On a point of order, Sir Michael. Is it in order for a Member, even a Minister, to misrepresent deeply something said during the debate by a Member who is not here to correct what has been said?
The Second Deputy Chairman:
I think that these are basically matters for debate, not matters for the Chair. I also think that all Members must take serious responsibility for the words that they use.
The Second Deputy Chairman:
These are very serious matters. Clearly, it is entirely up to the Member who has the Floor to decide whether to give way to any other Member. [Interruption.] I repeat that that these are very serious matters. The debate has been civilised and organised until now, but I think that all Members should choose their words very carefully.
I will give way to the hon. Lady, but let me say first, Sir Michael, that I was following your suggestion that our contributions should be short so that others could join in the debate. Continuing to take interventions will prolong my speech, but I am happy—as I have been in previous debates—to take an intervention from Mrs. Robinson.
I thank the Minister. May I suggest that she visit a special needs school in her constituency, where she can see some beautiful and wonderful children with Down's syndrome and other "special needs" disabilities? Is she telling us that it is right to decide, just because there is some abnormality in the foetus, that that eliminates a child's right to life?
I did not say that, I would not say that, and the hon. Lady is trying to put words into my mouth that conform with what she thinks the argument should be. The point I am making is that there is no scientific evidence to warrant a reduction in the time limit. Of course it will be up to the House to decide, after examining the evidence, whether it feels there is a strong case for that and it is necessary. My point is that the evidence does not support that, even if some Members feel that they personally should vote for a reduction.
The right hon. Lady has placed a lot of emphasis on the viability test having been the basis on which the House has in the past decided on term limits, as though for anybody to think about any other reference point is somehow beyond the law and subversive, but will she answer the question that I think Mrs. Robinson was asking: why does the viability test go out of the window for foetuses that are deemed to have a foetal abnormality? Why do the viability test and the term limit go out of the window for them, so that there can be terminations up to the point of birth?
Because the 1967 Act, as amended, provided for that, and I am making my comments only with regard to the legislation as it currently operates and whether or not there is any indication that there should be a change in the criteria.
New clause 6 seeks to remove disability as a ground for abortion and to extend the excluded grounds to include gender, race and sexuality. If that ground is repealed, those women carrying a child with a serious handicap may be forced against their wishes to continue with the pregnancy. In some cases, that will increase the risk to the woman as well. We must remember that we are talking here about very serious handicaps, such as the absence of a large part of the brain. Is it right to force a woman to carry such a child until it dies in the womb or is born with no chance of survival? That is the kind of very difficult question that we need to confront this evening.
Will the right hon. Lady give way?
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?"
I want to make it clear, as my hon. Friend 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:
"There is no sensible conversation between the opposing views to be had."
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:
"the capacity of the foetus to survive—even with assistance—outside the womb."
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 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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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
"the special care baby units would be over stretched trying to care for the premature babies to the detriment of care for those born a couple of weeks later".
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
May I finish my arguments? Otherwise, others will not get the chance to contribute to the debate.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I do not know the exact figures, but I have no problems with that argument. Of course, many of us—not everybody, as some of those who oppose abortion on religious grounds also oppose the use of contraception—would seek to improve sex education, relationships education and contraception. There is no debate about that. If that led to a fall in backstreet abortions, it would be a good thing. That is the path that we all want to go down. We do not want women to feel that they need to have abortions. It is impossible for those people who are proposing the 16-week, 12-week and 20-week limits to deny that that would lead women who are feeling desperate to seek an abortion that would inevitably damage their health and lead to some of the misery that we have seen in the past.
I am also concerned by the attempts to reduce the time limit as part of a demonstration of how to deal with the mythical broken society. I believe that putting women through the misery of having to look for backstreet abortions, having to seek illegal abortions or being forced to carry on through pregnancy and birth would increase the broken society, if that is really what we are talking about.
I want to make progress, because I am conscious that a number of hon. Members want to speak, including my hon. Friend, and that I would be depriving them of time. He might get in, if he does not intervene now.
As has been noted, some hon. Members are talking not only about the 16-week limit that I discussed earlier but about what is said to be a more modest reduction to 20 or 22 weeks. There has been a lot of debate, which I will not repeat, about how all the medical and scientific organisations concerned with the issue and the Science and Technology Committee accept that there has not been a substantial change in the viability limit.
Earlier today, I listened to the initial results from the second EPICure study—we have already had the Trent study and the first EPICure study—and it is probable that we have reached the limit of possible technical advance. That limit is due to how the foetus develops, and the lack of brain and lung capacity in the period just before 24 weeks.
My right hon. Friend the Minister spoke earlier about what happened in 1990, when we moved from 28 to 24 weeks. That change was seen as an attempt to keep the time limit for abortions consistent with what was then regarded as the scientific viability level. That is where the science leads us at present. Of course, I do not deny that it is possible to break that link, even though to do so would go against what all the medical and scientific organisations—doctors and others—are urging. However, a reduction to 20 or 22 weeks would not reduce the number of abortions. Those who want to use a reduction in the limit to that end will not achieve a substantial cut in the number of abortions, but if they get their way, they will bring misery to a small number of women who, as has been noted, are often among the most vulnerable.
A point that has not been made so far in the debate is that, perversely, a reduction in the time limit could lead to an increase in abortions. The problem of foetal abnormalities needs to be considered and, no matter what Mike Penning may claim, my understanding of what the scientists say is that it will not be possible to get tests for all foetal abnormalities at an earlier stage. I am not a scientist, but that is what I understand.
As a result, women who do not learn about abnormalities in the foetus until a late stage and only realise then that they may need an abortion—or who may have presented late, or who did not know that they were pregnant, and so on—may be panicked into getting an abortion when, if they had had a few more weeks to consider, they might have taken the pregnancy to term. If the limit is reduced to a point that is too early—that is, to only just after the time when the possibility of an abortion has been discussed—the perverse effect may be that women end up having more abortions, because it is something that needs time for consideration.
I was at a briefing with the British Medical Association earlier today. We heard from the charity Antenatal Results and Choices, which helps support women whose foetuses have abnormalities. As has been discussed already, current legislation means that it should still be possible for such women to have an abortion at any time, regardless of the limit. The charity said that the 24-week limit is the line in the sand for many doctors, and I do not dispute their right to take that view, but women who are not diagnosed until late may not get the further tests that a final diagnosis requires. As a result, because they fear that they might lose the chance, they may be panicked into having an abortion that they might not otherwise have.
There has been some discussion about the sort of women who end up having late abortions. Here is one example:
"I was 19, my father had died and I was looking after my 8 siblings with my mother who could barely afford to keep us. I couldn't face telling my mum about my pregnancy—things were so difficult. If I couldn't have an abortion I'd have killed myself. Now I've been able to go to college, learn to read and write, play a full role in society and bring up a family of my own."
Another women says:
"I had been taking the pill. When I had a missed period, I went straight to my doctor for a pregnancy test. It came back negative. I was still missing periods. I returned to my doctor who said I had nothing to worry about. A short while later I met someone who had had a child after finding out too late that she was pregnant to have an abortion. I did another test, which came back positive. It took a further two and half weeks before I could have an abortion. It was the right thing for me—I have never regretted it."
Those are two examples of late abortions that would be ruled out by those people who feel, "Yes, going to 16 weeks or 12 weeks is too far for me, but a moderate reduction would not have a terrible effect." It would; it would cause misery for a small number of women.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the use of the term "abortion for social reasons" can be very unhelpful, in suggesting that women have late abortions for reasons of pure convenience, whereas we know that there are tragic causes that relate to domestic violence and the examples that she has given, which are nothing at all to do with mere inconvenience?
I agree with that. At the BMA meeting, Dr. Chisholm talked about his first week as a GP, when he went to a farming family who only realised that their daughter was pregnant at the point at which she went into labour. That shows how there can be complete denial and many situations in which people are not aware that they are pregnant or in which they are in such shock that they go into denial and end up seeking abortions late. We must think of those circumstances.
At the BMA meeting earlier today, Dr. Kate Peterson—a GP—made the point that, when talking to someone who is seeking a late abortion or is not sure what to do, there are many complex circumstances that need to be talked through. She appealed to us not to take away the ability to have that serious discussion and talk through the possibilities with the woman concerned, and she said that that would be taken away if the woman was forced into a speedy decision by a reduction in the time limit.
The hon. Lady is making a powerful social case—I do not apologise for using that term—against reducing the limit, but does she accept that even those of us who might not have had any problem yesterday in voting to defend stem cell research, because we do not regard a small collection of cells as a person, nevertheless have a moral question to answer about when personhood emerges and when the legitimate rights of the woman that she has described must be nevertheless balanced with the rights of a second moral presence? We must wrestle today with that question, which she is not really addressing.
That brings me back to my first argument. I will not convince the hon. Gentleman; he will not convince me. [ Interruption. ] Women consider those two different sets of arguments as well. It is wrong to impose a different set of moral views on a woman who does not take the moral view that abortion is wrong or that it is wrong in those circumstances. We will not convince each other, but I would not dream of telling a woman who was strongly opposed that she should have an abortion, and the same respect should be held the other way around.
No, I will not give way, because we have very little time left and a number of hon. Members still wish to speak, including those who take a different view from mine, and I respect their right to express their views. [ Interruption. ] If I let in an hon. Member because she is regarded as supporting my views, I would be criticised for not letting in others who take a different view. So I shall come to a conclusion.
I dread the idea that we might go backwards, and I dread the idea that we might force women against their moral views and against what they feel is right for them into a position where they are forced to go through pregnancy and to bear a child in a situation in which they might feel desperate. Of course we all want to cut the number of abortions, and we want to do so through better advice, better contraception and all the things that we can do to prevent abortions, but there will be circumstances in which women feel the need to go through that, and I appeal to the Committee not to make it difficult for them and not to put them into the terrible position of having to make that choice and of having to go through unwanted pregnancy, birth and the terrible decision of whether or not to keep the child that they have borne unwillingly.
There are two points that I would like to clear up before I embark on my speech. The first is on the issue of disability, which has been deliberately clouded tonight. My new clause 5, which would introduce a 20-week limit under section 1(1)(a) of the Abortion Act 1967, relates to social terminations. If my new clause, and the 20-week limit, were agreed to tonight, and any woman found, at a 20-week or 21-week scan, that there were abnormalities, she would be able to abort up until birth under the Act. That will not change at all if my new clause is agreed to. I am surprised at Chris McCafferty, who muddied the waters slightly. My new clause refers only to social terminations in healthy circumstances.
She's only just started—give her a chance!
Well, I definitely will not give way now. Let me give some further figures on the disability issue. In 2006, some 2,860 terminations took place between 20 and 24 weeks. One in five of them—567—took place because of a disability. That situation would not be affected at all by my new clause; those mothers would still be able to abort.
I should like to make my personal position clear, because it has been misrepresented in the past few days. I am pro-choice. I support a woman's right to abortion—to faster, safer and quicker abortion than is available at the moment, particularly in the first trimester. That is my position.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for saying that she supports abortion. She will agree that it is a good point that 89 per cent. of abortions are conducted in the first 13 weeks, so her case about getting more done does not really stand up.
As I have found from my research, one of the main problems is that many young women who present at a hospital or at a doctor's are made to wait two to four weeks before a termination. I want to make my position clear: I am not against abortion per se. Actually, I would go further: I would like the morning-after pill to be available from every school nurse and in every supermarket pharmacy—and it should be free for young girls, and not £25 at the chemist's, as it is at the moment. [Interruption.] I can imagine the discussions that are taking place.
Now may I get to the substantive part of my speech? I first became concerned about and interested in the issue of abortion when I worked as a nurse. I worked for nine months on a gynaecology ward, and assisted in many terminations and late terminations. I also went to witness a late surgical abortion six weeks ago. I became interested in abortion when it became apparent to me, as a nurse, that far more botched late abortions were taking place than should. The first one that I witnessed was a prostaglandin termination. A little boy was aborted into a cardboard bedpan, which was thrust into my arms. When I looked into the cardboard bedpan, the little boy was gasping for breath through the mucus and amniotic fluid. I stood by the sluice with him in my arms, in the bedpan, for seven minutes while he gasped for breath. A botched abortion became a live birth, and then, seven minutes later, a death. I knew when I stood with that little boy in my arms that one day I would have the opportunity to defend babies such as him. I thought that we committed murder that day. I cannot think of another word for a nurse or doctor present at the birth not attempting to resuscitate a baby who was an abortion but became a live birth.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists then dealt with the issue, because a number of botched abortions were happening across the country. The RCOG produced guidelines setting out a new way to abort babies from 19 weeks onwards. A number of people have talked about the method. I witnessed a late surgical abortion six weeks ago—
I am not going to reveal that to the Minister. I think that people need to know this: the baby was given a lethal injection of potassium through the mother's abdominal wall, into the baby's heart. The process was supervised by an ultrasound scanner, so that the doctor could see exactly where the needle was going—into the foetal heart. The baby died and 24 hours later went through the process of surgical dismemberment and removal. It was just as my hon. Friend Mark Pritchard described. It is the most dramatic experience to watch. The baby was dismembered and put in a plastic bucket.
I hope such an operation is filmed one day and shown on television. The facts have been kept from the general public for too long. Since I had an article published in a newspaper recently, more than 1,000 people have e-mailed and written to me. They had no idea that that was the procedure that took place.
If babies do not live below 24 weeks, one must ask why the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists provides guidelines to guarantee that they do not. Do they live or not? If they do not, why do we go through that horrific process?
Professor Anand—[Hon. Members: "No. Press on."]—Professor Anand, who is the world— [Interruption.]
The Second Deputy Chairman:
Order. These are extremely emotive issues, but I hope the House can continue in the vein that has characterised most of the debate, and listen to the views of each hon. Member.
What the hon. Lady described on her blog as an injection of vitamin K, rather than potassium, which was curious, is exactly the way of ensuring that the baby comes out normally, through expulsion rather than dilatation and curettage, as she describes. However, the procedure that she has just described is also the way that intrauterine deaths, which tragically occur and which are not abortions, are dealt with. So she has not revealed a sudden discovery. It was precisely to avoid the distressing sight, for some people, of abortions being born alive, which are bound to die because they are not viable, that that procedure was carried out. There is universal medical consensus on it.
First, I am very aware of the difference between potassium chloride and vitamin K, and I have never written the words "vitamin K" on my blog. I defy anyone to go, right now, and find that. It does not exist.
Secondly, there is a big difference between a wanted birth which dies in utero and an aborted birth. The RCOG produced the guidelines for abortion. There has been much discussion this evening about whether women have rights. Of course they do. However, in a pregnancy there comes a point when a baby may have a chance of viability. I shall give some evidential figures on viability.
We have heard much of the EPICure 2 study and the Trent study. Professor Field, who is the author of the Trent study, said on the "Today" programme this morning that he is not sure that we should be using viability as a marker, and neither am I.
The analysis of viability of premature births happens for a reason. Premature births may occur because those babies are poorly, or the uterine environment is unwelcoming, but that is very different from aborted babies, the majority of whom would be healthy, as are normal births. Unless we ask 1,000 women to abort at 23 weeks of pregnancy so that we can see what happens to healthy babies when they are aborted, we cannot use the argument of viability. But the limit was set at 24 weeks.
Between 1980 and 1985 at University College hospital, no babies survived at 22 or 23 weeks. Between 1996 and 2000, 50 per cent. of babies born at 22 and 23 weeks survived. BLISS, the neonatal children's charity, says that more information is needed about the neonatal services that are provided in this country and at what gestation babies do well. If there were dedicated transport so that babies born early could get to a neonatal unit quickly and receive treatment, there would be a rise in the figures, as there has been in Sweden and in hospitals with good neonatal units on site.
If more neonatal units did not close their doors 52 times a year, as every one in this country did last year, and if a baby could be transferred to a neonatal unit within minutes—instead of hours—of birth, we would see a big difference. We see a difference in hospitals with good specialist teams in their neonatal units. The survival figures are very different. Granted, in the EPICure 2 and Trent studies the figures were averaged out, so that every birth was brought into the figures. However, for hospitals with good neonatal units attached to them, such as University College hospital, the figures are very different.
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.
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 Doctors.net.uk. 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.
Overall, 69 per cent. of those doctors want the limit to be reduced.
Marie Stopes— [Interruption.]
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.
In October 2007, Marie Stopes, one of the charities that carries out late abortions, did a poll of GPs.
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.
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—
Where does the hon. Lady get the evidence that we are running out of doctors?
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.
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.
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?
The Minister may have selective preferences about which lives she wants to save.
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.
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 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.
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 Dr. Pugh on his persuasive and balanced views.
Two new clauses cover information. The other is new clause 7, which my hon. Friend 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.
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.
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?"
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 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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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—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.
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.
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 hon. Gentleman has made his point, but it bears no resemblance to anything that I was talking about.
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, Dr. Pugh and by my hon. Friend 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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.]
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
Question accordingly negatived.
It being more than three hours after the commencement of proceedings on the n ew Clauses , The Chairman put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour, pursuant to Order [