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

That is the point that we are discussing. I should say at the outset that I am seeking a parliamentary inquiry so that we do not choose a time limit at random. I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman chose 20 at random, but why not 19 or 21? I shall go through some of the premises on which the law is based, and if we accept the limit, we need to be informed in making the decision.

In the general election campaign, Mr. Howard stated that he thought that the time limit should be reduced. That comment was perfectly reasonable, and it was wrong for him to be criticised for expressing a view in direct answer to a question. The argument that the issue is not political is ridiculous, as we in Parliament are the only people with the power to change the limit. It is not a party-political issue, in the sense that views vary across the parties, and I trust that it is one of the few remaining decisions on which even the Government allow a free vote to their Back Benchers.

Nevertheless, it is right that people, particularly before an election, should find out the views of the person seeking to represent them on an issue that they feel strongly about. I have always made my views clear, and other people should as well. It is right for party leaders to say that they would give Parliament time, in a way that the Government have so far failed to do in two terms, to debate and vote on the issue.

Returning to my previous point, we must bear in mind that if viability is the basis for the limit, earlier viability will impinge on the ability of some women to have abortions. I shall come back to that later. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to say that there will not be a rapid reduction in the time limit, as we are reaching a minimum.

There is also a second question. If we use foetal viability as the ethical backstop, what do we mean by viability? Do we mean that the foetus is capable simply of being born alive, or surviving for a reasonable length of time or surviving through childhood with no serious disability? Can we make a general statement about the limit of foetal viability, or will we have to talk about specific cases? For example, there may be some foetuses for whom a higher limit will apply if they are small for their date because of some developmental delay or if they are part of a multiple pregnancy, which usually goes along with a reduction in size. Gender will also have an impact, and we will need to discuss all of those questions.

The law is not clear. Case law, from a case in 1991, has interpreted the term "viable " literally, arguing that Parliament meant the literal meaning of "viable"; that is, capable of being born alive. It is probably wise, when talking about the difference between abortion and potential manslaughter, that the judges take a literal approach to the law where there has been no further explanation.

However, we are now in an era when it is reasonable for Parliament to seek to define our terms more clearly. If we mean "capable of being alive", that would imply that a baby that was anencephalic—missing most of its brain, but whose lungs were capable of functioning for a short time—would be considered viable. We would not argue that that would prevent the termination of a pregnancy where anencephaly had been diagnosed, because that would fall within the rule that allows termination up to term where a serious handicap would be produced.

In contrast, the US courts have used the concept of viability to mean "capable of meaningful life". That presumably implies a reasonable period of survival but that could usefully do with definition, unless we are happy to leave it to the courts. We may decide that we are happy to do that, but those are issues that we need to decide. If one follows the argument that we define viability or decide to leave it to the courts and we feel that viability is the basis for our law, the question then is this; what should the limit of viability mean? The key question is whether medical advances have meant that it has been reduced.

I do not, for example, take the view that the three-dimensional ultrasound images—sometimes they are described as four-dimensional—demonstrated by Professor Stuart Campbell have any bearing on that. Professor Alan Templeton, the president of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said that they add little to the abortion debate. He said:

"Observing these developments and physiological movements is not changing anything about the time of viability. These images, however, have given rise again to the question as to whether or not there should be a reduction in the time limit of 24 weeks. It is distressing that so much of the comment has been so ill-informed."

Peter Hepper, the director of foetal behaviour research at Queen's university in Belfast, said:

"The images offer fascinating evidence of foetal development but did not advance arguments against abortion. It is unlikely that there is any emotional feeling behind these responses. They are probably just straightforward reflexes or practice for important behaviour at birth."

Some have commented that some of the images imply more movement than there was by using a loop in the pictures in some of the demonstrations. I do not have the details of that. I would argue that we do not need to deal with the question of viability, although it is clearly an emotive one. We need to consider whether, whatever definition of viability we choose, babies are capable of surviving at an earlier stage.