HC Deb 10 February 1961 vol 634 cc853-92

Order for Second Reading read.

1.56 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Robinson (St. Panoras, North)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

I am happy to have a little more time to discuss this subject than had my predecessor who tried in 1952 to change the law on the termination of pregnancy. He was slightly less successful than I in the Ballot, and I think that the House permitted him only one and a half minutes, just before 4 o'clock on a Friday, to deploy his case.

This is a subject of considerable importance. I appreciate that it is also a subject that is distasteful to many people, which makes it all the more necessary that we should think about it clearly and dispassionately. I hope that the House will keep an open mind on the matter, because from some quarters there have been certain reactions to the publication of this Bill that I can only describe as hysterical. That being so, it is desirable that I should very carefully explain just what it seeks to do and also what it does not seek to do.

It is, in fact, a modest and a moderate Measure. Personally, I should have liked to have gone a great deal further, but I have so designed the Bill as to make it, I hope, acceptable to a reasonable House of Commons. Its primary purpose—and I emphasise and re-emphasise that it is its primary purpose—is to put into statutory form what is now the common law, or the established case law on the subject of abortion. Admittedly, as printed, it provides one or two additional grounds for the lawful termination of pregnancy, but I shall deal with that in detail a little later.

I turn now to what this Measure does not seek to do. It has been described as a Bill to legalise abortion. That is not strictly accurate because, in certain circumstances, abortion is already legal. This is not a Measure that could deprive a mother of her unborn child against her will—which is another suggestion that has been made. There is no question whatever of compulsory abortion. It does not seek to impose any obligations upon anybody; it is a purely permissive—and, perhaps, declaratory—Measure. It simply allows doctors, within certain defined limits, in certain circumstances to exercise their medical judgment in good faith, unfettered by the threat, however remote, of criminal sanctions.

I appreciate that the subject of abortion is a very emotive one, and that every kind of attitude is taken to it. Perhaps I could describe the two extremes as I understand them. On the one hand, there are those who say that every facility should be available to avoid bringing into the world a genuinely unwanted child and that in no circumstances should a woman be forced to give birth to a child she does not want. The Bill does not go any significant way towards that objective.

The other point of view is that, once conception has taken place, once the ovum has been fertilised in the womb, any induced termination of the pregnancy amounts morally to murder of human life. I appreciate that this is the view taken by the Roman Catholic Church. It opposes the Bill. I was perfectly well aware that it would do so when I decided to introduce it. The views of the Roman Catholic Church are sincerely held. But, in my view, they are based, not on any logical premise, but on theological dogma. Nevertheless, one respects views which are sincerely held even if one profoundly disagrees with them. I ask only for a tiny bit of respect on the part of Roman Catholics for the motives and sincerity of those of us who are seeking to amend the law and, perhaps, a little recognition of the fact that our reasons are humanitarian, however misguided they may be in their eyes.

I think that the view of the Roman Catholic Church can best be described by a quotation from an address by Pope Pius XII less than ten years ago. He said: … to save the life of the mother is a most noble end, but the direct killing of the child as a means to this end is not licit. That doctrine lays down perfectly clearly that, if it is a question of choice between the life of a child and the life of a mother, then, unfortunately, the mother must die. I think that is not a view which would commend itself to the rest of the people of this country.

I have gone very closely into the question of what constitutes a human life before birth. I have read a good deal about it. I have come to the conclusion that the best case which can be made out on logical grounds is that a human life begins at the point at which the foetus becomes viable—in other words, at the point at which the foetus is capable of an independent life apart from its mother. I am told that normally that point is reached in the 28th week of pregnancy. Except for the saving of the life of the mother in an emergency, the Bill limits the lawful grounds for termination of pregnancy to the 13th week of pregnancy.

The present law and practice in this country can be described in two ways. One might charitably say that it is the good old typical British compromise. One could also say—I am not sure that this is not more accurate—that it is a rather unpleasant example of that hypnotic element which dominated the attitude to sexual matters in Victorian England and which has not been completely eradicated.

The statute law derives from the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861—exactly one hundred years ago—which made it clear that it was a felony to administer drugs or to use instruments to procure an abortion. This Act placed that operation in a unique position, and it remains to this day in a unique position. It is the only surgical operation which is interfered with by the law in any way. It may be a surprise to some hon. Members that sterilisation, both of the male and of the female, is regarded as a perfectly legal operation. Leucotomy which can have the effect of totally changing a patient's personality is legal, although it is a serious thing. The law does not seek to interfere with this type of operation.

The case law is a very different matter. For a very long time it has been generally regarded as legal to terminate pregnancy to save the life of the mother. But only about 20 years ago that case law was extended to cover the mother's health as well as her life. This arose from the case of Rex v. Bourne in 1939. It is a sordid case, but I will tell the House briefly the details of it.

A girl of 14 years of age was "picked up" in Hyde Park by four soldiers and was taken to a stable in Knightsbridge Barracks on the pretext that she was to be shown a horse with a green tail. When she was taken to the barracks she was raped by each of the four soldiers in succession and she became pregnant. Her medical advisers called into consultation Mr. Aleck Bourne who was—I think that he has retired now—one of our most distinguished gynaecologists and obstetric surgeons. Mr. Bourne said, "I will terminate this pregnancy and advise the authorities that I have done so." He did terminate it, and I believe that he wrote to the Attorney-General or to Scotland Yard to that effect. At any rate, he made it clear that he had taken this action well knowing that, according to statute law, he was committing a felony.

Mr. Bourne was duly charged and his case was heard before Mr. Justice McNaghten. The defence was one of necessity. Mr. Justice McNaghten in examining the Statute, seized on the word "unlawfully". The Statute says that the felon is one who unlawfully administers drugs or uses instruments. He suggested that that word carried with it the implication that there might be circumstances in which abortion was lawful. In his direction to the jury he indicated that in his view preservation of the mother's health or longevity, even where there was no immediate threat to the mother's life, should be regarded as lawful grounds for termination. The jury accepted his view. Mr. Bourne was acquitted, and this became the established case law.

Since that time the judgment in the Bourne case has been reinforced by subsequent cases, notably Rex v. Bergmann and Ferguson in 1948. I think that it was during the last Parliament, when Questions were asked about this subject, that the Home Secretary, in answer to one of my hon. Friends who asked whether the Government would introduce legislation to amend the law, replied that he was content to rely on the Bourne judgment.

That may be satisfactory from the Home Secretary's point of view. Lawyers may think that, because this is the case law and the existing common law, it is fine. But the doctors do not always take that view. They take very different views about the law on this subject. Case law does not mean the same to a layman. Some doctors believe that the Bourne judgment may be overthrown by a higher court. I am told that this is most improbable, but, nevertheless, it does not carry anything like the force of statute law.

This gave rise to a situation which I submit is far from satisfactory. Some doctors take the view that all therapeutical abortions carried out in good faith are legal and they perform these operations quite openly in hospital on the basis of their medical judgment. Others are frankly frightened by the legal situation and prefer to have nothing whatever to do with it even though on their medical judgment alone in many cases they would either perform the operation or make arrangements for it to be performed.

I have a rather interesting letter from a psychiatrist who is head of the psychiatric department of a London teaching hospital. Talking about the times when his opinion is asked in cases where termination is suggested by another medical consultant, he wrote to me: Same of my associates at one hospital have shown a complete lack of understanding of the considerations involved and of my attitude to such recommendations and this has prompted me to refuse to recommend termination of pregnancy in any case until the law is altered. This is a very common attitude on the part of the medical profession. It therefore means that we have pregnant mothers treated quite differently in a capricious sort of way according to who the general practitioner is, what town the mothers live in and what hospital they axe sent to. There is no suggestion of uniformity of practice at all in this matter.

This is the present situation. Two consequences of great importance flow from it. First, of course, is the flourishing trade of the unskilled so-called back-street abortionists. These are people, mostly women, who perform the operation often in totally unhygienic surroundings and with unsterilised instruments. These are circumstances which give rise to a number of cases of septicaemia which ultimately find their way to hospital gynaecological beds, and it is certainly a trade which involves a significant number of deaths from these causes.

This is a curious trade, because women who are relieved of their preg- nancy are very reluctant to lay information against the abortionist and, therefore, it is very difficult to obtain any accurate statistics about the number of unskilled operations. In 1939 an official Government committee accepted an estimate of between 44,000 and 65,000 a year. Subsequent information suggests that that is an under-estimate. While freely admitting that one is doing little more than guessing here, I suggest that the current figure in this country is probably between 50,000 and 100,000, although it could be very much larger than even that upper figure.

The second consequence of the present state of the law is the existence of the skilled, fully qualified professional abortionist who is known, I believe, as the Harley Street abortionist. We should be quite frank about this situation. Because of the possibly criminal aspect of the work that these men do, they are able to demand and to receive very large fees for the work. Their fees, no doubt, are regarded as danger money and, of course, it is a perfectly simple matter for anyone who has sufficient money to get a pregnancy terminated today by a qualified medical practitioner on the flimsiest of medical grounds. All that it requires is a cheque book and a slick verbal formula which offers some theoretical protection for the professional abortionist.

This leads in the simplest possible terms to a situation in which there is one law for the rich and one law for the poor. If there were no other arguments for amending the law, I submit that that is a very powerful one. There has been for many years dissatisfaction with the present state of the law in many quarters, but the nature of this subject and the sort of miasma that surrounds it have precluded any widespread campaign. But the Government appointed an inter-Departmental Committee under the then Mr. Norman Birkett which reported in 1939.

The Committee was set up about 1936, or at least long before the Rex v. Bourne case. The Committee's Report is not a very satisfactory document. It is buried in the Departments and is now out of print. I am grateful to the Ministry of Health because when I wanted a copy I was provided with one from the Ministry's own library. It was no doubt surplus to the Ministry's requirements, but it could not be obtained elsewhere.

In paragraph 13 on page 122 of its Report, the Committee makes this recommendation: The present law leaves a medical practitioner who is contemplating the induction of a therapeutic abortion in an ill-defined position which must be regarded as unsatisfactory. The law should therefore be amended to make it unmistakably clear that a medical practitioner is acting legally when in good faith he procures the abortion of a pregnant woman in circumstances which satisfy him that continuance of the pregnancy is likely to endanger her life or seriously imperil her health. No action was taken on that recommendation but nevertheless the subject was by now getting an airing.

The opponents of this reform are apt to quote the experience of other countries, because in many countries the termination of pregnancy on far wider grounds than anything I propose in this Bill is permissible and one is apt to hear scarifying stories about the decline in morals following these measures. The country most frequently mentioned is Sweden which about ten years ago introduced a Bill which make abortion permissible on a wide variety of grounds, including social grounds, which, of course, is not suggested in my Measure.

I have heard it said that the introduction of this Measure in Sweden resulted in a vast increase in legal abortions and certainly no reduction—indeed, some suggest there has been an increase—in illegal abortions. I therefore went to the trouble of getting some official Swedish Government figures. I found that in the ten years during which the Act has been in operation in Sweden the number of applications for legal abortions and the number of applications granted have fallen by a half.

I asked also whether there was any evidence whatever as to an increase in the number of illegal unskilled abortions. The answer I received was that they have no official evidence one way or the other. I do not think one can draw from the experience of Sweden any arguments against the modest advance I am suggesting in the Bill. I am told by statisticians that in its present form the Bill would permit only about 40 per cent. of the therapeutic abortions which are today regarded as legal in Sweden.

There is no reason to imagine, if we were to take this step, that the experience of this country would be any more disastrous than that of Sweden. Therapeutic abortions undoubtedly would rise in number, but they would be done openly. I am not suggesting that the Bill would eliminate the unskilled back-street abortions, but I do say that the rise in the number of properly carried out therapeutic legal abortions would be at the expense of the trade of both unskilled back-street abortionists and the professional Harley Street abortionists.

Although the bulk of illegal abortions are probably carried out for reasons which are not included in my Bill, there are, nevertheless, some—and nobody knows how many—pregnant women who have to go to one or other of these classes of abortionists because the doctor to which they have gone is unwilling, in the present unsatisfactory state of the law, to take a chance, even though his medical judgment indicates the pregnancy should be terminated. Surely it is infinitely better, whatever fraction of the total number of abortions this would represent, that they be performed by skilled doctors in the full light of day, preferably in hospital, with proper hygienic surroundings and as part of the National Health Service. If the Bill achieves no more than that it will still have been worth putting on the Statute Book.

I come now to the terms of the Bill. It is a short Bill and the grounds are contained in Clause 1. I suggest that there will be no argument about Clause 1 (a), that it is proper and should be declared lawful to terminate pregnancy for the purpose of preserving the life of the mother.

Clause 1 (b) is intended to give statutory form to the judgment in Rex v. Bourne. It lays down that it should be lawful for a registered practitioner, acting in good faith, to terminate in the belief that there would be grave risk of serious injury to the patient's physical or mental health if she were left to give birth to and care for the child. Clause 1 (c) has received a good deal of criticism from some quarters and my correspondence has included expressions of misgiving by a number of people. I want to tell the House how I approach this matter. The Bill is based on a draft Bill which is included in a book called A Law for the Rich. It was drafted by the Council of the Abortion Law Reform Association, but as it stands the Bill contains some considerable changes from that draft. When I first considered Clause 1 (c) my inclination was to omit it. I said to myself, "The Bill limits termination to the thirteenth week of pregnancy. Is it possible in the first thirteen weeks of pregnancy to say that there is a grave risk of the child being born grossly deformed or with physical or mental abnormalities which would require constant hospital treatment or special care throughout its life?".

I decided to take the best advice I could and discussed the matter with a professor of genetics, who is possibly the greatest geneticist in the country and, possibly, in the world. It is as a result of my conversations with him, and the memorandum he gave me subsequently, that I decided that there were cases under this heading which formed a proper ground for lawful termination of pregnancy.

I will cite some of the types of cases which would come within the ambit of this Clause. There are certain virus infections of the mother during early pregnancy which can have disastrous results. The most common of these—and for the sake of my argument possibly the only one worth considering—is German measles, which doctors call rubella. I believe this was discovered by an Australian during the war. The original figures have been challenged and it was originally said that the incidence of mental and physical abnormality was exaggerated. More studies were then carried out.

I am supported in what I am about to tell the House by a Report of the Ministry of Health about maternal deaths, which places the risk of serious abnormality from German measles in the first three months of pregnancy at something like 25 per cent. I am more concerned with the first month of pregnancy, because it is a steeply descending curve. I am told that if a woman suffers from rubella within the first month of pregnancy the risk that the child will suffer from deafness, blindness, heart disease or mental deficiency is very high —from 50 per cent. to 85 per cent. being affected. In the second month the risk goes down to between 25 per cent. and 50 per cent. and in the third month it goes substantially lower.

I suggest that if a woman suffers from German measles in the first month of pregnancy and is faced with a risk of up to 85 per cent. that her child will be seriously deformed or mentally defective, and asks that the pregnancy be terminated, the doctor should be permitted by the law to exercise his unfettered judgment in the matter.

The other category which comes under this Clause is that of genetical danger to the fotetus itself. It is possible to state with some accuracy with certain diseases the chances of the disease being carried on to the foetus. The memorandum says that one parent—either the father or the mother—may suffer from a disease which is inherited as a dominant trait. In that case the risk that the child will have the same disease is exactly 50 per cent. The best known of these conditions—and fortunately they are rare—is Huntington's chorea, which is a progressive nervous disease. There is also a malignant tumour of the eye called retinoblastoma. There is then the situation where both parents are normal and yet they can be carriers of a recessive disease, in which case 25 per cent. of the children will suffer from recessive abnormality. There is one form of mental deficiency, phenylketonuria, fairly rare, which comes into this category, and there are others. I mention this only to suggest that this is a field where one ought to allow the doctor to exercise his judgment.

It may be that the wording of this provision can be improved; I do not know. I included it in the Bill because I believed it was right to ask the House to consider it, but if the Bill gets a Second Reading—this applies to other parts of the Bill as well, to everything except the absolute nub of the Bill, which is contained in paragraphs (a) and (b)—I am perfectly prepared to hear arguments from hon. Members and Government spokesmen in Committee, and I can assure the House that I shall be very flexible indeed.

Paragraph (d) provides additional grounds for termination if the pregnancy is the result of offences under four sections of the Sexual Offences Act, 1956.

In other words, if the pregnancy results from rape or incest, or if a girl of 13 years or under is pregnant, I suggest that those circumstances ought themselves to provide lawful grounds for termination in good faith.

I see difficulties about this provision. I will be perfectly frank with the House. I know that it is difficult to prove rape and to prove incest. All I am saying is that it ought to be lawful to terminate in cases where this can be established. If we can find a form of words which will provide 'the necessary safeguards, I shall be prepared to substitute them. If we cannot find a form of words which will achieve this satisfactorily, then I should be prepared, with the greatest reluctance, to drop the provision so far as rape and incest are concerned, although I feel that we should certainly retain it in respect of the pregnancy of girls under 13.

I should also be prepared to compromise on the question of the person of unsound mind, because here again I appreciate that there are difficulties. The case that I have in mind is a woman suffering from a very serious mental disease who becomes pregnant—a disease of such a nature that would make it totally impossible for her ever to give that child any kind of home life or mother's love, quite apart from any risks of the disease being transmitted to the child. I should have thought that in those circumstances it would have been proper to permit termination, but, again, I know that it is not an easy thing, and if we ever get to Committee I shall be prepared to discuss this. So much for the grounds.

Clause 2 lays down that there shall always be a second opinion, that any termination requires the concurring opinion of another registered medical practitioner. I have added words which I took out of the Report of the Departmental Committee, the Birkett Committee, that this opinion or advice must be based upon a personal examination of the patient.

The other proviso in the Clause is that the operation shall not be performed after the end of the thirteenth week of pregnancy. Some people have suggested to me that the Bill is too restrictive here. Indeed, I rather gathered that that was the view of the Church of England Moral Welfare Council, which rather surprised me. Again, I can only tell the House that I have taken the best possible professional medical advice that I can find, and I am told that this operation is perfectly safe in the first thirteen weeks of pregnancy—no operation is absolutely without risk, but, so far as one can say, it is a perfectly safe operation—but that after thirteen weeks risks begin to appear. Because I wanted to make this a reasonable Measure, I decided that we should take no chances at all, and so I limited it to the first thirteen weeks of pregnancy.

Clause 3 places the burden of proof that the operation was not performed in good faith upon the prosecution. The Clause is inserted because a similar Clause exists in the only analogous Measure on the Statute Book, the Infanticide Act—in that Act, where the circumstances are really very similar, the burden of proof is on the prosecution—and also because Mr. Justice McNaghten in the case of Rex v. Bourne made it perfectly clear that in his view the burden of proof rests on the prosecution.

Clause 4 is little more than formal, making it perfectly clear that the normal requirement of consent to surgical operations shall be required in the case of terminations under the Bill. So much for the Bill itself.

I have had very considerable correspondence since I announced my intention to introduce the Bill. I think I can say with honesty that the only opposition that I have had has come from Roman Catholics. There may have been two or three letters from non-Catholics who objected to the Bill, but the overwhelming majority of the other letters have been in favour of the Bill. I was talking a moment ago about German measles. I had a letter from a woman who acts as the secretary of a little group of parents who have formed themselves together. They are parents of deaf-blind children, children who are both deaf and blind as a result of the mother contracting German measles during the first six weeks of pregnancy. They welcome the Bill, of course.

The Press reaction, apart from the Catholic Press, has, on the whole, been favourable. The Economist, the Guardian and the Spectator are in favour of the Bill. I believe that, on the whole, public opinion is ready for a modest advance on this front. It is true, of course, that the Church of England Moral Welfare Council late last night decided against the Bill. I do not want to argue the finding that it published about the Bill, and will only say that it contains certain errors of fact. The Council is perfectly entitled to its view, but I think it should be made perfectly clear to the House that it does not speak for the Church of England as a whole, nor would it for a moment claim to do so.

I would end with one plea to the House, and I make it with sincerity. I hope the House will permit a decision to be taken on this Bill. There is an impression abroad that this House is becoming apt to sidestep or shy away from issues of a socially controversial nature, particularly any subject that has sexual implications, and this impression is not doing the reputation of Parliament any good, because there are issues which touch the deepest springs of human happiness, and they are, in my view, most properly subjects which should be discussed and considered by the House.

I would just repeat the assurance that I gave earlier, that if the House decides to give the Bill a Second Reading, as I hope it will, and the Bill goes to Committee, so long as the one basic principle of the Bill is not infringed, hon. Members will find me extremely flexible in Committee and very ready to listen to all the arguments. I trust that the Bill will receive a Second Reading.

Notice taken that 40 Members were not present.

House counted, and, 40 Members being present

2.40 p.m.

Mr. Peter Rawlinson (Epsom)

I am glad that the debate can continue, because I share with the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) the view that, on such matters as this, Parliament should take a decision. He is quite right in saying that those who either approve or disapprove of the Bill should be prepared to say so, and to discuss and argue the matter and to vote on it.

The hon. Member complained that he did not feel that the hon. Members who introduce Bills like his received public respect from those who do not agree with them. For my part, I have the greatest respect for him and for the sincere and humanitarian reasons which have driven him to introduce the Bill.

I think of him recently as becoming, of course, very much a political Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—very much Dr. Jekyll on the back benches and very much the reactionary Mr. Hyde when speaking from the Front Bench.

I am always immensely impressed by the clarity of the hon. Member's argument and the presentation of his case. But I cannot see the purpose of this Bill. I do not quite understand the objection to case law, or to what he understood case law to be.

The hon. Member must appreciate that case law means the interpretation which the judges have put upon law passed by this House. When what Parliament has decided and set out in a Statute is interpreted by the judges, what he calls common law, or case law, becomes instituted. The fact that the courts insist that a jury must be told that the burden of proof rests upon the Crown in criminal matters is not embodied in a Statute, but that does not make it any less the law of the land.

The law in this case seems to be perfectly satisfactory. I want to refer to Section 58 of the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861. I cannot think that the hon. Gentleman will say that just because a Statute is ancient it is bad. Some of the Trade Disputes Acts and some of the Acts which started the trade unions are both old and good. The fact that the 1861 Act has been in existence for 100 years is not, by itself, a reason for saying that it should now be changed. Section 58 reads: Whosoever, with intent to procure the miscarriage of any woman, whether she be or be not with child, shall unlawfully "— that is the key word— … administer to her or cause to be taken by her any poison or other noxious thing, or shall use any instrument or other means whatsoever with like intent … shall be guilty of felony. That is the Section upon which this felony is found—if somebody unlawfully administers a poison or a drug, or unlawfully uses an instrument. It says "unlawfully" and, therefore, it is implicit that it can be done lawfully.

Thus, when judges interpret as they do the Act of 1861—the leading case, as the hon. Member said, is Rex v. Bourne—they make it clear that there are circumstances when it may be lawfully done or unlawfully done.

The case of Rex v. Bourne involved circumstances which I shall refer to. It was the case, as the hon. Member said, of a young girl who had been raped in circumstances which would be terrifying for any woman, let alone a young girl. She was, however, perfectly healthy. Mr. Bourne, when he examined her, said that she was not a person suffering from venereal disease and that if she had been, he would not have operated. He said that she was not of a prostitute's mind; if she had been he would not have operated. He operated after consultation with a colleague, and terminated her pregnancy.

It was the test case. The then Attorney-General, the late Lord Somervell, prosecuted. It was tried at the Central Criminal Court, and it fell there to be determined by a jury whether Mr. Bourne's action was, in the circumstances, lawful or unlawful. The jury acquitted him. In his summing up the judge explained what the effect of the law was, because a jury is not simply left to interpret a Statute passed by the House of Commons. He said that this distinguished and reputable surgeon had determined that what he was doing was right and, therefore, acted in good faith, and that the Crown must prove that the act was not done in good faith for the purpose only of preserving the life of the mother.

It is important to understand what the law is and to remember the words used by the judge when he charged the jury. These are the words which the members of the jury took with them to the secrecy of their retiring room: In a case where a doctor is of opinion that a child cannot be delivered without the death of the mother, he is entitled—indeed, it is his duty—to perform an operation with a view to saving the life of the mother Later, he went on: If pregnancy is likely to make a woman a physical or mental wreck, the jury is entitled to take the view that a doctor who, in these circumstances, and led by his belief, operates, is operating for the purpose of preserving the life of the mother. The jury, having heard those words, acquitted Mr. Bourne. The House should take into account that here was the case of a girl who had suffered violent rape, who was pregnant in consequence of rape, and would have, for a period of nine months, to carry a constant reminder of the way in which she suffered. That was considered by the jury as being an interpretation of the law of the land entitling a doctor to terminate pregnancies. That case was the leading case in interpreting the law as it stood in 1939, and as it stands today.

The hon. Member referred to the Birkett Committee. This Committee wanted to amend and to extend Section 58 of the 1861 Act to make it clear that a doctor acts legally if, in good faith, he procures an abortion in circumstances which satisfy him that the continuance of the pregnancy is likely to endanger her life, or seriously to impair her life. That, as it were, was the extra emphasis which had already been emphasised in the case of Rex v. Bourne, in the view that continuation of the pregnancy would seriously impair the mother's health.

But that Committee acknowledged the lack of precision in the words, seriously to impair her health". It admitted that this would be of assistance to unscrupulous doctors who wished to make fat fees which would be offered to them for saying that in their view an unwanted pregnancy would seriously impair a woman's health. The Committee could not and did not formulate any details to try and turn into legislation what it had suggested. It accepted that the words were not capable of exact definition, which is what the hon. Member today has tried to give them because he is not satisfied with the interpretation of the law as it appears to me to be. He wants to put into words this added or extra safeguard but which is, in fact, acted upon today and which, with the greatest respect to him, he has not succeeded in defining in his Bill.

I think it unlikely that anybody can draft words to give these words the exact meaning and that precision which the criminal law demands. Presumably because of that difficulty, there was no legislation following the Birkett Committee of 1939 and perhaps because it was accepted that the evil which broad or loose terminology would introduce and would permit would outbalance the good which would be done. Moreover, the Committee found also that there was no great increase in the amount of abortion in 1939—and that there were grave difficulties over the methods of requiring a second opinion—and so it seemed that legislation was not to be and could not be introduced.

Following that incident, in 1958, in the case of the Queen against Newton and Stungo, Mr. Justice Ashworth, in his charge to the jury, insisted that the onus of proof on showing that a doctor was acting in bad faith lay upon the Crown—upon which the hon. Member includes in his Bill but which I believe to be the law today. Again, this judge said that the use of an instrument to procure an abortion was unlawful unless it was made in good faith to preserve the life or mental or physical health of the woman. Is not that exactly the position that the hon. Member wants? Why does he think it necessary to introduce the Bill which appears to open up evils leading to the difficulties, which he frankly faced, but which can or will tend to assist those people who want to exercise an unscrupulous use of the powers which will be given?

To turn to some other comments, it is clear that pregnancy rarely develops with rape victims. In the only country in which the matter has had any particular examination, Sweden, there were only two such cases in ten years and in both it was doubtful whether the pregnancy was a consequence of the rape.

Mr. Julian Snow (Lichfield and Tamworth)

I am following the hon. and learned Gentleman's case most carefully. With respect, it is a very good case. Is it part of his argument that the law as it stands is so clear, or should be so clear, to the medical profession that there should be no doubt about what a doctor's duty is?

Mr. Rawlinson

In my view, yes. Of course, there will always be individuals who will say, "I am not going to take any risks". Whether that is a reflection upon their moral or medical courage I know not, but it appears to me that the law says that a doctor may lawfully carry out a termination of pregnancy if, in his opinion, the mental or physical health of the mother-to-be will be seriously impaired.

What more does society want in those circumstances? Rex v. Bourne was the example of the woman or young girl who is raped and who is then carrying a child and who has no particular physical disability, but of whom it was said that the very fact of that pregnancy has a sufficient mental effect, or might have a mental effect, for the doctor lawfully to operate.

That is what the law appears to me to be, and I now turn to the position of what is legalised abortion. I accept that the hon. Member considers that this is a modest approach towards a position which would tend towards complete legal abortion. Legal abortion has been tried in Russia, but it was quickly abandoned, was it not?

Mr. K. Robinson

To bring the hon. and learned Gentleman up to date; it has now been reinstated and abortion on purely social grounds—on almost any ground—is obtainable in the Soviet Union today.

Mr. Rawlinson

I think that that is a regrettable, reactionary return. Abortion is legal in Sweden, but I understand that its incidence is negligible.

There have been two interesting inquiries, one in Norway by Koldstad of some 968 women. It brings out an important argument which hon. Members should carefully consider. About 84 per cent. of those women who were refused abortion were afterwards glad, without reserve. It is a remarkable responsibility to impose upon doctors, faced by the application from women who at the time are pregnant when their judgment may be impaired, and who might not be in a condition to form sensible rational decisions because of the incidence of their pregnancy. If the doctors in those cases had operated and had terminated the pregnancy at that time, would not that have been taking on to a human being a decision which he ought not to be asked to make?

It is not the case that these women had large families. Six out of every seven had only one or two children. It is interesting that the report said that towards the end of the period investigated the number of medical applications declined while the psychiatric applications enormously increased.

Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)

I think that that report contained the remarkable fact that many applicants applied because of housing shortages and some because of the alcoholic habits of the father.

Mr. K. Robinson

That is not covered by the Bill.

Mr. Rawlinson

I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell).

In the Swedish report, the Ekblad Report, 479 women were the subject of the inquiry, and it was found that none had active mental disease. Where a person had become pregnant, not because of rape but because she wanted to, and then wanted the pregnancy terminated, the result rested on her judgment and on the decision of the two doctors.

Where pregnancy has come about because of incest, there again grave difficulties are encountered. It usually arises in cases where there has been the greatest affection between the persons concerned. As regards the children of such unions, I do not believe—though I shall be corrected if I am wrong—that there has been any real research to show the quantity or the extent of the mental impairment of or the handicap to Children of unions that have been proved to be incestuous.

In my view, the Bill must widen and loosen the safeguards which a State or community is entitled to demand in the care which must be devoted to living but unborn children. I do not see how the termination of pregnancy and the killing of the living unborn child could be a solution to some of the social problems and hard cases to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

The Bill must appear to encourage, though I well appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has not used this in any form in his argument, a more irresponsible attitude towards sex, and a looseness in behaviour which may be particularly rife at this particular time. It must also appear, as was said by Canon Bentley in his letter to The Times, to sanction the killing of the unborn child for fear that it will later become a burden to the mother.

It is because I do not think that the Bill achieves what the hon. Gentleman wants it to achieve; because I think the law is at present perfectly satisfactory; and because I think that the introduction of a Measure such as this would amount to a lowering of the standards which I feel must be maintained at the present time, that I will vote against it.

3.0 p.m.

Mr. Julian Snow (Lichfield and Tamworth)

I intervene briefly because, should the Bill unfortunately go to a Division, I shall feel constrained to support it. It is because I think the matter ought to be aired and discussed properly that I shall do so, though I reserve the right to reconsider my position after I have heard evidence that might come before the Committee.

I believe that there is possibly one weakness in my hon. Friend's argument, and that is that I do not consider that the terrible toll of illegal abortions is a matter which is likely to be rectified by the Bill. I consider that it is unlikely substantially to affect it. What is much more important in the context of my argument is to make crystal clear to the medical practitioner where his duty lies.

I do not believe that the hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Mr. Rawlinson) is correct in his reply to my intervention, that the ordinary medical practitioner is clear about the situation. For all I know, that may be the fault of his professional organisation, or the fault of his training in medical school, but I think that the case law is not a very good method of so instructing the medical profession. It is for that reason that this matter ought to be discussed by Parliament.

The Roman Catholic Church is uneasy, to put it mildly, at this matter even being discussed. I hope that the hierarchy will take a different view if the Bill takes its course through Parliament, because I do not think that there is any good moral right in concealing the facts which lead up to a socially undesirable situation such as we know exists.

3.3 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Renton)

I hope that this will be considered about the right time, bearing in mind that this is rather a short debate, for me to present briefly the Government's view on the matter.

To the extent that the Bill would make statutory the present case law and practice which has grown up round it, we do not consider it necessary to have a Bill for that limited purpose for it would make no substantial change in the law. To the extent that it would make a change, it would be restrictive, as is Clause 2, which says that the operation shall not be performed after the end of the thirteenth week of pregnancy. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there is no limit under the present law.

Mr. K. Robinson

If the best medical opinion says that this is a dangerous operation after thirteen weeks, does not the hon. and learned Gentleman consider that that would be a desirable limitation? Why does he dismiss it as being an undesirable limitation?

Mr. Renton

That may be so, but I was pointing out for the sake of accuracy that, in so far as the hon. Gentleman purports not to change the present law, the only change he makes within the framework of the present law is the change in Clause 2. I am not criticising it. I am merely saying that for the sake of accuracy.

Nevertheless, we would have no objection in principle to the Bill's limited purpose of putting into statutory form the present case law and practice. But the Bill make various important and controversial changes in the law, extending the opportunities for legal termination of pregnancy, and in doing so it gives rise to some serious practical and legal difficulties, to which my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom (Mr. Rawlinson) has referred, and to which I shall have to draw attention further.

If the House gives the Bill a Second Reading—which, I suppose, really depends upon no hon. Member trying to procure its abortion in the course of the afternoon—the Government hope to see it amended in Committee, to eliminate or overcome some of the difficulties. We would have a good deal of advice to give in Committee. If the Bill were not amended satisfactorily in Committee, we would have to consider what advice to give the House on Third Reading. On that point, I must reserve the Government's position.

Mr. Fell

I am getting a little muddled. I understood from what the Minister said at the beginning of his speech that the Government are not in favour of the Bill. I now understand him to say that if it is given a Second Reading he hopes that some Amendments will be made in Committee. I should like to know what Amendments would be required to make the Bill acceptable to the Government.

Mr. Renton

Our attitude towards the question whether the Bill should have a Second Reading—which does not commit the House to any of its details—is one of neutrality. We are prepared to accept the decision of the House. I have tried to explain that to the extent that the Bill merely intends to make statutory the existing case law and the practice which has grown up around it the Government have no objection to it, although we do not consider it necessary to introduce a Bill for this purpose. I know that the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) said that statute law carries more weight than case law, but this House would have its work cut out if it tried to make statutory all the well-established case law.

To the extent that the Bill purports to extend the existing opportunities for procuring abortion legally, however, I must point out the practical and legal difficulties to which these proposals give rise. After hearing all the speeches, including my own, it will be for the House to decide whether the Bill should have a Second Reading—and to that extent we will accept the verdict of the House. I hope that I have made myself clear to my hon. Friend the Member for Yarmouth (Mr. Fell).

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Chigwell)


Mr. Renton

No. I am sorry. I have given way a good deal. I still have a good deal to say, and I do not want to occupy too much of the attention of the House in the limited time available.

The hon. Member for St. Pancras, North put his point of view in a very temperate way on a matter on which we know he feels very strongly and to which he has given a great deal of study. He bases his case, both for achieving greater clarity in the present law—as he thinks—and for extending it in the way the Bill does in Clause 1, paragraphs (c) and (d), largely on what he considers to be a desirable and necessary object, and we would not disagree with it as an object, namely, to get rid of the backstreet abortionist; the person who can menace the life of the mother as well as of the child if, eventually, the abortion is unsuccessfully procured.

Of course, if that were so we should have to advise the House that a Measure of this kind was perhaps necessary. But is it really so? Surely the difficulty is that if we take those cases which are covered, in the first instance, by paragraphs (a) and (b) of Clause 1, their enactment would make scarcely any difference at all to the number of illegal abortions now carried out either by registered practitioners or by unqualified practitioners.

By far the greater number of illegal abortions are performed not because the woman fears danger to her life or health, but simply because, for one reason or another, she does not want a child. That is, perhaps, the principal cause of illegal operations. Neither this Bill nor any extension of it which would have any chance of being accepted by Parliament and public opinion would legalise abortion in those cases, and it is right that the House should face that fundamental fact. The contribution which a Measure of the kind now before the House can make to the elimination of the back-street abortionist and the prevention of criminal abortion is, therefore, rather small.

The next thing that I should do, I think, is to draw attention to Clause 3 of the Bill before I deal in detail with paragraphs (c) and (d) of Clause 1. As the hon. Gentleman said in his speech, Clause 3, which deals with the burden of proof, follows the present law as laid down in the 1929 Act and the direction for the jury in Rex v. Bourne. But if abortion were to be made legal in the wider circumstances set out in paragraphs (c) and (d) of Clause 1, we feel that the onus of proof should not always throughout every case remain on the prosecution. It would be an onus, in the terms of the Bill, to prove good faith, and the reason why we have some doubt about this is that the facts necessary to establish that issue will so often be entirely within the knowledge of the defence. That is a point which needs to be examined very carefully in Committee, but, of course, it could not be examined until it had been decided exactly how Clause 1 as a whole should read.

I wish to say a word or two about Clause 4—I know that the hon. Gentleman will not take it amiss when I say this—as it is, unintentionally no doubt, rather misleading, because, in fact, there is no statute law at present relating to consent to surgical operations. The only relevant law is the common law relating to defences to prosecutions or civil actions for assault. However, a well-understood practice has grown up in the medical profession, about which the hon. Gentleman and I both know something because both our fathers were doctors.

I now come to paragraphs (c) and (d) of Clause 1. As to paragraph (c)—the question of the risk of the child being born grossly deformed or subject to abnormality—my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health has asked me to say that she does not accept some of the figures which the hon. Gentleman has given. I will not weary the House with the details. My hon. Friend also asks me to say that she was very interested by some of the evidence of a medical character produced by 'the hon. Gentleman and that she will, of course, be interested and glad to consider it.

Broadly speaking, the view of my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary and of the Minister is that although medical science has made considerable strides since 1938, when the Departmental Committee sat, it is still not possible to predict with any confidence in any particular case whether a child will exhibit some form of abnormality or how severe that abnormality will be. Where the transmission of abnormality is most probable and the degree of severity greatest it is the general experience that the state of mind of the expectant mother is such as justifies the termination of her pregnancy on the grounds of her health, and we do not believe, with the discretion which the present law allows that responsible doctors feel there is an unreasonable restriction by the absence of any provision relating specifically to the circumstances provided for in this Clause.

The Clause is drafted in such wide terms—and in the present state of medical knowledge it is difficult to see how this could be otherwise—as to permit of considerable abuse, and if it were to be enacted as it stands my hon. Friend feels that it would be liable to do more harm than good.

Clause 1 (d) gives rise—as the Departmental Committee found and as the hon. Gentleman and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom have mentioned—to various practical difficulties. For example, should termination of pregnancy be allowed only when an offence has been proved and the offender convicted? That is the first question we have to consider. What would happen where an offender either was not identified or, if identified and charged, was found either not guilty or guilty of a lesser offence—for example, indecent assault—than the offence which would justify an abortion? Even if none of those difficulties arose, what assurance can we have that the pregnancy resulted from the offence?

If, on the other hand, the legalisation of abortion is not to depend on the identification of the offender, how is the doctor to decide whether an offence has been committed? And, of course, from the doctor's point of view, there will frequently be difficulties caused by the delay between the trial of the offender and the knowledge of the possibility of an offence having been committed. It is in the light of that restrictive provision that Clause 2 would have to be carefully considered in Committee.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Clapham)

It does state, in paragraph (d), in the belief that … so presumably no one has to be tried. It is whether a doctor is convinced that it was as a result of rape.

Mr. Renton

My hon. Friend is quite right. On the Bill as it stands, it depends on the doctor's belief, and there would, therefore, be occasions in which a doctor would be placed in the position of having to consider whether an offence had been committed; and that is not a position in which many doctors would like to find themselves.

With regard to both rape and incest, we have the complication that there would be many cases in which a woman who had behaved indiscreetly, and found she was pregnant, would try to get out of her difficulty by saying that this was the result of one of those two criminal offences. It is possible, of course, that there could be abuse. We would have to make sure, if we had such a provision, that there were safeguards against such abuse. That again was. I think, a problem to which the Departmental Committee confessed it was unable to find a practical answer.

With regard to the other offence, unlawful carnal knowledge of a girl under the age of 13, I confess that the position is somewhat less difficult because the mere fact that a girl is under 13 and is pregnant is in itself evidence that someone, whether identified and convicted or not, has committed a criminal offence. It is only right and fair that I should place that on record, but, of course, the number of cases of that kind is very small indeed. Clause 1 (d) also deals with the question of the patient being of unsound mind. That, as the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North has acknowledged, is a very vague expression and one which I do not think could possibly be allowed to remain in the Bill.

The general conclusions we have reached, therefore, are these. The existing law already allows termination of pregnancy where it is necessary to avoid serious damage to the health of the mother and regardless of the circumstances in which the pregnancy came about. Therefore, the enactment of these provisions in (a) and (b) of the Clause would have little practical effect and the provisions in (c) and (d) represent proposals which many people would support in principle, but which many others would oppose very strongly and they would in practice, as the Bill stands, not provide a satisfactory solution to the problems which, according to the declared intention of the hon. Member, the Bill is designed to meet.

I feel, having pointed out some of these difficulties, that the House will wish to bear them in mind. As I say, they are difficulties which the Standing Committee would resolutely have to try to overcome. If the Standing Committee could not find practical answers to some of these points, then to extend abortion under those various heads would not be the right thing to do and Clause I would have to be very considerably cut down in its scope.

3.24 p.m.

Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I listened with great interest to the Joint Under-Secretary. My name is added as a sponsor to this Bill, and his argument in the last few sentences is one which I most wholeheartedly endorse. The Bill must be carefully examined and answers found to some of the misgivings which the hon. and learned Gentleman found it his duty to put before the House.

It has been made clear by the hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Mr. Rawlinson) and the Joint Under-Secretary that this Bill in the main does not extend very far the provisions which actually exist for taking action in cases in which I think all of us think action should be taken. I am not quite certain that the hon. and learned Member for Epsom would agree with me in that, for he seemed at the beginning of his speech to agree but at the end he came down against the Bill in principle. That I understand. I take up one or two minor points, and I speak only from personal experience as a medical practitioner in an industrial area over many years, a quarter of a century in a very large practice, and can tell the House of the sort of abortions carried out by the back-street abortioner. They are divided into two types. First, there are the single women, who never admit that they are aborting or, indeed, that they have ever been pregnant. Secondly, there are the married women, who have no hesitation in saying that they thought they were pregnant, but, lo and behold, they have stumbled and had a fall. Many are infected.

Whatever one's suspicions, one cannot discuss the case with them. One knows very well that in many of the cases they have been to a back-street abortion-monger and have been infected by filthy people who have used dubious methods of terminating pregnancy. One sends them to hospital, and in nearly all cases these days they survive, although often they are seriously ill. In the earlier days of which I speak, many expectant mothers lost their lives because of infection. In an industrial area such as that of which I speak we have no Harley Street practitioners, or, if there are, I do not know them.

I ask the Under-Secretary of State to believe me when I tell him that among those who went into the back streets to have their pregnancies terminated were some who, if this Bill had been passed, however modified, would have been saved from that, although by no means all. It is true that, by and large, as the Bill stands—my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) has pointed this out—it does not "have a go" at these people. But a percentage of these women, how large I do not know, would be saved from that sort of back-street treatment, for they would qualify for consideration under the sort of Bill which ultimately will emerge, by agreement, from the Committee. If that is the case, then it is a strong argument for making clearly legal that which can be done today but sometimes is not done, either because doctors are nervous or frightened or, as happens much more often, because patients are ignorant of their rights and do not seek advice.

May I comment on the problem of the transmission of abnormality to the child? I remember a significant case, on which I took the advice of the Home Office and of the Minister of Health. It concerned a young man, one of three children. The other two children had been in an institution for mental deficiency all their lives. This young man had been borne with a specific deformity, otherwise he was normal. He was in love, and the girl was in love with him. He was a very handsome boy. His deformity was that he had no ears, although he had hearing.

He wanted to be sterilised—an awful thing to contemplate—in order that he could marry; for in view of the circumstances, he felt that this was what he ought to do. His girl did not want this to happen to him. She was prepared to take the risk, to see that they had no children and to adopt children when they wanted them.

I discovered—and this is where my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, Noth (Mr. K. Robinson) was wrong in his statement—that although there is perhaps nothing to prevent a surgeon from operating to sterilise someone, no one can give that surgeon cover against action at common law afterwards. I discovered that no one could give cover in any circumstances.

Mr. R. J. Mellish (Bermondsey)

My hon. Friend is giving a very good illustration. May I put a question to him for him to answer as a doctor? It does not necessarily follow, does it, that a child born of that marriage would be abnormal?

Dr. Stross

I will give my hon. Friend a rapid assurance on that point and then finish the story. This couple married, and they did their best to see that there were no babies. But these things cannot always be controlled, and a child was born. Having known these people so well, I was delighted that the child was quite normal.

I will give only one other illustration to show why I think my hon. Friend's Bill is desirable. This is an important example. I shall never forget the case. It has been engraved on my mind. I blame myself for not being wiser and more subtle than I was. It goes back to the winter of 1927, when a man came into my surgery and asked me if I would advise him because he wished to get married. He told me that he wanted to know from me what would be the effect on his children if he married. Then the facts came out that his father was, and had been for many years, incurably mentally afflicted and was in a mental hospital. Both the father and mother of the girl he wished to marry were in a mental hospital, and had been for half a generation.

I did not want to answer that question and protested that the man should not ask me this. I told him that no one could tell him for certain. I said that there was no certainty about it. He pressed me very harshly. In the end, rightly or wrongly, I went so far as to use just one guarded sentence. I said: "I have to admit that they would not be as well placed if you think in terms of chance as if there were a different history in both your families." Those were my words. Within an hour that man was dead. He had gone away and killed himself. I had pleaded with him that he need not have children. I said that if he loved his fiancé e why should they not get married and adopt children. He told me that he was of a religious persuasion which prevented this.

Perhaps I should not have mentioned this case, but I would not have been able to get it out of my mind. If I had been wiser or cleverer and if I had held on to the roan, he would not have died. I am sure that no harm will come from the Bill. I shall esteem it a privilege if I am selected to serve on the Standing Committee which will consider the Bill.

3.32 p.m.

Dr. Alan Glyn (Clapham)

One of the most important considerations in the minds of ail of us is whether the Bill will put the abortionist in the back streets out of business. That is what we are examining. I wonder whether it will. We have been told very clearly that the statute law lays down a code of conduct.

Mr. Herbert Butler (Hackney, Central)

Who does the hon. Gentleman mean when he speaks of the abortionist in the back streets? What about the main streets?

Dr. Alan Glyn

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hackney, Central (Mr. H. Butler) for mentioning that.

There are three kinds of abortions. One is the legal abortion, which is carried out under the proper rules and the law of the land. The second type of abortion, which is carried out by someone who can afford to do so, is in Harley Street. The third type is carried out in the back streets. I wonder whether the Bill will change it in the very least. That is my worry about the Bill as it stands at present.

We all wish to remove from our social system the ghastly tragedies of the type the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) mentioned, where damage is done to the woman. Today, she does not die from peritonitis, because of the wonder drugs, but irreparable damage may be done to her interior. That is what we want to stamp out. I am not sure that the Bill will achieve that objective. The 1939 Birkett recommendations were never put into effect—I imagine, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Epsom (Mr. Rawlinson) said, because they were too difficult to define.

I do not think that Clause 4 is necessary. Hospitals normally get patients to sign a form, which prevents them subsequently being faced with actions for criminal assault. Clause 1 (d) is also rather difficult as regards the provision dealing with persons of unsound mind, but I do not wish to throw the Bill away. A great deal of thought has been put into it. It will be extraordinarily difficult to adapt a Bill in Committee to cover the defects in the law and, at the same time, give the doctor protection. I do not agree that there is any difference between statute law and case law—the result is the same—and the doctor already has a great measure of protection afforded him by case law. Every doctor has a good idea of what his position is.

I am, however, prepared to go this far. If, in Committee, we can improve this Bill, I would be prepared to support it, but my fear is that the Bill's main purpose will not be achieved, and that the persistent backroom or backstreet abortionist will continue to perform.

3.35 p.m.

Mr. Gordon Walker (Smethwick)

I should like, first, to thank the hon. and learned Gentleman the Under-Secretary of State for his approach to the Bill. On this type of Bill, all Ministers are neutral, but some are more neutral than others. He was more neutral than Ministers I have known because, although he deployed a powerful case against some parts of the Bill, he always did so in the terms that we should discuss it in Committee, and we can only get the Bill to a Standing Committee if we give it a Second Reading. It seems to me that this is a Bill that should be given a Second Reading. I agree with the hon. Member for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn) that it raises very difficult points, and those points can be properly discussed only in the quick, intimate and penetrating discussion one can have in Committee.

One reason for my wish that this Bill should have a Second Reading is that it is important—I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson)—that the law should be here declared. I listened very carefully to the, if I may say so, very able and persuasive speech of the hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Mr. Rawlinson), but it still left me with the feeling that there is a very strong case, which should be examined in Committee, for a declaration of the law to be clearly made. There is no doubt that many doctors and other people are in a state of dubiety about the law on the subject. Whether they should be or not, they are.

The Birkett inter-departmental Committee made its recommendations after the great case of Rex v. Bourne, and under a recent Act it is possible that the facts of that sort of case might go through the Divisional Court to the House of Lords. There is, therefore, some doubt about the whole thing. One is not sure whether it might reach a court that was not bound by the decision that has been made—if I am not speaking like a stupid layman—in Rex v. Bourne. I therefore think that there is a strong case for arguing among ourselves in Committee whether or not the law should be declared.

I agree with the hon. Member for Clapham that one aim must be to get rid of these dirty, back-street abortionists—or most of them. I do not think that any law we could provide would get rid of all of them, any more than we can legislate to get rid of all prostitutes, and so on. Nevertheless, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) very persuasively made the point that by passing this Bill in some form we would be able considerably to reduce the numbers of these abortionists, and that seems to be an end we should pursue.

I admit that I dislike all laws that give the rich a great advantage over the poor, and there is no doubt that here there is this distinction at present. Rich people will always, as they do now, find it easy to get abortions in proper, hygienic conditions that poor people—

Mr. Mellish

I have had discussions on this subject with gynaecologists, and perhaps my right hon. Friend will take it from me that they assure me that in their experience the back-street abortionists are almost entirely used by the single girl who is to have a baby she does not want and by married women who already have large families and are worried about housing, or have other similar anxieties.

Mr. Gordon Walker

That is a point which we should argue in Committee. Even if what my hon. Friend says is true, the rich get much better treatment and abortion under proper circumstances, which poorer people would be entitled to get only if the law were clear.

Mr. Mellish

My right hon. Friend made an important point when he backed up what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central. The back-street abortionist, whom all of us detest, loath and think is the most terrible person in the world, will still thrive. The Bill would make not the slightest difference to him. It should not go out from this House that the Bill would remedy that situation.

Mr. Gordon Walker

My hon. Friend, I think, is suffering from a misapprehension. If it is argued that, because we cannot stamp out an evil we must not make any attempt to reduce it, then that is an argument which would destroy the whole of our criminal law. We cannot stop manslaughter by motor car on the road, but we try to pass laws which will reduce it.

Mr. Mellish

I do not think that my right hon. Friend should overlay that argument or convey the impression that one of the great things of the Bill is that it will stamp out something that we want to stamp out.

Mr. Gordon Walker

If my hon. Friend reads in HANSARD what I said, he will find that I said that we cannot stamp it out but I think that the Bill will probably reduce it. If that is so, then it is a strong argument for the Bill. That applies equally to the position between the rich and the poor. We will not be able to Obliterate this distinction, but we can reduce it.

There are points which I am not entirely happy about in the Bill. The Joint Under-Secretary of State put forward some arguments with which I agreed. I think that there are very grave difficulties in this matter, but it seems to me that it is beyond doubt that the Bill raises a very powerful point which we should discuss in Committee. I will listen with a very open mind to arguments about whether the provisions of the Bill are exactly right, whether they ought to be in the Bill and whether there should not be others. This seems to me a convincing argument for taking the Bill to Committee.

It would be a great pity if the Bill were stifled before we were able to deploy the machinery of the House for a detailed and careful argument on it. Many hon. Members are opposed to the Bill. They can kill it in Committee or on Third Reading if they are not satisfied with it, but it ought to have the run which will enable it to be discussed and argued in detail. For that reason I support what I think was the underlying and implicit view of the Joint Under-Secretary of State's speech, namely, that the Bill ought to go to Committee.

3.43 p.m.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Chigwell)

I was considerably confused by the intervention of my hon. and learned Friend the Joint Under-Secretary of State. He seemed to support the principle of the Bill and to say that it should be carried a further stage. Then he proceeded to analyse the Bill Clause by Clause, and it seemed that there was not anything right with it.

As the right hon. Member for Smeth-wick (Mr. Gordon Walker) said, it may be proper to declare, define and elucidate the existing law. If that is the object of the Bill, all that I can say is that the existing law which it is sought to define, declare and elucidate is bad law and that it might be more proper to introduce a Bill to define the law in a different direction.

My objection to the Bill is one not of mere detail, but of principle. It is one of religious principle, and I can do no other than oppose the Second Reading. Perhaps I can put my positon in one sentence by suggesting an alternative title to the Bill, namely, a Bill to amend the Ten Commandments. I think that is a rather weighty matter to discuss on a Friday afternoon with such a small attendance in the House.

The hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson) introduced the Bill moderately, eloquently and persuasively. I do not know who among my co-religionists—I am a Roman Catholic—impugned the hon. Member's good faith in introducing the Bill. If they did so I regret that very much. I certainly do not impugn his good faith or his humanitarian intention.

Mr. K. Robinson

Certainly none of the hon. Member's hon. Friends. I was referring solely to certain elements of the Catholic Press and to many of my correspondents.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

I rather suspect the same organ of the Catholic Press that implicitly attacked me for not doing sufficient in another direction recently.

I think that we all admired the agreeable way in which the hon. Member started his course as official spokesman of the Labour Party on health matters. I am only sorry that it should be an official spokesman of the Labour Party who gives his name to this Bill. I greatly admire what the hon. Member has done in the sphere of mental health. I belong to some of the same organisations as he does, though I regret that I do not do as much as he does.

To turn to the Bill, one of my five children comes, or could have come in certain circumstances, within the purview of Clause 1 (c) which refers to a child with … mental abnormality which would be of a degree to require … special care throughout life. Clearly, it would have been repugnant to my wife and myself that that child should not have been born. I regret very much that that child is a burden on the community, but the point which I wish to make is that it would be a terrible thing if, in a Bill of this kind, we opened any kind of door to what we rightly condemned in Nazi Germany where a civil authority—the State—decided that human beings should not exist because those human beings were of no value to the national economy, could not serve the war machine or required "special care throughout life."

I am not suggesting that anything of the kind is in the minds of the sponsors of the Bill. The trouble is that in all these matters we proceed from one position to the next and we are scarcely aware sometimes of what is happening to us.

The hon. Member for St. Pancras, North rightly and fairly stated part of the Roman Catholic position in this matter, but I wish that he had not suggested that that was a sectarian position confined to the Roman Catholics. He almost suggested that the debate on the Bill was a case of Roman Catholics v. the Rest. The position I hold is the position held by many Christian denominations and many religions other than Christianity.

I read with great admiration the letter to The Times from Canon Bentley, of Windsor, in which he deplored "making the law of England explicitly sanction the killing of an unborn child for fear that if it were permitted to live it would become a burden to the mother and the state". To deplore that, as Canon Bentley deplored it, is not to take up a Roman Catholic position. As far as I can see, it is part of the common theology of Western Christendom. It goes back. I suppose, before Christianity. It goes back to the natural law.

We are up against the same dilemma as we encounter in so many fields. It is the old question of means and end. The motives of the sponsors of the Bill are of the highest. What they wish to do is for humanitarian reasons. They want to do good, but one should not do evil in the belief that good may follow.

3.50 p.m.

Mr. Douglas Houghton (Sowerby)

I profoundly hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading. My name is on the Bill and I support it strongly. My name was on the previous Bill and I supported that strongly. I sat beside Mr. Joseph Reeves, who had a minute or two only in which to develop his argument in favour of the Bill at that time.

I wish to express my appreciation of the fact that hon. Members did not unduly prolong the debate on the first Measure on the Order Paper today, as was done in 1952 to prevent the counterpart of the present Bill receiving a proper airing.

On that subject, we should express our disapproval of the hon. Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris), who tried prematurely to end this debate by calling for a count immediately on the conclusion of the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson). That is not done in the House on Fridays. The hon. Gentleman, who, I know, is a declared opponent of the Bill, should at least give the House a proper opportunity to discuss the matter, however controversial it may be.

I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras, North not only on his luck in the Ballot, but on his courage in deciding to introduce a Bill on this contentious problem. Also, I congratulate him upon the temperate way in which he introduced the Bill and the great competence which he displayed in doing so. This is not a party matter but there are differing opinions on both sides of the House. Whatever certain hon. Members may feel, I am sure that the House as a whole is grateful to my hon. Friend for having given us the opportunity to discuss this subject.

My wife is a member of the Committee of the Abortion Law Reform Association, so that is where our family stands. I wish that my wife could be in my place this afternoon, because the House would have had a much more passionate speech from her than it will get even from me. I am sure that we have heard enough about the Bill to justify giving this matter further consideration, a close examination and keen debate in Committee. Nothing will be lost by it and I hope that something would be gained.

I know that there are hon. Members—and I could identify them by name—who are not only against the Bill, but are against the law as it stands at present. They do not believe in the termination of pregnancy under any circumstances whatsoever. They do not believe that a pregnancy should be terminated even to save the life of a mother. Hon. Members on both sides who hold a different view are willing to consider some reasonable reform of the law as it now stands.

In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), the Bill will not put the backstreet abortionist out of business. We realise that it will not, and there is only one thing which will—to make all abortions legal. None of us in the House this afternoon would wish to do that. We know that that evil will persist, but we want to reduce it. The Bill would certainly turn some deserving people away from the wiles of the backstreet abortionist or away from the clutches of the Harley Street abortionist, and they would be able to get their trouble dealt with in a proper manner under the law and with a minimum of risk to themselves.

I thought that the hon. and learned Member for Epsom (Mr. Rawlinson), in his most persuasive speech, began as a lawyer and ended as a moralist. On the question of morals, I would say that those of us who believe in the Bill, and who, like my hon. Friend, believe in going furtther than the Bill, do so because we believe in certain basic human rights. That is why we believe in it, and that, from my point of view, takes precedence over any other convictions in regard to this matter.

There is no doubt that there is suffering and terrible distress and that horrible stories are told in the courts and elsewhere because of the uncertainty of the present law. Doctors are afraid of this. I know it may be said—the hon. Member for Clapham (Dr. Alan Glyn) said this—that doctors generally know where they stand. They do not; we know that they do not. Obviously, a doctor, a perfectly respectable practitioner who is a busy man having to go about his daily task of curing sickness, and so on, naturally hesitates to get involved in something which may land him in the dock.

We have not in all doctors the courage of Mr. Bourne, and in any case they have their practices to look after and their ordinary work to do. If we could give the doctors the greatest assurance of statute law, that would be of great help and would fortify them in their own judgment on these matters.

Dr. Alan Glyn rose

Mr. Houghton

It is getting very close to four o'clock, and, if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not give way because I wish to sit down in a moment or two.

I feel sure that to change the law even only to give statutory effect to case law would be an advantage in present circumstances, and I dissent from the view that there is no need to have a Bill for that purpose alone. I think that for that purpose alone the Bill would be worth consideration and worth giving a Second Reading. But the Bill goes further than that.

I thank the Joint Under-Secretary for the great care and ability with which he explained to the House some of the difficulties about the Bill. Of course, there will be difficulties in trying to limit the extent to which the termination of pregnancy can be done lawfully, and, again, we must not shrink from the difficulties, because if we do, we are driven to one or other of two extremes, either that there shall be no abortion at all in any circumstances or that all abortions shall be legal. Those are the two extremes, and in between there is bound to be the problem of definition. But we must face the difficulties and we must try to overcome them if we are to rid our society of this great evil.

Let us have these things debated publicly now. Let us examine this matter in the light of present social conditions. I sincerely hope that the House will overcome prejudice, religious convictions and other attitudes of opposition to the Bill. Let it go to Standing Committee and be subject to critical examination; if we fail to make a job of it in Committee, the House can throw the Bill out when it comes back here again.

Mr. K. Robinson rose in Ms place, and claimed to move, That the Question be now put; but Mr. SPEAKER withheld his assent and declined then to put that Question.

3.58 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Fell (Yarmouth)

The hon. Member for Sowerby (Mr. Houghton) is the only person throughout the whole course of the debate who has sounded a discordant note. I felt that the hon. Member for St. Pancras, North (Mr. K. Robinson), though I could not be in the Chamber all the time he was speaking, was reasonable in the extreme in moving the Second Reading of the Bill.

The attack made by the hon. Member for Sowerby upon my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich (Mr. Grant-Ferris) was not only unjustified, but completely and absolutely inaccurate. He said that the procedure which my hon. Friend adopted is never done on Friday. It is done. It has often been done when I have been here on Fridays. I suppose that one's condemnation depends purely upon one's own particular views on the subject which is being debated.

Mr. Austen Albu (Edmonton)

rose in his place, and claimed to move, That the Question be now put; but Mr. SPEAKER withheld his assent and declined then to put that Question.

Mr. Fell

I found myself in great difficulty. I am a great supporter of the Government—as everybody knows—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—when listening to my hon. and learned Friend the Under-Secretary. However, he was kind enough, in the end, to resolve my difficulty, because, though he seemed to give the impression that he would not mind if the Bill went forward—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.