Abortion Time Limits

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 12:13 pm on 19th July 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Caroline Flint Caroline Flint Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department of Health) 12:13 pm, 19th July 2005

I was trying to explain the context in which a decision was taken to accept amendments to the Bill that was discussed in 1990. That decision was taken because there was consensus across the medical community that the 28-week time limit was too high, but as I have tried to explain, there is not the same consensus now. We keep all these issues under review and we are, of course, open to contributions from not only Committees and Members of the House, but organisations outside the House, which keep us in touch with the latest science and medical developments.

When the issue of abortion beyond 24 weeks was discussed in 1990, it was decided that abortion should be available without time limit in some circumstances. The decision is a difficult one. About 100 abortions take place each year at gestations beyond 24 weeks, most of which are done on the grounds

"that there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped."

Parliament did not define serious handicap in the Act; indeed, it chose to leave that to the expert judgment of the two doctors involved, who are required to form their own opinion about the seriousness of the handicap that the child would suffer if born, taking into account the facts and circumstances of each individual case. That approach was based on an understanding of the difficulties that arise in such circumstances and of the fact that each woman's pregnancy presents a unique situation to the doctors who have to give her the choice of a termination and set out the grounds.

The guidelines issued by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists include guidance to be taken into account when addressing that issue where the grounds in the Act are met. The document "Termination of Pregnancy for Foetal Abnormality" states that if an abnormality has been detected and two medical practitioners are of the opinion that that there are grounds for a termination, the woman should be advised that she has that option. The royal college guidelines are a helpful aid to professionals who have to make a decision in accordance with the law.

I turn now to judicial review and Rev. Joanna Jepson's case. Further to the Crown Prosecution Service decision earlier this year not to prosecute the doctors involved in the case, Rev. Joanna Jepson has decided not to pursue her application for judicial review.

Several hon. Members raised the issue of improving access to abortion. The requirement for two doctors to agree an abortion was a safety mechanism to ensure that the law was taken seriously. If proposals are introduced to amend current abortion legislation, that will be a matter for Parliament. It is accepted that the current measures are a safeguard. I understand the hon. Member for Billericay when he asks whether that creates unnecessary delays, but I am unsure whether he is suggesting that we should have a policy of abortion on demand or whether he is raising the issue as a debating point.