Abortion Time Limits

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:45 am on 19th July 2005.

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Photo of Lynda Waltho Lynda Waltho Labour, Stourbridge 11:45 am, 19th July 2005

I congratulate Dr. Harris on securing the debate. I am glad that we have been able to discuss the topic more or less intelligently and sensitively without anti-choice campaigners trying to revisit the long-decided debate over whether legal abortions should be available. As those who have seen the film "Vera Drake" are vividly reminded, the choice is not whether we have abortion, but whether we have legal or illegal abortion.

Abortion has been legal in this country since 1967 and is very tightly regulated. Uniquely, for a medical procedure, two doctors must authorise an abortion. It is not easy to obtain an abortion and we do not have abortion on demand. Statistics from 2003 show that 182,000 women in England and Wales had terminations; only 13 per cent of those were later than 13 weeks' gestation. Late terminations are very rare; so rare that the figures are difficult to obtain for any categories later than 13 weeks because to do so starts to compromise confidentiality.

In the west midlands where my constituency is situated, 18,000 women had terminations in 2003. Much recent debate has been about reductions in the abortion time limit but I would argue, contrary to the hon. Gentleman, that it is as important and useful to call for research into why these few women who have terminations after 22 weeks—the figure is less than 2 per cent.—are requesting so late. We need to remedy that and also look at the requirement for a second doctor to authorise the procedure.

The decision to have a termination is never easy and never taken lightly by any woman facing an unplanned pregnancy. That is especially true for late terminations, which are not pleasant for anybody involved. Late termination is difficult emotionally for all in those circumstances. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, the patients referred are often distraught because their wanted pregnancy is affected by abnormality, shocked by a late diagnosis of pregnancy, struggling with awful personal circumstances or, as in the cases I have come across in my work with young women, desperate because it has taken so long to arrange.

We all know that while a termination still carries less risk to a woman than giving birth, the earlier a termination takes place, the more straightforward it is. In the west midlands we have the worst record for early termination; only 46 per cent. of terminations take place under nine weeks compared with 58 per cent. nationally. Along with local practitioners and counsellors I am calling for continued expansion of sex and relationships education, improved access to confidential contraception services and speedier access to termination services when contraception fails.

A recent evaluation of the teenage pregnancy strategy showed how seriously it has been taken at a local level and highlights the work of the teenage pregnancy co-ordinators, but it also confirmed how much needs to be done. More than two thirds of young people still do not feel that the sex and relationships education they receive at school fully meets their needs and they are not confident that they can access confidential services for advice and contraception. It is time to look seriously at making SRE a compulsory part of the national curriculum.