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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising that question. They are separate issues, although some of the ethical issues are connected. There are clear rules and guidelines from professional medical bodies about what to do with babies that are born alive at a very young age and with profound disability. We do not have time to explore that now, but it is worthy of debate, because questions have been asked about whether we are striving too much or too little on some of those issues.

The Epicure study from 1995—it is somewhat dated—suggested that a small number of babies, two out of 138, born at 22 weeks' gestation, survived. One of them was severely handicapped and one had no impairment. Those are such small numbers that it is not helpful to use the term "percentages", because simply one more would double the percentage. That study also showed that at 23 weeks' gestation, 22 out of 242 babies—9 per cent.—survived with varying degrees of disability. At 24 weeks, 73 out of 382—19 per cent.—survived, also with varying degrees of disability, ranging from no disability to profound disability.

If we take a strict definition of viability, that is prima facie evidence that, in theory, the foetus is capable of living independently of the woman and that the age of viability needs to be reduced. However, we need to know whether those figures are reliable, and whether the gestational age can be determined sufficiently accurately. That is why we need a parliamentary review of the scientific evidence, so that those of us who will base our decision on the science—that will not, of course, apply to everyone—can make that decision in an informed way.

A further question that needs to be raised is whether if the time limit of 24 weeks were reduced, that would have an adverse impact on some women seeking abortion and, if so, whether that impact could or should be ameliorated. There are various reasons why women have late abortions. It is important that those reasons are made clear, because it is often suggested that women who seek late abortions go into it lightly, and that it is dealt with in a trivial way. That is not my experience, and I do not believe that it is the experience of those who see and treat those women. The reasons for late abortion can be listed, and I am grateful to the FPA, Marie Stopes and other organisations for providing that information. Those seeking late abortions include teenagers who cannot face the issue or find it difficult to make a decision; young women whose periods are irregular and who therefore do not realise that they are pregnant until late in the pregnancy; women who are in a similar situation perimenopausally, in which they do not have regular cycles and do not or cannot believe that they are pregnant; and the failure of the type of contraception that stops periods completely, which may delay recognition of pregnancy.

There may also be a problem with doctors not referring women for abortions because of their own religious views. In relation to that, I support the view that it should be made clear to patients in advance of a consultation on abortion which doctor they should see. An informed patient requires that information, and it would also make it easier for the doctor. In respect of late abortion, there are also young women whose doctors might insist that they consult their parents when they are unwilling to do so. It is lawful for them to be referred without parents being involved, but young people may not be able to negotiate with a doctor in that situation.

There are also cases of women who suffer a domestic disaster—there is probably no better word for it—during pregnancy, such as abandonment or physical abuse by a partner, which makes it impossible for them to seek to continue with the pregnancy at a time near the limit. We must recognise that those women have needs and we ought therefore to think about what changes could be made if the age limit were reduced.

I believe that there is now a good case for making first trimester abortions easier to access, without the need for the consent of two doctors. We should treat them as we treat other medical procedures; it should be subject to informed consent and an assessment of its appropriateness and the best interests of the patient. There is a strong argument for permitting medical abortion—the use of the so-called abortion pill at home—where it is shown to be safe, and I regret that the authorities and the Government seem to be stalling on permitting that.