I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I apologise if the late rising of the House last night was in any way due to me. There was some talk that there would be a filibuster so that today's business would not take place. I am sincerely happy that that did not occur.
More important, I humbly and sincerely apologise to the House for the late publication of the Bill. I realise that that caused problems to hon. Members on both sides of the House. That was in no way meant as a discourtesy to the House.
I found it a complicated matter to try to amend the Abortion Act 1967, which in turn must be read in conjunction with the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, which in its turn does not cover Scotland. I was working with Scottish lawyers, and we encountered difficulties. I apologise to the House. I regret that the Bill is now in its present form, due to circumstances beyond my control. Any drafting errors can be corrected at a later date.
I am well aware that this is a highly emotional subject. I make one point clear at the outset. In my election campaigns I always strongly supported the strengthening of the 1967 Act. I did so because of a personal conviction, because of the way in which I felt about the matter, and not because numerous organisations outside the House supported my view. The fact that we have the same view is beside the point.
Any legislation that has attracted so much attention since it went on the statute book cannot be right in the eyes of the House or in those of the public. There is the other side of the coin. While I want to tighten up the regulations, the National Abortion Campaign wants them relaxed. That organisation supported the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) when he sponsored the 1967 measured. It wants abortion on demand by a doctor, a nurse or any other woman. To me that it is totally wrong.
This subject has been well debated, but no conclusion has ever been reached. There was a long sitting of and a report from the Lane committee, which took evidence from many bodies and individuals. That did nothing to quieten the outcry against the 1967 Bill. That was followed by a Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Dunbartonshire, West (Mr. Campbell). That went to a Select Committee. That was followed by Bills from my hon. Friends the Members for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon) and for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine). Back in 1970 there was an attempt by the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. JohnStevas) to change the law. For all that, I make no apology for once again bringing this matter before the House. The issue will not go away until it has been resolved and some of the existing anomalies tightened up.
My Bill has been criticised for containing too much, but it is a wise counsel that puts in something that can be given away. Others have criticised the Bill for not having enough in it. At the end of the 1967 debate the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles said that it was not the intention of the promoters of the Bill to leave a wide open door for abortion on request. Sadly, that is exactly what happened. Many right hon. and hon. Members who supported the 1967 Act are now deeply and sincerely worried about its effects. Now we must decide whether we continue to support that Act.
As far back as 21 July 1971 Professor Peter Huntingford first stated in The Daily Telegraph that he was practising abortion on request. He said:
I have no qualms about this at all, and I am quite certain that it does not contravene the Abortion Act.
He added that the Act allowed abortion when the risk of permitting the pregnancy to continue was greater than the risk of the abortion. The simple fact is that when an abortion is carried out in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy it is safer than allowing the pregnancy to go to full term. He said that he was certain that no legal or disciplinary action could be taken against him and that the hospital governors were aware of his policy and had no objection.
A working party of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, in its report on unplanned pregnancies in 1972, stated:
Those doctors who feel that abortion on demand is correct are able to apply that belief to their practice.
It is not surprising that there has been some dismay at the interpretation of that Act. The whole area of statistical risk must be looked at.
It seems to me that those are not the criteria that the 1967 Act tried to lay down. This matter was much discussed in Committee. The Lane committee declared that the criteria should be left alone. However, the Select Committee recommended in its conclusions that a decision must be left to the individual consciences of Members. That can be done only if a change in the criteria is offered in the Bill. That is why I included the wording of the original Bill. If that had not been done, it would have been unfair to the House. The other place changed the wording of clause 1 of the 1967 Bill and inserted the statistical risk provision.
There have been many complaints that the words " grave ", " substantial " and " serious " cannot be defined. The words of section 1(1)(b) of the 1967 Act are:
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 ".
Two of those words are already used in the Bill. I accept that " grave " is not, but in a recent poll 78 per cent. of the gynaecologists asked said that they were perfectly happy with the word " grave " and would be able to define it.
I cannot say when it was conducted, but I have a photostat here. I shall let the hon. Member have a copy afterwards, if he would like it. [Interruption.] It is described as a " Social Survey, Gallup Poll Limited—Gynaecologists' Survey ".
It does not say.
I had a telephone call yesterday from a doctor who was opposed to what I was doing. He said " It does not matter what wording you use in the Bill, at the end of the day the doctor himself will make up his or her mind ". That is a cynical view, but it shows that, whatever a politician's views are, the medical person is the one who sees the patient and who will make the decision in the end. To me it is wrong that a statistical risk should be considered to be enough reason, and therefore this House must pass judgment.
Clearly, the attitude of the profession of obstetrics and gynaecology is exceedingly important in deliberating upon the Bill. Is the hon. Member suggesting that we should accept, as an authoritative view of the profession, a poll commissioned by a body whose name he is not able to give the House? More important, is he aware that the late publication of his Bill has prevented the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists from considering the precise terms of his Bill, and that in so far as there is a body that can speak with authority about the views of the profession, it is that one? Is the hon. Gentleman further aware that in respect of the last Abortion Bill considered by this House that body expressed itself clearly as having taken the view that the amendments suggested would appear to serve little purpose?
I thank the hon. Member for those words. I apologised humbly at the beginning of the debate for the late arrival of the Bill. I said that it was because of technical difficulties. I have had conversations with many gynaecologists, from both within the gynaecologists' organisation and outwith it. Many of them support what I am doing; many do not. They are split, just as much as this House is split. I remind the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) that it was the Select Committee which suggested that the wording should be brought hack to this House and that hon. Members should decide whether to reject it or not.
When I was drafting the Bill, I started with all the Select Commitee recommendations because I felt that that was only fair. I went through them to decide which ones I felt should be brought forward. Having fed these ideas out, I found that there was a fairly immediate reaction from many sources, as one would expect.
It is four years since the Select Committee made its recommendations. It recommended various things for which I do not think it is possible to legislate. For example, it suggested that
Legislation should be introduced to require any person who terminates a pregnancy to notify the woman's general practitioner of the treatment she has received, provided her consent has been sought ".
That sounds an extremely good idea, but, ethically, doctors are already supposed to do that. It is extremely difficult to legislate for that sort of thing.
A further recommendation by the Select Committee was:
The legislation should make provision to restrict the publication of particulars identifying any complaint ".
It is very difficult to legislate for this. It would open the door to malicious accusations about someone whose identity would be protected.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I have just been to the Vote Office to ask for a copy of the Abortion Act 1967, to which reference is made in the earlier part of the Bill. I have been informed by the Vote Office that copies are not available. Members cannot, therefore, address themselves to that Act. Can anything be done by the Chair in that matter?
Another area that I considered was the possibility of fathers' rights. That raised a few eyebrows from those who opposed me. We have the strange position at the moment that the rights of the woman are total. It is she, and she alone, at the end of the day, who can decide whether to keep the baby. The father has no say whatever. It was obvious that in a Bill such as this one could not legislate for those rights.
It is perhaps unfortunate that very little is said about the after-effects of abortion. Many people do not realise the after-effects. There is conclusive evidence that many complications can follow in later pregnancies, particularly in younger girls who have had first-time abortions. Hundreds of abortions happen naturally every day, and the number, unfortunately, is rising. It is rising in many cases because of a previous termination of pregnancy.
Because I was led by the doctors themselves to believe that it was safer to terminate before 12 weeks than to have the pregnancy run on to full time. It is, of course, important that it should be done before 12 weeks, because obviously the later it is, the more damage is done to the girl concerned.
It is also an interesting statistic that 43 per cent. of all women who have terminations of pregnancy are pregnant again within one year. Many of the women who have telephoned me over the last three weeks say that this is because of their conscience over what they have done. It is surely most important that there should be follow-up care for these girls.
I have received many letters from unhappy women. Many of them bitterly regret having had their abortion and express in their letters the importance of counselling. If only they had known what it all entailed, they would not have gone through with the abortion.
It is against that background that I looked at the Select Committee's recommendations. Having studied them all, I decided that the most important issues were, first, the criteria which I have mentioned; secondly, the reduction of the upper time limit from 28 weeks to 20 weeks; thirdly, the strengthening of the conscience clause in favour of nurses, orderlies and ancillary workers; fourthly, a clause to encourage better counselling, because I think that this is at the heart of the matter; and fifthly, an escape clause concerning possible damage to the foetus.
I felt at that time that licensing should not be included because I was in the process of having talks with the Minister and had high hopes that some arrangement could be made in this area. Unfortunately, due to the tight schedule, and because there was not time to explore all the possible avenues, I was left at the last moment with the choice of leaving licensing out and hoping for some satisfaction about it from the Minister today, or, if that was not forthcoming, inserting it in the Bill in Committee.
I feel that it would have been grossly misleading the House if I had left out licensing and tried to put it in at the Committee stage. It is too important a matter. I therefore put it in. I hope that today the Minister will be able to comment on this. I should be delighted to withdraw it if something could be said that satisfies my supporters. I am fully aware that the Minister is in the middle of talks with various people and may not be able to give us a full answer today, but I hope sincerely that he will be able to do that before the Committee stage, to everyone's satisfaction.
Although I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram) and the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) particularly want to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I must comment briefly on referral agencies and clinics and the financial connections. I am well aware that some of the anomalies that existed have been stamped out by Department of Health and Social Security recommendations, but I am still extremely worried about some of the reports that I have had in the past two weeks.
To the layman, a pregnancy advisory service should mean just that. It should mean pregnancy advising. It should mean good counselling on what can he done, having become pregnant.
I shall not give personal examples, because many of these were letters from people all over the country, writing in a personal capacity to their Member of Parliament. That is a private—[Interruption.]. These were private letters between the Member of Parliament and his constituents. I shall certainly not give names. However, there are serious worries over the way in which things are being run in a very small number of places.
Therefore, good counselling is very important. There should be a choice of helpful advice, as well as simply going to have an abortion. Having the abortion should be the last resort, not the first. That is not what is happening in many cases. It is sad to see, for instance, that the Pregnancy Advisory Service and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service seem to have abandoned all pretence of acting as counselling agencies where advice can be given. They now openly advertise in the tube stations, in large letters, " Abortion help " or " Abortion advice ", and they claim almost a 100 per cent. success rate. It seems to me that pregnancy advice has gone out of the window and that these agencies have now simply become referral agencies for those who want abortions. If that is the situation, it is very sad indeed. What these girls want when they go to agencies is counselling on how they can be helped out of the difficult situation into which they have got themselves. Many of these girls do not necessarily want to have the abortion. A large number of them probably do, but they really must get that sort of counselling.
I question how ethical these agencies are, and I ask the Minister to comment. Surely, if these referral agencies are financially linked with the clinics, doctors in these clinics are sailing pretty close to the wind with advertising of this kind. I hope, therefore, for some assurance from the Minister. Again, I repeat that the clause could be withdrawn in Committee if my supporters were satisfied.
I now turn to what I consider to be the central issue of the Bill and the one which causes most agony to doctors, nurses, patients and the general public; that is, reducing the upper limit from 28 weeks to 20 weeks. I am well aware that we are talking of a small number of abortions after 20 weeks, but we are talking about the number that cause the most severe problems to doctors, nurses and patients.
Various time limits have been suggested. The Lane committee suggested 24 weeks. The DHSS, way back in 1970, I think, in the report "The Use of Fetuses and Fetal Material for Research ", put forward 20 weeks. Much evidence was given to the Select Committee once again. Perhaps I may quote what the Select Committee said:
Those giving evidence to last Session's Committee and Your Committee have generally been agreed that the upper limit should be less than 28 weeks but have not all agreed about what the limit should be. Sir John Peel, in evidence, repeated the view of his Committee that it should be 20 weeks. The British Medical Association, as they had done to the Lane Committee, supported the Peel recommendation. The President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecology said that ' to terminate pregnancies at 20 and 24 weeks is on the whole a hazardous performance.' The College supported an upper limit of 20 weeks subject to exceptions ".
Frankly, I am surprised that an organisation such as the BMA can change its mind so many times. It fought bitterly against the 1967 Act coming in, and it then supported the changes that came in in 1972. Now it is coming out against me. It very much depends upon who is at the head of that organisation as to which way it will go, and that is perfectly understandable.
It seems to me that 20 weeks is a fair time to put forward. This allows for mistakes of two to three weeks, because if viability is reached we all know the problems into which we run. If there is any doubt about the wording of the Bill, it can be changed in Committee. I give that assurance. That is what Committee stages are for.
The time limit is of crucial importance to some of us in deciding which way we shall vote at the end of this debate. Therefore, can my hon. Friend give an assurance that he is prepared to look co-operatively at possible amendments in Committee to change the limit from 20 weeks to 24 weeks? In addition, can he assure us that he is prepared to see the word " will " in clause 7 changed to " may "?
Yes, I give my hon. Friend that assurance. When the Bill goes forward into Committee, as I am sure it will, amendments will come forward and, of course, I shall look sympathetically at the weight behind them. I accept that this is a very important issue.
The fourth major issue at which I have looked and inserted in the Bill is the conscience clause to amend section 4 of the 1967 Act. Again, the Select Committee recommend that conscientious objection might be on religious, ethical or other grounds, that the proviso should be taken out and that the burden of conscience should not be nut on the nurse. That is exactly what I have done in the Bill. I have certainly not proposed that section 4(2) should be taken out, as the BMA suggested in its letter of yesterday.
This is a very difficult area. Large numbers of doctors, midwives and nurses have written to me—if the hon. Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) wants proof of this, she can come to see me—saying that their chances of promotion in gynaecological work are nil because of their beliefs. The choice in many cases seems to be one of doing the work in cleaning up after abortions, or getting out of the gynaecological wards. That should not be the choice.
Will the hon. Gentleman admit that the evidence given by the Royal College of Nursing and all medical organisations was in direct opposition to what he has just said, and that they have said that after constantly seeking information to prove that people had had some kind of bar put up against them, they could find no evidence of any sort to support what he has just said?
Perhaps I may read a letter which I received this morning from the chief education officer of the General Nursing Council for England and Wales. It expresses, obviously, a personal view. However, she says:
Speaking as a nurse and a teacher of nurses, I welcome the strengthening of the conscience clause and the proposed amendment to the 1967 Abortion Act. While nurses accept a commitment to respect the values and beliefs of individual people in their care, they themselves have a reciprocal right to be protected. Nurses are particularly vulnerable by the nature of their employment in the Health Service. They may be expected to participate in abortion procedures which conflict not only with their own religious beliefs but with an internationally agreed code of ethics, under which respect for life and the promotion of health for every individual are fundamental principles.
There is support there.
There have been numerous other letters floating around among hon. Members which purport to come from certain organisations but which perhaps have not actually come from those organisations. But I have no hesitation in quoting the letter from that lady.
This is a matter of serious import to many people, and there are those among us here today who would challenge the view that the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Flannery) has put. May I suggest to him and to those who have apprehension on the matter that the time has probably arrived when an appeal should go out from the House that anyone who has a complaint in relation to the operation of the conscience clause should write in so that the matter may be placed, with the full knowledge of everyone concerned, before the Committee when the Bill reaches that stage?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. I think that the real worry among many nurses is that they will lose their jobs if they complain, and they are terrified to say anything to anybody within the hospital. I regard this as a very worrying state of affairs.
It may help the House if I recall that the Select Committee, of which I was a member, took evidence from members of the nursing profession to the effect that great distress was caused and the conscience provisions of the Act were not being properly regarded. There is no doubt about the evidence, if hon. Members will read it.
I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention.
In dealing with abortion, we are, I suggest, tackling the problem in reverse. We desperately need better education in the prevention of pregnancy rather than abortion of the foetus after it has all happened. This calls for better counselling and better advice. There are many arguments as to how that should be done and by whom. Should it be done at home or in the school, by parent or by teacher? The problem is growing. It must be tackled urgently.
I believe that in many cases it is easier for a child to be taught the facts of life by a good teacher rather than at home, but this depends enormously on the family background. As a farmer, I have brought up my children on the farm. My five-year-old knows everything there is to know about the facts of life, and it is perfectly natural to that child. If children can be brought up in that way, there is a far better understanding of the sort of life which they will live.
The hon. Gentleman has dealt with what he regards as the four main issues in the Bill, but is he aware that a very high proportion of our constituents are under the impression that his Bill has just one element in it, namely, the reduction of the upper time limit? Can he explain how that impression has become so widespread throughout the country? Further, will he say why he does not think that there might have been a case for confining his Bill to that issue?
Because there are certain issues raised in the report of the Select Committee which the Select Committee asked should be put before the House, and I feel equally strongly on some of those recommendations. That is why they come before the House. I looked at all the Select Committee's views and recommendations. When I was asked by representatives of the press, as I was on many occasions, what particular aspects of this matter I was looking at. I told them what those aspects were. If the hon. Gentleman cares to look at press reports as far back as 25, 26 and 27 June, he will see that I was discussing then many different aspects and not just the one that he has just raised.
Therefore, I do not think it fair to say that there is a general feeling that only one aspect is covered. I regard it as the one important aspect. It is the one about which the general public are most worried.
I go a long way with the hon. Gentleman on the conscience question because I am a supporter of the original Act. I am aware that many doctors are using the conscience clause. They are quite in order in so doing according to the Act, and I support them in their attitude towards their right to refuse to take part in any abortion. But will the hon. Gentleman go along with me and bring within the terms of his Bill a provision that if any such doctor refuses to advise a woman to undergo an abortion—if he refuses to accept that part of the Act—it should become his duty by law immediately to pass that patient on to another doctor?
As I said earlier, I looked at that aspect of the matter, but many doctors to whom I spoke—naturally, I asked their advice—said that if their conscience was so strong that they simply did not want to do the job they did not see why they should be required by law to do it. Moreover, it would be extremely difficult to carry out such legislation, since one would then have to put in penalty clauses, providing for a fine or perhaps sending a doctor to prison because he did not do it. However, I have no doubt that this is a matter which some hon. Members on the Opposition Benches will bring forward when we go into Committee.
Time is running on and I know that many hon. Members wish to speak. I have tried to look at the problem factually. I have tried not to raise the temperature by using emotional phrases. That is not what this is all about. It is a desperately serious subject. No hon. Member can take it lightly.
Undoubtedly, some improvements have taken place, and some of the abuses of the Act which have come to light have been sorted out. I hope that the Minister can support my proposals. I know that he has had talks with the BPAS, and I hope that it is not too much to ask whether there is any outcome from those talks.
I ask right hon. and hon. Members to ponder deeply before voting today and to consider carefully where we should go from here. I present the Bill, always remembering that it is this House which will finally agree its contents. It may go through much change, but the important thing to remember is the principle which it embodies. The House of Commons is the guardian of the rights of the people. It should not be bludgeoned by large pressure groups. [HoN. MEMBERS: " Oh."] Nor should it be frustrated in its goals by small minorities whose aim is to destroy the aims of the majority. I ask for the support of the House.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Bute and North Ayshire (Mr. Corrie) on having come first in the ballot, but I am afraid that I cannot carry my congratulations any further. I deeply regret the fact that he decided to bring this Bill before the House, and I am sorry to have to say that in almost every sentence of his presentation of the Bill he gave me the impression that he does not fully understand the depth and complexity of the problem that he has tackled. I hope that some hon. Members whose minds are still in doubt will reflect on the way in which the hon. Gentleman presented his case.
We are dealing with an issue that has been before the House on many occasions—I would say on too many occasions—but this is the first time that I have spoken on it. I have, in a sense, been involved in the neutrality of the Front Benches. But I take this opportunity to speak now, and I speak with the experience of five years in the Department of Health and Social Security, in 1968–70 and 1976–79.
With respect, I do not wish to take too much time. I want to develop my argument a little, and I shall then give way. I shall deal with only a small number of points, and I know that many of my hon. Friends will deal with others.
My conclusion is that on balance the 1967 Act was about right. I agree, therefore, with the heading to the leading article in The Guardian this morning:
Abortion: leave the Act alone.
I am not one of those who want to see the balance disturbed. I do not believe in abortion on demand, and I think that the same view is held by many of those who have supported the Act. But I cannot support, and I hope that the House will not today support, the Second Reading of a Bill that would make abortion more difficult.
As Secretary of State, I honestly sought to tackle some of the abuses that existed. There is no doubt that there were abuses, and I believe that the effective licensing system to which the hon. Gentleman referred, and other administrative measures in response to the recommendations of the Lane committee, changed the situation.
I agree entirely with Dr. Marks, deputy chairman of thg British Medical Association's representative body, in the statement that he made the day before yesterday. The House will not be surprised to know that the BMA and I have not always been in agreement, but on this we are. Dr. Marks says:
The policy of the Association is made by the representative body, comprising 600 elected members from all branches of medicine.
Dr. Marks goes back to minute 82 of a meeting in 1977 and he quotes it, as follows:
This representative body opposes the present Abortion (Amendment Bill) and reaffirms its view that the difficulties arising from the 1967 Abortion Act can be remedied by appropriate changes in the regulations and that amendments to the Act itself are not required.
Dr. Marks goes on:
The necessary changes were made and the following year the Representative Body resolved ' That this meeting deplores the persistent attacks on the 1967 Abortion Act and reaffirms its belief that it is a practical and humane piece of legislation.' … Those of us who are privileged to practise medicine have seen many advances in the last few years. The elimination of the septic abortion, a direct result of the Abortion Act, is one of the greatest. If this Bill is passed it will put the clock back and do untold physical and emotional harm to many poor women who will again seek ' help '
under exceptional circumstances. It is known from backstreet abortionists.
I read that out because that is the view of the British Medical Association. Let there be no misunderstanding that that is where the BMA stands.
There have been many benefits from this Bill because of the action that has been taken since 1967. Only one death was recorded in 1976 after an illegal abortion, compared with 22 in 1968. Septic abortions were referred to by Dr. Marks. The number of hospital discharges after treatment for septic abortion, a common result of botched illegal abortion, fell from more than 3,000 to 610 in 1975. I could quote many other statistics but I do not want to take up the time of the House.
For two or three minutes, I want to deal with clause 1(1)(a) and (3)(c) which deal with the proposed change from 28 weeks to 20 weeks, which, of course, is the nub of the Bill, as the hon. Member for Bute and North Ayrshire accepted. Happily—the hon. Gentleman admitted this—the proportion of abortions carried out after 20 weeks is minute. It is still less than 1 per cent. The vast majority are carried out before 12 weeks from gestation, and it is an increasing proportion.
No doctor wants to undertake a late abortion, but there are exceptional circumstances. Perhaps I may touch upon four, because they are very crucial and affect the upper limit. First, there is the teenage girl or the mentally handicapped girl who has been hiding her pregnancy through fear or ignorance; secondly, there is the woman with irregular periods; and, thirdly, there is the woman whose pregnancy has been wrongly diagnosed and, fourthly, older women who mistake the symptoms of pregnancy for those of menopause.
There are other exceptional circumstances in which a doctor can, using his clinical judgment and the rights provided by the 1967 Act, under those very special circumstances, take action after 20 weeks.
Evidence was given by what was my Department—the Department of Health and Social Security—to the Select Committee on 12 May 1975. It was as follows:
the fact that less than 1 per cent. of all abortions are at present undertaken at 20 or more weeks gestation appears to indicate that doctors are prepared to perform them only
that some of the women who present late for an abortion are those with a most pressing case—some of the mentally subnormal, and the under 16's. The clause would deny abortions to such women. Again, while special provision is made for those likely to give birth to a disabled child, even a limit of 24 weeks might not always allow definite diagnosis of disability to be made and acted upon. On the other hand, it might lead to a decision to terminate within the legal time limits and in advance of conclusive evidence being available.
That is the reason why so many doctors believe that if the terms of the Bill were to be carried through we might well find that more pregnancies were terminated later than at present.
That is the exact point that I wanted to make. Is it not likely that the hon. Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Mr. Corrie), who believes that the Bill will have beneficial effects, will find a situation that will be much worse? Of course there will be fewer abortions after 20 weeks, but there will also be fewer abortions before 12 weeks, because of the confusion that the Bill will cause. Therefore, more abortions will be carried out in the later weeks of pregnancy, between 16 and 20 weeks, which everyone agrees is much more dangerous.
My hon. Friend is, of course, a doctor. I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Bute and North Ayrshire realised that when he answered the question from my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend has put the matter far better, and with greater authority, than I could—a point that I was just about to make. Therefore, I do not now need to make it.
Doctors must be allowed to use their clinical judgment in all cases. That is something that the medical profession holds dear. I hope that the Minister for Health, when he intervenes, will make the point that the clinical judgment of the doctor is something that must be preserved, but that it would be undermined if the terms of the Bill were to be carried.
We have to ask ourselves who wants this Bill. The hon. Member for Bute and North Ayrshire, of course, wants the Bill. I do not know why he wants it. I listened to his speech with the greatest care. His concluding sentence was that we in this House must not be pushed by pressure groups. I suspect that he has come for- ward because he has been pushed so hard by a deeply committed pressure group that is opposed to abortion in principle and that would wish to go very much further than the hon. Gentleman does in what I am sure he feels is a moderate Bill.
I assure the right hon. Gentleman that this was solely my decision. As it happened, I walked into the House on the Wednesday night when the ballot had been drawn. I was told by a press man that I had won it, and he asked me what I would do. At that moment I said that I would try to amend the Abortion Act because I had always felt very strongly about it. No other person had spoken to me up to that moment. It was my decision, made because I wanted to do it.
My right hon. Friend began his speech by declaring his neutrality whilst he was on the Front Bench in the last Government. Has not everything in his speech indicated that the reason why we are having this debate today is that when he was on the Front Bench he was so loaded with prejudices that it was impossible, by administrative or legislative means, to get the Bill through? Secondly, when he talks about 1 per cent., and asks who wants the Bill, does he not realise that between 1,500 and 2,000 children are involved? When, next week, he and I will vote to ensure that a few psychopathic murderers are no longer hanged, or some evil terrorists are not hanged, because we believe in the sanctity of life, does he not think it important that he should pay the same regard to the fate of 1,500 or 2,000 children?
I take the last point first. I believe very much in the sanctity of life. I think that that is one of the central issues for all of us, whichever side we take on this Bill. I do not want to see a situation in which we have more physically and mentally handicapped children; more sick and handicapped mothers; more deaths in childbirth; more unwanted children, with all the social problems that will involve; more child abuse from those who are unable to care for their children and did not want to have them; more broken lives, and more broken families. I believe that the Bill would bring that about. That is my answer to my hon. Friend's intervention. That is my view of the sanctity of human life, and that is what this issue is all about.
My hon. Friend also raised the question of my neutrality. There is a tradition, which I believe to be right, that this House votes according to the individual views of its Members. The Department worked extremely hard to ensure that the vast proportion of the recommendations of the Lane committee were carried out in order that abuses that existed should be ended and that we had an effective licensing system. I had forgotten the figures, but The Guardian reminded me today. Nineteen nursing homes have lost their licences since 1969. There has been a black list of advice bureaux, thus eliminating the unscrupulous referral agencies. I believe that 23 were blacklisted. Nursing homes that accepted patients from the black list risked losing their licences. There is now an approved list of 35 bureaux that are regularly and thoroughly inspected.
I took my responsibilities very seriously indeed. Having followed the debates and all that has happened since 1967, my conclusion was that the administrative actions taken by the Department have responded to the most serious issues that I believe were the concern of this House.
I was dismayed to hear the list that the right hon. Gentleman gave of those whose lives should never be allowed to commence. Is he implying that the handicapped, and those whose births were not originally wanted, have no contribution to make in this world? I have met many hundreds of thousands of people who have been at a disadvantage in this way but who have triumphed over the afflictions that they suffered.
How can the hon. Lady ask me that question? She knows that over many years of my life I have been involved in the welfare of the mentally handicapped and the mentally ill. Our task as a community is, of course, to give the love, support, care and protection to any children who are born handicapped. But we have a second responsibility, which is to minimise the number of those families that suffer from having a mentally or physically handicapped child. Those two responsibilities must go together.
I was trying to conclude my speech, and I shall not give way again. I asked who wanted the Bill. I want to say who does not want it. It is certainly not the medical profession. Of course there are isolated cases and of course the BMA and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists cannot speak for 100 per cent. of their membership. But they speak for the majority of their membership, and they speak from the depths of their experience. Is it the doctors or the nurses? We know from the Royal College of Nursing that it is not the nurses who want these changes. It is not the social workers, either, who had to accept some of the social consequences that existed before 1967. I fear that such consequences would again exist if we made these changes now. It is certainly not the general public who want these changes, if we can trust the conclusions of the Gallup poll.
Of course, one can twist and misinterpret the conclusions. I know that there has been some argument between the hon. Member for Bute and North Ayrshire and the Gallup poll. I shall therefore quote only what the poll itself showed. It showed that while 38 per cent. of the sample thought that abortion should be more difficult to obtain—
Yes, 38 per cent. Forty-five per cent. were in favour of an abortion law as liberal as, or even more liberal than, the existing one. Therefore, no one can possibly quote that opinion poll to suggest that the public want to see a change in this Act. Certainly, the generation that would be particularly affected by it do not want this Bill. That same poll pointed out that among the 25 to 34 age group—those most likely to need abortions—only 28 per cent. wanted a more restrictive law. It was the over 65s who held a very different view, perhaps for the reason that this was not an issue that touched their lives. I hope that the House will not give a Second Reading to the Bill.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise for trying to intervene in order to ask a question. I believe that we have become too heated in this debate. The right hon. Gentleman has some special knowledge, which I seek to ascertain from him. He hurried over it in his speech—
In preparing my notes, I was tempted to deliver a long speech. I know that that is not what the House wants, because there are many points of view to be presented. I wish to conclude my speech. I may seek to intervene in the hon. Gentleman's speech to try to answer the point. That is perhaps the way to deal with it.
I believe that if the Bill gets a Second Reading it will hang like a dark cloud over this Session of Parliament. We have enough dark clouds already, but this is one that we need not inflict upon ourselves and society. It is a dark cloud not just over this House but over the future happiness of many young people. In my view, it is the protection of the future generation that must concern us.
It is in that spirit and mood, and with such experience as I can bring to the House, that I plead with any hon. Members who have not yet made up their minds to recognise that the Bill will, on balance, do more harm than good to an Act that has brought great good to our society and has received wide recognition for what it has done. It has reduced abortion, and has brought abortion under control in ways of which this House approved and of which, so far as I know, it has never wished to disapprove.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on the principle of the Bill, which I both welcome and support. I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Mr. Corrie) for the courageous way in which he proposed the Second Reading.
Like my hon. Friend, I hope that the debate can be carried out in a calm and rational atmosphere, because the matter that we are discussing today, while emotional, is also serious. I believe that the right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals) appreciates that point as well. I am sure that he will agree that in the interests of this debate and in the interests of the House coming to a rational and considered opinion, we should try to keep our tempers.
Abortion affects two areas of human life, and both of these should be the priority in our minds during this debate. First, abortion affects the woman who undergoes it. Her health, well-being and protection from exploitation must be of paramount importance in considering the Bill. Secondly, it affects the child—a foetus, may be, but a putative human being for whom we cannot and would not deny responsibility and concern. I hope that on these two aspects we shall draw our conclusions today. In short, we are discussing the interests, welfare and scrupulous care of pregnant women and their unborn offspring.
This Bill is an amending measure. It does not seek to innovate or abolish. It sets out to regulate existing legislation. It sets out to regulate the workings of the 1967 Act, which have created sufficient anxiety and disquiet to warrant rectification.
Very few hon. Members can truly sit back and say that they are totally happy with the working of the 1967 Act. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel)—I am sorry that he is not here today but I have given him notice that I intend to refer to him—has, over the past few months, made it clear that he believes that the foetal age limit of 28 weeks is too high and should be reviewed.
As recently as 5 July the right hon. Member wrote to a constituent in very much the same terms as the statement that he put out on Tuesday, in which he said that he would support a Bill that implemented the Peel committee's recommendation on the foetal age limit. However, when he discovered that the Peel committee's recommendation was for an age limit of 20 weeks, he decided, in a statement issued this morning, that he was in error, and that he meant the Lane committee.
It is relevant to remind hon. Members of the Peel committee's report on this matter. I shall read a statement issued by Sir John Peel yesterday in the light of the statement of the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles. Sir John said:
I am puzzled by what Mr. Steel says when he states that he would support a Bill implementing the Peel Committee recommendations, and then goes on to say that there is no authoritative recommendation by the Peel Committee for a 20-week limit, and that this is why he would not support such a recommendation. Paragraph 31 of the Peel Report states that ' for ethical, medical and social reasons we recommend that for human foetuses evidence of a period of gestation of 20 weeks (140 days which corresponds to a weight of approximately 400–500 grammes) should be regarded as prima facie proof of viability at the present time.'
That statement by the Peel committee was in 1972. Sir John went on to say that the next paragraph in the report reads:
This date (20 weeks) should be reviewed regularly to take account of the rapid changes taking place in medical knowledge. Accordingly, consideration should be given to the amendment of Acts providing for registration and notification of births and deaths, also the Infant Life Preservation Act 1929, and analogous legislation in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
That is what this Bill sets out to do. I hope that when he considers that fact the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles, who was the author of the original Act, will find that he is able to support this Bill in its later stages.
In effect, the Bill looks at abortion from four aspects. The first is the viable age of the foetus—the limit that was set by the 1929 legislation and carried on in the 1967 Act. The second is the criteria for abortion. The third is the conscience clause and the fourth is the proper control over the agencies and clinics involved in providing abortions.
The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Strang), in an intervention, said that he thought there was too much in this Bill. It could be argued that there is too little. There are other aspects which might well have been put in—aspects such as the practice of carrying out medical experiments upon live aborted foetuses which, because of the uncertainty of the definition of the law at present—[HON. MEMBERS: " There is none."] There is more than evidence of this. If hon. Members on the Opposition Benches will listen I shall try to provide that evidence.
In 1970 the Medical News Tribune published a photograph of a baby in a tank. The description that was given of it was " an artificial uterus ". The research at Cambridge university's department of experimental medicine was shown, and in an article accompanying the published photograph the situation was described as " keeping the foetus alive for experiments ".
In April 1978 the Scottish newspapers published reports of experiments being carried out on foetuses, minutes after the operation. At the time this was confirmed by top Scottish gynaecologists and the Scottish Home and Health Department. This is the kind of evidence that should raise the possibility in the minds of hon. Members on both sides of the House that this is a matter that could, had the Bill set out to alter the structure of the Act, have been included.
The hon. Member raises a most important point, on which hon. Members and the public are confused. I say with authority that all claims that live foetuses have been aborted and left to die have been followed up by the DHSS. In every case investigated no proof has been found, and the people who made the allegations did not continue to press them after the inquiry had taken place. I remember that during my period as Secretary of State a case occurred at Wanstead, in July 1978, and another in January 1979, at Whiston, where, when such allegations were made and examined, it was perfectly clear that there was no live foetus. Therefore, this issue should not be the basis on which the hon. Member makes his claims.
In answer to the right hon. Member, I quote what Professor Walker said at the time these reports came out. He said:
Under the law we must seek permission to experiment on a foetus which has lived more than 28 weeks in the womb, but before that they are not covered by the law.
The point that I wish to make—I make it almost outside the ambit of the Bill, and I am sure that the right hon. Member will agree with me—is that if the law is so indistinct that that could happen, this aspect might have been properly included in the Bill.
I suggest that when the Minister speaks, the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram) should intervene then. The Minister speaks with the authority of today, I speak with the authority of yesterday. I believe that the Minister will confirm what I have said. I have seen letters that he has written on this subject since he became Minister for Health.
When that occasion arises I may well raise the matter with my hon. Friend on the Front Bench. But this particular circumstance is not within the scope of the Bill. This Bill's scope includes the welfare of the mother and the child. No healthy and viable child should be aborted unless the life and ultimate health of the mother is at risk. Much has been said about that aspect already, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Bute and North Ayrshire.
The test—this is why I was puzzled when I listened to the right hon. Gentleman—must ultimately be the age at which the generality or majority of foetuses become viable. We are talking about the age at which a foetus can exist without its mother, outwith the womb, with an independent existence.
It frightened me to hear the speech of the right hon. Gentleman, in which I understand him to place the viability of the foetus in some senses lower than other considerations. If we are not to set the limit as, and test this legislation against, the viability of a child, there might as well be no limit at all. We should be going back not only to the 1929 position but back to the time before 1929, before the viable age was first defined.
I have quoted the statement by Sir John Peel, expressing the opinion that on all the evidence, ethical and medical, 20 weeks is the age at which the limit should be set. If that opinion, with the weight of experience of its author behind it, is put before the House we should take it seriously.
I have given way enough.
For the reason that I have given, I support the clause.
The second aspect of the Bill on which I should like to touch is the welfare of the women involved in abortions. Whilst it may be necessary, abortion is not a simple act for a woman to undergo. It is not simply a social convenience; it is a medical act. In many cases it is a medical operation, with medical, biological and psychological implications.
I have no medical experience and I would not attempt to speak about the medical details, but what I can understand as a layman is the possible consequences of abortion, the physical injuries and disablements that can and do occur—uterine or cervical damage, the possible psychological effects upon the women who undergo abortion—
—depression, psychological disturbance, and often suicidal tendencies.
I raise these matters not so much as part of an argument against abortion as to give added emphasis, which I believe that all hon. Ladies on the Labour Benches will be prepared to accept—
May I finish this point? I raise these matters to give an added emphasis to the need for scrupulous and objective counselling and for scrupulous medical care. I shall be interested to hear whether the hon. Lady is prepared to contest that that is a particular need in legislation.
The hon. Gentleman presumes to talk about the way in which women react either to having an abortion or to not having one. Is he aware that recent research indicates that the disruptive and difficult psychological effects of not having an abortion when one is wanted are greater and more widespread than the psychological effects of having one? I am of course referring to a legal abortion. In other words, the weight of the evidence is against the view that the hon. Gentleman is expressing.
I can assess results and consequences as well as any other lay person, and I, too, can try to find out what the effects are.
I refer the hon. Lady to an extract from appendix 1 of the first report of the Select Committee on abortion in the Session 1975–76, a note by Dr. R. D. T. Farmer and Miss Sally O'Brien. In the note, based on a study carried out in three adjoining areas of London of young people who had taken an overdose of drugs in an attempt at self-poisoning, they stated:
Of the overdose group, 29 per cent. had had abortions compared to 13 per cent. of the control group … The investigation suggests that either abortion and self-poisoning occur in the same type of individual, or that abortion increases the likelihood of subsequent self poisoning.
I am not using this evidence within the context of the Bill as part of the argument against abortion. What I believe it emphasises—and I beileve sincerely that the hon. Lady will agree—is the need for scrupulous and objective counselling and scrupulous medical care in dealing with people who are having abortions. I do not believe that any hon. Member can disagree with that need. Any situation in which women who find themselves pregnant can be, or are, exploited should be equally repugnant to us all.
It is for that reason that a large part of the Bill is concerned with the standard of control of the facilities available to women seeking pregnancy advice and treatment. If Labour Members look at clause 4 they will find the conditions for the licensing of clinics and referral agencies, many of which conditions I am sure they would not dispute. They cover medical standards, amenity standards, and so on.
It amazes me how much antagonism there was, before the debate, to the proposals to separate counselling and referral agencies from the abortion clinics. Surely, if a woman seeks advice on her pregnancy, she wishes that advice to be considered and objective. How can an advising or counselling agency be totally objective when a proportion of its income depends on the carrying out of abortions for cash at its associated clinics?
I am making no imputations; I am stating the obvious. Where there is a financial incentive to advise in a particular way, the objectivity of that advice must be suspect. It is like a house buyer asking the person from whom he is buying the house to do the survey and the valuation. The incentive to advise in a particular way is too strong to risk. Most house buyers in those circumstances would seek an independent valuation and an independent survey.
I have given way on a number of occasions, and I do not want to detain the House much longer.
If the charitable agencies are sincere about the objectivity of their advice, I cannot see why they do not demonstrate that by showing their willingness to break their links with the clinics with which so many are at present associated. Only in that way can the risk of the exploitation of women, often in tragic circumstances, be completely avoided. If, as is apparently already happening, the National Health Service is beginning to farm out abortions to cash clinics, it is even more vital from the Government's point of view that those institutions be seen to be above the possibility of exploitation and commercial activity.
The whole clause is designed to protect the pregnant woman. Her welfare, and not the welfare of the clinic, is what is important to us here today. I do not believe that any objective woman who studies this part of the Bill can in her heart object to it.
Few women, in the knowledge that abortion can harm them, will want one unless it is both necessary and advisable. A woman must be able to be assured that the advice she receives in this respect is not possible of taint in any way.
In the days leading up to this debate I received a great deal of literature from those who support the Bill and those who oppose it. I have tried to read all the literature, and I have been struck by one thing. In the literature issued by those who oppose the Bill there has been an intangible theme, a commonality of interest, which seems to have brought together many strange bedfellows. They include practitioners, purveyors of contraceptives, and humanists. I hope, although I doubt it, that I am mistaken in seeing that commonality of interest. I believe that human life and the welfare of women and children is too important to be the subject of pressure by vested interests. I urge the House to give the Bill its full support.
I shall not take up the remarks of the hon. Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram), because he made so many sweeping generalisations and used words such as " taint ". I found it difficult to understand exactly what he meant. Did he mean that some women who had abortions were in some way tainted? I am sure that all women who undergo abortions do so only after the deepest and most careful thought.
I take exception to that view also, since I know a good deal about the charitable sector. I shall come to that subject in a moment.
The hon. Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Mr. Corrie) has done a great disservice to women by introducing the Bill. He has also done a great disservice to the House by introducing this legislation so late, although I appreciate that he apologised to the House on that account. It has meant that those of us who are interested in this subject have had only three or four days in which to examine the Bill. It is one of the most badly drafted Bills that I have ever seen. Perhaps I am dim, but I have had to read each clause two or three times and still I am not sure what some of them mean. Indeed, having heard the sponsor's opening speech, I am not sure that he knows what they mean. That worries me very much indeed. It is not good enough for the hon. Gentleman to say that we can tidy up these matters in Committee.
Let me give the House a clue as to why the Bill was published so late. The sponsor said that it was entirely his fault and that things had been difficult for him. However, the Catholic Herald of 6 July, in reporting that the Bill was to be published on that date—and it was not published then because it appeared a couple of days later—said that the reason for its lateness was partly to prevent the abortion campaign launching an attack upon it. It is a new principle of legislation that a sponsor should deliberately wait until the last moment before allowing the House to examine a Bill in order to prevent an attack being mounted upon the Bill from outside.
I should be delighted if I knew where that scurrilous report emanated and why it was printed. I should be delighted if I could discover the source of that statement. It certainly was not me.
I simply read the Catholic Herald. That journal should be more careful. I would have regarded that paper as very honest.
The lateness of publication caused much speculation about the contents of the Bill. We have heard of undertakings which the hon. Gentleman gave to a group of doctors whom he met late in June—undertakings which do not appear to have been carried out when the Bill finally saw the light of day.
We know that the sponsor has been telling The Guardian that if the Bill does not say precisely what he means it to say, and if it does not fit in with undertakings that have been given, nobody should worry because it will all be put right in Committee. I do not know on how many Committees the hon. Gentleman has served, but I ask him to think carefully about this matter. It is not all that easy to put things right in Committee. I was a member of the Standing Committee on the previous Abortion Bill, which sat, in total, for 75 hours. We tried very hard to put that Bill right and to make it more liberal. It was very difficult to get changes through the Committee. Although the sponsor of the Bill may consider himself to be a liberal reformer of the 1967 Act, I believe that some of the people behind him and around him may not be quite so liberal. Once the Bill reaches the Committee, it will be open to those people to try to introduce further restrictions to make matters very much more difficult.
We know that an organisation called Life has some friends in this place, and they have said that they want to see further obstacles put into the Bill. In another report in the Catholic Herald that body said that it would urge people to write to their Members of Parliament and press them to amend the Bill further to tighten up on abortion. We are already warned that by bringing in the Bill at all, even if it says virtually nothing, we shall provide a vehicle for those who are bitterly opposed to the 1967 Act in its entirety.
I agree with my right hon. Friend. Therefore, we now have some idea of the attitude taken by Life.
The hon. Member for Bute and Ayrshire said that he was concerned about abuses. There is one abuse that nobody has tackled. I refer to the lack of National Health Service facilities for abortions in many areas. If the sponsor had brought forward a Bill saying that every NHS hospital had to provide facilities for abortion, preferably moving towards day care clinics, which are now emerging, he would have earned the respect and support of the whole House.
The percentage of abortions performed in different parts of the country is most revealing. Hon. Members should examine some of the statistics. For example, a woman can obtain an abortion provided that she has the necessary certificates, but whether the operation is performed in an NHS hospital depends on where she lives. In the North-East of England, parts of Wales and parts of the South-West, more than 90 per cent. of women have their abortions in NHS hospitals. That is as it should be. I believe that the figure of abortions should be 100 per cent. in NHS hospitals, but 90 per cent. is not a bad figure. However, at the other end of the scale the position is horrific. In the West Midlands, for example in Dudley, only 6 per cent. of women are able to obtain abortions in NHS hospitals, in north Birmingham only 7 per cent., and in Wolverhampton only 8 per cent. It is disgraceful that that should happen in this day and age.
If we had to have such a Bill, it should have corrected that kind of abuse and provided proper facilities.
On a point of information, as one who genuinely wants to know and who recognises the hon. Lady's great knowledge, which she has displayed in Committee before, may I ask a real question? If, as I trust, she favours a reduction to 20 weeks—or not?—what effect does she expect that will have on the pressures on NHS hospitals?
Perhaps I might come to that in a moment when I deal with the charitable sector. I agree that it is relevant.
It has been said—I am not suggesting that any hon. Member has said it, certainly not today—that those of us who defend the 1967 Act are pro-abortionists. I want to make it clear that I am not pro-abortion. I do not want people to have abortions. I should like them to have safe contraception if that is what they want. However, I am determined to oppose anyone who believes that the facilities for abortion should be reduced. We have a duty to provide facilities for people if they have to go to that last resort.
We hope that they will not, but that is not a matter for me to decide. I do not decide for women, and other hon. Members should not decide for women. Women should be able to decide for themselves, one hopes in consultation with their families and with their doctors. It is not my decision. Our duty is to see that proper facilities are available if they are necessary. That is all that we are seeking to do, and that is what the Bill is seeking to limit.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals), the previous Secretary of State, referred to the abortions that took place at Wanstead and at Whiston. Those two cases have been dragged into the press in strange circumstances. The case involving the foetus at Wanstead took place last year, and nobody heard anything about it. There did not seem to be any screams then from people working in the hospital. It is strange that it was not until a little while before the general election that this story came out.
Of course people are perturbed by a story such as this—and rightly so. However, the Redbridge and Waltham Forest area health authority—an AHA that I know well—has confirmed that the foetus was never alive outside the womb and that resuscitation equipment was not used because the foetus was too young to inflate its lungs. It is interesting that that case took place in the summer of 1978 yet it did not come to light until the very beginning of the general election campaign.
In the case of the Whiston foetus, the then Minister of State, Department of Health and Social Security, wrote to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton). I think that the Minister wanted that letter eventually published in the Official Report. I have seen a copy, although it has not yet been published.
In that letter, dated 22 June, the Minister said that he had had a full report from the St. Helen's and Knowsley AHA that the foetus was at no point capable of independent existence and that there had been no limb movements nor any struggling for breath. The foetus could not have maintained independent life.
May I correct one thing that my hon. Friend has said about the Wanstead incident? That matter was raised with a number of Members of Parliament by a member of the nursing staff who was present when the baby—or the foetus, whatever one wishes to call it—emerged. The matter was in no way connected with the general election. It came up before we knew that the general election was going to occur. That lady's statement—I shall not mention names, obviously—was that the baby was crying and moving. It may not have been able to survive, but that was because of the treatment that the mother had received previously to have an abortion. This was not an election issue at all.
This lady, who was employed as a nurse, said to me " I thought that my job in life when I came into this service was to preserve life, not to destroy it." She was very distressed indeed.
I accept what my hon. Friend says. He has described how the case was revealed, but I still find it strange that it happened last July and that it was only in March or April of 1979 that the matter exploded in the national press. If it was so terrible—I accept that it was a terrible experience for the nurse who brought the matter forward—why did she not then and there, in July last year, say " This is a dreadful thing and something should be done about it "?
I am sorry to intervene again, but whether or not this was an election issue—I have sympathy with the point being made by my hon. Friend—is not the important thing the result of the inquiry carried out by the health authority? That revealed that the foetus was of 19 weeks gestation and that medical staff had found it incapable of sustaining life. There was an inquiry and there was a conclusion. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South-East (Mr. Cohen) was not suggesting that the results of the inquiry were not entirely independent and conclusive.
As the hon. Member who had to fight the constituency of Wanstead and Woodford, perhaps I might add one other thing. I have repeatedly asked for those who have made this allegation to come forward and identify themselves to me, but they have not done so. I have discussed this case with the hon. Member for Leeds, South-East (Mr. Cohen) and I believe that it is true to say that the lady who gave him the information was unwilling to allow her identity to be disclosed. It must place considerable difficulties in the way of the health authorities which are asked to investigate—as I am sure the previous Secretary of State was absolutely right to ask them to investigate—this allegation, if those who make these allegations are not prepared to stand up and be counted, and if necessary to support a case under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act, if that is appropriate, in the courts.
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for putting that important statement on the record. Not all of us knew that no one was willing to come forward to be counted.
I turn now to the provisions of the Bill. As others have said, clause 1 changes the criteria. It rearranges words in some cases, but basically it introduces the words " grave ", " serious " and " substantial ", pushing them around in different directions from the original Act. I have never been able to understand how one decides what is grave and what is not. What is a grave risk " and what is just " a risk "? How is one to decide this? How is a doctor to say that there might be a risk to the woman's life which might be grave or might not be grave? Is it a little risk or a big risk?
Most of the medical evidence on this point, to the Select Committee, from distinguished people, was that it would be almost impossible for doctors to work when they had to define those words for themselves, that it was better therefore that the words were left untouched and in their simplest fashion.
If we introduce descriptions and qualifications of risk doctors will say " Since I cannot be absolutely sure whether my judgment that this is a grave risk will be shared by another doctor, I must err on the side of caution and decide that the pregnancy should not be terminated." That is what the supporters of the Bill really want.
I am seriously bothered about the proposal to reduce the time limit to 20 weeks. My right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North drew attention to the type of women whom we need to protect by leaving the upper limit at 28 weeks. Those are the women who may have made a mistake, thought that they were in the menopause or have recently stopped taking the pill and therefore have irregular periods. We must also protect young girls who become pregnant but who are too frightened to do anything about it, and mentally handicapped women who do not know what they are doing and try to hide their pregnancy.
Why should we decide that such women cannot have an abortion? I understand that the Bill contains a provision which relates to a child after 20 weeks pregnancy but that it does not cater for the mental health of a woman. Why should we place these difficulties in front of a few needy people?
The most recent circular from the BMA arrived today, and it is dated 12 July. It has been said that one's opinion of what the BMA says depends upon its spokesman. A resolution was passed by last year's 600-strong representative body of the BMA. It resolved:
That this meeting deplores the persistent attacks on the 1967 Abortion Act and reaffirms its belief that it is a practical and humane piece of legislation.
I accept that some representatives of the BMA gave different evidence to the Select Committee in 1975, but it is possible for its thinking to progress.
When attacks were made on the Abortion Act by the introduction of Private Members' Bills, medical opinion was not nearly so quick to come forward as it has been on this occasion. The Bill was published only on Tuesday of this week, and I am pleased to say that we have been inundated with expert and distinguished opinion from the medical profession.
My hon. Friend is dealing with the situation after 20 weeks. Does she agree that the situation is even worse than she has stated? I refer to the onus on the doctor. It will be possible for an abortion to be carried out after 20 weeks only if the purpose is to preserve the life of the mother. The onus is on the doctor to decide not only whether the mother's life is at risk—which is bad enough—but whether he should operate to save her life. That is an onus which no doctor will accept.
That is why the Bill is so difficult to follow in many ways, and why it is so frightening. We do not yet understand all the Bill's implications.
The Bill is hung about with penalties. It is full of activities which are offences and for which one can be fined. The whole Bill smacks of penalties which will make doctors err even more on the side of caution and of doing nothing.
Reference has been made to the conscience clause and the need to widen it. I cannot see why it has to be widened. The Nursing Mirror of 10 May this year reported that the Royal College of Midwives and the Royal College of Nursing had said that there was no evidence that nurses were forced to perform abortions against their will. One nurse may take that point of view, and that is her right. However, according to those distinguished bodies, there is no evidence that nurses are being leaned on in any way.
There has been an attack on the referral agencies and charities. I was asked what the cost would be if National Health Service hospitals were able to perform the tasks of those agencies and charities. The Department should be able to give that figure. If the Bill is passed, an enormous gap will be created by the destruction of the charitable sector. By separating the referral agencies and the charities the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and the Pregnancy Advisory Service will be destroyed because it will not be possible for them to own and control both advisory service centres and nursing homes.
Perhaps the supporters of the Bill have not seen documents from the BPAS and the PAS. They run a low cost, efficient and compassionate caring service. They deal with well over 50 per cent. of abortions because the National Health Service is unable, because of a lack of facilities, to carry out more than 50 per cent. Women who now go to BPAS and PAS will be forced not on the National Health Service but on to the back streets. The knitting needle is no joke. Before the 1967 Act was passed I worked in an office where there was a young junior of 15. She came in late one morning. I asked her why she was late. She said " It was my mum. She fell again. We had her jumping up and down off the kitchen table all night. She has one or two instruments and I hope they will do the job."
I was horrified not just at the fact that the girl's mother was undergoing that experience, but at the calm acceptance by the daughter of a working-class family that that was what life was about, that if there was an unwelcome pregnancy—in this case the mother had several other children—that was the action one took. If for no other reason, I am glad because of that that we have the 1967 Act that has enabled us to dispose of that kind of attitude.
Is my hon. Friend aware that in New Zealand, where similar restrictive legislation to this Bill was introduced only two years ago, the number of obortions has not decreased and that the number of illegal abortions has increased following restriction in the legal sector?
Is it the hon. Lady's case that if the cash clinics are separated from the referral agencies under clause 4 those clinics will continue to operate, but the referral agencies will not be able to do so? If that is the case, does she not agree that that is why one cannot have objective counselling from referral agencies which are linked to these clinics?
—I beg him to go along and see how they work and to talk to the people who run them. He will realise how excellent is the kind of counselling service that they give and that he criticises. He will see that the whole system in the charitable sector is run in a non-profit making and caring way, and not in the dreadful way that he seeks to imply.
So many bodies and so many people in the country view the Bill with alarm and dismay. Caring people believe that the Bill will endanger the health and welfare of a large number of women and possibly their families as well. I hope that even at this stage I can persuade the hon. Member to withdraw his Bill, or suppress it in some way, because then he would be doing a good service.
I have had a few letters from constituents—about a dozen—on this matter, including two or three that were exactly the same, stating that I was denying infertile parents the opportunity to adopt a child. I thought about that most carefully. I would in no way wish to prevent infertile parents from adopting if that is what they want. However, I realise that there are about 75,000 children in care in this country. Of those 75,000 some, but not all, are available for adoption. However, they are not all white and they are not all tiny, healthy babies. They tend to be handicapped, older, and often black. That is why people do not want to adopt them, why they are left in care and in children's homes. If people say to me that I am denying infertile parents the pleasure and prospect of adoption, I say " Go and look at the kind of children who have consistently been rejected for many years and who remain rejected." On the whole, people like to have a baby that is cast in their own image, and that is what they are looking to.
I turn my attention finally to those of my right hon. and hon. Friends who do not share my view. I remind them that it is the policy of the Trades Union Congress to support the 1967 Act. Likewise, it is the policy of the Labour Party conference—
Yes, the Scottish TUC, too. That was certainly the policy also of the Labour Women's conference which met only two or three weeks ago. I was pleased to see that yesterday the TUC issued a press statement in which it stated that it firmly supported the 1967 Act as it now stands and that it was deeply concerned at the introduction of the Bill. I echo that concern, and I hope that all other right hon. and hon. Members will, too.
I know that the hon. Member for Barking (Miss Richardson) is most sincere in the views that she holds. I did not sit opposite her in Committee for all the hours that the Committee sat without learning that. However, I hope that in this issue, which arouses such great controversy and passion, we can start from the point of recognising that, although we differ, we hold our views sincerely. There is no point in trying to impugn the motives of my hon. Friend the Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Mr. Corrie) or anyone else when those motives do not exist. Some of us hold these views very strongly because we sincerely believe in them. If that can be the starting point for our discussion I think that we will get on better.
Obviously, in view of my experience in this matter, I congratulate my hon. Friend upon introducing the Bill. It is a successor not only to my Bill but to a number of others. I sincerely trust that my hon. Friend will have better luck than those who have gone before. It is most difficult to explain to the public why Bills that have received overwhelming endorsement on Second Reading do not reach the statute book. People outside the House find the intricacies of our parliamentary procedure most difficult to understand, and they simply cannot comprehend why the Bills get no further.
I am afraid that even if my hon. Friend, with first place in the ballot, is successful in getting a Second Reading for his Bill today, there will be considerable obstacles in its path at other stages.
Looking back calmly and dispassionately over the years since the 1967 Act I asked myself whether the previous attempts at reforming the Act had been worth while, whether all the correspondence, the demonstrations, the " aggro ", and the rest had been worth, the effort. I answered with a resounding " Yes " to that question. I think that that will be echoed by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. White), by my hon. Friends the Members for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) and Surrey, North-West (Mr. Grylls) and by my right hon. Friend the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas)—now Leader of the House—who introduced a Bill in the past. The wheels of our parliamentary democracy grind very slowly, but they grind inexorably, particularly with measures such as this. I claim that these previous attempts have made the issue clearer. They have certainly made the political options clearer. I also claim that these Bills and the deliberations of the Select Committee have stimulated the Department of Health and Social Security a Department, which is not outstanding in the quickness with which it deals with difficult matters, into taking much more action about agencies and clinics in the private sector; to provide better facilities than existed before under the National Health Service; and have increased research into the after-effects of abortion, which is most important.
On this last point, we are miles behind other countries in research and in the way in which we treat subsequent pregnancies after abortion. This is of the utmost importance. If only we could rectify that problem, a great many abnormal births and a great deal of misery would be avoided in the future.
I make the much more controversial claim that the Bills that have been introduced following the 1967 Act have made those who would not otherwise have thought about the issue consider the ethics of abortion. There have always been two extreme camps. The first camp consists of those who want no abortion. The second consists of those who want no restrictions. They want abortion freely available on demand or request. In between lie the great majority. They are worried and uncertain. They wish the issue would go away. Many more of those who lie between the two camps have now grasped the true issues that are involved in the controversy.
Every thinking person now appreciates the absurd values of a society that protests passionately against any infringements of human rights, against capital punishment, imprisonment and torture where it is found and yet quite quietly destroys more than 100,000 of its own kind every year. That is the negative side.
There is a strong positive side. There has been a far greater positive attempt to help those who are worried or distressed by an impending pregnancy, to show them that there are alternatives to abortion and to help them through pregnancy and subsequent care of their children. That has been one of the most encouraging developments of recent years. We should not lose sight of that.
My hon. Friend is right to include a criteria clause. The Select Committee suggested that the House should be given the opportunity to make its decision. My hon. Friend has made provision for that suggestion. He has done no more and no less. He is again putting into the Bill the words that were there originally and were subsequently removed by those in another place. However, I suspect that the changes that he suggests will not make very much difference. The New Zealand experience has been quoted with a certain amount of justification. I do not think that any more prosecutions would result.
My argument for wanting the criteria changed is the same as the argument advanced for the Race Relations Acts and Sex Discrimination Act—namely, that although we cannot change people's attitudes and prejudices by law we can make plain the State's point of view. That is especially important. I believe strongly that the future of this issue will be decided by education and the attitude of members of the rising generation. They will decide what happens. They will decide whether we have far freer abortion or whether it is restricted. From my experience of discussing the matter in schools and universities, I think that there has been a tremendous change. The matter is now considered much more carefully and reasonably than before. Undoubtedly a considerable change has taken place.
It is right for Parliament to give a lead. The House cannot stand aside from such a major issue, any more than it can stand aside from the question of capital punishment. In essence, we must say what value we put on human life. That is the basis of the criteria clause. Parliament should be given the opportunity to make its decision.
There is little that I can add to what has been said on time limits and the conscience clause. Both proposals have been tempered in the fire of previous discussion. There has been a great deal of discussion and we have been round and round the course. Therefore, the issue is extremely clear.
The separation clause is causing the greatest amount of concern among the opponents of the Bill. I find myself in two minds after my experience with my own Bill and the consideration that I have since been able to give to these matters. I accept entirely that it must be wrong for there to be any financial inducement for those counselling a pregnant woman to recommend an abortion at a certain clinic. However, I question whether the clause that appeared in my Bill, and the clause that my hon. Friend the Member for Bute and North Ayrshire has put into his Bill—I thank him for the compliment—would overcome the risk of financial inducement. The clause would be too easy to circumvent even it were passed.
I favour much more a form of parliamentary control over the licensing process. I should like to see licences laid before Parliament at regular intervals—for example, every three years—so that they could be considered and prayed against under the negative procedure, either individually or collectively. That would provide a far greater measure of control than that proposed either in my Bill or the Bill before us. That form of parliamentary control would make organisations far more open in their operation. The hon. Member for Barking must accept that.
I am familiar with the British Pregnancy Advisory Service operation in Birmingham. I know how it is run. I know that certain aspects of it are beyond reproach. However, in a sense it is secretive. I appreciate that the essence of the counselling is that it must be sec- retive. Nobody knows what goes on in the counselling room except the counsellor and the woman concerned. Therefore, it is extremely difficult to introduce controls in any event. If there were parliamentary control, the charities in particular would be far more anxious to prove to Members of Parliament that they were giving a proper independent counselling service.
If the Bill were a Government measure it would contain far more than is it it now. There are a number of features to which hon. Members have referred which would be in the Bill if it had been introduced by the Government. Many of the Select Committee's recommendations have been omitted from my hon. Friend's Bill. My hon. Friend made that clear. However, I think that he will find that he has attempted too much. The fact that there is exploitation of women in the private sector and the fact that the balance has been tilted too far against the child in our current legislation are the factors that matter. Those are the two basic wrongs that need to be rectified. The Bill deserves the support of the House because it gives the House an opportunity to do so. For those reasons alone I believe that the Bill should be supported.
In conclusion I make a genuine plea. I am sure that it is the ardent desire of most hon. Members to see the issue settled once and for all. Having spoken to my colleagues, I am certain of that. I know that the opponents of the Bill are sincere in their opposition. It is right that they oppose the Bill as strongly as possible. However, I hope that their opposition, especially if the Bill goes into Committee, will be constructieve and not destructive. If they manage to stop—
No, I shall not give way. I am trying to explain. The hon. Lady must do me the courtesy of listening to me first. By " destructive " I mean preventing the House of Commons being able to take the final decision. Everyone knows what I am talking about. If the hon. Member for Thurrock (Dr. McDonald) and her hon. Friends manage to prevent the Bill returning to the House and being properly debated in the House, the Bill will be replaced by another measure and another and another. Is it not to the advantage of the country, the House and to women to ensure that the matter is settled once and for all?
Yes. I am sincere in that. There is no point in saying anything else. I am trying to explain to Members that the House is essentially the right place in which to hammer out the issue, not the BMA, or the BPAS, or the societies in favour of women's rights and abortion. If we cannot do that here, everybody will be the losers.
The hon. Gentleman has got it the wrong way round. Now we have the status quo—the 1967 Act. If we are to change that Act, it is not so much incumbent upon its supporters to defent it as it is for those who attack it to prove conclusively that it needs change. They are not doing that. They are turning the argument on its head. The public want conclusive evidence, not ideas. The hon. Gentleman says that he wants to leave out the doctors and the women's rights movements. That is nonsense. We want conclusive evidence that there is demand that the Act should be changed, that it is right for it to be changed and that the Bill will help the general public.
In furthering this section of his argument perhaps my hon. Friend would be interested to know that I took a careful survey of my mail on this measure at this stage. I was interested to find that the numbers of genuine letters from constituents asking me to vote in favour of the Bill outnumbered the mass noises from the campaign correspondents by six to one.
Putting it at its least, there is obvious disquiet. When nearly 40 per cent. of the people have grave disquiet about a matter, it is incumbent on us all to see whether we can produce an answer that tries to remove at least some of that disquiet.
Having done this, I know what is involved. I plead for reasoned discussion and a decision to be taken once and for all by the House.
I thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to catch your eye in this debate. This is my maiden speech. I had intended to speak in earlier debates, when the House returned after the general election. I wanted to speak in the Budget debate but I found myself sufficiently at variance with the view being expressed by Opposition Front Bench speakers to have departed from the tradition of the House and been controversial. Therefore I did not speak at that time.
I am aware of the Labour men and others who have sat here before me, perhaps even on this Bench, since the turn of the century. There was Mr. Tommy Cape, who was elected in 1918. On 24 February 1919 he spoke about the Government's proposals on the Coal Industry Commission Bill. Tommy Cape, who was elected by the miners, was able to set a clear objective for himself in the time that he was a Member of the House. He sought the nationalisation of the mining industry, the six-hour day for the miner, and the improvement of miners' working conditions throughout this land. Indeed, the objectives that Tommy Cape set for himself in his lifetime were realised when the mines were taken into public ownership in 1947.
In 1945, the young Lieutenant Peart, fresh from the battlefields of Europe, came to this place. On 20 August he made his maiden speech on the occasion of the Gracious Speech. He set for himself other objectives, one of which was to see peace develop in this country and in Europe. His objective was international peace. Certainly, with the elevation of Fred Peart to the House of Lords in January 1976, it could be said that he saw some of his objectives realised. In 1945, referring to the prospective legislation mentioned in the Gracious Speech, he said:
the success of that legislation depends on sound and healthy international relations … In conjunction with … all nations we must plan a new world."—[Official Report, 20 August 1945; Vol. 413, c. 357, 360.]
That was a fine objective. Fred Peart was subsequently to become the Minister
or Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in two Governments, the Leader of the House, and Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Lords. I am sure that he now feels that he has seen his objectives realised.
In 1976 a new Member of Parliament was elected, following a highly important by-election in the Workington constituency. I refer to Mr. Richard Page. On 30 November he rose, as a Conservative Member of Parliament, to make his maiden speech in the debate on the economy. He proposed the regeneration of British industry through reductions in taxation and the restoration of a free market. Although I was unable to agree with much of what he said in the House, let me take this opportunity of wishing him the best of luck in all his future endeavours.
That brings me to this debate. I, too, come to the House with clear objectives. I have been able to establish them for myself within the confines of the philosophy that I hold and that I hope is held by members of the Opposition in common with me. I refer to the philosophy of Socialism.
In his book " In Place of Fear ", dealing with democratic Socialism, Aneurin Bevan said:
The capacity for emotional concern for individual life is the most significant quality of a civilised human being.
The problem is that the civilised human being is permanently and regularly being confronted by challenges of our time that cheapen life—the challenge of advertisement and the world of advertisement that has glamourised materialism at a cost to human life; the challenge of advancing technology that is inclined to discard the value of the human contribution and renders human effort too often superfluous; the challenge presented by the economics of the free market that turns one man against another, one creed against another, and one nation against another.
Those are all challenges. Yet it is in a climate of those challenges that we, as Socialists—and I in the light of my objectives—must try to raise the threshold of respect for life in this generation. That is the principal reason why I support the Bill.
At the root of the Socialism that is held in common by the Opposition, we have a belief that incites and inspires us to campaign on the international platforms of human rights. When we stand in our constituencies or move into the Lobbies as a result of our commitment to vote against the reintroduction of hanging—I feel sure that all members of the Opposition will refuse to support a Bill to reintroduce hanging—we shall do so in the light of our understanding of our responsibilities to human, indeed, all, life.
When we stand on platforms in our constituencies and demand that people feel with us against blood sports and cruel sports, we do so because we understand that these are real issues, they are moral issues, and they are inseparable from the very great and important issue that is being put before us today.
When I think that earlier this week there were Labour Members who had considered banding together perhaps even to obstruct the Bill as it was put before the House, I am saddened, because I believe that comfort and the convenience of some forms of abortion are being put before the moral issue of the preservation of human life in this society.
When I think that the mighty Labour conference—which a few of us on the Labour Benches believe must play a more important part in the minds of those who sit in the Parliamentary Labour Party—was responsible for carrying a resolution which, in my view, would have liberalised even more the principle of abortion in this country, I am saddened again. I hope that one day in the Labour conference we shall be able to reverse such resolutions.
Before the debate is closed at, perhaps, 4 p.m. today, I think that what happens during an abortion—particularly one that takes place after 20 weeks—should be brought to the attention of this House. Instead of going to the lobbies which have a vested interest on each side, over the last 36 hours I have telephoned numbers of people in the medical profession in London in order to ask them what were their personal views on abortion.
I was surprised to have referred to me stories of children—foetuses—that were born live after 22 weeks and that had lain on the slab after a Caesarean section operation. I was told that if the bag were left unopened it would be 10 or 15 minutes before the heartbeat would stop. I was also told that, in the event of the bag being opened, the child—the foetus—could be seen to breathe and heard to cry.
I would say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that this cannot be right, and that some of the operations that have been described to me during the last 36 hours cannot be permissible in a reasonable and civilised society. The law has become an ass, and I call upon my colleagues on the Labour Benches to join with others in the Lobby today in asking that the Bill be given the Second Reading that it so preciously requires.
If there are aspects of the Bill that some hon. Members feel they are not able to swallow today, let them be willing to participate in the machinery of the Committee, which, if we are fortunate, will review it, so that it can come before the House at some time in the future in a form that is acceptable to what I believe to be the great majority of the British people.
I believe that it is the objective of the generation of people, particularly younger people, who are today taking their place in this House, to set down new markers for the future. Those new markers are about creating a new threshold of respect for human life.
If it is convenient to the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I should like to intervene in the debate at this stage.
I should like, first, very sincerely to congratulate the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) on his maiden speech. I found it a very eloquent and thoughtful maiden speech. It certainly moved me. If the hon. Gentleman has any information on the kinds of cases to which he referred, I should be very glad to have it, because there is something there that I should want to look into. The whole House listened with great interest to what he said. He reminded us of his predecessors, the most recent of whom was Richard Page, who is missed by a great many of us on each side of the House. We shall all look forward with interest and anticipation to any further speeches from the hon. Member.
I should like also to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Mr. Corrie) on having come first in the ballot and for choosing this subject for his Bill.
I have been following the debate with great care and could not fail to note the many deep and sincere feelings of Members on each side of the House. It has been a good and ample example of the need for the debate. If I may say so, abortion by any standards is—it must be—a very unpleasant and sometimes deeply unhappy subject.
This is not an easy debate, and one of the features of it has been the way in which some of the best characteristics of the House have come out as we have discussed matters of such deep emotional significance. There are, indeed, very strong emotional feelings on each side. It is not surprising, for underneath the debate there is a very fundamental issue. In what circumstances is it right to take away the life of an unborn child? That is a point to which I keep returning.
I am, of course, speaking as a member of the Government. A predecessor of mine, in a similar debate, said that he was giving not a Government view but a personal one. I do not know what the view of the House will be on this, but I do not see how, in the circumstances, I could possibly speak only on a personal basis, and therefore I hope that what I have to say will be along the line of considering whether the Government have any additional information or any views which would assist hon. Members to make up their minds.
Let us have no misunderstanding on this. From the Government's point of view, and from all our points of view, this issue is one for the House of Commons to decide. It is a matter on which every Member must and will follow his own conscience. Anything that I say is not intended to influence that conscience in any particular direction. Of course, I also have a personal view. With my background I could hardly avoid it.
I have had to make recommendations for abortions. I have seen the advantages, but I have also seen the terrible stresses that it can cause both for a mother and for those advising her. I found myself agreeing very strongly with the remarks made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South (Mr. Ancram) when he was talking about the emotional hazards, the later consequences, for some mothers when they have had an abortion.
I have known mothers who have demanded an abortion. They have had very good grounds. Afterwards, they have deeply regretted it, and said so. They have said that it was wrong that the abortion was carried out. But then, of course, I have known the reverse. In a previous debate I mentioned the poignant comment of a gynaecological colleague, a surgeon, who said to me " It is all very well for you to fill in the form, but I actually have to do the job." That is a point of view that we have to bear in mind.
However, I suggest to the House that we are not discussing today the merits of legal abortion. A number of hon. Members have talked as though they were doing so. We in this House and this country decided in favour of legal abortion when we passed the Abortion Act 1967. That has been the law for some 11 years. With the greatest respect, I suggest that it is important that we should bear in mind that we are not discussing that today. What we are discussing today is a Bill which is aimed at reducing the abuses which some people sincerely believe still continue under the present Abortion Act. I noted the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon) when he spoke very eloquently on this subject.
In making up their minds, I am sure that hon. Members will give great thought to the clear public concern, even among those who strongly favour abortion, that abuses are still going on today which should and could be cleared up. What we have to ask ourselves is this: will this Bill help to resolve some of that public concern? If so, the House will decide that it should go into Committee. If it is felt that the Bill does not do that, perhaps it would be wrong for the Bill to go into Committee.
I also have a duty to pass on to the House what I know or believe to be the views of professional people in this field. I shall turn in a moment to the question of the upper time limit, and I shall show that in this respect I have some sympathy with the principle to which the Bill seeks to give effect. Many of us in this country were horrified at the recent reports—on which I shall comment further shortly—of foetuses which had already—according to the reports; but I believe that they were incorrect—started an independent life. That horrified many sections of the public.
The Bill goes considerably beyond the limited objective of changing the number of weeks. I should like to refer first to clause 1(b), inserting the words " grave risk " and " substantial risk " in the principal Act. I am sure that hon. Members realise that that alters significantly one of the key criteria laid down in the original Act.
As I said a moment ago, the Act has been in operation for more than 11 years. Its central provisions concerning the circumstances in which abortions should or should not be allowed were a very careful balance. They were finally written into the Act after a very prolonged debate, which was so ably steered at the time by the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel).
In April 1974 the Lane committee recommended—again, after a very careful examination of six years' operation of the Act and a good deal of research—that the criteria in the 1967 Act should be left unchanged. In the 1975–76 Session the Select Committee under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) again made no recommendation for change in those criteria, although there were those among its witnesses who had very strongly pressed the case for change.
I am bound to say to the House that I can report no proposal from the professions involved to change the criteria. Indeed, I believe it to be generally the view of the professions that there should be no amendment to them.
Does the Minister agree that the issue that troubled the Lane committee was the statistical argument that was, unhappily, being deployed by a minority of doctors, who were using it to justify abortion on demand? The Lane committee condemned it but did not recommend legislative action. The Select Committee also saw a grave problem. The issue that I put to the Minister is that if he thinks that this matter can be resolved in any way other than by legislation, he has the duty to tell the House the method by which we can prevent what was never intended by the legislature being done with legal immunity by a small number of doctors using this unhappy statistical argument.
Yes, the hon. Gentleman is correct in his recollection of the deliberations of the Lane committee. This was a serious consideration of that committee, but it came to the conclusion—I must come back to this—that legislation was probably not the right way to deal with the abuses that were taking place.
The right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals) referred to some of the steps that had been taken to see that abuses, when they occurred, were dealt with adequately. I suggest that that is something which, if the Bill goes into Committee, we shall want to look into again in great detail, because it is clearly very important.
I was saying that at this stage I do not know of any proposal or request from the professions involved for a change in these criteria. In fact, there is a good deal of evidence that the professions which have to carry out this task would like to see the criteria left as they are. Of course, it is for hon. Members to listen carefully to the arguments advanced for this particular change and to reach their own conclusions, but I thought that it was right to draw their attention to these facts.
It was reported in the press earlier this week that the chairman of one organisation, welcoming the provisions in the Bill, estimated that if the Bill were passed it would reduce the number of abortions by two-thirds. That is a big statement. It is, of course, speculation. All I can tell the House is that the proportion of all abortions certified for women resident in this country on the basis of the criteria which it is proposed to amend is about 85 per cent., and it would remain to be seen how many women would in future be found to meet the requirements of an amended criterion if that were put through in the Bill. The House will readily see that the proposed change affects potentially a large proportion of women who now obtain abortions. What I am saying is that we have to go very carefully before we change the criteria, and we must not delude ourselves that it would be altering the situation for a small number of women, because it could alter the situation for a large number of women.
That proportion is in sharp distinction to that likely to be affected by a change in the upper time limit. As the House knows, the present upper time limit is 28 weeks. The Bill seeks to reduce that to 20 weeks. The right hon. Member for Norwich, North has given some of the figures for abortion. In the latest year for which figures are available to me, 1976, the number of United Kingdom residents for whom abortions were carried out at or after 20 weeks was 975. That represents just under 1 per cent. of all such abortions, so the maximum effect of the proposed change would therefore be contained within that figure of 1 per cent.
The House will realise that within this area, small though it is, some quite serious doubts have been expressed from many quarters. What crosses my mind is that numbers alone are not the total answer. If even one child is wrongly aborted, that is a fault in the law and something that we shall have to consider.
I understand that argument perfectly well, but surely it applies the other way. If one woman out of the 975 who ought to have an abortion is prevented from having one and thereby her health or her life is impaired, surely that is a factor that we must also bear in mind.
I am not attempting in any way to evade that point. That is one of the matters that the House will have to weigh today. Where do we put the priorities? Can they be done in a general way? Should one only look at the child's side, or should one only look at the mother's side? Should we judge each case individually as it arises? I am bound to give that sort of answer because that is the judgment that the clinical doctor is trained to make.
That is the whole issue. If, at the end we are to say, and I think that we must, that the issue is for decision in each individual case, the only way that that can be exercised responsibly is by the doctor making an assesssment in each individual case. If the Bill is passed, he will be prevented from doing that.
These are the figures for this group of cases, but I shall certainly look into the matter because it is important and we shall want to have the latest available figures when we come to Committee, if we do.
I think that the hon. Lady is confusing the general figures with the more specific figures that I gave. However, that is something that I should be prepared to look into.
The Minister is very generous in giving way. I wish to make a statistical point, following the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Lyon) that a clinical judgment would be taken by the doctor in each case. Could the hon. Gentleman confirm that of the 975 cases, 811—around three-quarters, I suppose—were between 20 and 23 weeks, and only 164 were 24 weeks and beyond? I think that the spread of the figures for this relatively small number, less than 1 per cent. above 20 weeks, is also of some importance.
To my recollection, that is absolutely correct.
The House will need to consider the upper time limit from a number of different points of view. For example, is the problem large enough to justify a change in the law? Is the problem serious enough to justify a change in the law? What degree of change would be justified? Would a change adversely affect women with a claim that would be generally accepted as valid? Would a change have any other undesirable consequences? I shall take up one or two of those queries.
First, the size of the problem. We are dealing here with fewer than 1,000 cases a year, representing less than 1 per cent. of the total. Since the Act came into effect, the figures show no trend which would suggest that this problem is either decreasing or increasing. Looking at the figures for each year, one's conclusion must be that there has been no significant movement at all in the ratio which the numbers under 24 weeks bear to those above.
The conclusion that I put to the House is that a change can neither be supported nor denied on the grounds of the size of the problem. I am interested to note that no hon. Members jumped up to intervene at that point.
Secondly, the seriousness of the problem. The reasoning behind the desire for a change concerns the viability of the foetus. It may be the view of the House that an upper time limit should be set at a point where there is, in all foreseeable circumstances, no prospect of a child being born as a result of a procedure for terminating pregnancy.
I know of only two authenticated cases in this country of a foetus surviving before 26 weeks. One was at 24 weeks, and the other was at—it was slightly debatable—either 24 or 25 weeks. Even at this age a crucial factor is the weight of the child, and no child weighing less than 500 grams-1 lb 1½ oz—has been known to survive. Nevertheless, if we are honest with ourselves, the possibility must be said to exist.
Is it not the case, on a pure point of foetal physiology, that the lungs of the foetus are such that they are solid, and that the circulation of the foetus is such that, even if oxygen were possibly given by incubation to a foetus of 24 to 26 weeks, the circulation would be such that the rest of the body would not be oxygenated? In these cases, though the foetuses of 24 to 26 weeks do cry, it does not mean that they are breathing and using their respiratory function.
The physiological situation is that before 20 weeks the lungs are solid and it would, on present-day techniques, be impossible to preserve the life of a foetus before 20 weeks. Between 20 and 24 weeks the matter becomes a little more problematic. But on present-day facilities it would be most unlikely—probably impossible—to preserve that life.
We can pursue that matter if the Bill goes into Committee. I would say that, as things are at the moment, there is no prospect of a separate life for a foetus before 24 weeks.
The Minister is putting forward a view but, as I interpret it, it is totally in conflict with the view expressed in paragraph 30 of the Peel report, where all the evidence was being directed to this aspect of the problem. He must realise that what he has said is in direct conflict with the conclusions of Sir John Peel's committee, which Sir John has today or yesterday again reiterated. The Peel committee, having taken into account the whole of the material, including that from the International Federation of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Midwives, made clear in paragraph 30 that prima facie evidence of viability varied from 18 to 24 weeks.
It is not for me, or the House, to express a scientific opinion. We have to rely upon evidence given to us by the scientists. In this case it is on record in the Peel report in the terms which I have quoted.
I would like to add a supplementary question to that just raised by the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse). The Minister said earlier that there had been public concern about the whole question whether it would be possible for a foetus to survive at, say, 19 weeks. Indeed, the incident at the Whiston hospital was a clear demonstration of that public concern. At the Minister's request, I asked that his reply to my questions on that subject should be reported in the Official Report, and that was done.
But I was concerned that the Minister was not prepared to publish the whole of the report that was submitted to him by the area health authority. I should have thought that it might have answered many of the concerns and the genuine feelings of resentment and anger that exist in the Whiston area, especially among some of the staff who were involved in that incident if they had been able to get sight of the report that was submitted to the Minister. It seems to me also that hon. Members have been denied the opportunity of judging for themselves the information submitted.
The people concerned maintain that that foetus was capable of life. They saw it not only moving but making noises as well which resembled those of a newly born child, and because of that they had genuine concern. Would the Minister reconsider his decision and make available to hon. Members copies of the report of the investigations by the area health authority in that instance?
I am glad that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edge Hill (Mr. Alton) raised that point in the way that he did, because it is of great concern to us all. I have looked into the two cases where these doubts arose, and, as the hon. Gentleman knows, the case to which he referred in particular. There is this anxiety about the half-hour delay between the time when the foetus was removed and the time when a check was made on whether the foetus might have had some possibility of a viable existence. So far as I can tell, there is absolutely no doubt that that foetus was not capable of a separate life. I have been into this matter most carefully. I know that hon. Members are concerned about this, and only yesterday I asked whether I could go back and look at the papers again to check on these points because I do not want to mislead the House in any way. It is so important. However, so far as I am aware—I say this very definitely—there was no question of a separate existence for that foetus.
When the Minister says that he is firmly convinced, and accepts, on medical evidence, that there was no potential for the continuation of the life of that foetus, he accepts that there was life for the foetus after it was aborted. He admitted that for half an hour at least—[HON. MEMBERS: " No."] With respect, I am putting the question and I shall put it in the way I want to.
I take a different view from most hon. Members, and I do not apologise for it. I am very anxious that the full facts should be put at our disposal so that we can come to a reasoned and logical judgment. At present our knowledge is based on hearsay. However, that hearsay causes me great anxiety and concern. First, the half-hour period is in question. Some say that it was longer than that. In those circumstances, there is an admission that there was life, and the life was terminated by the very act of the termination of the pregnancy.
We want more assurance than the medical argument put forward by the Minister. What he has said does not remove the anxiety. For me, it increases it.
It is good to hear the hon. Member for Liverpool, Kirkdale (Mr. Dunn) putting his intervention in his usual robust way. I totally disagree with what he implied. I do not think that there is any evidence to suggest that this foetus was capable of a separate existence. However, realising the anxieties of hon. Members, I shall go through the papers again.
Three cases have been commented on in the press, the reports of two of which I went into in great detail. I have not yet had access to the report of the third case because an inquest is involved and the second hearing of the inquest has been delayed. As soon as the inquest has been cleared up I shall go into the report of that case. I assure the House that if there is any further information on this matter I shall report it to the House in due course.
Will the hon. Gentleman return to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), because I do not think that it is something that we should allow to pass? I hold the hon. Gentleman in high regard as a physician. He stated earlier that there are only two authenticated cases in this country of the survival of a foetus under 26 weeks—one under 24 weeks and one between 24 and 25 weeks. Does he stand by that? What does he think of the statements made which were attributed to Sir John Peel, because they do not accord with my knowledge of the situation? Although I hesitate to put my knowledge against so eminent an authority as Sir John Peel, I stand by it in the same way that my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Kirkdale (Mr. Dunn) stands by his opinion of the matter. Will the Minister give the House the benefit of his views, since the House knows that he is an eminent physician? Can he also give us an indication of what happened to the two foetuses that survived at 24 or 25 weeks?
I am just about to do so. The truth is, as the House knows, that views about 20 to 24 weeks vary. The Peel committee looked at a particular point. It looked at research into foetal material. My own view is somewhere between 20 and 24 weeks. The Lane committee recommended 24 weeks. The BMA at one point recommended 20 weeks but later changed its view. The BMA's current view is that 20 weeks is too low, and this has been confirmed by the BMA in the last few days.
The House might want to consider a point somewhere around 20 or 24 weeks, which would allow people who do not wish to go to one extreme of a very low age or the other extreme of 28 weeks—which is the present legal position and which I suggest is clearly too late and out of keeping with what happens in most other countries in Western Europe—to take some middle ground. Of course, the key to all this is what sort of exemptions would be allowed, which is something that the Committee would want to look into very carefully. I suggest that that is a crucial factor.
It has been put to me, for example, that if the time limit were 22 weeks, as it is in some countries, or 24 weeks, it would be very difficult indeed for the sort of cases to which the right hon. Member for Norwich, North referred—that is the girl who leaves it too late and the woman who does not realise that she is pregnant and discovers it very late and has very good reasons for termination—to be dealt with. But most significant of all is the time between 18 and 22 weeks, when the various investigations for foetal damage have to be carried out. Sometimes they are delicate tests that do not always give clear results and have to be repeated, all of which takes time.
If we are to go for a time lower than 20 weeks—there are strong arguments in favour of that—we must look carefully into the exemptions so that there is no bar for someone who, through no fault of her own, has left it until a later time. That is something that I suggest the House should be able to do in Committee and in conjunction with the various professional bodies.
I do not propose to trespass on the patience of the House, but I have not intervened before. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend. Surely, if the Bill is passed in its present form, the effect of clause 3, taken in conjunction with the 1929 Act, is perfectly clear and mandatory. Unless there is a danger to life, anybody who, in those circumstances, performed an abortion would be liable to criminal prosecution. That must be the position under the Bill as it is drafted, because there is no provision for effect on health, either physical or mental, as a criterion which the law would allow to be taken into account.
Is not the logic of the position, from the various observations which my hon. Friend has made with great authority, that it would be better for the Government to consider this matter again in the light of all the circumstances, make the appropriate further inquiries of the medical profession outside and consider whether, as a Government, it is appropriate for them to introduce any legislation?
I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for those observations. That is, of course, a perfectly tenable point of view and one to which many of us would be sympathetic. However, we are discussing a particular Bill today, and I suggest that there are many matters that would benefit from discussion in Committee. Those are things that we can look into. My right hon. and learned Friend has brought me to one of the points that I was about to make, which is that the Bill as it stands is unsatisfactorily drafted in many respects. We would not want to see it go onto the statute book in its present form.
I had intended to make only a very brief intervention. The House will understand if I push on to make my final points, because I know that a great many other hon. Members wish to participate in the debate.
I should like to drawn attention to the article in The Guardian referring to some remarks by Professor Glanville Williams of Cambridge university, whose view I respect very much. He says that the Bill as it stands would be open to a lot of legal doubts. I shall not go into the details here, but the gist is that the courts would have difficulty in interpreting the Bill as it stands. That is the sort of thing which a Committee would want to look at carefully. In this part of the Bill there is a whole series of aspects to which a Committee would have to pay the most meticulous attention.
I move on to the second provision in the Bill, with which I express some sympathy. That is the conscience clause. The Bill aims to put it beyond doubt that the objection to any involvement in abortion work, except in an emergency should not be restricted simply to religious objection. I shall not go into details, but it seems to me common sense and common justice that if staff who are asked to take on this extremely unpleasant task have strong ethical or moral views on why they should not do so, they should be allowed not so to do without jeopardising their career and appointments. This applies to nurses and to many doctors.
In this case we are discussing professional people who are trained and who have a special sensitivity—not only a very precious one but a special one—to preserve life. That is their whole ethic and background. That is why many went into these professions. We should tread very carefully indeed before we ask people who have developed a tradition of that kind to do something that they feel is ethically and morally wrong. If we push this too far, we could well see the beginning of a move towards an attitude in the professions that we would not want to encourage.
The right hon. Gentleman has been more than generous in giving way, and I am grateful to him. He referred to the possibility of abuses. The Act is not something that has been on the statute book for only 11 months. It has been on the statute book for 11 years. Therefore, at this time, when the Act has been in operation for 11 years, would it not be sensible to take the advice of the professions and for the Government to say either that there are abuses that need to be put right or that there are not abuses and that the Act is perfectly worth while?
I am grateful for those remarks, which follow the line that I had just touched on.
The House would want to know that the question of doctors within the NHS who apply for jobs that involve termination of pregnancy is one that we have looked into just recently. In 1975 this was dealt with in a letter issued by the chief medical officer. At that time guidelines and safeguards were set out for the advertising and filling of such posts. The Select Committee thought that this letter did not provide adequate safeguards, and we have recently been considering this, together with the medical profession, to see whether some change ought to be made.
I can now announce that the existing guidance is to be changed and that the chief medical officer will shortly be issuing a letter giving effect to these changes. It may be of assistance to know what these changes will be. First, it will be emphasised that it is not expected that any jobs for junior doctors will require responsibilities for abortions. Secondly, only where abortion duties are included in the job description would it be acceptable to ask a candidate if he or she would be prepared to undertake terminations. It follows from these two provisions that junior staff should never be questioned about their attitude to termination when they apply for a post. The guidance will also make clear the circumstances and terms in which a job description, but never an advertisement, should include reference to abortion duties. I hope that when hon. Members see the contents of that letter they will agree that this is a just and reasonable step to have taken.
I now turn briefly to the provision in the Bill relating to the registration of pregnancy advice bureaux. This relates to clauses 4 and 5. I must confess that these are clauses—like that seeking to amend the criteria—that we had not expected to see in the Bill. Whatever the merits of this provision, the Government would have to look very carefully at any provision that seeks to increase the cost of administration and the complexity of legislation. In considering this I ask the House to bear in mind that we do not want to put on the statute book legislation that is so complex that there is some doubt about how it should be administered. I am advised that the administration of these clauses would require the employment of considerably more civil servants. For that reason alone, the Government would be reluctant to endorse them.
I shall join hon. Members in listening attentively to the arguments. I must confess that I have not yet heard any arguments that would give me grounds for thinking that a statutory procedure would lead to a stricter control of the private sector than we already have and are exercising by voluntary means.
My right hon. Friend and I have this week seen the chairmen of the two principal charities in this area, and they have undertaken to consider whether they can change the organisation of the trusts within which they work in such a way as to meet the various criticisms that have been expressed.
It will be evident from what I have said that the Government wish to make it clear that hon. Members, including my right hon. and hon. Friends within the Government, should be totally free, as always in such matters, to vote according to their consciences. This is important. No other course would, I am sure, be acceptable to the House. I have tried in my speech, on what is an extremely complicated matter, to bring to the attention of hon. Members some of the salient features. At the same time I have indicated my personal sympathy for measures designed to meet public concern; that is, the time limit and the conscience clauses. These seem to be the nub of the Bill. If the House, in its wisdom, decides to move the Bill into Committee, there is a great deal that we shall want to look at and, I hope, modify. It is on that basis that I have made my speech today.
The House will be grateful for the content of the Minister's speech. I trust that we shall see the Minister in the No Lobby this afternoon, because that is the logical conclusion that one draws from what he said. He went out of his way to point out that this is a very unsatisfactory Bill.
However, I am confused that on the same day as a responsible Government Minister makes such a statement, we should read in the press that the Prime Minister will vote in favour of the Bill. The Minister of State has described it as " very unsatisfactory ". I do not understand this dichotomy. I do not know whether the Minister has talked to the Prime Minister or whether they are walking in different spheres altogether, with one not knowing what the other is saying or doing.
That is very strange in the light of what the Minister has said.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) on his maiden speech. He was very fortunate that it was a maiden speech, because I did not agree with his opinion at all, although I admit that he spoke very eloquently. We shall look forward to hearing him often in the future—well, perhaps not too often
I refer to the speech made by the hon. Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Mr. Come) in opening the debate. I do not exclude him from a certain measure of guilt for not bringing the Bill forward before last Tuesday morning. Had the will been there, it would have been possible to ensure that a certain number of copies of the Bill were available well before Tuesday. It was very difficult to find out what the hon. Member had in mind before Tuesday, and having listened to his speech today I am not sure that he knows himself what he is proposing. His speech was extremely confused.
I forestall the hon. Member, as I suspect he was about to mention the remarks of the BMA a year ago. The BMA's letter, which we received yesterday, brought those views up to date. On the matter of the 20-week limit and the conscience clause, the BMA said yesterday that it specifically wanted the status quo maintained. That is quite clear.
In moving the Second Reading the hon. Member made a number of sweeping statements, which must be challenged. He used the same expression in an edition of The House Magazine on 9 July when he said:
Ever since the 1967 Abortion Act there has been increasing anxiety at the way it has been implemented and the abuses that have grown up within it.
It is abundantly clear that there is very little evidence that that is so. It is true that there are vocal minorities that have always opposed the 1967 Act in its entirety. It is also clear that these minorities will continue their efforts by hook or by crook, by exaggeration and distortion, to destroy the legislation completely.
Cardinal Gordon Gray, the leader of Scotland's 800,000 Roman Catholics, said in the Glasgow Herald on 11 July, in an open letter to the 71 Scottish Members of the House, that the Catholic Church would never condone the right to kill an unborn child. I quote his emotive words exactly. He referred to
the chilling and inhuman provision embodied in the current abortion Act".
He went on to refer to the unhappy policies resulting from
this squalid era of ' abortion mills '.
The cardinal is talking out of the top of his hat, and it is time that someone said so.
In the same report in the Glasgow Herald, Professor Macnaughton, professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at Glasgow university—a man with a family of five—said:
I think if Mr. Corrie came and sat in my clinic for a day he might decide not to go ahead with this Bill.
I prefer that opinion to that of the cardinal.
The House must consider the views of the professionals who meet these human and medical problems day after day in their surgeries and clinics. These are the people to whom we should listen. Also, the Minister of State was speaking with that experience when he gave a cold reception to the Bill.
If the sponsor would agree to one provision modifying the time limit to a 20-week period, and nothing else, we might get some kind of agreement about this Bill. But it goes much further than that. The sponsor has been pushed by the kind of people whom I have mentioned.
The hon. Member for Bute and North Ayrshire quoted a recent poll in The House Magazine. He said:
A recent poll showed that 91 per cent. of all gynaecologists would like to see a top limit of 20 weeks.
The hon. Member referred to that again in his speech today. But the background of that opinion poll is well known to many of us. It was based on the submission made by the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon), who introduced a similar Bill in February. That opinion poll was based on a Gallup poll carried out among gynaecologists on behalf of an organisation the name of which has never been revealed. Gallup has refused to reveal it. Not only is its name not revealed; neither are the terms of the questions. The survey was to ascertain whether gynaecologists supported abortion on demand. Of course, if that question were put to gynaecologists they would be bound to say that they were totally against it.
It may help my hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) if he recalls that the hon. Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Mr. Corrie), when introducing this Bill, referred to the poll and kindly undertook to supply me with a copy of it, which I have since received. He does not seem to be aware of the contents of the document. Written on the top is the statement
We think this is Gallup?
The only figure included in the poll, which approaches 90 per cent. is the figure of 78 per cent. The question reads:
If the following clauses describing the conditions permitting a legal abortion were specified, would you have difficulty in interpreting them or do you find their meaning clear?
A total of 78 per cent. of respondents said that they found the meaning clear and had no difficulty. In this document that the hon. Member has supplied, and on which he has based his claim that a large proportion of gynaecologists supported his views, no question is put to them about their views in all these matters.
That is not what the hon. Gentleman said earlier. One of the great disadvantages of not having Hansard is that we cannot easily or quickly track down exactly what an hon. Member says. The hon. Gentleman is not quite certain now what he said. My clear recollection is that he was trying to create the impression that the great majority of gynaecologists were in favour of the propositions in the Bill. That is simply not true.
We have had very little time to collect evidence, but it will come forward in due course, and I would bet anything that the great majority of gynaecologists will be against the proposals in the Bill, as is the British Medical Association.
I support my hon. Friend on that. A letter that I have received indicates that one organisation which consists of more than half the professors of obstetrics and gynaecology in the United Kingdom, and all of those from the universities in Scotland, is not in favour of the provisions of the Bill.
My right hon. Friend the former Secretary of State for Social Services asked the valid question " Who is in support of the Bill? Who wants it? " We all know the pressure groups outside that want it. The Bill is merely a tiny step towards their ultimate target of complete repeal of the 1967 Act. That is what worries us. That is what worries the women and everyone who is concerned with the problem.
The Minister for Health says " Let us see the Bill in Committee." We are terrified that in Committee the skinheads who want to repeal the 1967 Act will go much further down that road than the sponsor.
The sponsor referred to the conscience clause, as did the Minister and others. The hon. Gentleman made the sweeping statement—again I quote from The House Magazine, which is the only thing that I can quote from, that:
There is clear and substantial evidence that a number of nurses, ancillary workers and medical staff are extremely unhappy at having to take part in abortions day after day.
He also expressed concern about
the evidence that unless a gynaecologist is willing to carry out abortions, his or her chances of employment and/or promotion are lessened.
There is not a scintilla of evidence anywhere to substantiate those claims. When people came down from my constituency they said the same sort of thing: " We know some nurses who have been denied promotion." I said " Give me the names, and I shall take those cases up with the hospital board." No such names have ever been forthcoming.
We have met that kind of thing time and again in the course of the campaign. Three cases appeared, very strangely, in the immediate run-up to the general election—the Wanstead, Whiston and Barnsley cases. There is not a scintilla of evidence that they have been used for other than propaganda by those who want to repeal the 1967 Act.
Let me deal with a similar attitude towards the charities.
The hon. Gentleman must bide his time.
This is the fourth attempt to amend the 1967 Act. Every Bill attacking that Act has sought to restrict and undermine the work done by the charities. Why? I could quote the hon. Member for Lancaster (Mrs. Kellett-Bowman), but I shall not incite her to rise by doing so. But if the Bill reaches Committee I shall quote what she said. It is a vile distortion of what the charities are about. As the Minister and the House must know, those bodies grew out of a response to a need. They did not seek to create that need. It already existed, because of the shortcomings of the NHS.
There has been a sustained smear campaign by the opponents of the 1967 Act and the sponsors of each Bill. One hon. Member talked about cash clinics. The inference is clear. The charities have been responsible, more than anything the House has done, for stopping or reducing the financial rackets that have been going on as a result of back-street and private abortion. As far as I know, no salary in those charities approaches £10,000. Some salaries are much less. A full-time gynaecologist within the Pregnancy Advisory Service receives, I think, about £12,500 a year in London.
Does my hon. Friend think that if the hon. Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Mr. Corrie) had gone to one of the legal cash clinics he might have produced a better Bill?
I am sure that he would. The hon. Gentleman must have obtained some facts and figures from the charities before he put the present provisions in the Bill, and certainly before making his speech.
I must get on.
The House might like to know that the charge for an abortion in the charities' clinics is about £60 or a little more—certainly well under £100. An adverment in The Daily Telegraph in 1972 for a private abortion gave a cost of well over £350. Therefore, the racketeering is not going on in any clinics run by the charities. It is going on in the Harley Street clinics and the private clinics, but we never hear from Conservative hon. Members about that kind of thing.
I am glad that the Minister said what he did about the charities. I presume that he wants clause 4 struck out. Is that what he is recommending to the House? It would be helpful if he would put on record now that he would like that part of the Bill struck out in Committee. I see that he is nodding assent.
If clause 4 were not struck out, it would destroy the charities' work by making it impossible for them to own and control their own pregnancy advisory centres and nursing homes, which supply the facilities for half the abortions that now take place. The latest figure for 1978 shows that more than 56,000 women have had recourse to the private sector, and that of those, 30,000 operations were carried out in the non-profit making charities.
Over the ages women of all classes have sought abortions. This House can pass what legislation it likes, but women will have abortions. Once we start from that proposition, it behoves the House to put legislation on the statute book to make the conditions as humane as possible. If that does not happen, we shall drive women into the arms of the backstreet operators.
That is true. Even in the best of circumstances within the NHS or reputable charities, or whatever it may be, the operation is messy, dangerous and unpredictable, and nobody likes it. Whatever our views, we must try to humanise and control the abuses so far as humanly possible. I believe that both Front Benches agree that Governments of all political persuasions have done their utmost to see that human conditions prevail.
It is not without significance that, with a few exceptions, this has been a party matter—[HON. MEMBERS: " No."] Very well, it has been a class matter—[HON. MEMBERS: " No."] I shall tell the House why. Wealthy ladies will not be restricted by the provisions of the Bill. It is the shop girl, the shortand typist, the factory girl, the mentally retarded girl, who will be penalised. The lady sponsors of the Bill will not be affected. They will be able to get an abortion when they like. But the working-class woman will be affected.
That is the message that we on the Labour Benches must constantly bear in mind. The Bill is an attack on women who are deprived medically, physically, financially or in any other way. They are desperately worried lest the provisions of the 1967 Act are restricted. The Bill is one of many designed for that specific purpose. It is like the Budget, because it takes care of those at the top of the social tree.
The people at the bottom know very well that these restrictions will adversely affect their chances of getting an abortion when many of them desperately need it, and they will go on needing it.
I hope that the Labour Party will come out wholeheartedly in favour of our official party policy in these matters. We must ensure that provision in the Health Service, which at present is inadequate, is extended and improved to make impossible the kind of racketeering that still takes place in the private sector, particularly in Harley Street. I hope that the House will accept the Minister's advice and throw out the Bill, because there is no responsible body of opinion that wants it.
I take a different view from that expressed by the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton). We may disagree, but I thought that this was a debate in which we were able to speak from the heart and let our conscience be our guide. I do not impugn the hon. Gentleman's sincerity, and I was sorry that he impugned mine.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the Barnsley case. I can inform him that the Barnsley baby was aborted on 25 or 26 April and died 36 hours later. The coroner for the district decided to hold an inquest, which began in May. It was suspended owing to the fact that only one doctor had signed the certificate for the woman to have an abortion—which act itself was illegal—and that aspect has had to be referred to the Director of Public Prosecutions. The inquest is to be resumed next week, on 17 July. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and the rest of the House will suspend judgment on that matter. I shall be as brief as possible, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes me to give other instances of such cases I shall do so readily.
I must confess that I would have preferred a simpler and shorter Bill, one that took account of the realities of the society in which we live and of the fact that there are circumstances in which, unhappily, most of us would agree that an abortion should be lawful, yet one that did not permit abortion on demand, took into account the long-term interests of the woman herself, and did not lightly condemn an unborn child to death simply because it was unwanted.
Let us leave aside for a moment the wanton stupidity of the unwanted child argument. That cannot be sustained for a moment in a land where, as we all know from our constituency experience, countless couples are crying out for children to adopt, to love and to cherish. Let us leave aside the question whether abortion too easily obtained can lead, as it does, to marital unhappiness later in life, and to a greater risk of miscarriage, abnormal birth and sterility than in the case of women who have not had abortions.
We ignore at our peril the findings of research in this field. One leading gynaecologist warned, seven years ago:
There is now ample evidence to show that abortion is neither safe nor simple. The longterm complications alone condemn its use as a contraceptive method.
That is not an argument against abortion; it is an argument against permissive abortion.
These alone, I suggest, are good reasons for us to pause and reflect on allowing too permissive a law on abortion. These alone are reasons why we should have been insisting, as the Select Committee on which the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) and I sat for long months wanted us to insist, on facilities for abortion being accompanied by a highly trained and wholly independent counselling service, with no financial link with those who promote abortions for fees.
The hon. Member for Fife, Central knows perfectly well that for years I have argued that abortions, if they are to be lawfully undertaken, should be undertaken in the National Health Service, so that all women who qualify under the criteria in the 1967 Act for lawful abortions can have them—the hon. Gentleman is right in some of the things he says; it is his deductions from them that are wrong—and so that a woman, often a very frightened young girl, not only would get the best possible advice as early in her pregnancy as possible but, if she decided against an abortion as a result of that advice, would be steered in the direction of the support in society that she needs.
In considering this grave matter we must understand from the start that abortion is not just another medical procedure, like having one's appendix out. It is a unique operation, involving two lives, one of which, of necessity, must be destroyed. Thus, in considering the Bill, whatever its imperfections—I can see a number, which I think we can put right in Committee—we have first to decide whether the existing law governing this unique medical procedure is really as humane as some hon. Members on the Opposition Benches suggest, and whether it truly encourages that reverence for life which should be the first characteristic of a society that claims to be civilised.
In my view, the existing law is not humane enough. No one who recalls recent cases—I have mentioned one and I could mention others—in which babies aborted between 20 and 28 weeks have been born alive, have clung to life for hours and might have lived if the resuscitation techniques now available, which were not known in 1929 when the Infant Life (Preservation) Act was passed, had been used—can consider that the existing law encourages reverence for life.
It is not sufficient to say that since 1967 the law has been made more satisfactory than it was before. It has, and no one in his senses would argue otherwise. But that is no reason for saying that the situation is satisfactory and cannot be improved. In some respects it is manifestly unsatisfactory and it can be improved. That is what the debate is about. Imperfect as the Bill may be, it should go to Committee so that these matters can be thrashed out in detail.
Let us keep these matters in perspective. It was certainly the humane intention of the 1967 Act to end the chaos and uncertainty in abortion law, and here we can agree with the Lane committee that it did much to reduce the toll of suffering, ill health and premature death caused by illegal abortions.
It is no use running away from the unhappy fact that the Act was not accompanied by the development of proper facilities in the National Health Service spread uniformly throughout the country. I can sympathise with hon. Members who come from certain areas where there are particular difficulties caused by lack of facilities.
So we have the situation that the criteria for a lawful abortion may exist yet some women cannot get that abortion. That is disgraceful. What happened? As the hon. Member for Pontypool and I predicted in 1967, there grew up a large and lucrative practice in abortions in the private sector and large fortunes have been made by a few unscrupulous operators. I am talking of the commercial, private sector.
That is what the Lane committee found as a result of evidence given to it. If the hon. Member for Fife, Central is appointed to the Standing Committee I hope that he will do his homework better than he has in preparation for this afternoon.
It was also the intention of the 1967 Act to ensure reverence for life. If the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) had been here, I should have paid tribute to him, because that was the motivation behind what he was seeking to do. The authors of that Act never intended that abortion should be available on demand. They made that plain at the time.
The Lane Committee was set up to examine the working of the Act because of nationwide concern that its provisions were being abused, especially in the private sector. Paragraph 189 of its report states:
It would be contrary to the conditions for abortion laid down in the Act that it should be obtainable solely at the wish of the woman".
Yet the committee felt obliged to continue that the criteria for abortion as laid down was imprecise and could be widely interpreted, and that some doctors were interpreting the wording to mean that abortion was permissible in every case.
The Lane committee also found that the Act was being flouted and that some doctors, relying upon a loophole in the criteria, were agreeing to abortions without even seeing the patients. That should not have surprised anyone. It does not surprise me.
I recall a distinguished gynaecologist saying publicly:
Abortion on demand does not contravene the Abortion Act … The Act allows abortion when the risk of permitting a pregnancy to continue is greater than the risk of abortion. When an abortion is carried out in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy it is safer than allowing the pregnancy to go to full term.
The House should ponder those words and weigh them carefully.
We are being asked to believe that statistically it is safer for a woman to have an abortion than to have a baby. It is true that statistically there is a small risk to the life of a woman in childbirth which is slightly higher than the risk she faces if she has an induced abortion in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.
That argument has been used ever since not merely to give abortion on demand in return for fees but to flout the law. It is palpably false. Everyone knows that it is false. It is false because deaths due to childbirth and those due to induced abortion in the first 12 weeks are not comparable. Deaths in the first category occur in women suffering from disease or some abnormality. Those in the second occur in women who would not have died if they had not had the operation. Yet that argument has been and continues to be used to justify abortion on demand, contrary to the wishes of Parliament in 1967.
The Select Committee was worried about this and took a great deal of evidence, but nothing has been done. All this has been known for years, but still nothing has been done. The House has expressed itself in a majority on every occasion in favour of one reform or another, but it was always baulked by the opposition of some, but not all, Labour Members when the Labour Government were in office. It is high time for Parliament to put a stop to this flouting of the law. We have an opportunity here this afternoon. We can only stop it by agreeing to my hon. Friend's Bill.
Does not the hon. Member's logic lead him to the point that although he does not want to revert to the situation as it was before the 1967 Act—and what he calls abortion on demand existed then in the back streets—this Bill will lead back to that?
No, I do not accept that for one moment, and I hope that as I develop my argument I shall carry the hon. Member with me.
The use of the statistical argument is not the only way in which the law falls short of expectations it aroused in 1967. Two other serious defects cry out for remedy. My hon. Friend's Bill would deal with them. The first is the reduction of the 28 weeks' upper time limit for abortions, a limit that no one in the medical profession defends. The second is the failure of the conscience clause to safeguard those members of the healing professions who have a genuine conscientious objection—not necessarily on religious grounds—to participating in a procedure which is wholly repugnant to them.
The reduction of the upper time limit is long overdue, and this country lags behind most civilised countries in that respect. That in itself is condemnation of the way in which Government principally, but Parliament, too, have failed in their duty. The 28 weeks' limit laid down in the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 was based on the presumption at that time that a foetus was capable of being born alive after that date, and so, save in a case where the mother's life was at stake, it was unlawful to destroy it.
Since then, medical science and modern methods of resuscitation have reduced the period after which an aborted baby has a good chance of survival. The 20-week limit proposed in the Bill would accord much more closely with current medical knowledge than the 28-week limit. I would not myself go to the stake for the 20-week limit. The Lane committee suggested 24 weeks, and it is relevant to remind hon. Members that the BMA, whatever it is saying today, said in its comments on the Lane report—and these are the people who have been quoted at us today—
Even with the reduction from 28 to 24 weeks, however, the position still exists that owing to an error in the calculation of dates a foetus intended for destruction could be born alive and be capable of functioning as a self-sustaining whole independently of any connection with the mother.
It is not for me to explain why doctors who took that view a few years ago should take a different view now. Suffice it for me to say that when we here talk about a viable foetus we are talking not merely about a recognisable human
being in the womb, one that may be sustained and have an existence independent of its mother outside. It was nine years ago that the International Federation of Obstetrics and Gynaecology recommended that abortion should be restricted to termination before 20 weeks. The Scientific Group of the World Health Organisation concluded four years ago that babies delivered from the 22nd week onwards had a survival potential.
The Select Committee sat for months considering evidence from every quarter. It thought long and hard on this issue. I refer to paragraph 65 of the Committee's First Report, which states:
Those giving evidence … generally … agreed that the upper limit should be less than 28 weeks but have not all agreed about what the limit should be. Sir John Peel, in evidence, repeated the view of his Committee that it should be 20 weeks. The British Medical Association, as they had done to the Lane Committee, supported the Peel recommendation. The President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said that to ' terminate pregnancies at 20 weeks and 24 weeks is on the whole a hazardous performance '.
Hon. Members may read the report for themselves.
The Select Committee took evidence from eminent figures in the medical profession. It came to the conclusion that 20 weeks was about right. It was significant that the Department of Health and Social Security said in its evidence that it thought all abortions in the private sector should be restricted to below 20 weeks. It conceded that straight away. There is so much hatred of the private sector that it said straight away—" Yes, we agree that all abortions in the private sector should be restricted to 20 weeks." On the basis of that evidence the Select Committee came down firmly, as one would expect, in favour of 20 weeks.
It is essential, however, that there is some safeguard. I refer again to the Select Committee's report, in which it is stated that the limit should not apply
where the child would be born with a major disability whether physical or mental ".
A further safeguard is that the limit should not apply
where it is necessary to save the life or to prevent grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman ".
I was pleased that my hon. Friend the Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Mr. Corrie) was as flexible as possible
on this and said that in Committee he would be prepared to reconsider his position. I support him wholeheartedly in that approach.
The 1967 Act included a conscience clause. There was a struggle to get that clause in the Bill, but eventually it was inserted. Yet it is a disturbing fact that from the outset the problems of medical and nursing staff with conscientious objections to abortion have continued unabated. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists stated in its evidence to the Lane committee:
there was ' a very real need ' for an inquiry into how far junior doctors are under duress when they engage in operations to terminate pregnancy.
It commented on the fear of junior doctors that
distaste or conscientious objection might prejudice the advancement of their careers ".
The Royal College stated:
Their fear is amply justified.
The Select Committee received numerous complaints and allegations of discrimination, especially about fully qualified doctors being debarred from appointments. Some of the most distinguished men of their year had to leave Britain because they could not obtain appointments—[HON. MEMBERS: " No ".] Yes, we had the evidence. It is on the record. Hon. Members need not take it from me as it is on the record. Permit me to say that it is increasingly clear as we continue the debate that the failing of so many critics of the Bill, full of imperfections as it is, is that they have not done their homework and have not read the evidence.
The nursing profession too has been adversely affected. The Lane report made that clear. The evidence that the Select Committee received from nursing organisations convinced it not that Roman Catholic nurses were under any particular pressure—the position of such nurses is well understood in most hospitals—but that many non-Catholic nurses were being put under pressure, since they could not say with their hands on their hearts that they had religious objections to taking part in abortions. The natural instinct of any girl who goes into nursing is to care for life. What takes her there—to preside over death? It is natural for a young girl entering nursing to have feelings, qualms and doubts about the matter. There are many cases—in my view and, I am sure, in that of many nurses and doctors—where an abortion is justified, but there are others where we should not put people who have entered the noble nursing profession under such pressure. The Bill seeks to remedy that defect.
The hon. Gentleman will remember that I, too, was a member of the Select Committee. Before he leaves the point about nursing, I should like to quote evidence given to the Select Committee by the Association of Nurse Administrators speaking on behalf of nurses. The witness said:
in practice it is not a compulsory secondment for a nurse to go to a gynaecological ward, and the situation seems to be worked out before it reaches the bedside. We make it clear they can exercise this option. A nurse is not allocated there if she does not want to go. The same applies to the operating theatre.
How does that square with the remarks just made by the hon. Gentleman?
The hon. Lady correctly reflects part of the evidence. She should reflect it all. The evidence that was given to us showed that the practice differed from hospital to hospital.
The practice differed from hospital to hospital. The witness went on to say:
As regards the local situation, we have not had a sufficient proportion of nurses electing to use the conscience clause to mean we could not staff the units. If the local situation was such that the proportion of nurses was great, then a resources problem would arise, but in all these years it has not created a personal problem for the nursing staff.
The situation does not arise even in localised areas.
It is not possible to take evidence across the Floor of the House. I do not dispute the passages that the hon. Lady read out. But other members of the Select Committee are present who will agree that we were given evidence that great distress was caused to nurses in many hospitals by this practice.
Members of the Labour Party are tender about conscientious objection in wartime and people's rights. I find it difficult to understand why they should be so sensitive on this point. The evidence was given. Many hon. Members have had it given to them personally by nurses in their constituencies.
In Wanstead, one nurse was thrust into a ward to deal with an abortion without being given a choice. She was distressed at the end of the day. I do not give her name in view of the risk of victimisation.
The hon. Gentleman put his finger on the point. The second report of the Select Committee on abortion made the situation crystal clear. It concluded that the situation was not satisfactory:
In addition to criticism, we have received, as we have recorded in our First Report, complaints and allegations of discrimination.
It is all there. It is not my duty to explain to hon. Members what they should have already read and studied.
I am very glad that my hon. Friend has given us the opportunity of reconsidering this important matter. That is what is getting under the skin of some of those who want permissive abortion in this country. I am glad that he has indicated that he is ready to accept amendments in Committee. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading by a thumping great majority.
At least one thing has been clarified by the speech just made by the hon. Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine). We are not discussing an amendment to the Abortion Act 1967 about the period of gestation. We are discussing abortion—full stop. The hon. Gentleman—in probably the most emotional and excitable speech that we have heard all day—made it plain that he is opposed to abortion.
I am sure that there are other hon. Members who agree with his point of view. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Kirkdale (Mr. Dunn) is opposed to abortion, and one understands his reasons for it and his approach to this problem.
My hon. Friend is putting views on my behalf which I do not particularly embrace. There are circumstances in which I admit that, on medical grounds, abortion is necessary. I go no further than that.
I accept the correction, but my hon. Friend must forgive me for getting this sort of impression when I see his involvement and participation in this question.
In my opinion, the effect of the Bill would be to torpedo completely the 1967 Act. The hon. Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Mr. Corrie) claims to be concerned with late abortions. He wants abortions to take place earlier. That, he claims, is the purpose of this amending Bill. If he is sincere in his intentions I can help him. Clearly, it is desirable, if we wish to ensure that abortions can take place at an earlier time, to provide throughout the National Health Service in Britain the resources and the facilities for it. We need gynaecological units in towns up and down the country.
There is a complete regional imbalance in this regard. In the Northern region—basically Newcastle—90 per cent. of the abortions take place in NHS hospitals. In the West Midlands, however, only 22 per cent. take place in NHS hospitals, and in the Mersey region only 31 per cent. If those who are likely to support this amending Bill are sincere about assisting women to obtain abortions earlier than they are able to in some circumstances, clearly we should be discussing, if such a Bill is necessary—and I do not think that it is—how to persuade or instruct regional health authorities to establish day care abortion on a basis of equality of access to abortion for women throughout our society.
That seems to be the best way for us to make real progress if we are anxious in human terms and if we are, to use the words of some who have written to me on this subject this week, to approach the matter from a Christian point of view. We should be concerned about the humanity involved in trying to protect women, in the circumstances described by my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals), who have genuine difficulties and who should be able to obtain abortions through the Health Service.
As I said at the beginning, what the Bill smacks of is an outright objection to the 1967 Act and a willingness on the part of those who vote for it today to put the clock back and to put women into a situation in which they are bound to go to back-street abortionists.
I am sure that any hon. Member who has been around his constituency over the last few months will realise, as a stark fact, that large numbers of people find the present legislation on abortion deeply offensive. This is certainly so in the area which I represent, which is very close to the constituency—indeed, it surrounds it—of the hon. Member for Preston, South (Mr. Thorne).
One of the reasons that I identify as being the foundation of that dissatisfaction with the legislation is the upper time limit for an abortion. It is right that the House should look at this matter very carefully. When my hon. Friend the Minister for Health was addressing the House, in a very careful and most helpful speech, he said that the time of 28 weeks was too late and that most other countries would not accept it. I do not think that we ought to accept it either. At 28 weeks, is it not a fact that what is removed, from which life is extinguished, qualifies for something better than the mere technical medical description of a foetus? It is, indeed, at that stage a perfectly formed, though not fully developed, human being. Were it not for the abortion, and if it had been, for example, prematurely born, there would be a good chance—perhaps every chance—that it would survive.
It is for that reason that the Lane committee, in its most careful review and examination of the various points that have to be considered, concluded that the upper time limit should be 24 weeks gestation. I personally agree with that. My hon. Friend the Member for Bute and North Ayrshire (Mr. Corrie), whom I congratulate on his Bill, might well consider that he would draw to himself and his Bill greater support if he were to consider lifting the time limit in the Bill from 20 weeks to about 24 weeks. I think that most hon. Members on both sides of the House should be prepared to look at the upper time limit with a good deal of sympathy.
When the Minister referred to the question of 20, 24 and 28 weeks he was saying that if it were to be a shorter time limit there would have to be a broader definition of exemptions. That being the case, is there any real difference between 20 weeks and a broad definition of exemptions and the present situation in which, as the hon. and learned Gentleman knows, fewer than 1 per cent. are aborted after 20 weeks? Secondly, will he accept that I know from my constituents that the real worries are among people who fear that this Bill will be passed?
I am surprised that the right hon. Gentleman should not be able to recognise that there is a difference between what is legal and what is illegal. There is a difference between the guidance given by the present legislation and the guidance which would be given by this improved legislation amended as I have suggested it should be by a reduction of the 28-week period to one of 24 weeks.
I wish to sit down soon because I know that the debate must soon be wound up by an hon. Member on the Opposition Benches, but I wish finally to take up a point raised by the right hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Ennals) when he put to the House what he saw as the various advantages of the present legislation and of abortion generally. He said that among the advantages was the fact that we were not being troubled with unwanted children in cases where the children would not be welcome. I must just detain the House for a moment on this. If one begins to talk about unwanted children, one should ask " Who does not want them? " If one talks about unwanted children, one should also begin to consider the people who want children, the childless couples who would be willing to accept the children if they were there.
No, I cannot. I have only about two minutes left. There are many childless couples in this country who want children, and for every 20 such couples there is one available child. Mr. Peter Horton of the National Association for the Childless estimated recently that there were 250,000 couples who would like to adopt children.
That seems to me to be a pertinent and compelling argument that the House and the country should recognise and act upon. That is the prime reason why I should like to see the Bill passed, and I believe that most hon. Members—certainly on these Conservative Benches, and I hope on the Opposition Benches also—will want to see the Bill have its Second Reading this afternoon.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Throughout the debate you and the other occupants of the Chair have made a point of calling one hon. Member for the Bill and one hon. Member against. However, now that you have called my hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), after the hon. and learned Member for North Fylde (Mr. Gardner), that makes it two Members following each other and speaking for the Bill.
When in the Chair, Mr. Speaker always tries to be fair. It is not always within Mr. Speaker's knowledge what point of view an hon. Member will take.—[Interruption.] I have been questioned on a point of order, and I should like a little silence while I reply to it. I was obviously aware of the view that the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) would take, but it is getting close to the end of the debate, and I felt that it would not be wrong to call someone who had been intimately involved in this subject in the past, especially when many Opposition Members have taken an opposite view.
This Bill and the last Act are not a triumph. Any abortion Bill, whether it is widely or narrowly drawn, must be an acknowledgement of defeat. Every failure to plan our society so that life within its puny, transient span can live out its full potentiality is demonstrably a defeat.
My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) who made his maiden speech, expressed the principles upon which all socialists should be active when he quoted Nye Bevan. As an older member of the party, I was glad to see that so many younger members fully understood that the purpose of the battle to have a social democratic community was to ensure that we had a society in which the full potentiality of every individual, born or unborn, was realised.
Therefore, we accept the fact that it was a defeat, and we speak with some sadness in every abortion debate because we know that an abortion can result from the failure of medical science as yet unable to rescue a malformed, unborn child from its fate. An abortion can be precipitated by a society too indifferent to save women and children from intolerable housing conditions, and it can occur, too, in more subtle ways. It can come from a vengeful society which is now sometimes sophisticating its hostility to lovemaking by the unmarried by proferring abortion rather than providing the financial and social support that they sometimes desperately need.
It is no use having threnodies or lamentation. Realism demands that we accept the fact that within our existing society there are women who are frequently in an appalling predicament. Unfortunately, within the blemished society in which we live, it is an inevitable fact that abortion is sometimes the only desperate remedy.
Some of us believe that abortion should be the last and not the first option. That is the division between the two sides of the argument. We believe that when a child is a potential child, no longer can the issue be regarded as one for the woman alone. It is her business with whom she sleeps. It is not the duty of this legislature in any way to presume to be prurient and to interfere in the private lives of men or women. But when another factor comes into existence, when there is a potential child, there are societal obligations and it is only then that we are compelled to focus our attention upon the issues that are involved.
In a plural society such as we have, there has to be some reconciliation of some kind between, on the one hand, those who believe that in no circumstances should there be an abortion except for the most compelling medical reasons and those who, on the other hand, passionately maintain the view that there should, in no circumstances, be any interference in any form with the decision made by the individual woman.
It is clear from what has been said today that we shall continue with such a debate until such time as we seek to have an Act which has done something to assuage the hurt and outrage of large sections of opinion in this country who believe that the present Act, as it has been practised, has some blemishes that require urgent attention.
I listened to the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Enna1s), the former Secretary of State for Social Services. I understood why it was, as I am sure did many other hon. Members, that we had not resolved this problem before. If, despite the fact that he was Secretary of State, he did not seize the opportunity of the Lane committee urging that there should be a 24-week limit; if, while he was Secretary of State, he did not seize the opportunity of acting in accordance with the considered and careful report of Sir John Peel, indicating why the upper limit should be 20 weeks; if, while he had the power and authority to do so, he did not in any way seize the opportunity to bring this matter to a conclusion, it was because in my view he holds, as he is entitled to do, views which show that if he is not a believer in abortion on demand he is almost indistinguishable from those who hold that view. I therefore believe that we have had a delayed debate which should have been ended a long time ago.
I welcome the speech of the Minister for Health. It at least showed a keen and sensitive awareness of the type of problems with which we are seeking to grapple in this attempt to have an Act that will reconcile the community to the existence of abortion, and even to reconcile the warring factions. The important comment made by the Minister was that the criteria should be left untouched. But can they be left untouched as long as there is a minority of doctors who, as is well documented both in the Lane report and public statements, practise abortion on demand? Can we be satisfied and say " Yes, we laid down criteria, but there is a minority that is abusing and manipulating the criteria "? Can we leave it at that?
I agree that the danger relates to the statistical argument. But surely, without affecting the criteria, it should be possible in Committee to devise an exclusion which makes it clear that in measuring the balance of risk which the initial Act requires, it is not beyond the wit of the draftsmen available to the Minister—while leaving the criteria inviolable—to be able to make it crystal clear that in the measurement of the risk the facts that must be taken into consideration are clinical and not statistical ones.
I notice that the Minister nods his agreement with the point that I am making. I hope that he will direct his attention to it, because I believe that we can maintain the criteria but exclude the statistical argument, thus reconciling ourselves with any branch of the medical profession which may otherwise believe that there is a clinical judgment with which we are unnecessarily interfering.
The Minister also said that there were opinions relating to the 20-week or 24-week limit, and suggested that there should be a compromise. I do not believe that that is necessarily the correct approach. When Sir John Peel's committee has given us evidence that it is possible for an unborn child that is able to live outside the womb to be slain, I believe that if we are to err at all we must err in favour of that child.
If there is overwhelming international opinion which says that it is possible for a child to be viable at 20 weeks, it is important that we should not put the limit up to 24 weeks, but instead make certain that any exemptions that we make adequately cover the issue. The approach in Committee must be to maintain the 20-week limit but also to look at the existing Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 and the fact that it is possible for a doctor to perform an abortion today in good faith at 28 weeks if he believes that he is preserving the life of the mother. We should look at that preservation clause and see whether we need to alter it in order to maintain the 20 weeks. I do not believe that we can avoid the scandals that have erupted again today—scandals concerning aborted children being born alive—
I say that it is a concern among many people, I am not being dogmatic about it—[Interruption.] This is not a subject for laughter; we are dealing with human life. It ill becomes those who are so raucous and tumultuous to treat the matter in this way. They are not directing their minds to the issues that trouble ordinary people. They want to maintain the existing legislation because they want to use it for abortion on demand.
No, I shall not give way. Those hon. Members who oppose the Bill are entitled to their opinion that there should be abortion on demand, but they are not entitled to try to abuse the legislation that this House has passed in order to make certain that they get abortion on demand—a policy that is contrary to the wishes of the House and always has been.
This Bill provides an opportunity for the House to try to deal with a problem which otherwise will continue year in and year out. I believe that there are agonies enough about this matter—the agonies of those who are hesitating about their pregnancies and are desperately in need of help.
I have no time to say anything about tainted counselling. This exists. Charities can be legal, but when 98 per cent. of the referrals they make are referrals for abortions, that—
(seated and covered): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. There is some confusion in the Lobbies about what the House is voting upon. I have voted " Yes " on the assumption that the Question was that a vote should now be taken. However, there is total confusion in the Lobbies, and I ask you to take that into account and clarify the matter when the vote is declared.
The first Question was, That the Question be now put. On my putting the Question for the second time, no Member shouted " No ". Therefore the Ayes had it.
I have taken counsel, and I understand that there is confusion in the Lobbies. That being the case, I think it is only right that I should put the Question again. We will take the whole Division again. The Question is, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
|Division No. 57[...]||AYES||4.7 p.m.|
|Abse, Leo||Brown, Michael (Brigg & Sc'thorpe)||Dover, Denshore|
|Adams, Allen||Browne, John (Winchester)||Duffy, A. E. P.|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Buchanan-Smith, Hon Alick||Dunn, James A. (Liverpool, Kirkdale)|
|Alison, Michael||Buck, Antony||Dunn, Robert (Dartford)|
|Alton, David||Budgen, Nick||Durant, Tony|
|Amery, Rt Hon Julian||Burden, F. A.||Eadie, Alex|
|Anderson, Donald||Cadbury, Jocelyn||Eastham, Ken|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Campbell-Savours, Dale||Eden, Rt Hon Sir John|
|Atkins, Robert (Preston North)||Canavan, Dennis||Eggar, Timothy|
|Atkinson, David (B'mouth, East)||Carter-Jones, Lewis||Elliott, Sir William|
|Baker, Nicholas (North Dorset)||Channon, Paul||Ellis, Tom (Wrexham)|
|Banks, Robert||Chapman, Sydney||English, Michael|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Churchill, W. S.||Eyre, Reginald|
|Beith, A. J.||Clark, Dr William (Croydon South)||Fell, Anthony|
|Bell, Ronald||Clegg, Walter||Fenner, Mrs Peggy|
|Bendall, Vivian||Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S)||Fisher, Sir Nigel|
|Benyon, W. (Buckingham)||Cohen, Stanley||Fitch, Alan|
|Berry, Hon Anthony||Cope, John||Fletcher-Cooke, Charles|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Cormack, Patrick||Fookes, Miss Janet|
|Biggs-Davison, John||Corrie, John||Fox, Marcus|
|Bonsor, Sir Nicholas||Costain, A. P.||Fraser, Rt Hon H. (Stafford & St)|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Cox, Tom (Wandsworth, Tooting)||Fraser, Peter (South Angus)|
|Bowden, Andrew||Craigen, J. M. (Glasgow, Maryhill)||Fry, Peter|
|Boyson, Dr Rhodes||Cunliffe, Lawrence||Galbraith, Hon T. G. D.|
|Bradford, Rev. R.||Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)||Garel-Jones, Tristan|
|Braine, Sir Bernard||Dempsey, James||Ginsburg, David|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Dickens, Geoffrey||Glyn, Dr Alan|
|Brinton, Tim||Dixon, Donald||Ginsburg, David|
|Brooke, Hon Peter||Dorrell, Stephen||Gorst, John|
|Brotherton, Michael||Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James||Gow, Ian|
|Grant, Anthony (Harrow C)||Mather, Carol||Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)|
|Gray, Hamish||Mawhinney, Dr Brian||Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge-Br'hills)|
|Greenway, Harry||Mayhew, Patrick||Shersby, Michael|
|Grieve, Percy||Mellish, Rt Hon Robert||Silvester, Fred|
|Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)||Mellor, David||Sims, Roger|
|Gummer, John Selwyn||Meyer, Sir Anthony||Skeet, T. H. H|
|Hamilton, James (Bothwell)||Miller, Hal (Bromsgrove & Redditch)||Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)|
|Harrison, Rt Hon Walter||Mills, lain (Meriden)||Smith, Dudley (War. and Leam'ton)|
|Hawksley, Warren||Moate, Roger||Speed, Keith|
|Hayhoe, Barney||Monro, Hector||Speller, Tony|
|Henderson, Barry||Montgomery, Fergus||Spicer, Jim (West Dorset)|
|Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.||Morris, Rt Hon Alfred (Wythenshawe)||Stainton, Keith|
|Hill, James||Morris, Rt Kon John (Aberavon)||Steen, Anthony|
|Hogg, Hon Douglas (Grantham)||Morrison, Hon Peter (City of Chester)||Stevens, Martin|
|Hogg, Norman (E Dunbartonshire)||Murphy, Christopher||Stewart, Rt Hon Donald (W Isles)|
|Home Robertson, John||Neubert, Michael||Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)|
|Hooson, Tom||Newton, Tony||Stewart, John (East Renfrewshire)|
|Hordern, Peter||Normanton, Tom||Taylor, Robert (Croydon NW)|
|Howell, Rt Hon David (Guildford)||Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon||Tebbit, Norman|
|Hughes, Mark (Durham)||O'Halloran, Michael||Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret|
|Hughes, Roy (Newport)||Onslow, Cranley||Thomas, Rt Hon Peter (Hendon S)|
|Hunt, David (Wirral)||Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs Sally||Thompson, Donald|
|Hurd, Hon Douglas||Page, John (Harrow, West)||Thorne, Neil (Ilford South)|
|Irving, Charles (Cheltenham)||Page, Rt Hon R. Graham (Crosby)||Tinn, James|
|Jessel, Toby||Paisley, Rev Ian||Trippier, David|
|Johnson Smith, Geoffrey||Parris, Matthew||Trotter, Neville|
|Johnston, Russell (Inverness)||Parry, Robert||Urwin, Rt Hon Tom|
|Jopling, Rt Hon Michael||Patten, Christopher (Bath)||van Straubenzee, W. R.|
|Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine||Patten, John (Oxford)||Vaughan, Dr Gerard|
|Kershaw, Anthony||Pawsey, James||Waddington, David|
|Knight, Mrs Jill||Pendry, Tom||Wakeham, John|
|Lamont, Norman||Percival, Sir Ian||Waldegrave, Hon William|
|Lang, Ian||Pollock, Alexander||Wall, Patrick|
|Langford-Holt, Sir John||Porter, George||Waller, Gary|
|Lawrence, Ivan||Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch (S Down)||Ward, John|
|Leadbitter, Ted||Price, David (Eastleigh)||Watson, John|
|Lee, John||Proctor, K. Harvey||Wells, John (Maidstone)|
|Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)||Raison, Timothy||Wheeler, John|
|Loveridge, John||Rathbone, Tim||White, James (Glasgow, Pollok)|
|Luce, Richard||Rees, Peter (Dover and Deal)||Whitelaw, Rt Hon William|
|Lyell, Nicholas||Rees-Davies, W. R.||Whitney, Raymond|
|Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson||Renton, Tim||Wickenden, Keith|
|McElhone, Frank||Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon||Wigley, Dafydd|
|McGuire, Michael (Ince)||Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey||Wilkinson, John|
|MacKenzle, Rt Hon Gregor||Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)||Willey, Rt Hon Frederick|
|Maclennan, Robert||Robinson, peter (Belfast East)||Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)|
|Macmillan, Rt Hon M. (Farnham)||Rossl, Hugh||Wilson, Gordon (Dundee East)|
|McNair-Wilson, Michael (Newbury)||Rowlands, Ted||Wilson, Rt Hon Sir Harold (Huyton)|
|McNamara, Kevin||St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon Norman||Wolfson, Mark|
|Maguire, Frank (Fermanagh)||Sandelson, Neville|
|Marlow, Tony||Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Marshall, David (Gl'sgow, Shettles'n)||Sheerman, Barry||Mr. Michael Ancram and|
|Martin, Michael (Gl'gow, Springb'rn)||Shelton, William (Streatham)||Mr. Ian Campbell.|
|Atkinson, Norman (H'gey, Tott'ham)||Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald||Newens, Stanley|
|Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)||George, Bruce||Ogden, Eric|
|Bennett, Andrew (Stockport N)||Graham, Ted||O'Neill, Martin|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Grist, Ian||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|Body, Richard||Haynes, Frank||Owen, Rt Hon Dr David|
|Booth, Rt Hon Albert||Holland, Stuart (L'beth. Vauxhall)||Pavitt, Laurie|
|Boothroyd, Miss Betty||Homewood, William||Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)|
|Brittan, Leon||Howells, Geraint||Prescott, John|
|Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen North)||Price, Christopher (Lewisham West)|
|Brown, Robert C. (Newcastle W)||Jay, Rt Hon Douglas||Race, Reg|
|Brown, Ronald W. (Hackney S)||Jones, Rt Hon Alec (Rhondda)||Rhodes James, Robert|
|Buchan, Norman||Kerr, Russell||Richardson, Miss Jo|
|Carmichael, Neil||Kilroy-Silk, Robert||Ridley, Hon Nicholas|
|Cartwright, John||Kinnock, Neil||Roberts, Allan (Bootle)|
|Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)||Lamborn, Harry||Roberts, Ernest (Hackney North)|
|Cook, Robin F.||Leighton, Ronald||Rooker, J. W.|
|Cunningham, George (Islington S)||Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough)||Scott, Nicholas|
|Davis, Clinton (Hackney Central)||Lewis, Arthur (Newham North West)||Shore, Rt Hon Peter (Step and Pop)|
|Davis, Terry (B'rm'ham, Stechford)||Lyon, Alexander (York)||Silkin, Rt Hon John (Deptford)|
|Deakins Eric||Lyons, Edward (Bradford West)||Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)|
|Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)||Marks, Kenneth||Skinner, Dennis|
|Dobson, Frank||Meacher, Michael||Soley, Clive|
|Douglas-Mann, Bruce||Mikardo, Ian||Spriggs, Leslie|
|Dubs, Alfred||Miller, Dr M. S. (East Kilbride)||Stoddart, David|
|Dykes, Hugh||Morrison, Hon Charles (Devizes)||Straw, Jack|
|Ennals, Rt Hon David||Morton, George||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton West)|
|Flannery, Martin||Moyle, Rt Hon Roland||Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)|
|Forman, Nigel||Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick||Thomas, Mike (Newcastle East)|
|Fraser, John (Lambeth, Norwood)||Nelson, Anthony||Thomas, Dr Roger (Carmarthen)|
|Thorne, S[...]an (Preston South)||Wells, Bowen (Hert'rd & Stev'nage)||Wright, Miss Shella|
|Tilley, John||Whitehead, Phillip|
|Townsend, Cyril D. (Bexleyheath)||Wilson, William (Coventry SE)||TELLERS FOR THE NOES:|
|Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir Derek||Winnick, David||Dr. Oonagh McDonald and|
|Weetch, Ken||Woolmer, Kenneth||Mrs. G. Dunwoody.|