New Clause 1 — Amendment of the law relating to abortion

Part of Orders of the Day – in the House of Commons at 6:30 pm on 20th May 2008.

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Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Committee 6:30 pm, 20th May 2008

Mr. Gale, it is an honour to open this debate. The only reason why new clause 1 is being considered first, and I am speaking to it, is that we wanted to give the Committee a chance to vote on all the new clauses in ascending numerical order at 10 o'clock; that, I think, is best and most convenient for the Committee.

My new clause 1 will limit social abortions to those carried out before 12 weeks' gestation. In Europe, the most common position is for abortions to take place before 12 weeks. The new clause would not affect some 89 per cent. of abortions.

The minds of most people in the Chamber will be made up. We each know where we stand, according to our conscience. We know when we think life begins, and whether we think it begins at conception or not. That is probably true of the so-called strongly pro-choice or pro-life people. For many of us, there are strong points of principle involved. Later in the debate, we will come on to the detail of the issue of when people think that an unborn child is viable. I hope that the Committee will forgive me if I spend a few moments setting out the principles that motivate us.

There is rightly much talk in the House about human rights and the rights of the vulnerable. In my personal view, there is just one, overwhelming, fundamental human right: the right to life. I must confess that my views have changed over the years. If I am to be honest with myself, I have to take an entirely consistent position. If a vote were to be held on capital punishment, I would vote against it. That is why I voted against all the recent wars, and why I am voting as I am on the Bill. I believe that one can only take a consistent position based on humanity, with all its faults and disabilities. That is where I stand; I do not know any other way. I hope that the House will forgive those of us who take that position.

We sometimes feel that the ghosts of great parliamentarians are looking down on us in our great debates on the social issues of the day. The great-great-grandson of William Wilberforce said recently that he thought that if that great parliamentarian were here now, he would support us. Wilberforce fought against entrenched opposition, moneyed interests and a world view according to which some people were not fully human. We know that we are up against it tonight; we know that the pro-choice lobby dominates the establishment, and that we are talking about a multi-million-pound industry, but for all that, we feel that our voice has to be heard. It is not perhaps the voice of the leading members of the medical establishment, or the voice of the majority in the House of Commons, but it is the voice of many people in our country, and the views expressed by that voice have to be put on record.

We believe that an unborn child of 12 weeks' gestation has undeniable human characteristics. Her organs, muscles and nerves have begun to function. She has fingernails and toenails. To become a child, she needs nothing more than to stay for a few months in the safety of her mother's womb. We will all take different views. Some will not share our opinion, but undeniably the view is developing in this country that what I say is more and more true of unborn children at 16, 18 or 20 weeks. We must accept that in this instance we are dealing with a human life. If we cannot deny the humanity of babies at 12 weeks, we cannot deny our duty to protect them.

Those are our views, and I set them out at the beginning of the debate, but I know that many people will not accept them. However, I think that they will accept that public opinion is changing in this country. That is why I tabled the new clause. The public are beginning to realise that we are out of step with many other countries. That is partly because, as a result of advances in modern medical science, we know so much more about what goes on in the womb.

Only this week, I read a moving article by Vincent Argent, the former medical director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service. He is not a religious person. He has carried out many abortions, and he is presumably pro-choice. He was critical of the euphemistic way we talk of foetuses when we discuss abortions, whereas when we refer to IVF we talk of babies. He said:

"Most people do not realise just how distressing late abortions can be. The procedure remains the last taboo. While heart and brain surgery are regularly shown on television, the reality of a late abortion has never been seen on British screens...It is hard to describe how it feels to pull out parts of a baby, to see arms, and bits of leg, and finally the head."

I know that it is distressing to read that; I do not want to cause distress, but we have to accept that there is a double standard. We are so careful about the life of a baby when it is wanted, and so concerned about the mother's health, but we are dismissive of the rights of an unborn child when it is not wanted. Of course we would like every child to be a wanted child, and of course we appreciate the enormous pressures on women, and the difficulties that they face. However, an unwanted foetus can become a wanted child, but a dead foetus can never become a living one. That is our position.

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Kit Bathgate
Posted on 21 May 2008 5:04 pm (Report this annotation)

This is about more than the right to life. Mr Leigh is speaking on behalf of a foetus' 'right' to live at the expense of another living person's body. (The mother, that is. Remember her? She barely merits a mention, apparently.) Under no other circumstances is there any suggestion that a person is entitled to such a right. So why should it be accorded to a foetus - even if one calls it a baby? Even, indeed, if one views it as a human being right from the moment of conception?

Does Mr Leigh have two working kidneys - and if so, why? Shouldn't he have donated one of them so that someone on the lengthy waiting list can have their right to life upheld?

Whatever the practical difficulties in such an idea, the point stands. Prior to birth, a foetus depends for its survival on a parasitic relationship with the woman carrying it. ('Parasitic' is not intended to be pejorative in this context; it's simple fact.) If that relationship is viewed as an inalienable right, one wonders why it should be withdrawn from someone who has made it out of the womb. Would Mr Leigh support compulsory blood, bone marrow and spare organ donation, to protect the right to life of people who are beyond question conscious and in need? How ironic that someone who declares himself a supporter of the right to life would accord a pregnant woman's wishes less respect than we currently accord a corpse, if its former owner didn't want their organs donated!

I wish that those who call for more restrictions on abortion would take all that effort and put it towards finding a way to harmlessly extract a foetus and gestate it artificially. As far as I'm concerned, only once such a process is readily available will there be anything much to discuss; for only then will there be no conflict between the foetus' right to life and the mother’s rights over her own body.