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I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time. In coming to the debate this morning, three months after I presented the Bill, I thank those hon. Members on both sides of the argument for the way in which, generally, the debate has been conducted. This is a difficult issue, which rouses sensitivities, anger, bitterness, and, sometimes, even hatred. By and large, Members of this House have conducted the debate in the country with great dignity and decorum, giving this issue the respect to which it is entitled. I hope that we shall be able to mirror that in the House today.
Fifty-nine years after the passage of the Infant Life Preservation Act and 20 years after the passage of the Abortion Act, it is my hope that the House will today allow this Bill to proceed to Commitee. Public and parliamentary opinion clearly believes that, in the light of medical and scientific advances, a clear upper time limit beyond which abortion may not occur should be established.
Wherever we come from in this debate, be we pro-life or pro-choice, opposed to or in favour of abortion, no one can be sanguine about the nature and consequences of late abortions. That is the issue before the House today and this Bill provides a vehicle for public policy to be reviewed.
The existing statute regulating abortion comprises three pieces of legislation—the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 and the Abortion Act 1967. No upper time limit when abortions may occur is specified in the 1967 Act. No distinction is made between late and early abortions. Indeed, section 5(1) declares:
Nothing in this Act shall affect the provisions of the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929.
Those who framed the 1929 legislation came to the question after an assize judge had before him a case in which a child had been killed shortly before the moment of birth and before it had an existence independent of its mother. It emerged that the killer could not be charged with any criminal offence, so a Bill was introduced in the House of Lords by one of the Lords of Appeal to fill the gap between abortion and murder. In framing the legislation, it was considered necessary to exclude the case where a foetus was destroyed at a time when it was not capable of being born alive, so a rule of thumb was created in section 1(2) of the Act to the effect that, at any time after the 28th week of pregnancy, the child is, prima facie, assumed to be capable of being born alive.
It does not seem unreasonable, 59 years after the passage of that Act, to ask Parliament to reconsider this rule of thumb. Indeed, given the gigantic strides in medicine and technology, where medical knowledge has increased by leaps and bounds, it is incumbent on any civilised or ordered society to review its public policy and to strike a proper balance between claimed rights and responsibilities.
Many of us hold powerfully held convictions about the right to life over the notion that we have the right to choose to take life, but this debate is not about that. It is about what, in the judgment of individual Members of Parliament, the public interest requires and what people as a whole can be brought to accept as a rational solution to an intractable problem.
The hon. Gentleman will know that I wrote to him three days ago, enclosing a letter which I sent to my constituents concerning this point about what the time should be. Most hon. Members agree that 28 weeks is not acceptable, but, equally, many hon. Members do not accept 18 weeks. Will the hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance, during the debate, that he is prepared to accept a middle-ground time, which will bring many people on to his side?
That is a helpful intervention and I am happy to answer the hon. Gentleman's question. Many hon. Members have written to me. Some have suggested that the time limit should be more in line with other European countries where the average is about 14 weeks. Other hon. Members have suggested that it should be 14, 16, 18, 22, or anything up to 28 weeks. I have made it clear that, although in my judgment 18 weeks is about the right time, I recognise that there are strongly held views on this subject throughout the House. Indeed, it would be proper to examine in Committee other possible points where a time limit might be established. I give the hon. Gentleman and the House the assurance that, if an amendment were suggested, provided it did not emasculate the Bill beyond the point of recognition, I should be happy to accept anything that could be done to rationalise the law.
The hon. Gentleman said that, in his judgment, 18 weeks was about the right time. What does he have to say to the parents of one, two or three disabled children who are yearning to have another child who is not disabled? How does he advise the mother when the choices are either to have a disabled child with whom they cannot cope or to have a child who will suffer so much that they are not willing to see such suffering? Is he prepared to close the door on that family having additional children?
The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed this matter, for obvious reasons, many times. We both have very personal, strongly-held views about the eugenics question and about whether abortion might take place on the ground of disability. The Bill contains an exclusion clause for those cases of disability which are incompatible with life. If a child has anencephaly, or there is Potter's or Edward's syndrome it would be proper, under the terms of the Bill, for a termination to occur, but I disagree with the hon. Gentleman about the legitimacy of taking life on the ground of disability. However, I recognise—
—the power of the hon. Gentleman's comments. I also recognise that, given that 92 per cent. of all late abortions involved healthy children, if an exclusion clause were included in the Bill in Committee to deal with the question of disability it would still be a worthwhile measure. The widespread debate which accompanies such an initiative is of equal importance to the Bill. That is where attitudes can be challenged and the climate changed. I refuse to believe that anyone is in favour of abortion, and that is why it is right that, time and again, politicians, public figures and the country must discuss this question.
Before coming to the detail of the Bill and to the question on which we shall vote later, I wish to place the Bill in the context of that national debate. Twenty years ago, when introducing his Bill, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) said that it was his intention to eliminate back-street abortions. He said that it was not the intention of the promoters of the Bill to leave a wider door open for abortion on request. Yet who can doubt, almost 3 million abortions later — 600 abortions are undertaken every working day, some even on the grounds of the gender of a child, simply because it is a little girl—that we have anything other than abortion on demand in most parts of Britain?
In a census of 746 gynaecologists, undertaken by Gallup and published two days ago, over 400 —86 per cent. — stated that, from their experience, abortion on demand is now available in the NHS hospitals in which they work.
The hon. Gentleman said that to his knowledge, terminations were taking place in cases where the gender of the child was in question. That is quite clearly illegal and cannot be supported. If the hon. Gentleman knows of such cases, he should present them to the Director of Public Prosecutions for prosecution. Will he give us that assurance?
The example highlighted by BBC Radio 4 has already been presented by the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) in a letter to the Attorney-General. In the view of many hon. Members, this ought to be challenged as being illegal under the terms of the 1967 Act. The fact that BBC Radio 4 is prepared to substantiate those claims and has provided chapter and verse shows that the matter ought to be a cause for concern.
In 1967, abortion was presented almost as a panacea or as a universal remedy. In 1967, we were told that abortion would reduce illegitimacy. Today, it stands at 15 per cent. and is rising. In 1967, we were told that there would be less child abuse because every child would be wanted. However, scarcely a day passed in 1987 when we did not hear of a case of a child being physically or sexually abused. In 1967, we were told that abortion would give a woman new rights. By 1987, many women and men had been emotionally and psychologically scarred and the demand for post-abortion counselling has been growing. We have learnt much in 20 years, and even more since the passage of the 1929 Act.
It was only in 1969—two years after the passage of my right hon. Friend's Bill — that the science of foetoscopy really took off. In 1967, let alone in 1929, medics could not take an electrocardiogram of the baby, which shows its heartbeat and reaction to painful stimuli as its heartbeat increases. Twenty years ago, it would have been impossible accurately to date the exact time of gestational development or the characteristics of the developing child. Clearly, ultrasound scanning, chorionic villus sampling and amniocentesis have changed all that. Since 1967 we have revolutionised our awareness of the humanity of the developing child. Since then, we have learned a lot also about the consequences of abortion, both for the mother and child, and for the medics as well. I am amazed that those who counsel in favour of abortion, especially so late in pregnancy, would really warn a
woman of the potential physical and psychological consequences. Abortion was recently described by an opponent of my Bill as being
as safe as having an injection of penicillin".
We must challenge the assumption that abortion is either prudent or desirable.
Not only are there the physical effects of invasive surgery on perfectly healthy women but there are the psychological consequences of post-abortion trauma. In 1976 the Department of Health and Social Security started to fund the Manchester unit of the Royal College of General Practitioners which is studying the psychiatric morbidity experienced by women after an abortion. The report will be published shortly. But today The Independent shows that of those surveyed 79 per cent. admitted that, if they knew that a child had quickened in the womb, they would experience a great sense of guilt if they were to carry out an abortion after that time. That is how people tick. A late abortion—when a woman has felt her child quicken, when its humanity can be in no doubt—is inevitably the most traumatic abortion of all.
Kathleen McDonnell, in her book "Not an Easy Choice —A Feminist Re-examines Abortion"— I do not believe that abortion is ever an easy choice — quotes approvingly a young abortion councillor who says:
Yes, this is killing, there is no way around it. But I am willing to accept that.
there is no escaping the fact that we have, with full consciousness, terminated life. This is most emphatically not the same as blaming ourselves or burdening ourselves with an unnecessary load of guilt.
But it is simple casuistry to say, "Yes, it is killing, but, no, I will not feel any sense of guilt."
Does the hon. Gentleman remember that I wrote to him on 15 October in response to a circular which was sent to hon. Members and asked him about a particular point? I ask the hon. Gentleman the same question now: does he believe in abortion at 18 weeks? It is important for that question to be answered. Some of the people who have been canvassing and lobbying hon. Members look at the present proposals as a step to follow the abolition of abortion in all circumstances. The hon. Gentleman should tell the House whether he believes in abortion at 18 weeks.
The hon. Gentleman is perfectly entitled to ask that question. I have never made any secret about my views. In 1981, when I attempted to reduce the upper time limit, I made exactly the same point that, for me, abortion, whether late or early, whether legal or illegal, is the taking of life. That is not the Bill before the House at the moment. This is a legitimate review of public policy. That is what is contained in the Bill.
Given the psychological and physical consequences to which a woman may be subject, having had an abortion, why do counsellors advise her to have an abortion, especially so late in a pregnancy? One reason is revealed in a figure which has been provided to me by the Department of Health and Social Security. The Department confirms that 32 individuals are directors or trustees of a company or a charity providing abortion counselling and are simultaneously involved in private clinics undertaking abortions. About £12 million is estimated to have passed hands in this business last year. According to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists survey into late abortions, in one year alone 60 per cent. of the late abortions undertaken in private clinics were performed by just 11 practitioners. They and the clinics in which they work netted £2 million in this business.
I point out the sad case of one of my constituents. She says:
I have had two abortions. The private clinic that I attended on both occasions made it relatively easy for me to obtain an abortion. The plausible reasons that I gave for seeking the terminations were readily accepted.
I received no counselling but I now realise that this is due to the fact that private clinics run a profitable industry in human weakness.
In all probability both babies would have been born perfectly healthy and even though I considered, at that time, I could not bring them up myself, I was not reminded of the fact that there are only too many childless couples anxious to adopt.
However, private clinics are not in the business of giving support and pointing out the available options.
Sadly, I only considered my own situation at the time.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for that important intervention. Some 88 per cent. of all late abortions take place not in the National Health Service but in private clinics. Half of the late abortions are on women from overseas, who are then duly despatched on an aeroplane back to the countries from which they came, without any care or compassion shown for them. How do we know what physical or psychological condition a woman will be in when she returns to her country? That is why there is a case to be answered. We must show compassion for the woman and the child. If there are consequences in a late abortion for a woman, there are consequences for the child as well. Every country and every age will be judged by the simple test: how did they treat their people?
By 18 weeks, a foetus is not just a clump of tissues, not just a blob of jelly. The child has sentience and can feel pain. If a light is shone at its mother's womb, the child will react and turn away. The child has a complete skeleton and reflexes. It pumps 50 pints of blood a day. A report "Human Procreation — Ethical Aspects of the New Techniques", published by the Council for Science and Society — certainly not a body supporting my view—states that pain is experienced
after the foetus has developed a nervous system, six weeks after pregnancy being the earliest.
In November, Dr. Peter McCullagh, an eminent immunologist, stated that research on foetal nervous systems showed that pain could be felt at eight or nine weeks, and perhaps earlier. He said that babies could be in agony during abortions.
What, under a late abortion, do we allow to happen to a child? Two principal methods are used in a late abortion. Of the 12 per cent. of late abortions undertaken in the NHS, the method known as prostaglandins is the most commonly used. By this method, labour is induced by drugs. The labour will be more painful than in a birth and can last for 20 hours or more. There is a chance that when prostaglandins is used the child will be born alive. To avoid this a child is usually poisoned before the abortion. Because this is a long-drawn-out business, the method of late abortion used in private clinics is primarily dilatation and evacuation. By this method, the cervix is dilated and the baby's body removed piece by piece. To facilitate its extraction from the womb, the skull is crushed, the spine snapped and the body removed piece by piece. An attendant nurse then has the job of reassembling the body to ensure that nothing has been left behind that might cause infection. Throughout this procedure no anaesthetic is used on the child.
In a moment.
A nurse involved in these late abortions wrote to me in these terms:
Although the doctor commences the infusion, it's the nurses who have the job of looking after the patient—and some of these are so advanced it's like a normal delivery. Sometimes the foetus lives for a few minutes though the harsh contractions caused by the drugs have usually battered it to death. I don't know which is worse, those done in theatre, where you see the uterine contents being sucked into a bottle, or seeing the bruised bodies of these always perfectly formed foetuses in a receiver on the wall.
This is a corrupting and degrading business for the medical staff who become the destroyer instead of defender of life.
The hon. Gentleman started on a premise that we all share: no one is in favour of abortion. However, does he agree that the photographic material sent out by the anti-abortion lobby is deplorable in that it is difficult for laymen to handle as they are beset with the horrors of life and death in all medical aspects and not just in birth?
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern about what happened before the 1967 Act, when the foetus was stabbed by a knitting needle or a screwdriver? I had direct experience of that, as I was a nurse in the wards which received the victims of backstreet abortionists and women who had had self-induced abortions. It was horrific. At least now abortions take place in clean, clinically controlled environments. There was more suffering, pain and anguish for women then than there is now.
I agree with the hon. Lady that a return to the back streets would not be progress. If it were possible to have introduced a Abortion (Utopia) Bill, I would have introduced it. No one would wish for a return to the back streets, but the nature of the operation that I described can be undertaken only by a doctor and a nurse if it is undertaken so late in pregnancy.
In other countries in western Europe that have a rational time limit such as that I have suggested, there is no problem with back-street abortions. In confirmation of that, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) said:
it true … that the bulk of the illegal abortions, the backstreet abortions, which go on today occur not at the stage where the foetus is fairly advanced … but at an early stage." —[Official Report, 13 July 1967; Vol. 750, c. 1347.]
It is a paradox that we spend some £13 million a year on abortions in Britain, when doctors and nurses should be using their skills to care for and cradle life, not to extinguish it and snuff it out. Care and kill can never be used as synonyms.
The nurse's observation that aborted babies are perfect is invariably true. Of the 8,276 late abortions undertaken last year, 92 per cent. were on perfectly healthy children. The Bill, by imposing an upper time limit, sets out to stop that. Hard cases are used to try to rubbish the Bill—but hard cases make bad law. However, those hard cases will be brought up during the debate and should be examined in detail.
No. I have given way already.
Some hon. Members do not share my view about disability. I have already said something about that in answer to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley). About 8 per cent. of late abortions occur after an amniocentesis or another test that shows that a child will have a disability. As Professor Ron Taylor, a supporter of the Bill and the professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at London university stated in last week's Sunday Times:
With new techniques such as chorionic villus sampling and ultrasound, discovery of such abnormalities as can be diagnosed are found much earlier than 18 weeks.
It is true that not all conditions diagnosed by amniocentesis will be discovered by CVS —and CVS is not yet available everywhere. I recognise that some hon. Members will wish to include an exclusion clause to allow post-l8-week abortion on the ground of disability. That is a perfectly proper issue for the Committee to consider. Although I personally do not support abortions on eugenic grounds, I have made it clear that even if such an exemption were placed in the Bill it would still be of enormous worth.
For six years before coming to the House I worked with children with special needs. It would have been a brave man or woman who would have told them that they would have been better dead. At the outset, when I announced my intention to introduce the Bill, a young woman called Ellen Wilkie contacted me. She was born with muscular dystrophy. The doctors had told her parents that she would not live beyond her teens. Ellen is now 29, she has a classics degree and writes poetry and plays. She said in her letter, more eloquently than I could say:
No one can say what a disabled person will be capable of. Who are we to play God?
Disability should not be a disqualification for life.
Interestingly, Wednesday's Gallup survey of gynaecologists revealed several significant things. Almost all gynaecologists questioned sought a later limit for severe handicaps, such as anencephaly or Potter's syndrome where the baby cannot survive. My Bill contains a specific exemption for such circumstances. However, two thirds, or 68 per cent., believed that an upper limit of 18 weeks was right in the case of minor handicaps such as hare lip, club foot, or impaired hearing or sight. Almost half, or 46 per cent., said that there should be no abortions for such minor handicaps. The president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists called for an upper limit of 24 weeks to allow late abortion for handicap, but that suggestion had the support of 31 per cent., or less than one-third, of practising gynaecologists in Britian.
There are radical alternatives to utility, based on uninhibited, unqualified, unconditional love, and backed up by practical support, care and resources. That finds its bedrock in authentic human values. Abortionism is defeatism — albeit a defeatism that is often born of desperation and fear. The answer can never be to kill one of the two patients who confront the doctor.
Let me turn to some of the other cases which have been cited by those who oppose the Bill. Contrary to what has been said in newspaper articles and speeches that oppose the Bill, after 18 weeks, abortions are not often performed on young girls. Only 4·7 per cent. of late abortions are performed on girls under 16. Late abortions are not often performed on women with many previous children who cannot face the prospect of another baby. Only 0·8 per cent. of abortions after 18 weeks are on women with more than four children. Late abortions are not often performed on middle-aged women who may have mistaken pregnancy for the menopause. Only 2 per cent. of late abortions are performed on women over 41. Late abortions are not often performed in cases of pregnancy arising out of rape or when pregnancy threatens the life of the mother. During five years, only 13 late abortions, out of 40,000, were performed for one of those two reasons. The Bill specifically allows for a termination of pregnancy when the mother's life is at risk.
We are told that 20 per cent. of late abortions result from delays in the NHS. No doubt the Minister will want to say something about that. However, given that 88 per cent. of late abortions are not even performed in the NHS, that seems a curious claim. The 1984 report of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists stated that 95 per cent. of women presenting for late abortions were operated on within 14 days of first seeking advice.
Opponents of the Bill claim that women will be forced into the back streets. The dilatation and evacuation operation that I mentioned earlier clearly could not be performed by a back-street abortionist. In other EC countries, where time limits are much lower than in the United Kingdom—the average time limit in the EEC is about 14 weeks—that argument has been shown to be scare mongering of the worst kind. Let me re-emphasise that 88 per cent. of late abortions, or 7,270 out of 8,276, were performed under the Act, which allows for social abortions.
Men must, of course, approach the debate with humility and sensitivity. We rarely have to suffer the practical day-to-day experience of an unwanted child. We rarely hear about unmarried fathers, only about unmarried mothers. We do not hear about men having illegitimate children, only women, and how often men smugly talk about fallen women. We never hear about fallen men.
Women are frequently pressurised into abortions by men. Men too often leave a woman in the lurch, having used their sexuality without responsibility. Those who maintain that abortion is purely a woman's issue do women no service; it allows men to evade their responsibilities, and without changes in men's attitudes women will not be truly liberated. Men and women are involved in abortion, and all that is required to come to this debate is humanity.
I believe that I have made out a case for this Bill being allowed a Committee stage. These arguments must then be sifted through and honed.
Speaking on "Woman's Hour", Dame Josephine Barnes, not a supporter of my Bill, but a leading gynaecologist, said:
We have far too many late abortions in this country. It is deplorable.
Many would share that view.
I have attempted to bring forward a modest Bill. which deals with only 4·8 per cent. of all abortions, but undoubtedly those which carry the gravest consequences for the mother, for the child and for the medic alike. In framing this one-clause Bill, I have demonstrated a willingness to be reasonable. I have made it clear that I will not be intransigent in trying to steer through a much-needed and long overdue reform. It is in that spirit that I commend the Bill to the House.
Before I call the first of the Back Benchers to contribute, I remind the House that a great many hon. Members wish to take part in the debate. Well over 30 Members have indicated their wish by letter and there may well be others. I make a special plea for contributions to be brief so that others may be called.
I believe that the Bill is phoney. It does not stand up to close examination. It is perfectly acceptable intellectually and morally to be opposed to abortion, to believe that it should be illegal and to take the view, which I do not share, that it is murder. I have a very close working relationship with the members of the Pro-Life group in my constituency. I understand and respect their views, but I do not go along with them, and they are aware of that.
I cannot understand how the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) can have just plucked out of the air the time of 18 weeks. If he believes that abortion is murder, surely it is murder at 16 weeks, 14 weeks or 12 weeks. What is worse is that the limit of 18 weeks will do grave damage to those parents who have conceived a grossly disabled child in the past, wish to have further children, and know that there is a one in four chance that that child might also be grossly disabled.
The House will be aware that tests can only just be carried out at 18 weeks. Those tests take many weeks before conclusion can be drawn and then, if need be, a traumatic and difficult decision must be made by the parents to arrange an abortion. Under the Bill, many decent, reasonable, caring people will find that they are unable to have an abortion. I am privileged to have in my constituency the headquarters of the epidermolysis bullosa support group, known as DEBRA, under the inspirational directorship of Mrs. Mary Freeman. Some hon. Members came to the DEBRA rally in the Grand Committee Room on Tuesday. Whatever one's view of the Bill, one would have been deeply moved by the people one met there. They were not zealots or fundamentalists; they were Christian, caring people who had experienced the trauma of having a grossly disabled child and did not want to repeat that tragedy. Not unreasonably, they wished to have further children, which their gynaecologist told them had about a three in four chance of being disabled. They would be denied the opportunity to have an abortion if the Bill is passed.
All hon. Members must have had constituents come to their advice bureaux or surgeries with disabled children. They, like me, will have noted how much those parents have aged. Somebody who looks 65 tells one that he or she is only 40. They perhaps bring with them other normal children, and those normal children are not being properly cared for because, quite rightly and naturally, the parents have to devote every waking hour to that grossly disabled child. The parents fear what will happen to the child if they die early, in their 50s. This becomes a trauma for them, a nightmare, which they get out of perspective, but I can understand that.
A lady came to my advice bureau with a seriously handicapped child and I saw the look of love on that mother's face. She said that she would not have done without that child; all she wanted was the support services.
No, I will not give way; I want to answer the point.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) points out, many people have disabled children and they love them and treat them well. They are given excellent services by the local authority and the state.
Like the hon. Member for Mossley Hill, I am not in favour of abortion. All I am in favour of, as a Conservative, is freedom of choice for people to be able to decide. It is a traumatic decision for the parents to have an abortion—not just for the mother, but for the father as well. It does not help if politicians interfere and tell those parents whether they should go ahead with that abortion. It is up to the parents to decide whether they wish to have a grossly disabled child. I could never dream of advising them one way or the other. My wife and I are not sufficiently capable as parents to have a disabled child. To be totally honest, I could not cope with it. I have terrific admiration, as does my hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster, for those people who are able to cope—but the decision must be theirs, not ours.
Another element of the Bill worries me. If passed, the Bill would be the worst piece of class legislation that the House has put on the statute book for many a long day. My affluent, middle-class, and, I hope, by and large intelligent, constituents would have no difficulty in arranging an abortion, either privately or elsewhere. Most of those abortions, except in the case of the disabled, would be well before the 18-week limit, so they could take a very relaxed view.
All hon. Members have had come to their surgeries 15 or 16-year-old girls with a low IQ. They are not aware of what contraception is; they are pregnant, lost and confused. Often the girl does not realise for several months that she is pregnant. She is scared, frightened to speak to her parents and frightened to go to her doctor, so it is many weeks before she faces the crisis. That will be the little girl who will suffer from the Bill, not my affluent constituents. We will then go back to the bad old days, briefly mentioned by the hon. Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), of back-street abortions.
It is only 21 years since the Abortion Act was introduced, but I am sure that everybody can recall the horror of back-street abortions. We are all realistic enough to know that abortions will still take place, whether legal or illegal, so it is important that they are done in modern clinics where there is good hygiene, good follow-up services and a sensitive attitude. A return to back-street abortions will mean a return to deaths and trauma, and the people who will suffer are those whom the House should most want to protect. The vulnerable, the not very intelligent and the inadequate will be driven to the backstreet abortionists, who will be laughing all the way to the bank. That would be a bad example to set.
Like me, many of my hon. Friends would be happy for the limit to be reduced to 24 weeks. Medical science has advanced immeasurably during the past 20 years so that today it is perfectly possible for a child to be born at 24 weeks. I also believe that abortions on grounds of disability need not be performed after 24 weeks, as tests for disability can be carried out earlier. What should those of us who hold that view do? I suggest that they should not support the Bill, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister suggested at the Dispatch Box yesterday. I will tell the House why. In the past few days, some of my hon. Friends have said to me, "I am totally against 18 weeks. I accept all the arguments on disability. However, I would like the limit to be reduced to 24 weeks. Cannot we amend the Bill in Committee?" My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Sir J. Spicer) raised that point earlier.
I will tell the House what will happen if hon. Members who advocate a limit of 24 weeks vote for the Bill today. It will get a substantial majority on Second Reading, which will mean—I do not object to this—that the hon. Member for Mossley Hill will have a considerable say in the constitution of the Standing Committee. I suggest—I would do the same in his position—that he will pack the Committee with anti-abortionists who would like to see abortion made illegal.
Just one moment. Of course, I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman, because I should like to hear from him on this point.
An amendment tabled in Committee suggesting 24 weeks will be resisted by the anti-abortionists, with the result that it cannot be referred back to the House on Report. My hon. Friends will then be left in the difficult position of having to vote against the Bill on Third Reading, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) says. To leave it until Third Reading is to leave it very late, and some of our constituents would be very confused if we voted for the Bill on Second Reading and against is on Third Reading. That would be most unfortunate.
Finally —[HON. MEMBERS: "Give way."] I was prepared to give way, but the hon. Member for Mossley Hill not longer seems to wish to intervene.
I think that the hon. Gentleman has already dealt with the point. I had intended to say that hon. Members will have opportunities at various stages of the Bill in this House and in another place, whatever the Committee decides. I have already made it clear that I have no intention of being intransigent if I can get a useful measure on to the statute book. Surely the hon. Gentleman would accept that, if I do not keep my word, he and other hon. Members will have the chance to vote against the Bill on Report and Third Reading.
I am prepared to accept that the hon. Gentleman will not be intransigent, but not that those whom he places on the Committee will be at all reasonable. I have been in the House far too long to fall for that one.
In fairness, the hon. Member for Mossley Hill has made it clear that he resists the idea of medical exemptions. An amendment to allow such exemptions would appeal to many of my hon. Friends. Again, let me issue a warning. It would he very difficult to insert a suitable clause specifying the medical conditions that would lead to exemptions. The medical authorities tell us that there could be more than 2,000. That would be a nightmare, and it would be quite unacceptable. Therefore, I share the view of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill on that point, although for very different reasons.
Finally, I urge hon. Members to reject this most unfortunate Bill.
As I was the promoter of the Abortion Act that went through the House in 1967 and as this Bill seeks to amend that Act, it is only right that I should speak on it, albeit briefly.
I appreciate the manner in which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) introduced his Bill. He is not only my hon. Friend but a friend of mine, which is not always exactly the same thing in this place. Having said that, I cannot support the Bill, and I wish to tell the House why.
In the past few weeks, we have all been bombarded with postcards carrying enlarged photographs — me more than most, perhaps. One that I received from a constituent said:
Mr. Steel, how do you think the human race managed to keep a balance for nearly 20 centuries without abortion?
It is one of the great myths peddled by the supporters of this Bill that abortion came into being with the 1967 Act. The truth is that it did not. The House was motivated to change the law in 1967—mine was the seventh attempt in 15 years to use private Members' legislation to secure reform —by the appalling record of illegal abortions in Britain. No one knows the precise figures for illegal abortions, but the medical authorities vary in their estimates from 40,000 to 200,000 a year. They fell into two categories. Some people could get safe and comfortable abortions—the law for the rich — because if one had money and the intelligence to find one's way through all the medical specialists, one could get a quasi-legal abortion in a hospital. However, people who were not rich and intelligent went through the various back-street methods.
In the 1960s the House was faced with the knowledge that between 30 and 50 women died each year as a result of criminal abortion. That was only the tip of the iceberg. Many more were maimed or injured for life as a result of operations carried out in the back streets. The idea that abortion started with the 1967 Act is one of the myths that we must explode.
The other myth is that Britain has become the abortion capital of the world and that we have a high abortion rate. I am not in favour of a high abortion rate, but the House should be aware of the facts. According to the figures for 1984—the latest that I have—our abortion rate is 12·2 per thousand women of child-bearing age. That compares with 15·2 per thousand in France, 18·4 per thousand in Denmark, 19·1 per thousand in Italy and 27·4 per thousand in the United States. That is not taking info account those countries that unfortunately use abortion as a method of population control. In Romania, the rate is 90·9 per thousand and in the Soviet Union it is 181 per thousand. We need to keep a sense of perspective and recognise that, deplorable though the increase in abortions may be, our rate is by no means the highest in the world, as the opponents claim.
I have never come across anyone who is pro-abortion. Most of us who support the present legislation have always operated on the basis that abortion is the lesser of two evils in some circumstances. I hope that the Church of England will reprint its detailed and objective report, "Abortion— an Athical Discussion" published in 1965, which traces the ethics of abortion over the centuries. It said:
This discussion will proceed … on the supposition that there may be cases in which, granted this general right of the foetus to live and develop, this right may be offset by other conflicting rights; and that the proper function of the criminal law is, in a restricted area, to regulate the adjustment of those rights when they cannot be, or are unlikely to be, adjusted by other means.
As my right hon. Friend chooses to quote the attitude expressed by the Church of England in 1965, will he tell us what is the attitude of the Synod of the Church of England to the Bill?
I was about to come to that point, because at that time most of the churches supported the reform of the law. Since then, various churches have monitored the operation of the Act and have expressed their views, which are all different. My church, the Church of Scotland, made it clear in a letter sent this week to all Scottish Members that it is a matter for individual Christian consciences. The letter says:
You will no doubt be aware from debates at the General Assembly that there is division of opinion within the Church of Scotland on the issue of abortion as clearly there is throughout the country. In all of this, the church should urge that those engaged in political decisions should recognise that freedom should be given to all to act according to their conscience.
I think that that approach has been broadly adopted by the Church of England. Different committees in the churches—and hon. Members can speak for their own church—have produced different recommendations to the House.
It is our task to lay down the boundary of the criminal law. It is not our task to say in what precise circumstances any individual should or should not have an abortion. The House decided in 1967, despite the fact that some hon. Members argued then, as some hon. Members will argue today, that we should legislate for abortion at the request of the woman, that that was not to be the basis of the 1967 Act; nor is it. We did not legislate for abortion on demand.
My hon. Friend the Member for Mossley Hill complains that people are running profit-making clinics and using those clinics for making money mainly from patients imported from overseas. That was not intended in the spirit of the 1967 legislation. The answer to that complaint lies in the capacity of the Ministers in charge of the Health Departments to make regulations under the Act and to say to such clinics that their licence will be withdrawn. There is no need to change the law in order to achieve the objective.
I now turn to the question of late abortions. I have read again the speeches made in 1967. I said at the time that if we were to have abortion at all, it was desirable that it should be done as early as possible. I very much regret that we still have a high rate of late abortions. They happen for two reasons. One is that administrative snarl-ups in the National Health Service very often delay the abortion operation. That is a matter to be argued on another day. The other reason is that, sadly, many women present very late for consideration of termination of pregnancy. That is especially so in the case of those who fear or have been tested for foetal abnormality — covered by a specific clause in the 1967 Act.
It is broadly agreed that a late abortion is a post-24 week abortion. The numbers of such abortions have come down massively, and last year there were only 29. Two thirds of those were because of severe foetal abnormality and the others concerned young girls and menopausal women. The adjustment is taking place and late abortion is being reduced, but I agree that we should do more about that.
The hon. Lady is talking about late abortion in a very precise sense after 24 weeks. I am talking about late abortions generally. In passing the 1967 Act I think that the whole House intended, and still wishes, that abortion should take place as early as possible.
The case of the handicapped is extremely emotive. I hope that the House will recognise that charities such as Mencap, which spends its whole existence caring for the handicapped, is among those organisations that oppose the provisions of my hon. Friend's Bill and support the present legislation. It is not true to suggest that those who believe that this is a proper provision in the law do not care for the disabled in our midst, who deserve the full consideration that we all give them.
We have had many letters from medical bodies urging us not to support the Bill. More impressive than those is a short letter that I received from a constituent who said:
Having had a late termination (about 19–20 weeks) because it was discovered my baby had severe abnormalities I know what I am talking about. It was a disturbing event for me but not as bad as giving birth after 9 months to a baby the doctors said would not have lived anyway. Parents must have the choice to make their own decision in cases like this.
I know I personally could not have coped with a full term baby being born like this. I have had a healthy daughter since this tragic event but I am sure I would never have had the courage to become pregnant again if I knew that I would have to go 9 months and not be offered a late termination had the baby had the same abnormalities.
That letter is the answer to those who say that it is uncaring or unheeding to consider the termination of pregnancy in such circumstances. Nobody is forced to require this if that person does not believe that it is right. It is simply that the criminal law allows it to happen if the doctors, the mother, the father, think that these are the right circumstances.
I am coming to the question of the time limits, if that is what the hon. Gentleman is asking about. My hon. Friend the Member for Mossley Hill asserted, and I have seen it in much of the literature put out in support of his Bill, that other European countries have a much more restricted cut-off point in their legislation than we have. My hon. Friend is misinformed in this matter, because that is not so. The laws of most of our European neighbours are different from ours because they establish in their legislation two degrees of abortion. They allow abortion on request of the mother up to a certain limited stage.
I have a list which illustrates that. Sweden allows abortion on request of the mother up to 18 weeks, but after that it is for serious medical or social reasons. In Denmark, abortion is on request up to 12 weeks, but after that it can be for social or medical reasons. In Norway it is on request up to 12 weeks and after that it is on the doctor's decision. France allows abortion on request up to 12 weeks but allows it up to 24 weeks on medical grounds. In Italy it is allowed for various reasons that are established during the first three months, and after that it is allowed for the woman's health or for foetal abnormality.
Therefore, one sees that other countries have approached their law in a different way and the cut-off points mentioned by the promoters of the Bill are not cutoff points at all. They are the dividing line between abortion on demand and other categories of abortion that come later. Because we have not approached abortion in that way, we do not have a cut-off point and it is unfair to make comparisons with the cut-off points in other legislation.
The committee of inquiry, under Mrs. Justice Lane, into the working of abortion recommended that there should be a restriction of abortion to 24 weeks. That has been endorsed by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. In 1967 we did not establish a 28-week limit but simply took the existing law, the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 as the basis for the cut-off limit. There is no cut-off limit in the 1967 Act and the law of England and Wales is established as in 1929. It is similar in Scotland. I think that it is fairly common ground that medical science has moved on, and that it is possible for foetuses born as early as 24 weeks to survive. That is why I support, as do the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition — although that may not be an argument that commends it to the House—the 24-week limit.
My hon. Friend's Bill seeks to do something very different from that. It does not seek to establish an 18-week limit. That is because, every time a legal limit is set down, the actual medical practice allows two weeks for safety. In medical practice, the present 28-week limit is a 26-week limit. If the House establishes a statutory 24-week limit, in medical practice it would be a 22-week limit. The Bill does not seek to establish an 18-week limit because it talks about the beginning of the 18th week. That is a 17-week limit and in medical practice will mean a limit of 15 weeks.
I do not have the slightest doubt that, if the Bill were to pass into legislation, it would make a major difference to the operation of the abortion law and would deprive thousands of women of the opportunity to go to their medical practitioner and consider the case for termination of pregnancy. As I have said, I do not think that it is for us to tell women in particular circumstances, or their doctors, that they should or should not have an abortion. The Bill would cause deprivation and for that reason it should be opposed.
I agree with the point, perhaps not made very judiciously, by the hon. Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) that the promoter of the Bill is entitled to choose the members of his Committee. There is no doubt that the Bill would not be substantially altered in Committee. But it will have to come back to us and we could alter it on Report. I have a bigger objection than that to voting for the Bill. The Second Reading should be a vote on the principle of the Bill. The principle of the Bill is not about tinkering with the upper medical limit as recommended by Mrs. Justice Lane or the royal college. It is a fundamental change to the Abortion Act 1967, and that is why I oppose it.
Finally, we are meeting at a time when, whether we are for or against the Bill, we are all concerned that, if at all possible, there should be a lower level of abortions. It is tragic that this year the family planning services, funded by the National Health Service, are facing cuts. I am told that this very day the Central Birmingham district health authority is negotiating with the Brook Advisory Centre for further cuts for the next three years, which will result in a 40 per cent. reduction in that centre's activities in the city of Birmingham. If we want, as I do, fewer unwanted abortions, let us have few unwanted pregnancies.
Whatever view any of us take about this great issue, we are all profoundly grateful to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) for opening the debate with a speech that was a model of lucidity and compassion.
It is a sad commentary on the way in which we conduct our affairs in this place that on every occasion since 1975 when a similar Bill has secured a Second Reading and has done so on the basis of principle, all have foundered because of procedural devices at one stage or another and because of lack of time. That is sad, because we know that there was and is now a substantial majority in the country in favour of abortion reform.
For over 20 years, I have been concerned at the way in which a civilised country such as ours has permitted, and indeed encouraged, the deliberate destruction every year of 150,000 unborn babies, most of whom, if born, would have been perfectly normal, healthy children. That was the point on which my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) sought to gain a response from the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), but the right hon. Gentleman misunderstood it. That point remains unanswered, but perhaps I shall be able to develop it a little later.
Abortion presents a dreadful dilemma for all of us, whatever view we take of the Bill. In cases where the mother's life is in danger or where there are indications of grave and permanent damage to the child if born, the majority accept that termination is justified. However, such tragic circumstances account for only a minute proportion of the total number of abortions carried out under the 1967 Act. Of the 2·6 million unborn babies destroyed up to the end of 1986, only 123 had to be sacrificed to save the mother's life. The overwhelming majority were authorised on social grounds—and many of us know precisely what that means: abortion on demand.
The Bill will not change that situation greatly. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill is not proposing something that will tear up the 1967 Act or change the position in any material way. However, I readily concede that it will change the climate and affect our attitudes to abortion generally in important ways.
It follows then that the overwhelming proportion of late abortions are performed on babies which if born, would have been normal healthy children. There is only one word for that in my book, and that is murder.
I agree that there is no magic about 18 weeks. The early stages of human life are part of a continuum as, indeed, are our own lives after birth. Well before 18 weeks, the foetus is recognisably human. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill touched on that, and it should be basic to our understanding of what the Bill is about.
An article in the British Medical Journal of 26 January 1980 put the facts very clearly. I read the article at the time and have kept it. It states:
Nine weeks after conception, the baby is well enough formed to bend his fingers round an object in the palm of his hand, in response to a touch on the sole of his foot he will curl his toes or bend his hips and knees to move away from the touching object. At 12 weeks he can close his fingers and thumb and he will open his mouth in response to pressure applied at the base of the thumb. At first when his hands touch his mouth the foetus turns his head away though his mouth opens. Later the foetus may turn his head towards his hands and even put a finger into his open mouth and stick it.
No, I shall not give way. I mean no discourtesy to the hon. Lady, but a great many hon. Members wish to speak and I shall obey the injunction of the Chair. I would rather not give way because there will be plenty of opportunity for hon. Members to speak, but only if we restrain ourselves on interventions.
The facts are that at 12 to 14 weeks the auditory system of the foetus is complete. At 18 weeks it can certainly recognise its mother's voice and reacts to light as well as to sound. It has learnt to put its hands before its eyes to shield them from moving light or over its ears to protect them against loud noise.
Yet, although the miracle of human life has developed to that point at 18 weeks, the human foetus has no rights at that stage. Our abortion law, unlike those of other civilised countries, permits thousands of perfectly normal healthy children of that gestation to be destroyed, not that I consider gestational age to be of great importance when considering the moral implications of abortion, or even of viability.
There is precious little sense on this subject where our existing law is concerned. As has been said, procuring an abortion at 28 weeks has been recognised since 1929 as the crime of "child destruction". However, we now know that at 23 or 24 weeks babies born prematurely are capable of surviving, and do so survive. The only difference between babies born at 24 weeks, or for that matter after 28 weeks, and those born at 18 weeks, is that the latter are smaller. Almost everything else is the same.
Therefore, the question that the Bill's opponents must face is surely, "Why should it not also be a crime to destroy an unborn baby at the gestational age of 18 weeks?" That question must be answered, because late abortions, the outlawing of which is the purpose of the Bill, clearly involve the destruction of sentient human beings, who not only react to outside stimuli and can feel pain, but who have none of the protection that they would have only a few weeks later. Where is the logic and the morality of that? The question must be answered by those who oppose the Bill.
I would love to debate this endlessly because I feel deeply about it, but if I give way I shall be setting a bad example and will deprive those hon. Members who in some cases have a great deal of experience of the opportunity to express their view.
It is a lottery as to whether or not, because of the late stage of its development, the baby of 18 weeks or more will be aborted in the most cruel way with its limbs torn from its body and its head crushed, as many doctors and nurses have testified. That revolting procedure — the House must face up to what late abortion really means — is described in detail by Dr. Margaret White, a general practitioner, magistrate and very distinguished member of the General Medical Council, in her book entitled "Two Million Silent Killings". She explains that with late abortions, the baby is already of a size and its bones have hardened to such an extent that:
With the pliers the baby is torn limb from limb and pulled out in pieces. The skull is crushed, as it is much too large and too firm to be pulled out intact. It is the unpleasant duty of the nurse to assemble the broken parts of the body, to be sure that no pieces are left behind in the womb.
At that stage, too, the mother is not unaffected. Some of the most poignant letters I have received over the years have been from women pressurised into abortions. Long afterwards, they suffer both physical and emotional damage. Only last week I received a letter from one of my constituents, whom I do not know. She had previously had an abortion and then had another, this time at 19 weeks. She wrote:
I did not do it lightly—nevertheless, I made the choice —the wrong one. It was so easy to get an abortion. If I had known the true facts of what happens to the baby being aborted, I would definitely never have had it done. Also if the Abortion Bill limited it to 18 weeks then my child would be alive today. It has left a scar forever.
May I now deal with what is probably the most emotive argument about the Bill and one that is often misrepresented. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill has made it clear that the Bill will not affect termination of pregnancies where severe disability incompatible with sustaining life has been diagnosed, and I am glad that he has done that. Indeed, the Bill will protect those babies whose disability is compatible with life and is treatable. We have to be careful to distinguish between the two.
Some of the most gifted, delightful and lovable people in our society were born handicapped and might have been deprived of the right to live if their abnormality had been detected before birth as it can be nowadays. In our hearts all of us know that to be true. Who among us would not have been moved by the story in The Times on 20 January about the award of the Whitbread Book of the Year prize to a young spastic boy who can neither speak nor hear well? He cannot move himself, and types with a stick attached to his forehead. He used his acceptance speech, given for him by his mother, to speak up for the handicapped and against abortion.
Tonight is the happiest night of my life. Imagine what I would have missed if the doctors had not revived me on that September day long ago. Can freedom now be denied to a handicapped man? Can yessing be so difficult that rather than give a baby a chance at life, man treads upon his brother and silences him before he can draw one breath of this world's fresh air?
Those of us who support the Bill must be sensitive—I believe that I am sensitive—to the views of those who want to be sure that it will not bar the way to termination in those cases where it can be established that the handicap is likely to be so severe that the child, if born, would be incapable of sustaining life in any meaningful sense. Here, medical technology—some of us have been watching it closely in recent years—comes to our aid. It has certainly not stood still since the Abortion Act became law 21 years ago.
Many of the disabilities that opponents of the Bill regularly cite as requiring the test of amniocentesis can now be detected much earlier, indeed as early as the eighth of 10th week of pregnancy, by a variety of methods. We may have to find—I am ready to join in the search—a formula that will safeguard the position of a woman for whom tests have begun before the 18th week but which for some reason are not complete before that time. That is a matter to which we must address ourselves in Committee. That is the message I have received from many of my right hon. and hon. Friends.
I know that we are being told by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the British Medical Association and other learned bodies that they are opposed to the Bill. However, before we fall over ourselves in considering the weight of their opinion, it is important for the House to realise that it is not shared by the majority of gynaecologists. A recent survey of about 700 gynaecologists, accounting for 40 per cent. of all those involved in that specialty in Britain, revealed that one third supported the recommendation of the Royal College and the BMA that the upper limit for abortion should be 24 weeks, but a substantial majority, nearly two in three—64 per cent. — would like to see the upper limit for abortion reduced from 28 weeks to 20 weeks or less with exceptions made when the mother's life is in danger or for severe foetal abnormality.
There is much more I should like to say, but there are many others who wish to speak. Let me emphasise once again that the Bill does not undermine the essential principles of the 1967 Act. As one who has a vivid memory of the debates in 1966 and 1967, I must echo what was said by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale that it was never his intention, nor was it the intention of Parliament at the time, to legislate for what we have today, which is virtually abortion on demand.
It is right to consider what should be done about babies likely to be born with severe handicaps, but in our compassion for all who are likely to suffer from some handicap, we should not allow ourselves to forget that the overwhelming majority of babies being aborted at present at 18 weeks or later would, if born and not destroyed because they are momentarily inconvenient, be perfectly normal, healthy children. Those children, too, cry out for our compassion. For that reason alone, the Bill deserves the support of the House.
I am not going to quote reams of statistics today. I am aware that the time is limited. Moreover, I am a statistician as a result of part of my medical training and I know that statistics can be manipulated by people who are not experts to say whatever they like, and can be manipulated even more readily by those who are experts. Therefore, it is specious to quote reams of data at each other today.
I should like to go back to the start of my medical career, when I was a student in 1968. That is when I first experienced the workings of the Abortion Act 1967. The first girl I saw was 15 years old. She did not really know what it was all about and she did not understand what happened. She just knew that she wanted to go back to a normal life and that she did not want to bear a child, and she did not. The other woman was in her early 40s with a large number of children. She could not face the reality of bearing another child and she, too, was relieved of that burden. That is what the 1967 Act gave women in this country. It gave them an element of choice.
Having started clinical work in 1968, I have no direct experience of illegal abortions. Illegal abortions in this country effectively ended with the passing of the 1967 Act. I have heard plenty of reports from older doctors and nurses about what went on before, and I do not want to see a return to that.
I believe that the Bill concerns certain basic principles. First, is abortion a moral or an ethical thing to do? If so, who should decide whether an abortion should be carried out? Thirdly, what constraints should society place on that decision — I believe that the sponsor of the Bill would like us to believe that that is the major concern of his Bill.
I believe that abortion is both moral—that is, right for the individual woman to decide upon—and ethical: it is a correct procedure for a doctor to perform at a woman's request. At present, the decision to carry out an abortion is given to the medical profession alone to make, at the request of the woman. I believe that a change in that practice is long overdue. The constraints relate to the reason for the abortion and the age of the foetus at the time the abortion is carried out. Surely those two issues are the nub of the argument today.
We all agree that there should be an upper limit beyond which an abortion, the destruction of a foetus, cannot and should not take place. At present, the law places that limit at 28 weeks and medical practice effectively places it at 26 weeks. The Bill would reduce that limit to 18 weeks, or, as has been clearly illustrated, effectively closer to 16 weeks. I believe that that would be wrong, and my belief is supported by the vast majority of my profession, and, I believe, by society.
I could quote reams of examples about this matter—conversations I have had with women, women I have treated or whom I have referred for an abortion during my medical career. I could quote letters that I have received from my colleagues in branches of our profession —including gynaecologists—pointing out the damage that will be done not only to women who are at risk to bearing a handicapped foetus — I accept that they are the minority—but to many young women if the Bill is passed. By young, I do not mean girls under 16. For many girls under the age of 21 — single, possibly of low intelligence and in desperate social circumstances—the possibility of having a child is a serious prospect —handicapped or not. For many women who have already borne children, a further burden may be more than they are prepared to bear and more than society should expect them to bear.
Women have complex reasons for delaying the decision that they take to seek an abortion. I believe that the law should reflect that and should give them the chance to come forward at a later stage, post 18 weeks. I do not see any case for depriving them of their right to undergo an abortion if they so choose. I believe that their rights supersede those of the foetus at the developmental stage that we are discussing.
I do not believe that we should be in the business of bringing more and more unwanted children into our society. I believe that, ultimately, a woman must have the last say on whether she wants to bear a handicapped child. It is a specious argument to look at handicapped children who exist now and say that it would be wrong to kill them. Of course it would be wrong, but it is right and proper for the woman and her husband to be able to make the choice: "I will not bear a handicapped child." We are in danger of taking away that right. We are not taking away the right of an already born handicapped child to live. Those children are entitled to all the compassion, understanding and help that society can give. So often, society does not offer that help because we are not prepared to put the money into that care.
I believe that it is high time that we looked at the workings of the 1967 Act. For what it is worth, my view is that women should have open access to abortion and, if we must use the pejorative term, to "abortion on demand". I call it "abortion on request" and it should be carried out up to an agreed stage of about 12 weeks. I believe that, on the present grounds, women should be entitled to have an abortion up to roughly 24 weeks.
The system also needs overhauling. It is a system that lets girls down and does not give them the armament they need to make the decisions that would stop a pregnancy in the first place. We need to look at the availability of facilities for abortion, to ensure that women do not have to experience the delays that we know occur in many areas. Above all, we need to look at our attitude towards women and women's rights.
It is time for a formal review of the system, not some ad hoc measure brought before the House in the form of a private Member's Bill. We need something along the lines of the Warnock commission report on which we will have an opportunity to vote later in the session. That is the correct, reasonable and civilised way in which to bring about a change in the law on abortion, and I believe that that is long overdue.
The Bill is not the way to make a reasoned change in the 1967 Act. Frankly, I do not trust the Bill or its supporters to accept any amendment. They are not in the business of providing compromises, they are in the business of stopping abortion at 18 weeks. I do not trust them and I hope that others who have listened to this debate will likewise vote against the Bill to defeat it today.
The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) made it clear that he completely agrees with abortion on demand at every stage and the the foetus has no rights — [HON. MEMBERS: "Abortion on request."] — well, if the House prefers, "Abortion on request". I see no difference between the two. The hon. Gentleman is entitled to his opinion and I am entitled to mine. The hon. Gentleman is not entitled to assume that anything in particular will happen in Committee. He cannot predict that now. There will be people on the Committee who are anxious about the principle of late abortion. However, the sponsor of the Bill has said that he is not intransigent and that he will listen to all the arguments. Obviously the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) wants his Bill to get through, even if there are amendments at a later stage.
If the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy is so deep in the abortion business, he must know, when he tells the House that he does not want a return to illegal abortions, that such abortions do not happen after 18 weeks because it is too dangerous to carry them out.
In this House we are all responsible for what we say. The hon. Lady is interpreting the speech of the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy as she believes that she heard it.
Almost all the flak against the Bill has been to do with handicapped children. No one who has not had to cope with a physically handicapped son or daughter can possibly understand the burden that that imposes. I have no doubt that that care often takes a terrible toll on a family. However, the overwhelming number of babies aborted after 18 weeks, about which we are concerned today, are not handicapped. They are perfectly normal children whose only crime is that their mothers do not want them.
Today we are in danger of concentrating on the 7·8 per cent. of handicapped children aborted after 18 weeks and ignoring the 92·2 per cent. of perfectly normal children who are so aborted. The postcards that many supporters of the Bill have sent out have already been mentioned and have been described as an emotional argument. My goodness, there are emotional arguments on both sides, because all the opposition to the Bill has been centred on and advanced about handicapped children. That has been the major feature of the opposition to the Bill.
It should be understood that mainly we are talking about perfectly normal children.
Should we continue to sacrifice the 92 per cent. of normal children for that 7·8 per cent? The Bill allows for abortion if the child is likely to be seriously abnormal. So perhaps the figure of 7·8 per cent. should be reduced to 5 per cent., and that is a conservative estimate.
What about that 5 per cent.? Should any handicap—a club foot, deafness, blindness or any other handicap—mean that the child should be aborted? Is it a sufficient reason to get rid of a child?
New techniques are being introduced all the time that allow a pregnant woman to know at an early stage—it is becoming earlier all the time — whether the child is handicapped. A CVS test is carried out at eight to 10 weeks; ultrasound scanning is coming on stream and, for quite some time, has been giving extremely important information about the unborn child; and there is amniocentesis. We shall shortly be able to know whether there is a blemished child in the womb before the time limit give in the Bill. If not, and if there is proof that a woman may not know until it is too late, I am sure that that vital point will be considered most carefully in Committee.
We must ask whether we think that a handicapped child—
Will the hon. Lady accept that the opponents of the Bill do not think that foetuses with severe abnormalities should not be allowed to continue to term? We believe that if severe abnormalities are discovered it should be the mother's right to decide whether to continue the pregnancy, and that she should not be forced, on pain of the criminal law, to continue the pregnancy.
The hon. Lady should read the Bill, because that point is covered by it. It has been carefully considered and incorporated by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill.
If we send out from the House the message that handicapped people have no right to live, that is a very serious matter, and that is what people will think. I have talked to handicapped people outside the House —[Interruption.] Clearly, that is the implication. If the House sticks to the idea that a handicapped person can be destroyed, many handicapped people will have cause to be concerned.
If we think that it is right for the House to send out that terrible message, perhaps we should support the Bill. If we believe that because God, fate or anything else has denied a child so much, and that we in the House should not deny it the right to live, we should support the Bill.
All help, support and counselling and practical assistance should be given to parents coping with a handicapped child. I do not believe that sufficient help is given at the moment. Some doctors have been less than helpful to the parents of handicapped children; one could give many examples of that. We should do our best to help and support women and their husbands with that burden. It is true that blemished children often give great happiness to their parents; they often achieve a very special success; my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) gave such an example.
With regard to the 92 per cent. of perfectly normal children whom the Bill seeks to protect, no one dreamed, when the Abortion Act 1967 was debated in the House, of the huge numbers of children who would be destroyed under its provisions. The figures that the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) gave were extremely suspect, because many of the countries that he purported to give figures from have no way of collecting such statistics.
During the debate in 1966, it was never said that there were as many as 200,000 illegally aborted children in Britain. We considered that point very carefully at that time, but it was virtually impossible to discover how many illegal abortions there were. We could say only that a certain proportion of illegal abortions finished in hospital with remedial treatment. On that basis, the figure was about 10,000 or 20,000. Currently, there are about 170,000 abortions a year. That figure shames me, and it should shame those who introduced that legislation. Children can be saved today who could not have been saved at that time. The caravan has moved on. The law should be reconsidered and changed. The public are undoubtedly concerned about abortions.
Those who support the Bill are not all zealots. We are not all —perish the thought—Roman Catholics. We are concerned, and we care deeply. We believe that contraception, not abortion, is the answer. We care about the children who are presently dying; we care about the women who often suffer after abortion; we care about the implications of a society that thinks that handicapped people should be destroyed —[Interruption.] I am worried about the opinion that a handicapped person has a right to live only as long as its mother wants it. The hon. Member for Peckham (Ms. Harman) cannot deny that that is what she is putting forward. A handicapped child has the right to live and that right should not be dependent solely upon whether its mother wants it. [AN HON. MEMBER: "What about Mencap?"] Figures can be bandied about, but the arguments given by all the organisations are balanced for and against.
The argument often used against the Bill is that a woman has the right to choose. We have never been so well informed about contraception as we are today, so woman has the right to choose not to become pregnant. Once she has become pregnant she does not have an automatic right to destroy the child in her womb, the child has rights too. The child has rights in law. There have been cases in which people have sued on behalf of the unborn child and won.
Choice should not be given only to one person. There is no one to speak for the child but us. We have a heavy responsibility in that regard. Because the child's voice cannot be heard by all of us, some of us must speak for him or her. That is what I am doing today and that is why I shall support the Bill.
I have some sympathy with some of the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight), yet as a woman she may have put another import on the Bill. I welcome the opportunity of speaking and especially of replying to the hon. Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) who first spoke against the motion. He spoke about not trusting those on the Committee if the Bill were passed today, and he made tremendous play on the question of choice. Representing people in the Province who have voted in different ways for choice, and he represents the Northern Ireland Office which does not listen to the choice of the voters, he had fair gall in making that point.
Some of us are aware that some people would like to see the 1967 Act extended to Northern Ireland, and in Committee it would not be beyond the capabilities of hon. Members to seek to insert a clause to that effect. Therefore, I take this opportunity to repeat that, by and large, the bulk of people in Northern Ireland, irrespective of their religious outlook or political convictions, have no desire to see the 1967 Act extended to Northern Ireland.
Today we are debating the Alton Bill. The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), the Leader of the Liberal party—I had to pause to make sure that I did not make a mistake, because things change so quickly—pointed out that we were debating the principle of the Bill. He imported into the debate a motive which is not on the face of the Bill, thus departing from the principle of the Bill. For that reason he was basically arguing against himself. I understood that he agreed with a reduction in the upper age limit for abortions. That is the principle of the Bill, and I support it.
I welcomed several of the quiet arguments against the Bill which have put on the record issues which must be faced. However, we are debating in a moral climate which must be understood. We have moved into a moral climate where it is tempting to call evil good. A decade ago, for example, teenagers used a lovely word when they were enjoying themselves. They said, "That's fab." Now, unfortunately, the manipulators of opinion are trying to change a word of approval into an acronym for Fight Alton's Bill.
Many people who may have an open mind on abortion are nevertheless convinced that we should have better counselling which gives people a choice. I represent a constituency where, thanks to the fine work of the Life movement, carers have provided a hostel where young women are given a choice and the back-up to make that choice calmly, rather than being drawn into the mentality of what I call this disposable generation.
When we speak of choice we must also remember the choice for life of those who have the potential for life. It is ludicrous to spend millions of pounds, correctly in my judgment, on helping doctors in perinatal cases to give youngsters a chance of life and at the same time to create a climate of opinion which has allowed nearly 3 million human beings with potential to be denied such a choice.
For those reasons, I support the principle of the Bill and I leave it to the Committee to work out the points of contention on which people believe that there should be movement.
I should have liked to start by congratulating the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) on his good fortune in being chosen third in the ballot, but I am sorry that he has proposed this Bill, which is so strongly opposed by hon. Members and many people outside the House who are so vulnerable in society. The hon. Gentleman is widely respected for the sincerity of his views and he is on record as saying that he is opposed to all abortions and to discrimination against the disabled. But his Bill does not meet either of those objectives.
The Bill will fail, because the hon. Gentleman has failed to strike a balance. This is a difficult issue, on which we must balance our feelings of compassion against our judgment. He has failed by taking the figure of 18 weeks. As has been pointed out, this is not an 18-week, but a 17-week Bill, which in practice and in medical terms will mean 15 weeks. There does not seem to be any reason for choosing 18 weeks. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman had a coloured photograph which made him decide on 18 weeks. Medical opinion is that the foetus is fully formed at 10 weeks, so the argument about the formation of the foetus would apply equally well at 10 weeks.
The hon. Gentleman said that in his judgment 18 weeks was about right, but he fails to understand that modern medical diagnosis has its greatest capability at that stage. Ultrasound scanning equipment—the United Kingdom is a leading country in the use of this equipment—is at its most effective at 18 to 20 weeks.
The hon. Gentleman is well aware that the new developments of chorionic villus sampling, combined with ultrasound scanning and amniocentesis, mean that, increasingly, the thresholds are being pushed back. Although I have already conceded that there is an argument on the crucial question of whether or not a person has the right to decide to terminate where there is a detected disability, will the hon. Gentleman also say a word about the 92 per cent. of late abortions that occur after 18 weeks and which involve perfectly healthy children?
The hon. Gentleman will know that there are many reasons for late abortions. The Bill does not deal with the 95 per cent. of abortions that occur before 18 weeks, so it fails to meet the hon. Gentleman's principal objective, which arises from the fact that he is wholly against abortion. [Interruption.]
There are many reasons for the 5 per cent. of abortions that occur after 18 weeks, but a principal reason is disability. Professor Stuart Campbell of King's college hospital has said that his practice would be destroyed by the application of a Bill such as this. The hon. Gentleman says that he does not want to discriminate against disability, yet the Bill discriminates against many disabled people because they are in danger of giving birth to children who will carry a genetic disorder and babies whom they do not want to bring into this world, and they will be denied that choice.
My hon. Friend cannot have it both ways. The people bringing in the Bill do so because they want to tackle a particular social abuse of late abortions, and we have clearly kept to that. Then we are accused of not spreading the Bill wider, when we are trying to obtain maximum support in the House for the issue. It is not true that disability is the main reason. Ninety-two per cent. of all abortions are on healthy children on social grounds, which is the issue that my hon. Friend has not addressed.
The hon. Member for Mossley Hill said that he thought 18 weeks was about right. Yet that is highly discriminatory against disability. He said that he is against discrimination on the grounds of disability. He said in his briefing note that homes can be found for handicapped children. It is a monstrous lie to suggest that families are queuing up to take handicapped children. Hundreds of severely handicapped children are in residential homes up and down the country, and families cannot be found for them. The hon. Gentleman must be aware that the Catholic St. Margaret's Adoption Society has compromised its own beliefs in this area and come out with an extraordinary reported statement:
Because of the extreme difficulty in placing severely handicapped children with families, we are taking the unusual stance of allowing divorcees to adopt only severely handicapped children that no one else wants if they promise never to marry again.
If that is not discrimination, I do not know what is.
The Bill is opposed by many organisations, including Mencap and ASBAH. We were told about a Gallup poll of gynaecologists, but it was a dishonest poll. It did not refer to spina bifida, which is one of the most serious disabilities that can be detected principally by ultrasound scanning after 18 weeks. The Bill lacks compassion. Why should mothers be forced to carry a child with spina bifida, when 70 per cent. of such children die in agony before five, and have to be sedated because of their pain? Must mothers be forced to go on with such pregnancies? Mothers who opt for termination in such cases do so out of love and for the sake of having a future healthy pregnancy. They would never risk another pregnancy again unless they had this choice.
Why does the hon. Gentleman want to make such a private decision into a public criminal act? He seems ignorant of the fact that modern medical practice has made it possible not only to ensure survival for some of the children who can be born at 24 weeks, but to pick up many more of these disorders, of which there are more than 2,000 or 3,000 of a structural kind, and 3,000 genetic and chromosomal. Many families who have the misfortune to have a severely handicapped child find that they cannot cope. It is a mirage to suggest that there are queues of people who want to take such children.
My wife and I chose to adopt a handicapped child who had been shunted from pillar to post for six years. It was only by chance that we saw him advertised in a newspaper. We chose, of our own free will, to take the child. Other hon. Members could choose to adopt a handicapped child, too. Interestingly, the latest figures show that there were 648 abortions after 18 weeks on the grounds of foetal handicap—648 abnormal foetuses that would otherwise have been born if the hon. Gentleman had had his way. That would allow one handicapped child for each hon. Member, excluding Madam Deputy Speaker and myself. If hon. Members would not find it convenient to adopt a handicapped child, why are they imposing that on other people?
Can I explain to the hon. Gentleman something that has not been made clear to the House? These matters will be dealt with in Committee. If, by some freak of circumstance, they are not, despite what has been said by the hon. Gentleman, Mr. Speaker can, at his discretion, allow on Report an amendment to secure precisely the same objective in the same language as could be effected in Committee. So, at the end of the day, the House will take a decision by majority vote on these matters.
I have already given way several times.
The private financial burden of caring for a severely handicapped child has been estimated by the courts as £500,000. If one takes into account the cost to the state of the statutory provision, the cost could well be another £500,000. The school fees for the school to which, as the hon. Member for Mossley Hill well knows, my child goes, are £15,000 a year—twice those for a school such as Eton. Why should the House consider forcing people to accept such a burden if they do not want it.
The hon. Gentleman seems to regard suffering as a virtue. We have heard various speakers say that there is some great virtue in bringing up a handicapped child. No one should wish a child to be handicapped because, in some strange way, they can gain from that.
We all want fewer abortions, but not at this price. The way to fewer abortions is through education and understanding, not through criminal sanctions on private decisions. The country in Europe with the lowest rate of abortions is Holland, where the laws are most liberal. That is the example the hon. Gentleman should study if he wants fewer abortions. Hon. Members who are unsure how to vote, but in favour of the change to 24 weeks that has been recommended by various bodies, should reject this 17-week Bill as far too extreme, in favour of a private Member's Bill that is now in the House of Lords. It changes the existing law from 28 to 24 weeks. Hon Members should tell their constituents that they are rejecting this extreme 17-week Bill in favour of Lord Houghton's Bill in the House of Lords, which is currently in Committee. I remind my hon. Friends that the Conservative Women's Group came out against this Bill.
Even a 24-week Bill needs careful consideration. Of the 29 abortions carried out after 24 weeks, two were in Bolton. One was for a mother who had previously refused diagnosis and screening, and was found to be carrying a baby with one head and two bodies. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill would force that to go through—
The hon. Gentleman's Bill uses the words,
life … independently sustained".
What does he say about the baby featured on the front page of a newspaper recently which was born with two
heads and is living'? It is showing it is capable of independent life. Would he force a mother to go through with such a pregnancy because the baby is capable of life?
In those circumstances, of course, it would not be the intention of my Bill to force someone to carry a child. If the hon. Gentleman is being sincere in his argument, he will ensure that it is put in Committee. He will now say something, too, about the 92 per cent. of late abortions carried out on perfectly healthy children.
I cannot accept that from the hon. Gentleman. He had plenty of time, when thinking about the Bill, to put into it the words that should be there. He has used wording that suggests that if the baby is capable of life the pregnancy should go on.
This monstrous Bill has been described by the royal colleges as inhumane. It hits at the most vulnerable people in society. If hon. Members want to vote for change, they should reject the Bill in favour of the 24-week Bill that is on its way through the House.
I compliment my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) on winning a prize in the annual raffle which allowed him to promote a private Member's Bill. I compliment him also on his courage in selecting this subject for a Bill and sympathise with him in the considerable personal abuse, and physical abuse to his home, to which he has been subjected as a consequence of promoting the Bill.
Those who oppose the Bill talk about the right to choose. Parliament has a right to choose, too. I hope that Parliament will be given that right by allowing the Bill to have a Second Reading and then discussing amendments that should be made to it during its passage through the House. There was a rumour that many petitions would be presented this morning, and I am glad that it did not happen.
During the 16 years that I have been a Member of the House, I have supported every attempt to amend the Abortion Act 1967, and it is interesting to note that all of them have been defeated on procedure, not on a straight vote. That is why I say that Parliament has a right to choose. I hope that this time the opponents of the Bill will allow it to be voted on at all its stages so that we may know the will of Parliament.
On "Question Time" last night, in which I appeared, and again this morning, we have heard people say that the Bill is the thin edge of the wedge and that if it is accepted we will attempt to introduce another. Perhaps that is because we have rumbled a few people and have decided that we are as entitled to use procedure as are those hon. Members who have tried to block legislation on the matter. It will be for Parliament to decide whether it wishes to pass another Bill. That is democracy. That is what the law is about.
On the argument about the right to choose, what about the rights of the unborn child? Since it cannot exercise those rights for itself, is it not the job of the elected Parliament to exercise them on its behalf? It is the job of Parliament to protect the rights of the unborn child, and it is the right of Parliament to legislate on the matter.
I have heard all the arguments against the Bill. Some have already been exercised this morning and more will be exercised as the day proceeds. Some are perfectly valid arguments, but some are absolute rubbish, including the suggestion that if the Bill became law we would return to back-street abortions. Before 1967, back-street abortions were usually carried out earlier in the pregnancy, not after 18 weeks. As nearly 50 per cent. of abortions that take place after 18 weeks are carried out on women who are shipped to Britain by air and sea because they cannot obtain abortions in their own countries, Britain has become the country of back-street abortions for the rest of Europe. In 1986, of the 8,276 abortions after 18 weeks, 3,688 were carried out on women who came to Britain from abroad.
The opponents of the Bill tell us that many late abortions are carried out on girls aged under 16 who were scared or did not recognise their pregnancy. That is absolute rubbish. The fact is that, in 1986, only 4·7 per cent. of abortions on residents from 18 weeks onwards were on girls aged under 16.
One thing is certain: 88 per cent. of abortions after 18 weeks are carried out in private clinics for private profit. It is staggering to hear what Labour Members say about the Bill. All these people who are supposed to be ardent Socialists want to propagate a system that allows abortion for private profit—in private clinics not on the NHS—with millions of pounds changing hands. That is the system which these marvellous Socialists, on the Front Bench as well as the Back Benches, want to propagate. What sort of Socialists are they? They talk rubbish.
We are told that 18 weeks was picked out of the air. By 18 weeks, a foetus is fully formed, with all major organs, except its lungs, functioning.
What of the handicapped child? I confess that that is the most difficult area to defend, but first let me deal with a fact which the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) refused to acknowledge. In 1986, of 8,276 abortions after 18 weeks, only 7·8 per cent. were performed because the child was likely to be born handicapped. Despite all their pious speeches in defence of the handicapped, hon. Members ignore the 92 per cent. who were denied life because they were aborted after 18 weeks. They refuse to face that fact.
It must be wrong to discriminate against an individual at any stage of life simply because he or she does not meet the standards of physical or mental perfection set by others. We who support the Bill are accused of a lack of compassion. Is it compassionate to take the life of a handicapped child? I repeat that 92 per cent. of abortions after 18 weeks are carried out not because the child was likely to be born handicapped. Of the remaining 7·8 per cent. of abortions some would continue to be allowed under the Bill. Most abnormalities can be detected in fewer than 18 weeks—indeed, in 10 weeks—with the results being made available after a maximum of two weeks. Indeed, I put it to the Minister that a death certificate should be issued after an abortion that is carried out after 18 weeks stating the precise cause of death.
I support the Bill because I believe in human life. As the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) said, abortion after 18 weeks is murder in the womb.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) said that he was not sure about the view of the Church of England. He quoted the Church of England when introducing his Bill.
Yesterday, I and other hon. Members received a letter saying that the General Synod of the Church of England —I hope that I have the correct figures—voted by 247 to two in favour of the Bill. If it was right for my right hon. Friend to quote the Church of England in 1965, it is right for me to quote it in 1988. Again, 66 per cent. of gynaecologists were in favour. Some hon. Members may shout, "It was phoney. How many were done?" We can all quote those who are in favour. Opponents of the Bill quote the BMA. I do not want to embarrass my right hon. Friend — that has never been part of my function — but, in 1970, he said:
that is, doctors—
cannot dictate to Parliament what should be the provisions of an Abortion Act."—[Official Report, 13 February 1970; Vol. 795, c. 1693.]
Of course, that was when they were agin him. Now that they are for him—at least, he thinks that they are for him—he is in favour of quoting the BMA and doctors. But the gynaecologists' opinion poll — it was a representative sample — showed that well over 60 per cent. were in favour of today's Bill.
A child is entitled to have life. A child is entitled to be given the right to breathe, the right to love and the right to live. I am not a Roman Catholic, but I claim to be a Christian. This is a matter of human and Christian concern. That is why I hope that the Bill will be given a Second Reading and why I commend it to the House.
The hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) seemed to imply that abortion was available on demand. If that is so, the existing law is being broken, and action can be taken. Like other hon. Members, I dislike abortion. I am naturally prejudiced against it. Nevertheless, I shall vote against the Bill.
What matters is not so much what I think or whether I am for or against abortion, but in what medical and social circumstances should abortion be allowed. If the law does not appear to be reasonable, there is bound to be a reversion to back-street abortionists, with all the health dangers that that implies. On the one hand, the law should discourage abortion, but, on the other hand, it should accept medical realities and be merciful towards social realities. In short, the law must represent a balance, and the Abortion Act 1967 succeeded in doing that.
On the basis of what information I as a layman have been able to gather since the matter came up for discussion again, I agree with the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie). In a perfect world, there is much to be said for freedom of choice up to 12 weeks, but thereafter abortion should be allowed up to 24 weeks but only for medical reasons. The trouble is that we do not live in a perfect world.
If every young girl were intelligent, decisive, understanding, aware and rich and could effectively communicate with her parents, if every woman over 40 who became pregnant without wishing to do so realised immediately what happened, if every woman at times of stress could be rational, if the National Health Service were perfect, and if doctors were infallible in judgment and opinion, the restrictions to 12 and 24 weeks might be acceptable. But that is not the world in which we live. We live in a world in which some women of all ages are frightened, unwise, indecisive, uncertain, anguished, full of second thoughts, and impoverished, and in which the National Health Service and, occasionally, doctors are not perfect.
A 12-week limit on freedom of choice would be too restrictive and would be certain to lead to more illegal abortions. A 24-week limit for medical reasons could rule out a small number of the most necessary abortions.
We have been reminded by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) that, in any case, the 1967 Act operates in conjunction with the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929. That Act is the source of the 28-week limit and presumes that a foetus of 28 weeks is capable of being born alive. However, if it can be shown that a foetus of a lower age-27 weeks or even less—is similarly capable and is aborted, an offence would have been committed, because the life of a child capable of being born alive would have been destroyed.
The 1929 Act appears to me to be very strong. I have been reminded by the Library that it draws a firm distinction between
capable of being born alive
capable of surviving".
It may be the case that, apart from healthy babies, some handicapped babies are
capable of being born alive",
but are not capable of surviving for more than a brief period. None the less, if they were
capable of being born alive",
an offence could be committed if such a foetus were aborted.
The 1929 Act is very strong. It should be a reassurance to those who are worried about apparently late abortions. Furthermore, it should not be forgotten that, under the 1967 Act, the Minister for Health can make regulations. Indeed, the current regulations no longer license private clinics to carry out abortions over 24 weeks, and those carrying out abortions over 20 weeks must be specially approved.
A doctor must, therefore, act with the greatest care in respect of any late abortions— probably those over 20 weeks—for fear of transgressing the law. In addition, if it is judged necessary, it is always possible for the DHSS to introduce still more stringent regulations.
Thus, it seems to me far better to leave well alone. The grounds for abortion set out in the 1967 Act are, in my judgment, much more precise than the grounds in this Bill. The flexibility of the 1967 Act, coupled with the 1929 Act, provides a balance between the interests of the mother and those of the unborn child. I shall, therefore, vote against the Bill.
This is a most unsatisfactory Bill and a most unsatisfactory debate because the Bill is fundamentally and deeply dishonest. It is put forward by hon. Members who are anti-abortionists and want to remove all rights to abortion in this country, but they do not have the honesty to put forward that position. They know that it is not supported in the House or in public opinion, so they pretend that it is a Bill to prevent late abortion. It is not a Bill to prevent late abortion. The overwhelming bulk of people opposed to the Bill want to do everything possible to prevent late abortion when it is preventable.
I shall give way in a moment.
There are all sorts of things that we could do. These matters are currently being considered in the House of Lords, and I appeal to anyone who thinks that he wants to consider the 24 weeks option not to support this muddle and to wait for that other more rational Bill to come to the House when it has been thoroughly examined in another place.
I fail to understand the logic of the hon. Lady's argument. Was not the 1967 Bill, and is not the 1967 Act, supported by people who believe that abortion should be more readily available than the Act states?
I have no idea. I was not a Member of the House when that Bill was put forward and I have never met anyone who says that there should be an extension beyond 28 weeks. I do not understand the hon. Gentleman's position.
Many people believe, in deep conscience, that abortion is always wrong. I respect that position. Within the existing law, people who hold that view can exercise their conscience. No one is required to have an abortion if she thinks it is wrong. We are not talking about that position. We are talking about people who claim the right to impose their conscience on other people whose conscience says otherwise. There are people who say in conscience that there should be no abortion but who introduce a Bill that says that abortion can be allowed up to 18 weeks. Where are the morality, conscience and ethics of that? It is a fudge and a muddle, and it is leading to a debate that is bringing the House into disrepute At least some of the truth is coming out in the debate. Hordes of Members of Parliament who are not here yet will come in later to vote for or against the Bill and determine what will happen. The overwhelming bulk of them do not support the Bill but say that they support the 24-weeks proposal. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) has adopted a deeply duplicitous position. He had the right to draft the Bill. He could have proposed a 24-week rule. He could have proposed an exception for foetal abnormality. But he has deliberately put in a provision that says that abortion would be al lowed up to 28 weeks only if the child would be born dead. The hon. Gentleman has the cheek—because, as he tells us, he taught disabled children for one year — to say to women and parents who have borne, cared for and loved disabled children who died in deep pain after some years that they should not have the right to make the choice next time. How dare the hon. Gentleman and others say that.
May I say to this House of Commons — this overwhelmingly male House of Commons — that it should have more humility when approaching this issue. When I was 10 I thought that I was against abortion. I came from a large, happy, Catholic family, and that was the teaching. It all seemed simple. Then I started to grow up. I am a woman, and my body changed. Some of my friends became pregnant because men sometimes misused them and walked away. Every man in this House who has ever used a woman's body and walked away and did not know the consequence has no right to vote on the Bill. Women's bodies carry the consequences of such behaviour. If men in the House were honest, most would have to walk away.
I am grateful to the hon. Lady because at least she is putting the extreme case on the other side. I ask two questions. First, does she deny the right of men to have moral views on this subject? This is a matter of morality. Secondly, does she recognise the great concern in society in general at the way in which freely available abortion has changed the nature of society? We are entitled to a view on that change.
Everyone in the world is entitled to a view on every question, but some questions should be approached with more humility than others. I am personally deeply impressed by the arguments of people who have borne and cared for disabled children. I have not had that experience, but I approach with humility the experience of others. I suggest that men should approach this question with humility because the women bear the consequences.
There is all this talk of care and love for disabled children. As has been said, residential homes all over the country are full of disabled children for whom no one cares. The divorce rate of couples who bear disabled children is high — and who is left to care for those children? The women.
Let us be clear about the existing law. There has been a lot of pretence and falsity about it. The law provides that it is an offence to abort a foetus capable of being born alive. As medical technology has changed and it has become possible to preserve the life of babies born very early, naturally the law and practice have changed. The number of post-24-week abortions has diminished massively as it has become possible to preserve the life of 24-week babies.
I wonder whether hon. Members really know about 24-week-old babies. Only 15 per cent. of them survive, and a third of them are brain-damaged. Those babies are on the very brink of life. The units that do such lovely work and care for those precious babies attempt to preserve their lives. The babies are kept in plastic boxes with tubes in their bodies. There is much evidence now that if they do survive they are emotionally hurt and damaged because they are not nurtured and cuddled in the way that babies need. They are on the brink of life, and medical practice already takes account of their survival rate.
Two thirds of post-24-week abortions are for severe foetal abnormalities. The Bill does not provide for that, but we are told that it will be adjusted in Committee. We are told about the other hard cases. Many involve very young girls who have been sexually abused in their families. They do not know that they are pregnant, or do not reveal it until late, and so have abortions after 24 weeks. We are told about menopausal women who have brought up their families and loved them and do not realise that they are pregnant — they think that their periods have stopped because of the menopause. Such women would be forced by hon. Members who claim to know better about their lives, their bodies and their families to bear those children. It is a disgrace. Let me say to hon. Members who believe in a 24-week limit that we already have that limit with exceptions. That is the practice now. I should like to see some changes, as there is no doubt that late abortions take place unnecessarily.
I should like to say something about private clinics. In my region, which is one of the worst in the country, many doctors and nurses in the National Health Service refuse to perform abortions to which women are entitled legally, so women go to charitable clinics to get their legal rights. No one makes any profit whatsoever, and the work is done with care, in the interests of the lives of those women. The cheap, snide remarks about people performing abortions for profit are not true. The issue is too important for such cheapskate lies to be thrown about the House.
As for foreign women, many come from Northern Ireland, where the law is different, and from the 26 counties of Ireland.
Is the hon. Lady implying that the constitutional arrangements for Northern Ireland have changed? Is Northern Ireland still to be regarded as part of the United Kingdom?
The hon. Member knows my view on that. I thought that he shared my view that Northern Ireland should not be part of the United Kingdom. I look forward to the day when there is a united Ireland. I know that Northern Ireland is not always treated as part of the United Kingdom. The law is different in all sorts of respects. The law on obortion in Northern Ireland is different from that in the rest of the United Kingdom. Therefore, Northern Ireland women come to Britain to get their rights under the existing law.
No. The hon. Gentleman should know that this is a serious argument and not a cheap debate.
Women travel to Britain for abortions, from Ireland, Northern Ireland and from other parts of Europe where the law is different from ours. There is nothing wrong or immoral about those women. If the law in their countries is not right and they come to Britain and go to a clean, charitably-organised clinic for an abortion, there is nothing wrong with that. We are extending a freedom to those women to which they are entitled. Let us not pretend that there is something disreputable in that.
I am puzzled that all the polling evidence shows that an overwhelming majority of hon. Members support the existing law, yet the overwhelming bulk of Tory Members seem to support the Bill, which restricts the right of abortion. I have thought about that carefully and I wonder why it is. The hon. Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) is wrong.
I am making the point I wish to make—the hon. Gentleman can make his.
I am perplexed by this. The underlying reason is that the new Right in America goes around bombing abortion clinics, photographing women who go there for abortions and sending the photographs to their neighbours. That is the kind of crude behaviour that comes from the new Right. The growing new Right in Britain is saying that women should stay at home and bear children and care for elderly and disabled people. They are not in favour of public expenditure; they want to push women back into a traditional role and deprive them of the freedom to control their lives—[Interruption.] Hon. Members may laugh. They always laugh and sneer when we talk about the status of women and their freedom. The behaviour of hon. Members is absolutely consistent.
I appeal to anyone who is in favour of preventing late abortions not to vote for the Bill. If the sponsor of the Bill wanted a 24-week limit with exceptions and wanted to prevent late abortions beyond that limit, he would have brought in a different Bill. There is much that we can do. We could have, as many other countries have, self-referral up to 12 weeks. Many women have abortions post-12 weeks because of delays in the National Health Service. The Health Service should be required to plan for the number of woman who will come for abortions so that the current delays will be reduced. Such things could be done to prevent late abortions. We have a 24-week limit, with exceptions for very hard cases.
A Bill is to come from the House of Lords which will enable us to have that position. If today's Bill is voted for, we will have an 18-week limit, which really means 16 weeks, with no exception for foetal abnormality unless the child would die. We are told that concessions may be made in Committee, but if the Bill is passed with a large majority the Committee will be dominated by anti-abortionists and the concessions will not be made. The hysterical public campaign will go on and people who think they may switch their votes will be under enormous pressure. This is not a rational way to decide such an important question.
I beg the House to vote the Bill down and to look at the much more considered Bill which will come from the House of Lords.
I would like to make one simple but important point. This matter is sensitive and controversial. The Abortion Act 1967 was of great importance, and the leader of the Liberal party, the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) deserves full credit for what he did then. The Act removed many social ills which we all hated and has given us 20 years of comparative stability in dealing with the problems and arguments that go on.
Hon. Members can set an example on this matter by moving ahead with consensus. It is apparant that the debate on the Bill is not producing that. It has been said that the various alternatives could be fully discussed in Committee. We all know what happens with the composition of private Member's Bills Committees—without any disrespect to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton)—and we know the difficulties of taking up on Report matters which have been fully debated in Committee, but that is part of our constitutional proceedings. If the Bill goes through Second Reading to Committee, it will be extremely difficult to debate any other position in the House.
We have a great opportunity to look at the problem from the point of view of moving ahead with consensus. The hon. Gentleman has not disguised the fact that, because of his religious beliefs, he is entirely opposed to abortion. The position of the Synod of the Church of England has been mentioned. I am a member of the Church of England and I understand that position, but I cannot help noting that there is much picking and choosing as to which view of the Synod of the Church of England one accepts on a particular subject.
However, allowing for that, I am aware of the religious beliefs that are expressed and held most strongly. Crusades do not always lead to the most desirable results, as we know from history. Above all, they lead to considerable intolerance. It is essential that we in this House should be tolerant of those outside whose ethical and religious views do not coincide with our own, and on this subject, there are a considerable number of our fellow citizens whose views do not coincide with our own.
The 1967 Act was based on a combination of provisions from the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 and new provisions. The way ahead on the basis of consensus is now very clear. The 1929 Act could be amended to give a limit of 24 weeks, which would in fact mean 22 weeks. Such a proposal would gain the support of the whole medical profession, as cited in opinion polls and on television. According to all my inquiries, the medical profession accepts that a limit of 24 weeks—in practice 22 weeks — would deal with the advances in medicine over the past 20 years and at the same time with the practical arrangements available for dealing with these problems. If the House had been able to give a lead with a Bill containing that proposal, that Bill would have gained overall agreement and we could then have moved forward to another period.
The particular problems mentioned, such as that of private clinics, need to be dealt with in some other way. They are controversial in themselves and are not affected by the Bill. The problem of private clinics can be dealt with separately, through the Health Service or, if the House so wishes, by legislation. My greatest concern is that, after 20 years of stability, we should now take advantage of the advances in medicine and the practical arrangements that can be made—which in some cases may be lacking—to take a further step forward. I wish that that had been the purpose of the Bill. As it is not, I shall oppose the Bill, although I shall strongly support any Bill from another place that reduces the limit to 24 weeks—in effect 22 weeks. That would gain the overall acceptance of the medical profession, of whose advice the House should take great note.
As has been very clear, this is an issue on which there are deeply held and totally conflicting views; it is correspondingly difficult for any Minister to speak in a debate such as this. In his opening speech, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), fairly acknowledged the difficulties of the subject. He also stated clearly, and I thought rightly, that the Bill does not itself set out to challenge the principle of legal abortion. He rightly made it clear that he thinks that abortion should not be legal, but he recognises that it is; indeed, a large part of his case rested on the fact that he did not propose to reverse the basic position. The hon. Gentleman presented the Bill as one that attempts not to return to the pre-1967 position but to modify the working of the law to make it more acceptable to the substantial body of opinion—whatever its exact size, none of us can dispute that it is substantial —that is affronted by the scale of abortion in recent years, and particularly by abortion at a relatively late stage in pregnancy. He argued that the gain from achieving a change in the balance would outweigh the contrary arguments adduced in the debate.
I would say to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) that the hon. Gentleman is at least entitled to seek the judgment of the House on the proposal that he has put before it, rather than on what is in his mind but which he has not brought before the House.
I think that the House already knows that which I must state clearly, that the Government have no collective view on the merits of the proposal by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill. The considerations involved are clearly both moral and practical. Some hon. Members will see the moral considerations as overriding, while others will see as paramount the practical considerations. I think it is fair to say that most hon. Members who have spoken will not see the matter in such a clear-cut way, but will want to strike a balance between the two conflicting sets of considerations. At the end of the day, each hon. Member will have to decide for himself or herself what the balance should be and how we should vote on the Bill.
In such a debate, my role as Minister for Health is not to speak for the Government in the ordinary sense, but to set before the House such advice as I can give from the advice available to me, which I think might help hon. Members to make a decision. I must necessarily concentrate on the practical issues, because being Minister for Health gives me no special status to advise others on matters of conscience or morality.
First, I shall comment on the legal position. It has been clearly recognised in the debate that the Bill represents a clear change in principle from the abortion legislation introduced by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale and passed in 1967. That is because the Abortion Act 1967 contains no upper limit for the gestational age at which an abortion may be performed. It must be accepted as a matter of law that to introduce such a limit is to introduce a distinct and new concept compared with the present position.
As hon. Members have said, the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 applies in England and Wales and protects any foetus capable of being born alive. It also contains a rebuttable presumption, and the fact that it is rebuttable is significant. It is that a foetus of 28 weeks gestation is capable of being born alive. As the House knows, in the light of our capacity to keep very young infants alive, the Government have given their support, and similar support has just been echoed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Mr. Heath), for a measure currently under discussion in another place. That measure seeks to reduce the gestational age at which this presumption is made from 28 weeks to 24 weeks. However, it is a proposition of a different kind from the one that is now before the House, because the Bill before the House would make illegal all abortions after the 17th completed week of pregnancy, except in cases where it was necessary to save the life of the mother or if the life of the child could not be sustained.
I shall make the point a little clearer. Under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act—this is why I emphasised the word "rebuttable" — it is open to a doctor who has performed an abortion outside the limits thought to be provided by the Infant Life (Preservation) Act to prove that the child was not capable of being born alive. The onus of proof at that point is shifted; the House ought to bear that significant point in mind.
I know that many hon. Members wish to speak and I shall try to keep my speech brief. I had intended to spend a few moments advising the House as clearly as I can on the views about the current capacity of a foetus to be born alive. I shall say only that I am advised that the 22nd gestational week is considered by doctors to be the earliest time at which there is the slighest possibility of a foetus being born alive, because before then the lungs are not mature enough to function, even if ventilated.
The House will be aware that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, as well as the British Paediatric Association, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Royal College of Midwives and the British Medical Association, produced a report in 1985 on foetal viability and clinical practice. That report recommended that the age at which a foetus is considered viable should be reduced from 28 weeks to 24 weeks. Earlier this year, that recommendation was confirmed by that same group of organisations when they looked again at their 1985 report.
Alongside the support that I have already said the Government have extended to the proposition in the form of a Bill—not a Government Bill—introduced in the other place, the Department has taken a number of significant steps effectively to implement the recommendation about 24 weeks. We have done that in two ways. First —this has already been referred to, but I should make it clear — we have made it a condition of approval for private sector nursing homes that no abortions are carried out after 24 weeks. The position is less clear in the NHS, but the Department has arranged for the report to be drawn to the attention of the fellows and members of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists.
As has been said on several occasions, the number of abortions after 24 weeks is now very small. On the latest figures for 1986, there were 29 at the 25th week or above. Hon. Members will have their own views about whether a number as small as even 29 is to be dismissed, bearing in mind that we are talking about individuals who will have their own views and circumstances, including in a large number of cases the fact that by then they will know that their baby is likely to be born handicapped. However, I think all hon. Members will accept that on those figures, and with the continuing likelihood of a further decline in the number of abortions occurring so late, the practical effect of introducing a 24-week limit into the Abortion Act would be small, according to our current experience.
I do not have the breakdown of those 29 with me. However, I understand from a point made earlier that the figure is about 70 per cent. I think that that is right, but if it is wrong, I shall ask that some message be passed to me so that I can correct that later.
Before the Minister leaves that point—he is, of course, right — does he therefore recognise that inserting a 24-week rule will not make any difference if people are concerned about abortions on eugenic grounds? What does the Minister have to say about late social abortions, 92 per cent. of which after 18 weeks are performed on perfectly healthy children?
I shall come to that point in a moment.
I have already made it clear that it is important that to understand that the practical effect on reducing the number of abortions of a time limit of 24 weeks would be small. Nevertheless, there are some who would see establishing the principle of a limit as a significant gain. Hon. Members must judge those issues for themselves. I shall not try to give them a steer, as a Minister, on how they decide to vote.
There has been a good deal of reference to the statistics involved. I shall set them out as clearly as I can, although I fear that they do not add much to what has already been said. If such a Bill had been in force in 1986, about 8,000 of the 172,000 abortions that were performed in that year in England and Wales would not have taken place.
The hon. Member for Mossley Hill pointed to the fact that many abortions at 18 weeks and over are performed on foreign women. The exact statistic is that, out of the 8,276 abortions in England and Wales at 18 weeks and over in 1986, 3,688 were to non-residents. For this purpose, non-residents include women from Scotland, Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, as well as women from foreign countries. Abortions performed on women resident in foreign countries amounted to 3,461, which was 42 per cent. of the total. The vast majority of those women came from France, Spain and the Irish Republic.
That reflects—in one case it would be more accurate to say that it reflected—the difficulties that women have in obtaining abortions in those countries. In Eire, abortion is illegal. In France, abortion is available on demand up to 10 weeks gestation, hut is severely restricted after that. However, in Spain a law legalising abortion in certain circumstances was passed in 1985. The numbers of women coming to this country from Spain are now dropping rapidly.
With regard to foreign women, can my right hon. Friend defend a practice whereby we are effectively breaking the law of other countries? Perhaps more importantly, from the point of view of those women, what guarantee is there that a quick abortion at a London clinic will be followed up by the aftercare that is absolutely essential, psychologically and medically, for women who have had an abortion?
As a matter of common sense, all of us would accept that it is less than desirable for women to be crossing international boundaries in order to receive medical treatment of that sort. Undoubtedly, many hon. Members on both sides of the House will take the view that it is wrong for women to come to this country for abortions when they cannot obtain them in their own country, and that view will be held partly for the reasons adumbrated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine). That is something about which I must leave hon. Members to make up their own minds.
Others will take a somewhat different view of foreign women coming to this country. For women to contemplate visiting another country and experiencing an unfamiliar health system in order to have an operation of this sort is an indication of the great pressure that develops for a woman who has an unwanted pregnancy. Therefore, to some extent it suggests that, if the limits are made too restrictive, the same consequences may follow for some women in our country, whether in terms of seeking to go abroad or returning to back-street abortions.
We should also look at that bearing in mind that there are clear financial links. There is a business contract involving foreign women coming to this country. Is it not the case, as shown by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, that 60 per cent. of late abortions carried out in private clinics were performed by 11 doctors?
I have inquired about that, and I am told that the Department is not aware of any evidence to that precise effect. The Department monitors carefully, on the basis of unannounced visits apart from announced visits, the operation of private sector clinics. If we find evidence of abuse, we act to deal with it.
That cross-boundary international flow raises the question what will happen when women with an unwanted pregnancy find themselves denied an abortion in their locality. That has to be considered by hon. Members.
I am not in a position to do what the House might like me to do, which is to make any sort of estimate as to what the possible effects would be in relation, for example, to illegal abortions if the Bill is passed in its present form. One of the happiest facts — I accept that there are unhappy facts too—of what has happened since 1967 is that the number of deaths from criminal abortions has dropped to nil in recent years. It is equally the case—I want to recognise this clearly — that because the Bill would not affect the vast majority of abortions that take place in this country, and because there would undoubtedly be added difficulties in undertaking illegal late abortions, it is unlikely that the passing of this Bill would lead to the sort of back-street abortions that we saw in the early 1960s and before.
Against the background of the number of women who go to great lengths in order to obtain an abortion, it would be rash to say that there would be no risk of some degree of return to abortions outside the law. That is something the House will have to bear in mind.
It is very difficult for me to assess the various factors that may be involved. I am not in a position to confirm the proposition that the hon. Gentleman has put to me.
The hon. Member for Ladywood has mentioned that one of the difficulties is the variable availability of NHS abortions around the country, for reasons that I, at any rate, would frankly not wish to disturb. Whatever else we may disagree about, we surely agree it would be wrong to compel consultants and nurses, who have a conscientious objection to the performance of abortions, to undertake them.
The Minister has said that consultants should be free not to carry out abortions or late abortions if they find that repugnant. However, he is missing the point that those consultants may also appoint staff within their areas who agree with their views and that that may have a major impact on the availability of early or late abortions on the NHS in such areas.
I readily recognise that that is a matter on which there are a number of insoluble problems and many dilemmas. I stick to my fundamental proposition, that I would not wish to be a Minister for Health who is in the business of seeking to compel clinicians to undertake procedures of which they conscientiously disapprove.
Some reference has been made to particular cases that have been highlighted by the BMA concerning the possible implications for young girls who do not recognise or who attempt to conceal their pregnancies, and menopausal women who fail to recognise that they are pregnant until it is too late. To help the House to judge those points, and in recognition that they need to be balanced against other views, I can inform the House that, out of a total of 8,276 abortions at 18 weeks and over, 2,865, or over one third, are to women under the age of 20. A further small proportion, about 3 per cent., or 253 abortions at 18 weeks and over, are to women aged 40 and over. Again, hon. Members must make their own judgment about the significance of those figures.
There is one other category that has not been referred to in the House and for which I cannot give any statistics or evaluate in general terms, but which should be mentioned — the possibility of women whose infection with the AIDS virus is not recognised until a late stage of pregnancy. Clearly, under present circumstances, that problem will grow. I emphasise that it is for hon. Members to weigh all of these factors against many other considerations.
The last major point upon which I feel I ought to seek to offer some information and guidance to the House relates to the many references that have been made to handicap and, in particular, the tests and the timing of the tests that can presently or prospectively be available to discover handicap and allow choice to be made.
When my right hon. Friend gave us some figures just now, I thought that he would refer to the approximately 4,800 abortions per year at over 18 weeks that are carried out on women from England. He has not said what proportion of those abortions are carried out by the NHS for which he is responsible. The Minister and his colleagues have made us well aware of the immense pressures due to the increased demand on the NHS and thus the demand on its operating facilities. In view of that, how can it be argued that someone who is waiting for an operation — there are many people, some in pain, waiting for operations of all sorts on the NHS—should have a lower priority than the late abortion of a healthy baby?
I note my hon. Friend's views. However, given the views implied by his question, I do not think that I would want, in return, to express an opinion about the particular needs of particular people without knowing rather more about the circumstances in which they find themselves and what has led them to request a particular form of medical attention.
It is important to say something about the handicap issue and the question of tests. Obviously, completely new tests may eventually become available that may alter the position, but, as I am advised, the position on the main tests currently available is as follows. The first test, serum alphafetoprotein, is usually done at 16 weeks. It is a test on the mother's blood to identify women who are more likely than average to have a foetus with an open neural tube defect, particularly a proportion of spina bifida cases. The test usually shows up as abnormal in an encephaly. Amniocentesis is normally done at 16 weeks. It is used to assist in confirming the presence of a foetus with open neural tube defect, or to give cells that can be cultured to determine whether there is a genetic or chromosomal abnormality if there is reason to suspect that they may be present.
That cell culture takes two to three weeks, and if it fails, as it sometimes does, the test may need to be repeated. Abortion stemming from the findings is seldom possible much before 20 weeks, and in latter tests it sometimes may be as late as 24 weeks.
Untra sound scanning is mostly carried out at 16 to 18 weeks. The later it is done, the more accurate it is in assessing foetal abnormality. Its main uses are to assist in determining the gestational age, which may be important in interpreting other tests for foetal abnormality, to detect multiple pregnancy and to see abnormalities of foetal structure.
The test that has perhaps been referred to most in the debate, and in which there is most interest in the future, is chorionic villus biopsy, which is normally carried out at the earlier stage of between 8 and 12 weeks gestation. It is a relatively new procedure and can be used as an alternative to later examination of cells in amniotic fluid obtained by amniocentesis at between 16 and 18 weeks. It is used for the detection of genetic or chromosomal abnormalities if there is reason to suspect that they may be present. I am told that it is not an alternative to the procedures of alphafetoprotein testing or ultrasound scanning.
The House must bear in mind that, as yet, chorionic villus biopsy is not universally available, and that its safety and accuracy are still being studied. Clinical experience so far shows that, in general, results are accurate, although a small percentage of chromosome abnormalities need to be confirmed later by amniocentesis. There may be a problem regarding safety, in that miscarriage after amniocentesis is between 1 and 2 per cent., whereas after chorionic villus biopsy it appears to be twice that figure. Sometimes, there is the further problem of infection following this procedure.
Interpreting what the Minister has just said, will he confirm that at present—other tests may be developed in the future—it is essential to give a choice to mothers who may be passing genetic defects? Those defects may lead to severe disability. Does the Department have a view of the implications of the Bill in those terms, given the Minister's responsibility in regard to disability?
I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to proceed with a carefully noted piece. I shall cover the points that he has raised.
If the indications of accuracy and safety are confirmed by research, and no other hazards of the chorionic villus biopsy emerge in the study, obstetricians may be expected to want to offer a choice of chorionic villus biopsy or amniocentesis when women whose previous family history shows the need for genetic or chromosome studies present early enough in pregnancy. Women would be likely to be told that, although there are occasionally problems with accuracy and a somewhat higher miscarriage rate, chorionic villus biopsy can provide a good indication of whether the foetus has chromosomol or gene abnormalities that are otherwise detectable through amniocentesis.
It can do so early in pregnancy, thus making possible .the option of a safer and less unpleasant termination before 12 weeks for some groups of women. There are indications that a majority of women would choose chorionic villus biopsy, but that a substantial number would opt for amniocentesis at 16 weeks.
The figures that the Minister has given are interesting. My wife and I lost our first baby because it suffered from hydrocephalus spina bifida after a full-term pregnancy. For the next four healthy children that we had, we were under a great deal of strain. For the first two there were no tests, but for the last two they were available, and we had the option, which we would have taken if we had had a severely disabled child. What worries me profoundly about the Bill is that parents such as myself and my wife will not have that choice.
I am sure that all hon. Members will wish both to extend their sympathy to the hon. Gentleman for his experience — it has been interesting to hear about that experience—and to take it into account in deciding what their view should be.
In considering these tests, there are one or two further points that I must make. First, in dating a pregnancy, the margin of error either way is commonly as much as 10 days. Secondly, if a foetal abnormality is detected by one diagnostic method, a further method may have to be used to confirm the diagnosis, and that can mean some delay, especially if the woman has to be referred to a different hospital. Thirdly, delays in systems can sometimes occur for a variety of reasons, whether staff absences, equipment failure, because the woman is ill, because a relative, perhaps a child, is ill, or because of something as mundane as transport difficulties.
All those matters must be borne in mind, but they lead to the conclusion that, as the Bill stands, with the provision that only a child likely to be born dead or with physical abnormalities so serious that its life cannot be independently sustained, would be excluded from its working, there is likely to be some increase in the numbers of severely handicapped children born, whose mothers might otherwise have decided to have an abortion.
I hope that I have made it clear that I am seeking to put factors before the House which hon. Members should bear in mind and that I do not attempt to press my judgments upon them. I am sure that it is right for me to stick to that position. In view of the reference to the fact that more than 90 per cent. of abortions at 18 weeks and over are for reasons other than foetal abnormality, which is undoubtedly correct, it is also fair for me to put before the House—
Is my right hon. Friend aware that Professor Stuart Campbell said on Tuesday that he would stake his professional reputation on the fact that there are far more class 4 terminations than are recorded, because of administrative failures in the system?
I note with interest what my hon. Friend said, but that is not a matter on which I shall attempt to make a judgment.
The House should also note that the proportion of abortions done on grounds of foetal abnormality increases considerably with gestational age. At 18 weeks, the proportion is 6 per cent.; that rises to 21 per cent. at 24 weeks and to more than 70 per cent. above 24 weeks. At least that is something which the whole House will wish to bear in mind.
I have probably said as much as I can usefully and helpfully say to the House as Minister for Health. I emphasise again that, neither in that capacity, nor in my capacity as a member of a collective Government, am I advising the House and hon. Members in any way as to how they should vote on this Bill. The House is perhaps entitled to know, and perhaps it is right for me to say, that in my capacity — I emphasise this strongly — as an independent Member of Parliament with his own purely personal views, I would be more than ready to support the introduction of a clear legal time limit for abortions. But I do not find myself conscientiously able to support the passage of the Bill in the precise form in which it has been presented to the House today.
I am sure that most right hon. and hon. Members who were in the House in the 1970s will remember that this is by no means the first attempt to restrict the Abortion Act 1967. I well recall, as if it were yesterday, the first attempt, in March 1975, because it was almost a year after I had entered the House; that was the James White Bill. It was followed somewhat later by the Bill sponsored by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes (Mr. Benyon), and then later by John Corriels Bill. All those Bills were fought off by the strength of public opinion and by the common sense and sense of justice—I use the words advisedly—of the House of Commons.
Now, in 1988, it is 20 years since the 1967 Act, during which back-street abortions, as the Minister said, have completely disappeared and a new generaton of young women and men has grown up with a law that has allowed women — often with difficulty even under the present Act and often with unnecessary delays—to obtain a termination safely and legally.
Let me dispel two myths that have been referred to here and in the press during the past few weeks. The first myth is that the present Act gives women the right to choose. It does not. Two doctors must agree, and the need to obtain an abortion must comply with one of the provisions in the Act. Abortion is not another method of contraception. That is another thing that is widely said, and quite untrue. Anyone who believes that can have no idea of the agony of mind that all women undergo before making the momentous decision to have an abortion.
The second myth is that women opt for an abortion on trivial grounds, such as that it would restrict their social activities or affect their figures. They are much more serious people than their critics give them credit for. Certainly an unintended pregnancy, often as a result of contraceptive failure, will give many women much to think about. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) referred to the choice that women have of being able to take contraceptive pills or use contraceptive devices. I am sure I do not have to remind her that there is such a thing as contraceptive failure, and that quite a number of women have had to resort to an abortion in the end because of it.
I can recall a number of studies done in the past two or three years which have put much fear into the minds of women about the effectiveness of the contraceptive devices they are using — of the pill, for example. What about the cuts in family planning services that are being made? I was in Stevenage about 10 days ago and visited its family planning clinic, which is faced with a 50 per cent. cut in resources over the next 12 months. That will mean an increase in the number of women who may become pregnant as a result of not having proper treatment.
Whatever the reason for an unintended pregnancy, it affects the mental and physical health of a woman in terms of her children or other family responsibilities, adding further strains to an already over-strained household income. Damp, overcrowded housing conditions or homelessness may well be factors that must also be considered. Social research has proved many times that those factors have a direct impact on mental and physical health.
The British system of support for pregnant women is not all that good. Indeed, it is about the worst in western Europe. We have cut the maternity grant for all but the most needy and deprived — those on supplementary benefit—and even that is insufficient to provide the required diet for a pregnant woman. Girls aged under 16 are not given even that meagre benefit.
One of my constituents is a simple parent with a violent husband. She has three children, the oldest of whom is aged l4½. They live in a freezing, hard-to-let house. The house is so cold that they live effectively in one room. Last December, the 14-year-old daughter gave birth to a premature baby. The baby is ailing. The local hospital cannot keep it in, although its health demands that it returns to hospital frequently. That baby has been born and is physically perfect, although it is weak. Some people have tremendous stresses and strains on their lives. They might have forgiven that 14-year-old girl, and her mother, for having an abortion in those circumstances. I certainly would, and I hope that hon. Members who do not always agree with me would. That baby is loved, and I hope that it will survive.
I do not like the suggestion that those of us who opposed the Bill do not care about disabled people. Our record of care and concern for disabled people is as good as that of anyone else. I hope that no one will run away with the idea that there is any difference.
Many hon. Members have mentioned amendments that might be tabled to the Bill in Committee. It is said that a limit of 24 weeks might be acceptable. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) has hinted that amendments might be accepted in Committee. But he drafted his Bill with remarkable precision. Had he been thinking about extending the time limit, he would not have
tried to define the limit almost to the day. I beg the House to consider the words of the Bill. It is not an 18-week Bill, but a 17-week Bill. It says:
A woman's pregnancy may be terminated in accordance with section 1 of the Abortion Act 1967 at any time up to the beginning of the 18th week of gestation.
That is the seventh day of the 17th week. I do not know how anyone could be so precise about the period of gestation. If the hon. Gentleman now believes that a later limit may be acceptable, or that he could live with it, he should have introduced an entirely different Bill, or introduced none at all.
I fully understand the hon. Lady's view that this may not be the exact moment to fix the limit, and I have said that that will be a legitimate argument for the Committee. But every other country in western Europe fixes an exact date for an upper time limit? If it is possible there, why can we not do it?
I shall tackle the point about which the hon. Gentleman is dismayed. He realises that that may not be the exact time. That point worries me, too. In Committee, we may talk about 22 or 24 weeks. Perhaps we will not. Perhaps some hon. Members will want to put forward 12 or 14 weeks. There is no guarantee that we will pass the Bill stating 17 weeks precisely, go into Committee, and come out with the Bill that we want. That is not on offer.
We have Report stage if amendments have not been properly discussed. Normally, Mr. Speaker will not accept the repeat of a matter that has been properly discussed in Committee.
Let me consider the remainder of the Bill and the way in which it is worded. Clause 1(2) allows terminations up to the end of 28 weeks. Thank goodness for something. However, it is restrictive in the extreme. It allows abortion to save the life of a mother. It allows abortion if a child is likely to be born dead or with abnormalities that are so serious that life cannot be independently sustained. In the briefing that he circulated to all hon. Members, the hon. Gentleman listed 11 types of handicapping disorder to demonstrate how his exemption clause will affect each group. I am informed by Professor Marcus Pembrey, Mothercare professor of paediatric genetics at London university, that over 2,000 different conditions can now be detected during pregnancy. Who will decide which conditions will be exempted?
Hon. Members who attended Professor Pembrey's presentation in the House a few weeks ago were visibly shaken by the examples of severe abnormality and multiple handicap that the professor assured us will fall outside the exemption as it is phrased in the Bill. How can, say, 16 or 20 hon. Members sit in Committee and decide? We are not doctors. We have some doctors in the House, but they are not necessarily specialists. How can we, as lay people, decide between different kinds of handicap, the names of which we probably cannot even pronounce, let alone understand? I would much rather leave that decision to informed medical opinion. That is where it should be left.
The hon. Gentleman has done one service for us. Practically everyone in the country now knows what an amniocentesis test is, that it cannot take place until the 16th week and that results are not available until 20 weeks. Perhaps, as a result of the debate that has gone on in the country, many more women will want to have an amniocentesis test because they have now heard of it, particularly if they are in any doubt about their pregnancies. We have the amniocentesis test, and the ultrasound screening to which the Minister referred, but it does not provide certain results until the 18th to 20th week, or even later.
There are known cases in which abnormalities or lack of development appear to be indicated by early ultrasound screening. If the pregnancy is continued with careful screening and back-up, further tests can reveal and have revealed that such abnormality has disappeared. If the Bill is passed with a much earlier upper time limit, it is entirely possible that, because they are cautious and worried, doctors will unnecessarily abort and that women will unnecessarily lose children whom they want. That is another reason why 18 weeks is a ridiculous time to put into the Bill.
I am sorry that those hon. Members who take a restrictive view of abortion were not present on Tuesday last in the Grand Committee Room to hear the moving and humbling testimony of mothers who have had abortions because they decided not to continue with their pregnancies after foetal abnormalities were detected. Some hon. Members were there. We heard from mothers who have since had or are going to have perfect babies. They said that if, because of the law, they had been forced to carry on with their earlier pregnancies and were now, against their will, trying to cope with handicapped children, they would never have risked having another child. They still grieve over the loss of their first baby, but they are all glad that the back-up of screening and our present humane and compassionate laws gave them the opportunity to make their individual choice and to go on with confidence to have more children. Who will sit in judgment on the first such woman to seek an illegal abortion, if the Bill is passed?
Nothing has been said this morning about mental handicap. It is specifically excluded from the Bill, because the hon. Member for Mossley Hill has excluded the reference to mental health which is in the original Act. There are approximately 160,000 severely mentally handicapped people in this country and almost 1 million mildly mentally handicapped people in England and Wales. As a society, we try to support their desire to live an ordinary life within the community, and that is right. That includes allowing them and helping them to develop relationships with the opposite sex and, for some, at some stage, marriage. Sadly, it also means being at risk or being exploited by others in the community.
The diagnosis of pregnancy in mentally handicapped women is often very delayed because of their unawareness of their condition and because they fail to seek medical advice. A child born to a mentally handicapped mother runs a high risk of being mentally handicapped and of having other congenital defects of varying severity. Pregnancy, delivery and fostering or adoption can have devastating effects on a mentally handicapped woman and her partner and, more commonly, on her aging parents who have devoted all their young lives to the care of their child. Any reduction in the upper time limit for therapeutic abortion would have a traumatic effect on this small but important group of people.
I wish to refer briefly to another group of people. I received a letter, dated 4 January, from Dr. Lindsey Allan, senior lecturer in paediatric cardiology at Guy's hospital. She says that, since 1980, her unit has specialised in the
detection of congenital heart disease in early foetal life. With present technology, the optimum time for foetal cardiac examination is about 18–20 weeks gestation. Major heart disease can be accurately detected from this time on. At least 25% of children born with heart defects will die in the first 10 years of their life, often after a restricted existence, chequered with repeated hospital investigation and major heart surgery.
Those children would certainly be excluded under the exclusion clause of the Bill because they would be born alive and, in other respects, able to exist independently, but they would die before they were 10 years old.
Dr. Allan goes on to say:
Faced with the prospect of a very poor long-term prognosis for their child, the majority of parents elect termination of pregnancy — 32 of a possible group of 40 parents made this choice in 1987.
I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman, but I should have liked him to deal with cases involving mental handicap and heart disease which will not be covered by the clause. Much has been said about chorionic villus sampling; the Minister has said that tests are going on at present. It will be quite a long time before these will be universally available, however.
We have talked about amending the Bill in Committee. I hope very much that we shall not get to that stage, but that we shall defeat the Bill today. We must keep repeating that 18 weeks is on offer — not 20, 22 or 24 weeks. Several permutations have been offered around, but we do not want to go down that road.
All informed opinion is against the Bill. I have a list of organisations, as I am sure do others, that have appealed to the House to vote against it. There are lists of royal colleges and organisations for the handicapped. It was somewhat sharp practice for those hon. Members—one of whom is not listening—who referred to the poll of gynaecologists to talk about 62 per cent. of gynaecologists being in favour of a much lower time limit. Let us be frank: there are more than 3,000 gynaecologists, only 40 per cent. of whom replied. That is a small sample of informed opinion.
I am sorry, but I shall not give way. The hon. Gentleman has time to make his own speech.
In 1975, 9 per cent. of abortions in Tower Hamlets were performed at 17 weeks and above. In 1977, Peter Huntingford opened a day-care abortion service and, by 1981, 1.8 per cent. of abortions were carried out at 17 weeks and above. With proper day care, the number of late abortions can be reduced, and that is the way to do it. In 1981, when I proposed a ten-minute Bill to place a duty on all health authorities to make such provision available equally to all women, the hon. Member for Mossley Hill voted against it. He consistently said throughout the argument before this debate that he favoured a much better and more evenly spread provision of National Health Service facilities. The hon. Gentleman voted against my legislation, and so did every other sponsor of this Bill who was in the House at that time.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right—1 did vote against it. I am not in favour of earlier abortions. I am in favour of better care, better love and better resources—many of the things about which the hon. Lady has talked. That does not mean to say that we should favour abortion. The most repugnant part of abortion is late abortions, and that is all that my Bill specifically deals with.
It is not any kind of answer to imply that one's concern for better and more even provision of NHS facilities is connected with the Bill and with abortion facilities and now to say that one is just concerned for general resourcing across the board.
We were all pleased that the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), the original sponsor of the 1967 legislation, was able to spare time to speak today. The good, courageous pioneers—there are many in the Strangers Gallery listening, including the Abortion Law Reform Association—who campaigned for the 1967 legislation within the framework of the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 and sought to help women and protect them against the dangers and exploitation of back-street and self-inflicted abortion. I remind hon. Members of the practices that claimed 95 women's lives in the one year alone that preceded the 1967 Act.
The Minister has said that he doubts very much whether, if the Bill is passed, there will be a wholesale return to back-street abortions. There may not be a wholesale return to the back streets—I hope that we will never find out — but there will probably be a return of some sort. I would not wish to see a return to those days.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who I know has personal experience of such matters.
As the Minister said, there has not been one death from abortion in the past three years. Today, hon. Members will be searching their hearts. I beg them to think very carefully before voting for such a draconian and ill-thought-out Bill, which will do nothing to help deprived women and families, and everything to confuse the law and criminalise women. I hope that the Bill will be defeated.
If another Bill comes from the other place, we shall have to consider it and come to a decision. In the meantime, I prefer to keep the existing Abortion Act with the flexibility of a 28-week upper time limit, so that we do not criminalise women who are in pain, terror and worry, and so that we do not criminalise doctors. I ask
Order. It will be evident to the House that many hon. Members on both sides of the House still wish to speak, and that varying views are held on both sides of the House. I strongly appeal to any hon. Member who is called from now on to be extremely brief, in the interests of other hon. Members who wish to speak.
I support the Bill. I am motivated by the fact that it endeavours to do what the 1967 Act lamentably failed to achieve. It tries to define where life starts, and the rights of one individual over the life of another.
We all accept that if someone is born perfectly healthy and then, through illness or a major accident, becomes grossly handicapped, that person still has the right to live and is classified as a separate human being with full civil rights. We all accept that if a child is damaged because something goes wrong at birth, such as oxygen failure, that child is a human being with fully established civil rights, and has the right to live, no matter how handicapped.
We do not allow a woman to choose whether to continue a pregnancy when she is more than 28 weeks pregnant. We already say that there must be some restriction of one individual's right of determination over another's right to live. I support the Bill because it asks whether we have that right, and, if not, why not, and what should be the correct limit. The Bill has been described by various hon. Members who oppose it as muddled. I maintain strongly that the 1967 Act was a muddle. The 1967 Act said that what is in the womb is not life because a woman has a right of abortion under certain loose circumstances. It also said that perhaps it is life, and perhaps we should protect it, so we shall define the circumstances in which a woman can have an abortion, be they ever so loose. It fudged the issue. We must decide when life is life and must be fully and absolutely respected, as hon. Members would respect each other's lives. It has been widely accepted that babies survive at 24 weeks, although it would be conceded by my hon. Friends, that it is a massive struggle and only a minority survive, but they survive.
I find it deeply objectionable— I will not use a pejorative word such as obscene— that we have a law that permits two babies to leave their mother's womb at 24 weeks; one is cherished while its life is fought over, and all the medical resources in the country are poured into saving it and its parents desperately want it to live, while the other is wilfully destroyed, being taken from its mother's womb unnaturally at the same age. I find that impossible to accept as a mark of a civilised society.
With respect to the hon. Member for Hackney, North and Stoke Newington (Ms. Abbott), we have had four speeches in a row from the Opposition Benches on her side of the argument, and I would like us to have a little say. That is said with respect, because I know that she feels very strongly about this subject.
I find it unacceptable that we should have those two completely separate attitudes towards a child of the same age. It is even reflected in our language. I have never heard a woman who lost a baby prematurely say that she lost her foetus; she says she has lost her baby. Yet when we decide that we will wilfully destroy a 24-week-old baby, we call it a foetus. That is a dual standard. I am concerned that the Abortion Act 1967 legislated for that standard, and I want to see a revision.
Where do we draw the line? Is it at the presently recorded lowest survival rate of 24 weeks for permanent survival and 23 weeks for temporary survival, or at the point where we think medical science will move in the foreseeable future, or do we recognise as life the time when a child is fully formed, is sentient and can feel pain and react to stimuli? We have all reached different decisions of conscience. The Bill is a valid attempt to set down a line, and I support the line that the Bill has set down.
I recognise fully that other hon. Members have different opinions. For the sake of the 92 per cent. of healthy children who are aborted over the age of 18 weeks, I would not stick doctrinally to a position where the exceptions were so narrow that the Bill would be lost through that. I would rather compromise, even if it goes against what I personally believe, in order to save that 92 per cent. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) is not here to hear me say this, because his major concern was that he did not trust the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) to put together a Committee that would be capable of absorbing that compromise. As an anti-abortionist, I will face that compromise if by doing so I can save unborn life, and many of my hon. Friends would take that view.
The same goes for the line we draw. To be perfectly honest, I would draw the line below the one that the hon. Member for Mossley Hill has drawn, but if in order to save a certain proportion of unborn life I must accept a slightly higher line, I will, with reluctance but straightforwardly, accept that line. All that I ask is that this important Bill, which fills a gap that the 1967 Act left unaddressed and attempts to define the rights of individuals who cannot speak for themselves, should have a chance to be fully examined and to return to the House for final approval or disapproval. I would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East : let us not shut the door this morning. This matter is too important. We must keep the door open because what finally emerges will be a wise, humane, just and civilised Bill; and the present legislation fulfils none of those criteria.
The hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) set out graphically the nature of the compromise that we are required to support if we wish to reduce to some extent the number of abortions that take place annually.
This Bill is not an ideal Bill and was never advocated as such. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton)—my hon. Friend for the purposes of this debate—came top of the ballot. If every hon. Member had the right to introduce a private Member's Bill, we should not be faced with the dilemma that confronts my hon. Friend the Member for Mossley Hill. He believes in a principle. He won the place in the ballot; it was not me or any other hon. Member.
My hon. Friend had to say to the organisations outside the House, "If you wish me to place this matter before Parliament, you will have to accept that, in framing the Bill that I propose, I shall not be able to compromise on one matter." That matter was the question of handicap. My hon. Friend was imprisoned in that position because of his experience of teaching handicapped children for six years. My hon. Friends may find that difficult to stomach, but they must understand that if one cannot secure any other route to abortion reform, one has no option but to accept offers from hon. Members who are prepared to offer their private Member's slot for reform that meets our objectives.
Before I speak to the Bill in detail, I should like to say something about the Labour party and what has happened in the past few weeks. We have been told that the Labour party has exerted pressure on its members. I want to make it absolutely clear that that is not the case. I address myself to those outside the House who have misrepresented this debate and this argument in a most grotesque way when I say that the letter from the general secretary, Mr. Larry Whitty, was a fair and reasonable letter setting out the Labour party's policy. He was absolutely right to send that letter, and he said, as the great majority of members of the party would say, that it is for hon. Members to decide for themselves.
Then we were told that the Labour Chief Whip had sent out a letter over Christmas issuing instructions. That is not true; it never happened. I received the letter, which pointed out that two important private Members' Bills were to be debated at the beginning of January and expressed the hope that there would be a substantial attendance for those debates. I say again to those who have misrepresented these matters outside the House that that is the truth, and I say it as a supporter of the Bill. I hope that that information will be taken back to groups around the country.
Let me deal with the so-called demand for a three-line Whip. I have not heard a demand for a three-line Whip. It has never been part of the argument that there should be a three-line Whip. But I understand why, in certain circumstances, there should be a three-line Whip. If the Labour party takes a position, it is entitled—although it has not done so to date—to demand a three-line Whip on such matters. Hon. Members who want to be true to their conscience have the right to decide what they want to do if they find that a three-line Whip has been imposed upon them. That is their right, and my right and it is for me to decide whether to vote aye or no. If I believe in something, I shall apply what is for me an honourable tradition of the House and cast my vote accordingly.
One of the fiercest opponents of the Bill, my hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mrs. Wise), voted, against a three-line Whip, on a very important measure in 1978 — the Finance Bill. She expressed her view according to her conscience and judgment and was not penalised for so doing. If the party thinks that in these matters voting should be whipped, I do not take exception to that. I say to people outside the House and to people in the Strangers' Gallery that this is a matter for one's conscience but that even a three-line Whip allows one to follow one's conscience.
No one will ever drive me into a Lobby in support of a measure with which I do not agree. Some hon. Members who support the Bill, but particularly some of those who oppose it, are quick to flex their muscles when speaking about matters in which they think conscience is important.
I joined the Labour party for a specific reason. In the mid 1960s I built my Socialism on my perception of life and on the importance that I gave to life issues. I opposed hanging and was in favour of unilateral nuclear disarmament. That was one of the things that brought me into the Labour party. I supported life issues from my first days in the party, and that was one of the crucial building blocks on which I built my Socialism. For many of us, that is an immutable position. As long as we remain in the political process and are able to advocate these matters we shall cast our votes in favour of reform of the law on an issue of this nature. That is because we believe in a principle. However, that does not detract from our right to recognise that some hon. Members, such as the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), feel equally fiercely about such issues. She has the right to put a compromise before the House, knowing that it will be heard throughout the House for what it is.
I have outlined my building blocks, but they are also the building blocks for people throughout the Labour movement. Many people in the movement believe in the life tradition and support my position. In the last few weeks they have written to me and said that, although the party has taken a decision that they cannot accept, they are still Socialists. In formulating their case those people have drawn on exactly the same strands in their philosophy as those strands in my philosophy that hold me together politically. They are faced with the same conflicts.
No. My hon. Friend has just arrived in the Chamber. If he had been here throughout the debate, I would have given way to him.
As I have said, those people are confronted by conflicts. On the one hand, we believe in a principle while, on the other, we know that thousands of women simply cannot find the courage to face the social difficulties that arise and have to proceed with an unwanted pregnancy. I strongly blame the Government for that. My hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) said at a dinner the other night that she sat through a Bill or some meeting at which reference was made to an amendment moved in a Committee dealing with social security reform. She said that Conservatives had refused to accept the responsibility for funding families in which children were in their earliest years.
That is the contradiction for us in the Labour party who believe in the life tradition. We want reform of the law, but the other side of the argument is that many women come to us asking how we can possibly want reform of the law when the very framework and nature of the society that is developing under the Government does not provide the essential support services to ensure at least some help for families who find themselves in this position. That is the conflict that confronts us. In the letters that I have received in the last few weeks, people, especially Labour people, have repeatedly spoken specifically about these matters.
I have heard references to the photograph which was circulated in the newspaper advertisements that we placed in the national press and which was portrayed on hundreds of thousands of postcards that were sent throughout the United Kingdom. I suggest that my hon. Friends who oppose the Bill were distressed by the photograph because it was so graphic in its detail. It was a beautiful photograph of an 18-week foetus. It was clear, precise in colour and produced by the Swedish photographer Nielsson.
The campaign concentrated on that photograph because we wanted to draw the attention of the British people and, indeed, of hon. Members to the fact that we are not talking in grey abstract terms; we are talking about a child who is fully formed in the womb. There was no other way in which we could express, in any detail, what the debate was about. That is why the photograph was used and why the lobby decided that that was the way in which the campaign should be presented. —[Interruption.] If there were any words to which my hon. Friends might have taken exception, I do not know what they were. However, during the campaign all sides may have used words that we may later regret. Indeed, one such phrase was "foreign woman." I used it. I regretted that from day one because it denoted disrespect, but I have heard it used again in our arguments today. However, I agree that some language should have been modified or not used in the way in which it was.
My hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) referred to a Bill that she brought before the House in 1981. I agonised long and hard over that Bill. I am convinced now that in principle she is right. If we are to bring in legislation that will draw women into earlier abortions, we must set up the arrangements to facilitate that. Every time that a young woman is stopped from having an abortion in a clinic in, say, Birmingham, we cannot see that as a gain for the life movement. It is not a gain—it is cheating around the rules. We must ensure that, in the event that we set in place legislation—I hope—that the Bill goes through—
Yes, I hope that the Bill goes through unamended. But I know that it cannot go through in that form. I believe that the Bill will go through in the way in which the hon. Member for Mossley Hill has suggested if amendments are successful.
In the event that the Bill is accepted, I believe that it should be followed rapidly by legislation, or whatever is necessary, so that throughout the United Kingdom abortion is made available within the law as it exists at the time. Equally, there should be proper counselling services whereby woman are given the opportunity of advice so that they are able to make a balanced judgment. It seems utterly wrong that in one part of the country a woman is able to secure a service, which is her right in law, but that in another area she can be obstructed by the medical profession. That seems totally wrong. Part and parcel of the debate on the Bill must be about that provision.
I shall make my position on this issue clear straight away. I am in favour of the Bill because I see it as a first step to no abortions whatsoever. I say that to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short), who is now leaving the Chamber, and who asked us to be honest. I am being honest about this, because there is no point in behaving in any other way.
In saying that, I am aware of the implications for ladies who have been raped, and the implications relating to incest and for the handicapped children who might be born as a result. Nobody has felt more strongly about the impact of rape on ladies than I have, and nobody takes a stronger view about child abuse in the home.
We have heard a great deal today about women's rights, but nothing about women's obligations. The minute a lady takes part in a sexual act, other than by force, she loses the right to control what happens to her body, because at the time of conception there is the beginning of another life inside her. That second life has rights that have to be recognised.
I shall now deal with disabled and handicapped children who may not be born. For children to enjoy life, they do not have to have the speed of an athlete, the body of a bodybuilder or the agility of a gymnast. The book entitled "The Dam-Burst of Dreams" about Christopher Nolan shows that. That young lad has no physical coordination and no normal body movement, but he can perceive life through his words and thoughts clearer than many of us sitting in the House now. He, if anybody, represents the right to life no matter what the handicap. He has the right to life, irrespective of what his mother may have thought.
I will not give way.
Fortunately for Christopher Nolan, he has a mother who wanted him and who has been a great help to him. He has made a major contribution to our lives in this country and elsewhere. There are many examples of handicapped children who have grown up to make contributions to our society.
I am being quick because there are others who want to speak, but I should say that this debate has caused me a great deal of heart-searching. Fifty years ago, a mother of 40 had a child who was born a spastic. That child was me, the Member of Parliament for Hayes and Harlington. I am concerned because I believe that, if the technology that is available now had been available 50 years ago, a doctor may well have said to my mother, "You are 40 years old and you are carrying a disabled child. There is brain damage. Please have it aborted." Opposition Members may wish that had happened; I do not know. I am saying that my right to life came about because the technology was not available to help a doctor advise my mother about whether to allow me to live.
I am a spastic. Of course I am nowhere near as bad as Christopher Nolan, but I have to cope with the stresses and strains of minor disability. However, there was loving care from my mother in my home. By the age of nine, she had taught me how to do up my shoelaces because I could not use my hands properly. She told me that I could take part in sport and lead a normal life. She told me that, if she had her way, which she did, I would make some sort of success of my life. I suppose that having arrived here as a spastic with cerebral palsy is a measure of success.
I have dealt mainly with handicap because people have said that mothers should have the right to decide whether to have a handicapped child. We are talking about a life inside a woman. The doctors advising that women could he wrong. That child could be born, survive and understand what is going on. Christopher Nolan represents the reason why we should not have any abortions at all. However, I understand and am concerned about incest and rape and the implication of a child being born as a result. I do not know the answer, but I do know that life is important from the minute that conception takes place. Of course ladies have rights and we must consider them, but they also have obligations and responsibilities that they have to face up to.
The hon. Member for Barking (Ms Richardson) raised the issue of the mentally handicapped having children. Perhaps in this enlightened society we should be thinking about telling such people that they should not have children and helping them to enjoy a full life. We cannot say that they have the right to have children and then say that they can have an abortion. That is inconsistent.
By its very nature, abortion is wrong. Abortion at any time is wrong. I support the Alton Bill, if I can call it that, because he is making a move in the right direction. Please let us not use handicapped or potentially handicapped children inside a woman's womb as a reason for taking a particular point of view. They have a right to life. In many ways, they lead a more fulfilled life than we do. I am convinced that that applies to Christopher Nolan, in his own way.
Sadly, in the twisted society in which we live, it is often impossible for a woman to say, "yes to life", to the life of the embryo growing within her, without damaging her own life and the life of her existing family.
The whole question of abortion is closely linked to other campaigns that women have been fighting for many years. Indeed, it has already been said that not only did we have to campaign for legal abortion, but we have had to campaign continually against repeated attacks on our abortion rights. The Bill represents the thin edge of the wedge; if it is passed, it will lead to further attacks on women's right to legal abortion.
If we were to win those other campaigns for which we are fighting, we would have a more civilised society, there would be few abortions, and late terminations would all but disappear. To achieve that end, we need improved sex education. We need contraceptives of all kinds, freely available and free. We need better housing and employment and training opportunities. We need safer childbirth—our record is not among the best in the advanced world. We must do away with some of the more recent "conveyor belt practices" connected with childbirth in hospitals, which have a traumatic effect on the baby during birth. We want nursery provision for young children. We want money for medical research into foetal abnormalities to discover them at an earlier stage. We need money for disabled people and money to provide facilities for them. We need money from the Government. as of right, for women who are carers of children, the disabled, the sick and the old.
If we win those campaigns, women will be able to have their children and we shall have a civilised society in which the rearing of children will be the joy that it should be. Nowadays, all too often the birth of an unwanted child leads to child abuse, and that is something we should not forget.
Last week, I sent the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) a copy of a letter that I had received. I received many sad letters, but I was especially struck by this one, perhaps because it came from an old man. Perhaps it was naive of me to send a copy of that letter to the hon. Member for Mossley Hill, or perhaps it was a reflex action after 40 years of teaching, to try to make people face up to the consequences of their activities. That old man told me that he had for many years been looking after his handicapped son of 35, who is mentally disabled. The father was bitter and told how his wife had died in her fifties; he put that down to the strain of looking after their handicapped child. He was sad, he was tired, he was despairing, and above all he was haunted by the fear of what would happen to his handicapped son when he died. I have met many people with handicapped children who are haunted by that fear. It is another factor that has not been considered in this debate.
But the central issue, the most important question to consider, is whether women should have control over their bodies—the right to decide what happens within their bodies—or whether they should be controlled by others. Earlier in the debate, a Conservative Member raised the question of class. Money gives one a lot of rights. Those women, who have a lot of money and education, have the right to get round the restrictions of any kind of Bill. If this Bill is passed, such women will be able to find abortionists and will find a way to have their damaged foetuses aborted even at a late stage. However, poorer women would lose their rights. I am concerned for the rights of poorer women not only to have abortions, but to have children. Those two things are connected.
Some years ago, I was in a women's hospital for a check-up. I was shocked to see the number of women there for sterilisation operations. An unduly large proportion of them were black or Asian women. I went all round the ward asking the women why they were having this operation, and most of them had been advised by their doctor to have it as a form of contraception. It is because of my experiences as a young woman, long before 1967, that I am in favour of abortion on request in an adequate Health Sevice. It would solve almost all the problems of late terminations.
I do not know whether some hon. Members understand that no woman approaches abortion lightly. For the first few days after a woman has had a baby, her body trembles when she hears the baby cry. That is nature's way of tying the mother to the baby. This bonding starts from conception, so it is physically impossible for any woman to approach abortion lightly. They approach it after giving serious consideration to the factors involved.
We have all heard about the pre-1967 period and the gin, hot baths, quinine pills, knitting needles and soap suds. We know that the best doctors—those who were caring and kind—were often criminalised and struck off the register.
However hon. Members may not appreciate the constant shadow that was cast over the lives of women, both married and unmarried, by the fear of unwanted pregnancy. Every month, my generation and my mother's generation worried about becoming pregnant, especially if their period was late. They felt caged, trapped and frightened. They wondered what to do and where they would find someone who would give them an abortion if they could not cope with, or afford to have, another child.
The Bill will lead to the criminalisation of women and doctors once again. Hon. Members who are wavering about how to vote should think about their wives, girlfriends, daughters and granddaughters. They should vote for their choice to have control over their bodies; they should vote against this Bill.
One fact has emerged from the debate about which there has been no controversy—92 per cent. of all late abortions are of healthy babies. There is common ground on that fact, and it has been accepted and confirmed by the Minister.
People have rightly raised their convictions about womenfolk, handicapped children and other matters. They are entitled to do so, but surely we are entitled to speak for voiceless, defenceless, inarticulate healthy babies. The House must concern itself with that matter.
The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) has made his personal convictions clear. The hon. Member for Rochdale (Mr. Smith) said that he was not a Roman Catholic. I need not tell the House my religion [Laughter.] We all have personal convictions.
The hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) made it clear that our prime interest is healthy babies who should not be aborted. A strong voice should be raised in the House for those who cannot speak for themselves.
For more than 40 years, I have been a pastoral minister in a working-class district of east Belfast, and I know the anguish. I speak as one who has had the experience of sitting with young women faced with this problem. I have tried to counsel them and tell them that everything will not be over when they have an abortion. I have in my hand a poem which one of them sent to me, and it is the saddest communication that I have ever received. A young unmarried women who became pregnant decided that an abortion was the best way out for her and two months later she wrote:
There is no more happiness any more
Those days belong now behind a closed door
Darkness and despair now take its place
I hate being a member of the human race
That young woman's heart was completely broken.
Therefore, there is another side to having abortions; there is an aftermath and a harvest. I emphasis that those who adopt the same position as I do feel deeply and understand with compassion the heart-rending decisions that are being made by those people, but there is a more excellent way.
The purpose of abortion must be questioned. Is it for the convenience of others or for the good of the child? That is the prime question that must be asked. It is simply not enough to say in reply that children are unwanted, so should be destroyed. No one has the right to adopt that attitude. The gruesome act of abortion as it has been delineated here today has been repudiated, and it has been said that those facts should not be brought into the debate. But we are talking about a child—a real person—who is being destroyed. That a child should be destroyed within the mother's womb in that way is something about which we must righteously protest.
Those who are ardent campaigners for women's rights indict anti-abortionists as taking from women the right to exercise control over their fertility, but that is another matter from control over life itself, and that must be emphasised. Easy-going tolerance has contributed much to the current vague estimation of the value of life. It does not occur to many that what they call tolerance is in reality a sheer lack of conviction.
It is not particularly significant if a person with no great convictions says that he or she is tolerant. Tolerance is a virtue only if a person believes in something strongly, yet respects the rights of another to disagree. True Christian tolerance does not play footsie with the truth. A good law will not make good people—and we all know that—but evil law not only legalises evil but prevents the development of good and tears down the nation's morality.
The old saying that one cannot make men love by law is true. But Christian realism is not content with that, because it knows that love in social terms is expressed in justice for all, and that "all" includes the unborn child. The Bill calls for an immediate and definite response. The three avenues along which we make our decisions are intellect, conscience and emotion. I contend that in each of those three areas, support for the Bill is the most responsible line that we can take for our society.
I want to pay tribute to the promoter of the Bill, the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), for the time and effort that he has spent on it and for the amount of abuse that he has had to take because of it. We all know that he exercised a self-denying ordinance by refusing himself the right to be Liberal Chief Whip during these exciting times of trial. For that also he should be praised.
I have two points to make, one of them in response to the question asked by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short), who implied that those of us who oppose abortion are somehow being hypocritical by supporting the Bill. That is a valid and understandable criticism, which must be answered. Anyone who believes, as I do, that abortion is wrong must surely take every opportunity to reduce its incidence, even if the step taken will save only one, four, ten or a hundred lives. The decision to compromise with one's own conscience will thus have been rewarded in the most practical way possible.
One thing that has been clear throughout the debate and that will always be clear in such debates is that the issue is not to do with the peripheral matters that have been raised, or with the emotions and anger that have been shown. The subject of our discussion has been variously called a child, a baby, a foetus, a person and a thing. Perhaps if we settled for a proper name, a proper terminology, that might help many of us to make up our minds. I suggest that we substitute the term human being. If we do, there remains one fundamental question to ask and answer as we vote today. What precept of morality, legality or civics can justify the death of 7,000 human beings in this country under a piece of legislation that was sanctioned on the Floor of the House? That is the only serious question for the legislator. We shall answer it today. I repeat it because it is stark, harsh and real, and we shall choose our answer to it when we choose which Lobby to enter. How can we justify in political, legal or civil terms the taking away of life from 7,000 people if we accept the name human being?
I have listened with great interest to all the arguments deployed in the debate. One aspect that has been neglected is the consideration of whether we should dignify the Bill that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) has brought before the House by making it law. The hon. Gentleman seeks to introduce the heavy hand of regulation into human behaviour. Human conduct is largely defined by habit and arises spontaneously to be tested and refined in our courts of law. Whenever this issue has been tested in a court of law, the court has come down on the side of the woman. It has not accepted the precedence of an unborn child over the mother. In the latest case in which this was tested, when a young man brought a case against his girl friend who was some 20 weeks pregnant, the court ruled in favour of the young woman, so we are not a society that has no organisation or laws apart from those decided in this House.
The campaign that has been conducted by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill is largely based on emotion and on some very unpleasant, aesthetically revolting suggestions which have been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House. If those conditions apply to abortions, I am sure that we all deplore them, but they are no reason for denying a woman the right to have a termination if, after consulting her family, her doctors and, where appropriate, her religious advisers, she decides to have an abortion. It ill behoves the House to remove that right from her.
I appeal to my fellow Conservative Members, who are prevaricating on an issue of personal rights. The Conservative party takes great pride in having reduced the role of the state in people's lives during the past decade. We are rolling back the state, yet the Bill would push us back decades into the darker realms of human conduct to the time when the most common cause of female mortality was badly conducted abortions.
British women are solidly against the Bill—
If hon. Members can mention the biased poll conducted by gynaecologists, we can also mention the show of hands on a television programme yesterday, which showed that 90 per cent. of a balanced audience was in favour of a woman's right to choose. It should be noted that every responsible medical society opposes the Bill, including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the British Medical Association, the British Paediatric Association and the Clinical Genetics Society. They are not back-street abortionists making money out of foreign women, with whose plight I sympathise; they are some of the most responsible bodies in the land and they oppose the Bill.
Many other people oppose the Bill. With some of my colleagues—far too few—I attended a moving meeting conducted by parents of handicapped children who have had to live with the problem. I shall not repeat the arguments about physically and mentally handicapped children. Suffice it to say that some of those parents consider it a mercy that children born with appalling difficulties, who live their lives in pain and sorrow and who die young, are now capable of not being born. That is not just my view; it is the view of the parents who attended that meeting.
Many times, the hon. Member for Mossley Hill has trotted out examples of handicapped people who have lived and who are pleased to have lived. I am sure that we all take pleasure in that. But we heard from a young woman with a genetic disorder whose blood must be changed several times a month, who has a pump under her skin to keep her going, who develops extremely painful lumps in her stomach and who is constantly in pain. She told us that she would rather not be alive. For every case that the hon. Gentleman raised, there is another case. I agree that it is only part of the argument, but it is an extremely potent and important point.
It is a matter of civil rights. It is a matter of a woman's right to decide her own future and her own fertility. This Chamber should not lightly take that right from her. Those who consider that abortion is wrong should test their prejudices in a court of law. Abortion matters should be decided in a court of law, not in the House, where our prejudices and religious attitudes are being used in a variety of ways in an attempt to influence the Bill.
The hon. Member for Mossley Hill poses as a caring progressive. His Bill will bring misery and suffering to thousands of families. Those who really care, those who work with the situation, those who have lived with the situation, and even those who were born in the situation oppose him. I beg the House to oppose the Bill.
I waited for the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) to deal with the detail of his Bill. In particular, I waited for him to define what he meant when he said that a woman's pregnancy may be terminated up to the beginning of the 18th week of gestation. I waited for him to tell us what the 18th week of gestation is and how he would go about proving it. There is no legal definition of pregnancy. As a legal matter, the 18th week of gestation does not exist. How would the hon. Gentleman define it? The hon. Gentleman may ask how we define 28 weeks. In practice, we do not; it is not necessary.
The present state of the law is not that abortion is legal up to 28 weeks. Section 1(1) of the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 states:
any person who, with intent to destroy the life of a child capable of being born alive, by any wilful act causes a child to die before it has an existence independent of its mother, shall be guilty of felony".
The term is:
a child capable of being born alive".
The law in such cases is applied case by case. A doctor who performs an abortion after 24 weeks must be ready to justify in the courts that the child was not capable of being born alive. This Bill would not allow a case-by-case analysis. It is a general assertion that there is a particular day on which an abortion will become criminal. The hon. Gentleman does not tell us which day.
Which day represents the 18th week of gestation? Supporters of the Bill do not know. Doctors do not know. The woman concerned does not really know. In any case, the woman is in the best position to say, and she is the one to be criminalised, so she cannot be expected to be co-operative.
At the moment, the law is flexible. It puts a medical matter in the proper position to be argued medically, even if it has to be done in the courts. The Bill destroys that. If hon. Members pass the Bill, we will criminalize thousands of women and their doctors and be careless of the capacity to prove what was being asserted. That would be irresponsible.
We have been told a great deal about the possibility of amending the Bill in Committee. I listened carefully to the hon. Member for Mossley Hill, and I shall tell hon. Members what he is offering. He said that it would be "proper to examine" how to "rationalise the law". He said "examine", not "agree with you". He said that if it would result in a "useful measure", he would not be intransigent, but he also made clear that his view of a useful measure is not likely to be that of the House or of the people outside.
In the past, when we have sought to use the procedures of the House to examine in detail proposals for changing the abortion laws, we have been accused of procedural abuse. I have served on Committees of the House which have dealt with abortion. I have been guilty not of procedural abuse, but of trying to examine the nature and detail of the Bill. I do not believe that the House will give a Second Reading to the Bill, but, if it does, and we come to consider the matter in detail, we shall be abused.
My hon. Friend the Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) says that the matter will be considered in Committee and that it is a matter of compromise and give and take. The quality of his intervention in this matter can be judged by his comment earlier today that, from the beginning, he regretted the introduction of the subject of foreign women. I have a letter from my hon. Friend, dated 17 October 1987, which states:
The reasons we have chosen 18 weeks are as follows.
The concluding sentence of his first paragraph states:
Over half of these abortions are on foreign women.
He did not regret the matter sufficiently.
The offers to amend the Bill, being made so generously in the House today, arise for only one reason. The sponsors have calculated that they cannot win with the Bill as it stands at present, so they are trying to make us believe that the Bill, which was not published until 18 December 1987, will suddenly, by 22 January 1988, be subject to wholesale change.
The hon. Member for Mossley Hill clearly said that he is against abortion per se, whether early or late. That is why he voted against the attempt of my hon. Friend the Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) some years ago to make better provision for early abortion. We are being offered merely procedural gambles. It is a procedural ploy to persuade us to give way because its supporters cannot push through the Bill they have actually presented to the House.
This is a most important matter. We are dealing with the lives and happiness of many people and we should not subject them to a mere procedural gamble in the House. It is also very difficult to get matters which have been considered in Committee back on to the Floor of the House. We do so by all sorts of ploys, such as slightly changing the words. How can we change the words "24 weeks"? They do not lend themselves to that sort of ploy.
The supporters of the Bill say that they are pro-life. I want to protest on behalf of everybody who will vote against the Bill. We are pro-life, but we do not neglect the fact that people also have a right to happiness. Unlike the sponsors of the Bill, on Tuesday, in the Grand Committee Room, we listened to the parents of handicapped children. They said that they had their abortions out of love and described watching their children die. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Dame J. Knight) says that those women have a choice—to remain childless. That will happen if the Bill is passed. We say that women should have the choice of termination of pregnancy and then to go on to bear a healthy child if possible.
I am not ducking the issue of those terminations that are not the result of foetal handicap. Women can be driven to desperation for reasons other than foetal handicap. In addition to the list of those who have said that the legislation is wrong, the Faculty of Community Medicine tells us —if hon. Members have read the brief—what happens to babies who are unwanted.
The remarkable consensus on this issue stretches from every woman Labour Member right across to the Conservative Women's National Committee. That consensus arises not because we have suddenly all become the same sort of people, but because as women we share some life experiences. Hon. Members must be careful in riding against this broad, strong view of women who, day after day, act out of love.
We have had a debate lasting more than four hours which at times has been heated and emotional, as is right when we discuss such a subject. Some 23 right hon. and hon. Members have spoken. I trust that, because of the limited time left to me, the House will forgive my not referring directly to every contribution.
Not all the Bill's supporters are religious zealots, as has been suggested by the media. In fact, I have not been able to spot one. My hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman) suggested that we are all religious zealots. Many who supported the Bill would not support the abolition of abortion, so may we please have that on the record. We are told that we are all anti-abortionists. That is not true. There is much support for the Bill in the House and throughout the country by people who would not wish to see the return of back-street abortions. The hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) is, as he said, a Liberal and a Catholic, yet we have seen during today's debate and previously that the Bill attracts support, and opposition, on both sides of the House and among people of all religious and Christian backgrounds.
In 1966 the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) said:
We want to stamp out the back-street abortions, but it is not the intention of the promoters of the Bill to leave a wide open door for abortion on request.
I wonder whether that is still the case today. Later, the right hon. Gentleman said:
there is a clear statement in the Bill that nothing in the Bill affects the protection afforded by the law to the viable foetus." —[Official Report, 22 July 1966; Vol. 732, c. 1075–77.]
Can we honestly say that that is the fact today? Perhaps not.
Britain's current limit of 28 weeks is the single reason, as we have heard repeatedly, why so many women from foreign countries come here for abortions. Some 43 per cent. of those seeking abortion in recent years have come from other countries. In short, we are becoming the foetal dustbin of Europe. The House should not let that continue.
It has been mentioned that this week the Irish writer Christopher Nolan was awarded a literary prize. That is a grand example of how disability can mask a great talent Hon. Members realise that that young man lacked oxygen during birth, causing his disabilities. We are not suggesting that he was a disabled foetus. However, we can learn a lot. from what Christopher Nolan has to say —[Interruption.]
Perhaps the House will give me a moment to refer to a very short passage from Christopher Nolan's book in which he talks about his own life and says that the future for babies like him never looked more promising, but now society frowned upon giving spastic babies a right to life. Now they have threatened to abort babies like him, to detect in advance their handicapped state, to burrow through the womb and label them for death, to batter their mothers with fear for their coming. and yet the spastic baby would ever be the soul which would never kill, maim or hate brotherhood. Why, then, did society fear the crippled child? That is a timely lesson to us all.
I know that time is not on my side and I cannot say many of the things I would have wished to say. The House is now undecided about whether it should be allowed to legislate on issues that affect women, but that has been happening for centuries. There has always been a male-dominated House of Commons legislating for women. Why should that change today? Now, in 1988, there are more women in the House than ever before, so why should we change the rules? Of course, we should like there to be more women in the House, but at present we must put up with the number that is already here.
All too often, abortion is billed as a battle between the rights of the mother and those of her unborn child. The Bill is designed to provide a choice for mother and child. That is why I support it.
We make many claims to be a civilised society. How can such a society allow the dismemberment of human beings without anaesthetic for removal from the womb, followed by the careful rebuilding of the dead child in some hospital sluice room to check that nothing has been left inside the mother? The living unborn deserve better than obscene and macabre games.
It is important that the Bill should be debated more fully in Committee. We have heard many reasons why it should not reach Committee. I ask hon. Members who support the Bill to vote for it today to ensure that it reaches Committee so that many of the objections, worries and concerns that have been expressed today can be examined in much more detail and voted on by the House at a later stage. I commend the Bill to the House.
Order. I wish to be quite clear that the House appreciates the Question that I put. The closure has been moved, and I put the Question on the closure. I will put the Question again.
|Division No. 150]||[2.28 pm|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Davis, David (Boothferry)|
|Alison, Rt Hon Michael||Day, Stephen|
|Allason, Rupert||Devlin, Tim|
|Alton, David||Dickens, Geoffrey|
|Amess, David||Dicks, Terry|
|Amos, Alan||Dixon, Don|
|Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham)||Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James|
|Arnold, Tom (Hazel Grove)||Dover, Den|
|Ashby, David||Dunn, Bob|
|Aspinwall, Jack||Durant, Tony|
|Atkinson, David||Eggar, Tim|
|Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N)||Emery, Sir Peter|
|Baldry, Tony||Evennett, David|
|Batiste, Spencer||Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)|
|Battle, John||Fallon, Michael|
|Beggs, Roy||Favell, Tony|
|Beith, A. J.||Fearn, Ronald|
|Bell, Stuart||Fenner, Dame Peggy|
|Bendall, Vivian||Field, Frank (Birkenhead)|
|Bennett, Nicholas (Pembroke)||Finsberg, Sir Geoffrey|
|Benyon, W.||Fookes, Miss Janet|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Forman, Nigel|
|Biggs-Davison, Sir John||Forsyth, Michael (Stirling)|
|Blackburn, Dr John G.||Forsythe, Clifford (Antrim S)|
|Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter||Fox, Sir Marcus|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Franks, Cecil|
|Boswell, Tim||Freeman, Roger|
|Bowden, A (Brighton K'pto'n)||French, Douglas|
|Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich)||Gale, Roger|
|Bowis, John||Garel-Jones, Tristan|
|Boyson, Rt Hon Dr Sir Rhodes||Glyn, Dr Alan|
|Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard||Goodhart, Sir Philip|
|Brandon-Bravo, Martin||Gow, Ian|
|Bray, Dr Jeremy||Grant, Sir Anthony (CambsSW)|
|Brazier, Julian||Greenway, Harry (Eating N)|
|Bright, Graham||Greenway, John (Rydale)|
|Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's)||Gregory, Conal|
|Budgen, Nicholas||Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)|
|Burns, Simon||Grocott, Bruce|
|Burt, Alistair||Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom)|
|Butcher, John||Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)|
|Butler, Chris||Hanley, Jeremy|
|Butterfill, John||Hannam, John|
|Campbell, Ron (Blyth Valley)||Hardy, Peter|
|Campbell-Savours, D. N.||Hargreaves, A. (B'ham H'll Gr')|
|Canavan, Dennis||Hargreaves, Ken (Hyndburn)|
|Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)||Hawkins, Christopher|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Hayes, Jerry|
|Carrington, Matthew||Hayhoe, Rt Hon Sir Barney|
|Cash, William||Hayward, Robert|
|Chalker, Rt Hon Mrs Lynda||Heddle, John|
|Channon, Rt Hon Paul||Hicks, Mrs Maureen (Wolv' NE)|
|Chapman, Sydney||Hill, James|
|Chope, Christopher||Hind, Kenneth|
|Clark, Hon Alan (Plym'th S'n)||Holt, Richard|
|Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford)||Hordern, Sir Peter|
|Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)||Howard, Michael|
|Clarke, Tom (Monklands W)||Howell, Rt Hon David (G'dford)|
|Conway, Derek||Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)|
|Cook, Frank (Stockton N)||Hughes, Sean (Knowsley S)|
|Coombs, Simon (Swindon)||Hughes, Simon (Southwark)|
|Cope, John||Hume, John|
|Crowther, Stan||Hunt, David (Wirral W)|
|Cummings, J.||Hunter, Andrew|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Hurd, Rt Hon Douglas|
|Curry, David||Irvine, Michael|
|Irving, Charles||Pawsey, James|
|Janman, Timothy||Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth|
|Jones, Gwilym (Cardiff N)||Pendry, Tom|
|Jones, Robert B (Herts W)||Porter, Barry (Wirral S)|
|Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine||Porter, David (Waveney)|
|Kennedy, Charles||Portillo, Michael|
|Key, Robert||Powell, William (Corby)|
|Kilfedder, James||Price, Sir David|
|King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)||Raison, Rt Hon Timothy|
|Kirkhope, Timothy||Redwood, John|
|Knapman, Roger||Reid, John|
|Knight, Greg (Derby North)||Renton, Tim|
|Knight, Dame Jill (Edgbaston)||Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon|
|Lambie, David||Roberts, Wyn (Conwy)|
|Lamond, James||Robertson, George|
|Lamont, Rt Hon Norman||Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)|
|Lang, Ian||Roe, Mrs Marion|
|Latham, Michael||Ross, William (Londonderry E)|
|Lawrence, Ivan||Rossi, Sir Hugh|
|Lawson, Rt Hon Nigel||Rost, Peter|
|Leigh, Edward (Gainsbor'gh)||Rowe, Andrew|
|Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark||Rowlands, Ted|
|Lester, Jim (Broxtowe)||Rumbold, Mrs Angela|
|Lightbown, David||Sainsbury, Hon Tim|
|Lilley, Peter||Salmond, Alex|
|Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)||Sayeed, Jonathan|
|Lofthouse, Geoffrey||Shaw, David (Dover)|
|Lord, Michael||Shelton, William (Streatham)|
|Luce, Rt Hon Richard||Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)|
|Lyell, Sir Nicholas||Shepherd, Richard (Aldridge)|
|McAvoy, Tom||Shersby, Michael|
|McCrea, Rev William||Sims, Roger|
|McCrindle, Robert||Skeet, Sir Trevor|
|McCusker, Harold||Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)|
|Macdonald, Calum||Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)|
|McFall, John||Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)|
|Macfarlane, Sir Neil||Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)|
|McGrady, E. K.||Soames, Hon Nicholas|
|MacGregor, John||Speed, Keith|
|Maclean, David||Speller, Tony|
|McLoughlin, Patrick||Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)|
|McNamara, Kevin||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Maginnis, Ken||Stanley, Rt Hon John|
|Major, Rt Hon John||Steen, Anthony|
|Malins, Humfrey||Stern, Michael|
|Mallon, Seamus||Stevens, Lewis|
|Mans, Keith||Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)|
|Marlow, Tony||Stewart, Andrew (Sherwood)|
|Marshall, John (Hendon S)||Stewart, Ian (Hertfordshire N)|
|Martin, Michael (Springburn)||Stokes, John|
|Mates, Michael||Sumberg, David|
|Maude, Hon Francis||Summerson, Hugo|
|Mawhinney, Dr Brian||Taylor, John M (Solihull)|
|Mayhew, Rt Hon Sir Patrick||Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)|
|Mellor, David||Tebbit, Rt Hon Norman|
|Millan, Rt Hon Bruce||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Miller, Hal||Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)|
|Moate, Roger||Thompson, Jack (Wansbeck)|
|Molyneaux, Rt Hon James||Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)|
|Monro, Sir Hector||Thorne, Neil|
|Montgomery, Sir Fergus||Thornton, Malcolm|
|Moore, Rt Hon John||Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)|
|Morris, Rt Hon A (W'shawe)||Tracey, Richard|
|Morris, M (N'hampton S)||Trippier, David|
|Morrison, Hon P (Chester)||Twinn, Dr Ian|
|Moss, Malcolm||Vaughan, Sir Gerard|
|Moynihan, Hon C.||Waddington, Rt Hon David|
|Neubert, Michael||Wakeham, Rt Hon John|
|Nicholls, Patrick||Waldegrave, Hon William|
|Nicholson, David (Taunton)||Walden, George|
|Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon||Walker, A. Cecil (Belfast N)|
|O'Brien, William||Walker, Rt Hon P. (Wcester)|
|Page, Richard||Waller, Gary|
|Paice, James||Walters, Dennis|
|Paisley, Rev Ian||Ward, John|
|Parkinson, Rt Hon Cecil||Wardle, C. (Bexhill)|
|Parry, Robert||Watts, John|
|Patten, Chris (Bath)||Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)|
|Patten, John (Oxford W)||Whitney, Ray|
|Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey||Wilkinson, John|
|Wood, Timothy||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Worthington, Anthony||Mr. Toby Jessel and|
|Yeo, Tim||Miss Ann Widdecombe.|
|Abbott, Ms Diane||Dunwoody, Hon Mrs Gwyneth|
|Adams, Allen (Paisley N)||Dykes, Hugh|
|Adley, Robert||Eadie, Alexander|
|Alexander, Richard||Eastham, Ken|
|Allen, Graham||Evans, David (Welwyn Hatf'd)|
|Anderson, Donald||Evans, John (St Helens N)|
|Arbuthnot, James||Ewing, Harry (Falkirk E)|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Fairbairn, Nicholas|
|Armstrong, Ms Hilary||Fatchett, Derek|
|Ashley, Rt Hon Jack||Faulds, Andrew|
|Ashton, Joe||Fields, Terry (L'pool B G'n)|
|Banks, Tony (Newham NW)||Fisher, Mark|
|Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)||Flannery, Martin|
|Barnes, Mrs Rosie (Greenwich)||Flynn, Paul|
|Barron, Kevin||Foot, Rt Hon Michael|
|Beckett, Margaret||Forth, Eric|
|Benn, Rt Hon Tony||Foster, Derek|
|Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)||Foulkes, George|
|Bermingham, Gerald||Fraser, John|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Fyfe, Mrs Maria|
|Blair, Tony||Galbraith, Samuel|
|Blunkett, David||Gardiner, George|
|Boateng, Paul||Garrett, John (Norwich South)|
|Bottomley, Mrs Virginia||Garrett, Ted (Wallsend)|
|Boyes, Roland||George, Bruce|
|Bradley, Keith||Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John|
|Brown, Gordon (D'mline E)||Gill, Christopher|
|Brown, Nicholas (Newcastle E)||Gilmour, Rt Hon Sir Ian|
|Brown, Ron (Edinburgh Leith)||Godman, Dr Norman A.|
|Browne, John (Winchester)||Golding, Mrs Llin|
|Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)||Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles|
|Buchan, Norman||Gordon, Ms Mildred|
|Buchanan-Smith, Rt Hon Alick||Gorman, Mrs Teresa|
|Buck, Sir Antony||Gould, Bryan|
|Buckley, George||Grant, Bernie (Tottenham)|
|Caborn, Richard||Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)|
|Callaghan, Jim||Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)|
|Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)||Ground, Patrick|
|Carlisle, John, (Luton N)||Harman, Ms Harriet|
|Cartwright, John||Haselhurst, Alan|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Haynes, Frank|
|Clay, Bob||Healey, Rt Hon Denis|
|Clelland, David||Heath, Rt Hon Edward|
|Clwyd, Mrs Ann||Heffer, Eric S.|
|Cohen, Harry||Hicks, Robert (Cornwall SE)|
|Coleman, Donald||Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.|
|Colvin, Michael||Hinchliffe, David|
|Cook, Robin (Livingston)||Holland, Stuart|
|Corbett, Robin||Hood, James|
|Corbyn, Jeremy||Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)|
|Couchman, James||Howarth, George (Knowsley N)|
|Cousins, Jim||Howells, Geraint|
|Cox, Tom||Hoyle, Doug|
|Cran, James||Hughes, John (Coventry NE)|
|Cryer, Bob||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)|
|Cunningham, Dr John||Hughes, Roy (Newport E)|
|Darling, Alastair||Hunt, John (Ravensboume)|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)||Illsley, Eric|
|Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g)||Ingram, Adam|
|Davies, Ron (Caerphilly)||Jack, Michael|
|Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)||Janner, Greville|
|Dobson, Frank||John, Brynmor|
|Doran, Frank||Johnston, Sir Russell|
|Dunnachie, James||Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S W)|
|Kinnock, Rt Hon Neil||Redmond, Martin|
|Kirkwood, Archy||Rees, Rt Hon Merlyn|
|Knowles, Michael||Rhodes James, Robert|
|Knox, David||Richardson, Ms Jo|
|Leadbitter, Ted||Riddick, Graham|
|Leighton, Ron||Robinson, Geoffrey|
|Lestor, Miss Joan (Eccles)||Rogers, Allan|
|Lewis, Terry||Rooker, Jeff|
|Litherland, Robert||Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)|
|Livingstone, Ken||Ruddock, Ms Joan|
|Livsey, Richard||Ryder, Richard|
|Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)||Sackville, Hon Tom|
|Loyden, Eddie||Scott, Nicholas|
|McAllion, John||Sedgemore, Brian|
|McCartney, Ian||Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)|
|McKelvey, William||Sheerman, Barry|
|McLeish, Henry||Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert|
|Maclennan, Robert||Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)|
|McTaggart, Bob||Shore, Rt Hon Peter|
|McWilliam, John||Skinner, Dennis|
|Madden, Max||Smith, Andrew (Oxford E)|
|Madel, David||Smith, C. (Isl'ton & F'bury)|
|Mahon, Mrs Alice||Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)|
|Maples, John||Snape, Peter|
|Marek, Dr John||Soley, Clive|
|Marland, Paul||Spearing, Nigel|
|Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)||Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)|
|Martin, David (Portsmouth S)||Squire, Robin|
|Martlew, Eric||Steel, Rt Hon David|
|Maxton, John||Steinberg, Gerald|
|Meacher, Michael||Stott, Roger|
|Meale, Alan||Stradling Thomas, Sir John|
|Michael, Alun||Strang, Gavin|
|Michie, Bill (Sheffield Heeley)||Straw, Jack|
|Michie, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute)||Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)|
|Miscampbell, Norman||Taylor, Matthew (Truro)|
|Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)||Thomas, Dafydd El is|
|Mitchell, Austin (G't Grimsby)||Thurnham, Peter|
|Mitchell, David (Hants NW)||Tredinnick, David|
|Moonie, Dr Lewis||Trotter, Neville|
|Morgan, Rhodri||Turner, Dennis|
|Morley, Elliott||Vaz, Keith|
|Morris, Rt Hon J (Aberavon)||Wall, Pat|
|Morrison, Sir Charles (Devizes)||Walley, Ms Joan|
|Mowlam, Marjorie||Wardell, Gareth (Gower)|
|Mullin, Chris||Wareing, Robert N.|
|Needham, Richard||Warren, Kenneth|
|Nellist, Dave||Wells, Bowen|
|Nelson, Anthony||Welsh, Michael (Doncaster N)|
|Nicholson, Miss E. (Devon W)||Wheeler, John|
|O'Neill, Martin||Wiggin, Jerry|
|Drme, Rt Hon Stanley||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Owen, Rt Hon Dr David||Williams, Rt Hon A. J.|
|Patchett, Terry||Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)|
|Patnick, Irvine||Wilson, Brian|
|Pike, Peter||Winnick, David|
|Powell, Ray (Ogmore)||Wise, Mrs Audrey|
|Prescott, John||Wolfson, Mark|
|Primarolo, Ms Dawn||Young, David (Bolton SE)|
|Quin, Ms Joyce|
|Radice, Giles||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Raffan, Keith||Mr. Andrew MacKay and|
|Randall, Stuart||Ms. Clare Short.|