My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Darzi for bringing this important debate before us today and for the wonderful story he told, making us realise how much we must cherish this precious asset we have. The improvement in women’s health since 1948 has been absolutely amazing. I have the time to mention just three measures: the oral contraceptive pill, the Abortion Act 1967, and the improvements in the treatment of breast cancer.
The pill was introduced in the UK and became available on the NHS in 1961, but it was for married women only at that time. That all changed in 1974, when family planning clinics could prescribe single women the pill: it was a very a controversial decision. Now it is taken by 3.5 million women in Britain between the ages of 16 and 49. It gave women, for the first time, the freedom to control their own fertility and it was a great liberation for them. It avoided unwanted pregnancies and a woman could decide when to have children. It proved to be a great advantage in so many ways. Women could now plan their lives, in terms of their education and their job development, and could choose when and if they wished to get married. It changed our society and allowed women the freedom that women of earlier generations could not have dreamt of; that was all because of the National Health Service.
The Abortion Act 1967 allowed women to have safe, legal abortions under the NHS and did away with the illegal back-street abortions that many desperate women turned to because there was no alternative. In 1990 the time limits were lowered from 28 weeks to 24 weeks for most cases because medical technology had advanced sufficiently to justify the change. The Act does not apply to Northern Ireland, but at the last general election the Labour Party manifesto said:
“Labour will continue to ensure a woman’s right to choose a safe, legal abortion—and we will work with the Assembly to extend that right to women in Northern Ireland”.
We are committed to ensuring that women in Northern Ireland will have the same rights as women in the rest of the UK. I trust the Government are equally committed.
Screening was introduced for breast cancer in 1988 in the United Kingdom and now women aged 50 to 70 are offered tests every three years; older women can ask for one. More than 55,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the United Kingdom, but the good news is that more women than ever are surviving breast cancer thanks to better awareness, better screening and better treatments. Around five out of six women diagnosed in the United Kingdom today will be alive in five years’ time, compared with three out of six 40 years ago. The charity Breast Cancer Now has an ambition that by 2050 everyone who develops breast cancer will live. It believes that its research will allow it to achieve its ambition to stop breast cancer taking lives. Combined with the work that the National Health Service is carrying out in research and medical advancements, I think this is possible.
Everyone in this country can give thanks to the National Health Service, especially for the advancements in women’s health. I give thanks to the National Health Service for bringing about such a great improvement in women’s health.