HC Deb 25 February 1966 vol 725 cc837-56

Order for Second Reading read.

2.59 p.m.

Mr. Simon Wingfield Digby (Dorset, West)

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

I fear that at this hour I shall have to speak somewhat more briefly than I had intended as I am anxious to give time for other hon. Members to express their views. This is the first time in 24 years in this House that I have been fortunate in the Ballot. I drew eighth place in the Ballot, which explains why my Bill comes after the Bill we have been just discussing. An hon. Member in my position has to choose between something fairly trivial, which is easy to get through the House, or a subject of greater controversy. I have chosen the latter course, knowing that this is a subject which it is difficult for either of the two major parties to adopt officially.

This is a very important subject, and my object in introducing the Bill is to try to alleviate suffering. It is not an easy subject. I can claim no special right to speak on it. The more I have gone into it, the more I have found various complications of principle, and also medical complications. There are some who feel strongly against abortion in any form. To them I would say that other people also have a right to their principles.

The stand point from which I approach the subject is one of humanity. I would go much further and say that in many ways this is really a woman's problem. I read in the Evening Standard a very cryptic letter about the way in which assemblies, predominantly male, have been discussing this subject. I regard this as one of the last steps in the emancipation of women. I am confident that, whatever happens this afternoon, steps will be taken before long to amend the law.

I will remind the House briefly about the existing law. The old common law was what might be described as very liberal. It was only a Victorian law—the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861—which introduced the present position. I seek to alter the Victorian law, not to alter an ancient law. It is true that, as the result of a famous case about 30 years ago, the interpretation of the law has altered a lot. One example of this is what has happened in Aberdeen, where the existing law has been interpreted considerably more liberally than has been possible in this country, because in Scotland there is no coroner.

The existing law is unsatisfactory, in that it depends on a judge's direction to a jury and not even on case law proper. Many people are uncertain of their rights at present. There is an uncertainty for doctors. Many doctors are not sure what they are allowed to do without facing prosecution and what they are not allowed to do. There is great uncertainty among women as to their rights. A National Opinion Poll showed that 42 per cent. believed that abortion was never legal in any circumstances. Another 8 per cent.] did not know. This shows the extent of the uncertainty. Hence, I would seek to clarify the existing law so that people know where they stand.

The object of the change is to make it permissible positively to carry out an abortion in certain clearly defined circumstances. This was recommended in the British Medical Journal of 17th April, 1965. This is a modest and, I believe, generally acceptable advance towards liberalisation of the law. Many people would like to go further. I believe that there is overwhelming support for this degree of liberalisation at present.

I believe that it would reduce, although I would not claim tremendously reduce, the number of back-street abortions, often estimated at 50,000 a year, which I do not believe any hon. Member would wish to defend. It is noteworthy that only 2,000 legal abortions a year are performed under the National Health Service. In Czechoslovakia, a very much smaller country, where the law is much more liberal—some would say, perhaps, too liberal—the figure last year was 61,400. The small number of legal abortions explains why there are so many illegal back-street abortions. Finally, I seek to remove uncertainty.

For a long time people have tended to evade this subject. It is only recently that it has not been swept under the carpet and that people are beginning to understand arguments about it. I pay tribute to those who have raised this subject before—the hon. Lady the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Renée Short) in the last Session; the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, in another place; and at an earlier date the present Minister of Health introduced a Bill along the same lines.

I have been agreeably surprised at the tremendous amount of support I have received from my constituency and from all over the country. Even this morning I received letters congratulating me and wishing me luck for the Bill, which I probably shall not have. So far I have received only one letter against the Bill.

I come to the method of changing the law. The House must remember that this is a move to amend the criminal law. Therefore, any Bill which is introduced should be exact and clear. I would also remind the House that there are two factors in granting this proposed permission under the Bill. First, there must be an application by the woman concerned, and if her principles forbid she need not apply. I should like to stress that point to the critics of the Bill. Secondly, we are concerned with the discretion of the doctor. It is not very easy to legislate about the discretion which one gives to a doctor. To a certain extent the law would be shuffling off the responsibility on to him. In the drafting of the Bill I have received the greatest help from my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Percival) who has been responsible for the new form in which it appears—it is different from the others—and for what I think is probably better phrasing and wording.

We have had the advantage of learning from the lessons of long debates in another place. When it comes to the Committee stage—if it does—I should be very glad to look at the details of the Bill, but I have aimed at a simple Bill in the belief that it is not right to give too complicated instructions to the doctors. They are not lawyers, and they are not supposed to be. Therefore, I have tried to make the language plain and to fetter them about as little as possible.

Hon. Members will have observed that the short and long titles of the Bill do not use the word "abortion". The words are "medical termination of pregnancy". I am not running away from the word "abortion", but I think there is room for a change from the certain amount of horror in which the public tend to regard it. Indeed, in the Medical World of January, 1966, the editorial says: Certainly some other term must be employed in any legislative change". In the brief time available, I should like to run through a few of the main points of the Bill. Clause 1 lays down that termination will be legal, in paragraph (a), for the purpose of preserving…life…"— I do not think many people would quarrel with that—and, in paragraph (b), in the belief that serious injury to mental or physical health would result. So far this is nothing more than a statement of the law which already exists except, as I have said, that it is putting it in a positive form as opposed to a negative form.

I now come to paragraph (c), and I realise that this is perhaps the most controversial point of the Bill. But I would emphasise that only a limited number of cases would ever be likely to arise on it. This is the question of children who are likely to be born subnormal. It is interesting to note that, according to the National Opinion Poll which I quoted earlier, no fewer than 58 per cent. thought that the law ought to be changed in this respect.

Two points arise here. As I have drafted my Bill, the chances have to be roughly even that the child will be born mentally or physically subnormal. Some people may think that that is the right proportion; others may think that it is the wrong proportion. One interesting point is that in the last few days we have had reported in the Lancet news of a discovery in America whereby it can be ascertained whether the chromosomes are deranged and whether a malformed child is likely or not. I anticipate that there will be further changes in that direction and that it will not be so difficult for a doctor in the future as it is at present to have a reasonable idea whether a child is likely to be subnormal or not. I go on to use the phrase about a "reasonable enjoyment of life". That has been used in another place. I am not sure that it is the best phrase which can be found, but it is a matter for the Committee Stage.

In Clause 2, which should be looked at in conjunction with Schedule 1, I lay down that two medical practitioners are required to certify. The G.P. need not be one of them. He may be a doctor against abortion in any circumstances. In the Schedule I lay down various categories of doctors who would be eligible to certify. Here again I should be quite prepared in Committee to listen to any suggestions for the alteration of that list. But I believe that we should not insist on the G.P. or upon the doctor who performs the operation being one of those who has to certify.

Clause 3 and Schedule 2 lay down that notification must be within seven days of the operation. I considered whether it might be reasonable to say that it had to be in advance, but, on giving thought to the matter, it appeared that that would not be practicable in all circumstances. Notification would be to the Chief Medical Officer of Health, because if it were made locally there would be a grave danger of a leak of confidence, or it might seem to the woman concerned that there might be a failure of confidence, and that would have a very unhappy result.

Clause 4 deals with the onus of proof. It has been pointed out to me since the Bill was printed that in all the circumstances this Clause may not be absolutely necessary, and if it were suggested to me in Committee that I should leave it out I should be quite willing to consider that proposition.

It remains for me to say why certain other rather more controversial features have not been incorporated in the Bill—what has been known as the social Clause, what has been called the rape Clause and what has been called the under-16 Clause. I have much sympathy with all the cases which people have in mind who have put forward these Clauses, but there are three reasons why I have not attempted to include them in the Bill. The first is the difficulty of adequate definition, and I again remind the House that we are dealing with the criminal law. The second is my wish to keep the authority to the doctors as simple and unelaborate as possible. The third is my desire to get maximum support to re- write the law, which I believe to be so important. I realise that I am open to criticism from both sides—from those who think that I have not gone far enough and from some who may think that I have gone too far, although I am scarcely going beyond the law as it is at present practised.

I believe that the 1861 Statute is archaic, and I believe that its change is an essential part of the final emancipation of women. Since I took up this question I have become convinced that the public is ready for and wants a change. I commend the Bill to the House as a modest but overdue Bill.

Mr. Speaker

This is not a party matter. I shall endeavour to balance the debate. Mr. Simon Mahon.

3.14 p.m.

Mr. Simon Mahon (Bootle)

I do not suppose that there was ever a Member of the House who sought to address it who felt more trepidation than I do in trying to cope with the complexities of a Bill of this nature.

First, I congratulate the hon. Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Wingfield Digby) on having the good fortune to bring forward the Bill today. Secondly, I want to say how sorry I am that because of the time factor the House has not been able to debate the Bill in greater detail. I have been here since eleven o'clock this morning and I realise the difficulties in which the hon. Member presented the Bill and the restriction which the time factor imposed upon him.

I am aware of my inadequacies in dealing with a matter of this kind. I hope that I can emulate the example at least of the hon. Member, but that I do not ruin my case, which is already inadequate because of my inadequate knowledge.

I have one objection to the Bill and it is a fundamental one. The hon. Member for Dorset, West said that he would make allowance for other opinions which are genuinely held. I am one of those who hold those genuinely-held opinions, and I will do my best to convey to the House what I mean.

Clause 1 of the Bill allows termination of pregnancy for the purpose of preserving the life of the patient". Who could object to that? In paragraph (b), we have the second ground: in the belief that there would be a substantial risk of serious injury to the physical or mental health of the patient or both if her pregnancy were not terminated". This is all very human and right in some degree. Paragraph (c) provides, as the third ground the belief that it is as probable as not that the child if born would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities or both as to deprive it of any prospect of reasonable enjoyment of life". With the hon. Member for Dorset, West, I do not know what the consensus of opinion in this House would describe as a "reasonable enjoyment of life". My generation had a reasonable expectation and enjoyment of life, as did other generations, but it was denied to us for one reason or another on many different occasions. However, I will not go into that too deeply.

Obviously, the sentiments of the Bill will have a wide appeal to many people, and particularly to many women. I speak as a layman and I have done a great deal of social work, like everybody else in the House. I came into the House by what I might describe as the hard way, through local government and through working on the Liverpool dockside for many years and witnessing the difficulties.

Twenty-five years ago, when I was just about becoming prominent in that sphere, I went into a house to help a married couple. In those days, I would have agreed completely with the Bill and I would have voted for it in the circumstances which I saw. In this house were an ideal couple who had a child who could never return any affection at all. It was impossible for the child even to recognise its parents. I displayed, perhaps in my ignorance, a great deal of sympathy with those people. They did not send for me for help about the child. It was about another matter altogether.

I dealt with the matter and I noticed while I was in the house that everything there—the man's life, his work, everything in the house—was for that child and was devoted to that child. I made the unmistakable error of saying to the mother of that child, who was as much a caricature of any child as ever I saw, "I am very sorry for you." She said to me, "Mr. Mahon, if you have any sorrow, save it for yourself. If that was the only child I was ever to have"—and it was the only child she had—"I am glad that Almighty God sent that child to me." That makes me think, and I am sure that it makes everybody else in this House think. I know that many people do not agree with it, but, nevertheless, the thing to do was to save the sorrow for others.

Before standing up here to speak, I have examined my conscience and I want people to understand that I am not short of compassion. Anyone who has lived on Merseyside for the whole of his lifetime and discovered the social problems and looked at them can understand that many of the problems that we have seen on Merseyside could well be used in support of the Bill. They will not finish here, even if the Bill is given a Second Reading. Other arguments will be used, as they have been used. Such things as poverty, and poverty affecting family life, provide arguments for making out a case for a Bill like this. So does ill-health. I have seen poverty, and I have seen ill-health. I have seen it in abundance—in my own town, where we have the highest birth rate and the highest mortality rate and child mortality rate. I understand these things fully, and they can be used as arguments for the Bill.

On top of all that, we have had a great deal of economic insecurity. That can be an argument for the Bill as well. We have also got in Liverpool bad housing, probably the worst in the country. Every letter I get from my constituents deals with this matter of child-bearing and of ill-health and of the effects of bad housing, and I am aware of the burden of tremendous anxiety which women have from these causes. They are problems which cannot easily be dismissed.

But there is another point. As I say, I feel inadequate to discuss this subject, but I take some comfort from the fact that the great minds of this world—the great minds—are at the moment looking at this matter objectively, looking at the great problems of birth and of abortion and of the explosion of the population in the world today. I have some knowledge of these matters, but I doubt at times whether I am right or whether I am wrong, and I could far more easily support this Bill if it were not for one single factor.

I, like my generation, have seen poverty, and I have seen it in the Far East—and we in this country have not seen poverty like that and cannot know it unless we have witnessed the Bengal famine and things like that. I witnessed it. I thought at that time that I would support any measure at all which would alleviate that massive and horrible and inhuman suffering which was part of my life at the time. But I am prepared to await the findings of people who are studying this problem. The hon. Gentleman said he had the latest knowledge—knowledge which has just come to light. I have not that knowledge which he has, and I shall be interested to have that knowledge which has come from America in recent days.

I am convinced that the world will find a method which will be acceptable to most people. The hon. Gentleman spoke about different viewpoints, different religious and spiritual outlooks. These are matters of deep concern to everybody in the world, whether Catholic or non-Catholic. There are so many people with so many different views, and what we do here today will be looked at by them, and from other parts of the world. We should remember that. I want to see these difficulties and problems and hardships alleviated. I want to see these horrible things done away with, just as the hon. Gentleman does, and I am prepared to go as far as I possibly can to assist in putting an end to them.

We come to the crunch of my whole argument. The world can find out positive answers to these problems, as it will through medicine and science and through the application of greater skills than mine. I ask myself, are these the only people qualified to speak on a matter like this? I am not presuming to speak for the Catholics. I am a layman. I am not a doctor, I am not a lawyer, I am not a priest. Are these the only people qualified to speak on a matter like this? I was 14 when I left school, and I have done my best ever since to try to use whatever enlightenment I was given to put forward the case of my own people.

It comes down in the end to whether men can believe that, once conception has taken place, it can be lawful to kill. That is the whole crunch of the argument. All over the world, people are trying to find ways of reducing population and feeding people properly. We are not arguing about contraception, but about conception, and, once it has taken place, is it right and proper to kill that life?

Doctors are not all the same, and they have not unanimity of opinion; neither have lawyers, and neither have priests. But I have heard arguments put with compassion and generosity among Catholic people, and I am sure that no one wants to impute motives of any kind to anyone on such a serious subject.

A long time ago, people made certain pronouncements on it. When I first came to the House, and made my maiden speech from the Opposition benches, I told how, after a long period in industry, which was undignified, and after years of war, which I hated, I tried to sort out the almost insurmountable social problems of my own town. I came to the House and tried to say that the reason I am here and why I hold the views that I do is that I have always believed that I was made with a body and a soul, and that the two things are indivisible. I have looked up the words that I used, and I must have appeared a rather presumptious young man. I said that I wanted the social dignity of my people to be maintained because they were made in the image and likeness of God.

If one agrees with that, one can have one view. Anyone who does not agree with it is allowed any view at all. I happen to believe it, and I hope that I do not sound in the least bit presumptious. I approach the subject with all the humility that I can because I am conscious of the factors affecting people in the world today. I have a tremendous compassion for women going through these great trials from day to day, and I do not take objection to anyone who has a different view from my own.

Like everyone else in the House, recently I have been giving much thought to the taking of life. I was not too happy with the Bill about the abolition of the death penalty, but I thought about it, and, because I do not like the idea of the State taking life, I voted for it.

We are talking about conception and life, and, like everyone else in the world, I am terrified whenever I think of the use of modern nuclear weapons. Their devastation is so great that I do not believe that their use can be justified in any way, I do not object to them only because of the immorality of such weapons. I object to them not only because of what they can do to us, the living, but because of what they can do to generations of unborn children.

In the flights of imagination which I have at times—as I am sure everybody else who treats this subject seriously has—I think that if the world was mad enough—and do not let us think that it has not been mad before—ever to use these weapons, the problem would not be how to get rid of children, or whether to kill them, but how to produce a perfect child against the background of such a catastrophe. That goes through my mind, and I hope that the House will take the point.

It is all right now making this legislation. It is all right now prosecuting these ideas with all the generosity which they are producing, but let us face the possibility of what can happen. People talk about a child being born imperfect. Some of the finest people that I have met have been born imperfect. I am not trying to make an argument for this, but I am sure that we all know of people who were born imperfect, but who made a tremendous contribution to life as a whole. It is not always the most beautiful people who make the most beautiful contribution to life. In music, in art, and in many other spheres, people who have been deprived of physical beauty, and, indeed, sometimes of mental facility, have contributed greatly to the happiness of others.

I wonder whether I dare say to the House and to the country that at one time there were people who did not say, "We will destroy you because you are imperfect, or because you are in the way, but we will destroy you because you are a Jew. We will destroy you because you are a Catholic. We will destroy you because you do not believe what we believe." I have lived through those days, and it is the memory of them which comes to mind when I think of this Bill.

I have seen people in my generation who have killed off the cream of a family of ten. En passant, may I say that my mother was as poor as any mother who ever lived. My father was as poor as any man who ever lived. In her child-bearing days, my mother had to contend with the difficulties of poverty and everything else. There was nobody poorer than my mother and father. My brother, who is the hon. Member for Preston, South, knows that this is true. He knows that there were poor people in Liverpool who had 10 children. Every one of those children reached our home, and reached my mother's mind and heart.

There was never a happier home in the whole of this kingdom. We were not rich in many things, but we were rich as a family and as a home. I agree with the hon. Member that it is not I who should be making this speech today. It is the mother of that family who could tell these women precisely what her difficulties were, and what are the real answers to this problem, because on this subject she is the most eloquent person whom I ever knew.

Like everybody else in this country, we as a family had to fight the people who were usurping the law of Almighty God. It was obvious to the world in those days that they were doing just that. They started with the Jews, and got rid of between 10 and 15 million of them, simply because they were in the way of the State. I am one of those people who believe that the individual comes before the State. This is one of the fundamental things about which we have to think today. During those years Hitler got rid of the unfit in a very horrible manner. Some people may think themselves outside the orbit of this argument. They may be, according to their consciences—and I respect everyone's conscience—but for me it is part and parcel of the ultimate argument.

I know that other hon. Members want to speak, and I have spoken for quite long enough. I want to end by saying something about back-entry abortions. In my boyhood the back-entry moneylender was a scourge, and we did all we could to get rid of him. If the hon. Member wants anyone to give him a hand to get rid of the back-entry abortionists I will take the nearest gun to help him do so. That is how strongly I feel about them. These are the people we should be going for. These are the people who are battening on the difficulties of poor girls who come to this city, and to other cities. These are the people who are responsible for the anxieties in our minds today.

I am a Catholic, but I am not a Catholic theologian. I do not want anyone to be in any difficulty in understanding the Catholic position in this matter. The responsible voice of Catholicism in this country, the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster, says that Catholics would not oppose efforts to tidy up the existing law on abortion, just as they did not object to legislation on divorce, but that they cannot, in conscience, support either abortion or divorce.

The Cardinal refutes the claim of the official Anglican body that the practice of abortion could not be unconditionally condemned. He makes many other points. He points out that Nobody can give any reliable figures of abortions in this country. Some say 50,000, some 10,000, others 100,000. The Cardinal also says that the most common cause of abortion is the failure of contraceptives. He says: There is no national peril but…we do not know how many more women would have been the victims of the abortionists if they had not been saved by skilful surgeons…. The old-fashioned mother-or-child dilemma is now virtually non-existent. Advance in medical knowledge and ante-natal care makes it a matter of routine to bring the baby to term without serious risk to he mother. Only direct killing of life in the womb is against God's law. If in the course of an operation to save a mother the foetus is lost, the surgeon is not guilty of unethical conduct. I hope that I have said enough at least to convince the House of my point of view. I am sure that I have not convinced the House on all the things that I have said, but I hope that I have approached the matter with at least the same compassion and humanity as was displayed by the hon. Member for Dorset, West.

3.40 p.m.

Mr. Ian Percival (Southport)

Short as this debate has been, we have already heard enough to realise how strong feelings are, how much people think about this subject, how many different points of view there are, and how important it is that the House should have an opportunity to debate them fully before coming to a decision, and not after a scant and skimpy debate such as this must be. There is one way in which that can be brought about and one way only. All the points which arise on the Bill are Committee points, save for the very widest point of principle, to which the hon. Member for Bootle (Mr. Simon Mahon) referred. That, however, is a point which could be taken again on Third Reading, if necessary. The only way in which we can have the debate which the House ought to have—after all, we ought not to lag behind another place, which is sometimes castigated as being old-fashioned and not prepared to face up to problems like this, and we ought to give ourselves the opportunity to talk this subject over fully in the House—is if the Bill is given a Second Reading.

The widest questions of principle in objection to the Bill have already been referred to by the hon. Member for Bootle. Nobody could possibly assume that because the Bill was given a Second Reading after a very short debate everybody was fully in agreement with it. We know that they are not. However, I beg of the House and, in particular, of those who have objections to the Bill, however sincere they may be—I do not for a moment question their sincerity—to let the Bill have its Second Reading so that we may have the opportunity in Committee to talk these matters out and to hear everybody's point of view.

I know that I speak for the promoter and for most of the other supporters of the Bill when I say that what we want above all is to hear the reasoned views of our colleagues on these points. We are, none of us, absolutely wedded to any particular formula. I do not think that there is any great difference of opinion about the formulae on Clause 1(a) and (b), but there is considerable scope for discussion on the formula in Clause 1(c), and about whether that subsection ought to be there at all.

We recognise all this, but what we want is to get those matters discussed by hon. Members of this House. Everybody else in the country is discussing them: let us discuss them, too. This is the only way that we can arrive at the moral consensus of opinion upon this point. Public opinion polls help a little, and the lengthy debate on Second Reading and in Committee in another place has been of great assistance, but, at risk of repeating myself, I again make this plea. Do not let us in this House deny ourselves the opportunity to discuss what many people think would be a very useful reform by this Bill being talked out this afternoon.

Let us have a little generosity. Let the Bill be given its Second Reading and then let us roll up our sleeves in Committee and get down to discussing what is right and what is wrong. I appreciate that Clause 1(c) raises very difficult considerations in some people's minds. Let me say at once that none of us who have promoted or supported the Bill simply put it in as fast as we could write. We gave a great deal of thought before we put it in and about the particular form in which it should go in.

I hope that it will be of help to the House if I were to say a little more about what the subsection means. With great respect to the hon. Member for Bootle, he was putting too wide an interpretation upon it. I know that this is up to lawyers and that they ought to be able to say what they mean and make clear what the words mean, but I can only say, as one who had a hand in drafting Clause 1(c), that it was meant to be very tightly drawn, so as to cover only particular kinds of cases.

I should like to explain the intentions of the promoters over this subsection and to make clear that if they have used the wrong words they would be the first to accept with gratitude any better formula which anyone else might suggest to achieve the objective. In deciding whether to give the Bill a Second Reading, it is important to know what is the object. If there is no fundamental disagreement over the object, or if the object brings the matter down into a small compass which we can discuss, then I suggest that, however strongly anyone may feel at the moment about that subsection, that is not a reason for failing to give the Bill a Second Reading.

Perhaps I might help in bringing issues back a little more to what they really are, because, with great respect to the hon. Member for Bootle, I feel that some of the points which he made were rather wide of the Bill. It is not a question of the State taking power to kill anybody. This is left entirely to discretion. If the Bill did what the hon. Member said it does, then I should be the first to say that it needed amendment. It is not intended to do all that at all. It is intended to be wholly discretionary. No question can ever arise under the Bill unless the mother wishes the termination of her pregnancy. The State has no say in the matter from start to finish. Only the mother can initiate the procedure.

Some people may ask, "Why just the mother?" At the moment the Bill contains no provision for the father to have a say, but I for one, and I am sure that I speak for the Promoters and other supporters of the Bill, would welcome any suggestion as to how we can provide for the father to have a say in this matter, too, so that this would be a joint family decision. That is what one hopes it would be. But we ran into difficulty in making such provision for the father in respect of the case in which there are differences of opinion between the parties at the time and the case in which the husband has gone away and cannot be traced. But we should welcome any suggestions on that point.

There is nothing mandatory about it. The Bill gives the State no power at all. When the hon. Member speaks of the State saying "Kill so-and-so because we do not like him", I say respectifully to him that that is not a true analogy. Moreover, there is no obligation upon a doctor to have any part in the matter at all. A doctor who holds the views expressed by the hon. Member for Bootle—and there may be many—is entitled to say, without any fear of criticism, "It is against my principles theologically, morally and in every other way to have any part in this matter." He need then have no part in it either as a certifying party or as an operating party.

This is the first point which must be made clear, and I make it in a little detail in case it was not made clear enough in the Bill and perhaps it has escaped the attention of some people: it gives the State no power, it does not start at all unless the mother wants it, and no doctor who has any objection to the principle need have any part in it.

I want to say a little more about what Clause 1(c) means. I wondered when the hon. Member for Bootle was speaking whether he had in mind the kind of deformities which there are in this world. My hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) wrote in a letter in The Times this morning that Clause 1(c) means that if there is a fifty-fifty chance that a child will be born handicapped its life can be snuffed out". With great respect to my hon. Friend, if it means that, then it is certainly not what it is intended to mean, and I as one of the draftsmen would be very happy to alter the wording. It does not mean that at all. I will explain what I think it does mean, and certainly what is intended by the promoters. There are some degrees of deformity which defy description. I am not going into details of them, but I want to make one or two references to what has been said by people in another place, holding very strong views, including some leading churchmen.

The Lord Bishop of Exeter, who was the principal antagonist of this proposal in the other place, recognised at col. 342 in the OFFICIAL REPORT of the other place of 1st February, that there were cases of such abnormality that he would have said it would be better if the foetus had never been born. The Lord Bishop of Southwark told a most harrowing story of how when he was on a hospital board there were two rooms of a hospital into which he was advised not to go. If a churchman could not go into those wards, who could? What he saw in those wards were bodies in such a condition as to cause him to say that whether they were human was a theological problem beyond his understanding. Lord Reay referred to cases where the foetus could hardly be called a potential human being.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

That may be so, but would not the hon. Gentleman agree that this Clause, while covering the cases he mentions, goes much further than those cases, and that this is the objection to it?

Mr. Percival

I do not believe that it does, but if this is so I would be the first to want to limit it. This is very much a Committee point. If we have the wrong words, then I say change them. I am recounting now what I believe it to cover and what the promoters intend it to cover. If it goes wider than that, let us consider it in Committee. Lord Reay was considering the cases of encephalitic children. Those are the kind of cases that this is meant to cover. It does not cover the Helen Keller cases and the Beethoven cases. I do not believe that it covers the thalidomide cases. The test here is not that the child is going to be handicapped; it is not that the child is going to be deformed; it is not even that the child will have no reasonable prospect of a normal life.

It is even stricter than that. It will be that there will be no reasonable prospect of enjoyment. I have personal experience of a thalidomide baby born with no arms or legs, who is now fitted with these limbs and who, at the age of 7, is able to feed and dress himself. I am very much in sympathy with the hon. Member for Bootle and I entirely agree that this child, despite his fearful deformities, has a reasonable expectation of enjoyment. I have never had a more moving experience than to hear about this child, playing in the garden during the summer. His parents heard a friend say to him, "Why haven't you got any feet?" The little boy said, "I don't know, but perhaps I will when I get older."

With this kind of deformity there is a prospect of reasonable enjoyment, and this is entirely accepted. With the Keller and the Beethoven cases there is the prospect of reasonable enjoyment, but in the kind of case to which the Lord Bishop of Exeter, the Lord Bishop of Southwark and the Lord Reay referred it is doubtful whether these children are even human beings in the minds of theological authorities. As I think the Church Information Office put it, it is doubtful whether in such cases the foetus can properly be described as a potential human being—

Mr. Victor Goodhew (St. Albans)

Can my hon. and learned Friend tell the House how one is able, in the early stages of pregnancy, to differentiate what the form of a child of this category will finally take? This is a very important point to consider.

Mr. Percival

It is, indeed, and I am much obliged to my hon. Friend for raising it. Again, I do not have time to give more than references, but for those who really regard this as important, it is possibly the nub of the matter. I would refer them to an article by Dr. Smithells in the Lancet of 1st January, 1966, in highly technical terms—and the hon. Lady the Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) would no doubt understand them, though it is difficult for laymen and for lawyers—from which, if one battles with them, one is able to get some idea of where medical science has already got to, and where it is moving.

I think that it can be summarised, but I would welcome guidance on this by saying that in such cases there really is some inherent reason for the kind of hideous deformity to which I am referring; these are not cases where something minor has gone wrong—questions of chromosomes, and so on, arise—

Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

It is absolutely possible now to take photographs and to see the actual baby—how its hands are growing, how it looks, and so on.

Mr. Percival

I am obliged to my hon. Friend. My investigations lead me to believe that it is in these cases of the worst deformity that medical science has made progress and is able to diagnose on a 50-50 or better chance of certainty. Here I may say to my hon. Friend the Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) that 50-50 is only a matter for discussion, and 50-50 is much tighter than was suggested in the other place, where many wanted a 1-in-5 or 1-in-20 chance. We have tightened it up considerably, but when we look at this Bill in detail it may be found necessary to go further and say "with reasonable certainty". One wants to know the feelings of hon. Members before making a decision on the kind of wording.

That is why I respectfully suggest to the House that it is essential to let this Bill go to a Standing Committee, where we can get down to these matters, really discuss them, and make up our minds firmly, in the light of experience—and with the wisdom and guidance of our colleagues on the precise wording—what reform we should make, because I think that all will agree that the time for some reform has come. I most earnestly ask the House not to deprive itself of the chance of doing something useful and of the opportunity of fully debating these matters in Committee. I ask the House to give the Bill a Second Reading here and now.

3.59 p.m.

Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)

It is not my intention to talk this Bill out. I merely want to say that the point raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Percival) is not a Committee point; it is a major point of principle. I certainly would have found myself able to vote for this Bill if it had been merely a matter of Clause 1(a) and Clause 1(b), but I think that paragraph (c) makes a fundamental departure in principle because it gives a licence to kill, moreover a licence to kill with no limiting terms. I therefore am compelled to oppose the Bill, but would have found it possible to support it but for paragraph (c).

Mr. Wingfield Digby 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. Peter Mahon (Preston, South)

The rights of the citizens of this country—

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not like to hear the word "shame" in Parliament. Mr. Mahon.

Mr. Mahon

If the rights—

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

Debate to be resumed upon Monday next.