Abortion Time Limits

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:59 am on 19th July 2005.

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Photo of Evan Harris Evan Harris Liberal Democrat, Oxford West and Abingdon 10:59 am, 19th July 2005

Before I start, I declare an interest: I have been a member of the British Medical Association medical ethics committee for the last few years. In this debate I speak not for the committee but for myself, although my views are informed by the discussions and debates that have taken place within it and among the wider medical community. I am a former hospital doctor. As a medical student, I trained in obstetrics and gynaecology and as a doctor I was aware of the practice of termination of pregnancy in the hospitals in which I worked.

I am conscious that it can be argued that one can fully understand pregnancy and abortion issues only if one is first a woman and secondly one who has been through pregnancy. That is a fair point. Clearly, I do not meet those criteria, and I recognise that there will be those with direct experience of some of the issues that I shall raise. Nevertheless, it is an issue for society, for Parliament and for men and women to debate.

The remarkable thing about this debate is that we are having it at all. The House of Commons Library confirms that it is 16 years since the House of Commons debated abortion in such a way. I hope that, whatever our views, we would all agree that that is far too long to ignore an issue that is so important and controversial that it divides society; people have strong views both ways. It is, therefore, necessary to retain public confidence in the law, and public confidence is best retained not by running away from debate but by revisiting the issues. We must show that, as the people's representatives, we have acquainted ourselves with the ethical arguments and the changes in medical practice and social attitudes that have undoubtedly taken place since the law was enacted in1967 and amended in 1990.

It might well be that, having debated the issue, the House does not change its position but supports the existing approach. That will still be of benefit to the public and the media. They think that for too long politicians have run away from debating the matter further because it is uncomfortable—of course it is—and because it is an issue on which neither the Government nor the Opposition parties, through their party Whips, can control what hon. Members do. We Back Benchers think that that is great, but perhaps Government business managers and party Whips do not. The fact that we have not debated the issue for 16 years shows that Parliament is too heavily dominated by the business managers and Whips and not responsive enough to the views of the public in terms of changing, or at least debating, the law.

Nevertheless, we now have a debate and I have sent an outline of my comments to those on the Front Benches to aid them, particularly the Minister, in preparing their responses. The Minister cannot claim to have had no chance to consider my points, and I am grateful that I had an opportunity to speak to her about the questions that I am going to ask.

One of the key issues is the abortion time limit under the existing law, which is 24 weeks of gestation in almost all circumstances save serious threats to the physical health of the woman or foetal abnormality that could lead to serious handicap. What is the basis of that? Is it because that covers almost all abortions other than the exceptional cases that I have described, so it is a matter of practicality—nobody is denied the opportunity to have an abortion if she meets the criteria for which the law sets out that abortion is legal—or is it based on foetal viability? That is an ethical argument that recognises that the woman's rights have to be respected. However, at the point at which the foetus is capable of living independently of the woman, it gains a moral status that requires us to give consideration to its interests.

That may be a practical choice, but I think that it is the basis of the current limit. As someone who generally supports the existing laws, I am happy to defend my support on the ground of foetal viability, but we need to decide what we mean by viability. Some people argue that viability will move ever downwards, because foetuses will be deemed to be capable of living independently of the woman earlier as a baby will be able to be resuscitated and kept alive earlier by medical advances. It is unlikely that the time will reduce in the near future because of some basic biological issues surrounding the development of lungs. However, if viability is chosen as the reason for the time limit, people will feel that it will become difficult to get an abortion beyond a certain stage of pregnancy.