HC Deb 21 February 1978 vol 944 cc1213-24

3.35 p.m.

Sir Bernard Braine (Essex, South-East)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make further provision with respect to the protection of the life of a viable foetus; to amend section 4 of the Abortion Act 1967; to regulate the provision of payment for consultation and advice in relation to the termination of pregnancy; and to make provision with respect to bodies corporate. I rise to ask leave to introduce this short Bill to amend the Abortion Act 1967 by implementing three of the most important recommendations of the Select Committee of this House appointed in February 1975. In so doing I am providing the House with an opportunity to assert its will in a manner of major social and parliamentary importance.

As hon. Members know, on every occasion that the issue of abortion law has been raised in recent years a majority has signified its wish for the law to be clarified and amended, only to find itself frustrated by procedural or other considerations. That is no way to deal with so grave a matter. Yet it is natural enough for all hon. Members in their hearts to wish to still the controversy which continues to surround this subject. The modest measure I now propose is advanced sincerely with that wish in mind.

The House will recall that the Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. White) was given a Second Reading on 7th February 1975 by a substantial majority. It will recall, too, that in that debate the right hon. Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dr. Owen), who was then the Minister of State for Health, defended the Government's proposal to refer the Bill to a Select Committee on the ground that this was the best way to make progress in "a difficult area". The House will recall his advice that the Bill might be delayed if left to the normal procedure and was likely to reach the statute book more quickly if it were to go to a Select Committee.

The House agreed with him, and the Select Committee was set up. But while the Government accepted its interim recommendations for administrative action in October 1975, they failed to do anything about the recommendation for legislation which the Committee, reestablished in the next Session by yet another overwhelming vote, made in its report in July 1976. In its report the Committee asserted that it was six years since the Lane Committee was set up. It was invited to recommend changes in the law and it did so. To allay the disquiet which occasioned its appointment, and to fulfil the expectations of Government action which accompanied the publication of the Lane Report, we believe that the Government is under an obligation to introduce legislation without delay. We … therefore, recommend that legislation to implement this Report be introduced by the Government forthwith. That report and a later one dealing with research into the after effects of abortion and the question of conscientious objection were both ignored by the Government. The House gave its answer to that by giving a Second Reading on 25th February last year to a Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon). That Bill sought to introduce most of the recommendations of the Select Committee and it completed its Committee stage last July. But no further time was made available for it, despite the view of many of us that the Government were morally committed to providing time.

The House may care to reflect on the fact that New Zealand, a country which pioneered enlightened health and social legislation, set up a Royal Commission dealing with abortion which has been strongly influenced by the work of our own Select Committee. It is ironic, is it not, Mr. Speaker, that the New Zealand Royal Commission has just proposed the adoption of a number of recommendations of our Select Committee, although these have not been implemented here?

I turn briefly to my proposed Bill. I wish to make it plain that it will not interfere in any way with the criteria for lawful abortion laid down in the 1967 Act. It is limited solely to three important matters of principle.

The first concerns the upper time limit for abortions. It is now widely accepted in all civilised countries that abortion should not be lawful after the stage when a child may be viable, that is, capable of [...] outside the womb. In this country the upper limit is 28 weeks as a result of a presumption in the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929.

Sir John Peel, former President of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, told the Select Committee that within recent years there were quite a number of well-documented cases where a foetus of less than 28 weeks had survived, two within his personal experience.

The Lane Committee recommended a 24-week limit, but the BMA told the Lane Committee and the Select Committee that it favoured a 20-week limit. In its comments on the Lane Report it said: even with the reduction from 28 to 24 weeks … the position still exists that owing to an error in the calculation of date a foetus intended for destruction could be born alive and be capable of functioning as a self-sustaining whole independent of any connection with the mother. The report of the Peel Advisory Group also recommended that 20 weeks should be regarded as prima facie proof of viability. Sir Stanley Clayton, then President of the Royal College, advocated a 20-week limit when he appeared before the Committee, but rightly said that there should be a safeguard in situations of medical risk of abnormality in the child, in which case later abortions should be permitted.

A Gallup Poll last year among gynaecologists showed 87 per cent. in favour of a 20-week limit or less. My Bill will reflect these views. In short, it will end the destruction of a baby capable of survival under 28 weeks.

The second purpose of the Bill is to strengthen and clarify the provision in Section 4 of the 1967 Act regarding conscientious objection to taking part in an abortion. My object here is to ensure that the original intentions of the 1967 Act are clearly understood and respected. They are not clearly understood and respected at present.

The Select Committee received evidence that in particular some nurses were distressed by having to take part in abortions, and that while the position of Catholic nurses was well understood, that of non-Catholic nurses sometimes was not. The Royal College of Nursing indicated in evidence to the Select Committee its concern over the problem.

The Select Committee also considered that the proviso in the 1967 Act that the burden of proof of conscientious objection should rest on the person claiming to rely on it was ureasonable. My Bill will give statutory clarification of the grounds on which conscientious objection can be based. This is essential, in my view, if nursing is to continue to attract and to hold young people of a caring and dedicated nature.

The third purpose of my Bill is to require that all pregnancy advisory bureaux which charge fees should be licensed by the Secretary of State, as proposed by the Lane Committee. A condition of licensing should be that these bureaux must have no financial connections with abortion clinics. This was recommended by the Select Committee in view of the evidence it received about financial abuses and the importance placed by many witnesses on unbiased counselling.

The Department of Health and Social Security gave the Select Committee a list of financial links between abortion clinics and pregnancy advisory bureaux. I give just two examples. First, the directors of the company running the Metropolitan Pregnancy Control Centre are also the directors of the Raleigh Nursing Home. Therefore, any woman who goes to the centre and after counselling decides to go on with her pregnancy is likely to represent a loss of profit to the directors.

Secondly, the Pregnancy Advisory Service is a registered charity which has a business arrangement with the Fairfield Nursing Home in return for its exclusive use of the home for its patients, half the profits being remitted to the PAS. Therefore, every woman referred to the nursing home after counselling by the PAS means more money for that organisation. Significantly, in 1975, 90 per cent. of the women counselled by PAS were referred for abortion.

The Select Committee considered that such obvious conflicts of interest were clearly undesirable and recommended against exemption from the severance requirement for charities.

Until such time as the National Health Service can provide proper facilities for all lawful abortions—and that is what should happen—my sponsors and I would be prepared to consider exemption for bona fide charities, provided, first, that there were regulations to ensure that abortion on request, which was never intended by the 1967 Act, did not take place, and, secondly, that there was ultimate parliamentary control permitting revocation of a licence.

I am, of course, aware that unless the Government provide time for my Bill, if the House gives me leave to introduce it, it is unlikely to make progress. My purpose today, therefore, is to give the House an opportunity to reassert its will with regard to amending the 1967 Act and to persuade the Government to provide the necessary time.

But the Bill is an opportunity for something more. While on both flanks of this controversy there will always be those who believe that no abortion should be available, save where the mother's life is at risk, and those who believe that abortion should be available on demand, the overwhelming majority of people want a middle way conducted responsibly within a framework of humane law. I believe that my Bill will help to strengthen that framework.

3.46 p.m.

Sir George Sinclair (Dorking)


Mr. Speaker

Is the hon. Gentleman rising to oppose the Bill?

Sir G. Sinclair

Yes, Mr. Speaker.

I oppose the motion, because it would pave the way for a Bill to restrict the operation of the 1967 Act, and because it is in the teeth of medical opinion.

I supported the Bill that preceded the 1967 Act throughout its Committee stage, and I have since defended the Act whenever it has come under attack. The purpose of the motion is to serve as the opening shot in a public campaign to put pressure on the Government to give time on the Floor of the House for a restrictive amendment of the 1967 Act.

I greatly respect my hon. Friend the Member for Essex, South-East (Sir B. Braine) and his right to his strong views on this subject, made clear over many years. But I beg leave to dispute the claim that he is not opposed to the Act and that he is, as it were, the moderate man in the middle.

In 1967, my hon. Friend opposed the Third Reading of the Bill. In 1976 he is reported in his local Press to have spoken of the wanton killing of unborn infants", thus using the emotive language of the anti-abortion organisation, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, whose rally he was attending. My hon. Friend has consistently supported attempts to restrict and disrupt the work of the two charities, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and the Pregnancy Advisory Service—of which more in a moment.

I should like to deal shortly with three main aims of the Bill so far as I can judge them, in the absence of any text from the Press reports and statements by my hon. Friend.

I begin with the time limit. It is only in the most exceptional cases that abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy are sanctioned. Eighty per cent. are performed before the twelfth week and 99 per cent. before the twentieth week Whilst arguments are being advanced for reducing the upper limit below the 28 weeks fixed by the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, we believe that consideration must be given to those women who find, from foetal diagnosis late in pregnancy, that their child will be born with a congenital deformity and who will wish to have the opportunity of deciding whether to continue that particular pregnancy.

Before legislation is embarked upon to fix a lower limit, it would be as well to wait and see what further advances may be made in pre-natal diagnosis, which will have a bearing on the upper limit for abortion.

There is another important factor. Until, in certain areas, the restrictions of the abortion service under the NHS are removed, and with them the risk of delay, it would, in my view, be too soon to change the existing time limit.

There is no need for new legislation. The exceptional cases over 20 weeks are permitted only where there is dire need and on medical judgment. The law must leave some room for medical judgment by those who are responsible for dealing with these problems as part of their day-to-day work. The medical profession itself can see no reason for a change at this stage.

As to conscience, the 1967 Act gives rights of conscience in this matter to the medical profession. My hon. Friend seeks to widen that conscience clause. Here I shall make only this point. My hon. Friend wishes, against medical opinion, to extend the rights of conscience, but he says nothing of extending the rights of women in distress to know whether they are being refused a termination by a doctor, not on medical grounds but because of his conscientious objection to abortion. Surely women in such cases have a right to know such grounds and a right to be advised to seek another doctor who will be prepared to advise not on his personal conscience but on medical grounds. There is a special difficulty when the only consultant available in an area refuses an abortion on grounds of conscience. Dangerous delays can follow. I repeat: the representative organisations of the medical profession see no need for a change.

The most important practical effect of the Bill, however, so far as we can judge its intentions, would be to hinder the operations of the two charitable agencies, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and the Pregnancy Advisory Service, London. These have grown up to provide a service under the Act in areas in which either the National Health Service has not yet developed its own services for women needing an abortion or such a service has been denied by local consultants. To disrupt the services of these two charities would once again drive women in such areas to back street abortions.

Fears about abuses, expressed three years ago, have been dispelled, either be because the administrative controls imposed by the DHSS have been improved and more widely publicised, or as a result of investigations revealing that there was no truth in the allegations in the first place. The most notorious of these were contained in the book "Babies for Burning", which shocked the public and shocked Parliament. The authors have since withdrawn their allegations and imputations against the BPAS in a statement in open court on 18th January this year. They apologise for any distress and damage which their allegations have caused and recognise that BPAS exercises the greatest care in the employment of qualified medical practitioners, and in selecting and training its counsellors. The two charities were set up initially to help women in certain areas where senior medical staff made clear their objections to legal powers for other than strictly medical reasons. This attitude has meant that women have far more chance of obtaining an NHS abortion in some parts of the country than in others. For example, in Hartlepool 96 per cent. of the women who have abortions obtain them through the National Health Service, while in Wolverhampton only 7 per cent. have National Health Service abortions. The charitable services exist to level out this imbalance.

When the British Pregnancy Advisory Service and the Pregnancy Advisory Service were set up in 1968, their founders hoped that the need for their services would be short-lived. But 10 years later 50 per cent. of abortions are still having to be carried out in the private sector. Wrecking the charitable services can only lead to the exploitation on a grand scale of women who would be forced to resort to back street abortions, pay large fees or be compelled to continue with an unwanted pregnancy.

The sponsor of the motion said over the radio this morning: My view is that all abortions ought to be caried out within the NHS. So do the two charitable organisations which I have just described. But it would, in my judgment, be wrong to disrupt their work until the needs of women for abortion under the law can be fully met by the NHS.

We should, I believe, listen to what the British Medical Association has to say—and on other matters in the past, and publicly, the sponsor of the motion has paid great regard to that body. At its annual conference in July 1977, the BMA voted against any amendment of the 1967 Act. In a letter dated 17th February 1978 about the motion that we are now debating, the British Medical Association reaffirmed that view. It stated: We do not, therefore, see the necessity for a further amendment Bill as now proposed. I hope, Mr. Speaker, that in view of this medical opinion and the need of women in distress, the motion will be given very little support.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and Nomination of Select Committees at Commencement of Public Business):—

The House divided: Ayes 181, Noes 175.
Division No. 120] AYES [3.56 p.m.
Abse, Leo Harrison, Rt Hon Walter Oakes, Gordon
Alison, Michael Hastings, Stephen O'Halloran, Michael
Atkins, Rt Hon H. (Spelthorne) Hawkins, Paul Onslow, Cranley
Atkins, Ronald (Preston N) Hayhoe, Barney Oppenheim, Mrs Sally
Atkinson, David (Bournemouth, East) Higgins, Terence L. Page, John (Harrow West)
Bain, Mrs Margaret Holland, Phillip Page, Richard (Workington)
Banks, Robert Hordern, Peter Parkinson, Cecil
Beith, A. J. Hunt, David (Wirral) Parry, Robert
Bennett, Sir Frederic (Torbay) Hunter, Adam Penhaligon, David
Benyon, W. Hurd, Douglas Powell, Rt Hon J. Enoch
Berry, Hon Anthony Hutchison, Michael Clark Price, David (Eastleigh)
Biggs-Davison, John Irving, Charles (Cheltenham) Pym, Rt Hon Francis
Blaker, Peter Jessel, Toby Rees, Peter (Dover & Deal)
Bowden, A. (Brighton, Kemptown) Johnson Smith, G. (E Grinstead) Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Boyson, Dr Rhodes (Brent) Jones, Arthur (Daventry) Rifkind, Malcolm
Braine, Sir Bernard Jones, Dan (Burnley) Roberts, Michael (Cardiff NW)
Bray, Dr Jeremy Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith Robertson, John (Paisley)
Brotherton, Michael Kellett-Bowman, Mrs Elaine Ross, Rt Hon W. (Kilmarnock)
Brown, Sir Edward (Bath) Kershaw, Anthony Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)
Buchanan, Richard Kimball, Marcus St. John-Stevas, Norman
Butler, Adam (Bosworth) King, Tom (Bridgwater) Sandelson, Neville
Callaghan, Jim (Middleton & P) Kitson, Sir Timothy Shelton, William (Streatham)
Canavan, Dennis Knight, Mrs Jill Shersby, Michael
Carter-Jones, Lewis Lambie, David Sillars, James
Churchill, W. S. Lamond, James Sims, Roger
Clark, Alan (Plymouth, Sutton) Latham, Michael (Melton) Skeet, T. H. H.
Clark, William (Croydon S) Lawrence, Ivan Smith, Cyril (Rochdale)
Clegg, Walter Le Marchant, Spencer Smith, Dudley (Warwick)
Clemitson, Ivor Lewis, Ron (Carlisle) Smith, John (N Lanarkshire)
Cocks, Rt Hon Michael (Bristol S) Lomas, Kenneth Speed, Keith
Cohen, Stanley Luce, Richard Stainton, Keith
Coleman, Donald Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson Stanbrook, Ivor
Cope, John McAdden, Sir Stephen Steen, Anthony (Wavertree)
Craigen, Jim (Maryhill) McCartney, Hugh Stewart, Rt Hon Donald
Dalyell, Tam MacCormick, Iain Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)
Dempsey, James McCrindle, Robert Stokes, John
Doig, Peter McElhone, Frank Stott, Roger
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Macfarlane, Neil Stradling Thomas, J.
Duffy, A. E. P. Mackenzie, Rt Hon Gregor Taylor, R. (Croydon NW)
Eadie, Alex McMillan, Tom (Glasgow C) Taylor, Teddy (Cathcart)
Elliott, Sir William McNair-Wilson, M. (Newbury) Tinn, James
English, Michael McNamara, Kevin Urwin, T. W.
Eyre, Reginald Maguire, Frank (Fermanagh) Wainwright, Edwin (Dearne V)
Fell, Anthony Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole) Wakeham, John
Fitch, Alan (Wigan) Marshall, Michael (Arundel) Walder, David (Clitheroe)
Fowler, Norman (Sutton C'f'd) Mather, Carol Walker, Terry (Kingswood)
Fox, Marcus Mawby, Ray Wall, Patrick
Fraser, Rt Hon H. (Stafford & St) Meyer, Sir Anthony Weatherill, Bernard
Fry, Peter Miscampbell, Norman Wells, John
Gilmour, Sir John (East Fife) Mitchell, David (Basingstoke) Welsh, Andrew
Ginsburg, David Moate, Roger White, James (Pollok)
Glyn, Dr Alan Molyneaux, James Whitelaw, Rt Hon William
Goodhew, Victor Monro, Hector Wigley, Dafydd
Gourlay, Harry Montgomery, Fergus Willey, Rt Hon Frederick
Gower, Sir Raymond (Barry) More, Jasper (Ludlow) Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)
Grant, Anthony (Harrow C) Morris, Charles R. (Openshaw) Winterton, Nicholas
Gray, Hamish Morrison, Hon Peter (Chester) Younger, Hon George
Grieve, Percy Mudd, David
Grocott, Bruce Neave, Airey TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Hamilton, James (Bothwell) Neubert, Michael Mr. Ian Gow and
Hannam, John Newton, Tony Mr. Ian Campbell.
Harrison, Col Sir Harwood (Eye) Noble, Mike
Adley, Robert Bradley, Tom Cryer, Bob
Allaun, Frank Brown, Hugh D. (Provan) Cunningham, G. (Islington S)
Armstrong, Ernest Buchan, Norman Davidson, Arthur
Ashton, Joe Burden, F. A. Davies, Bryan (Enfield N)
Atkinson, Norman Carmichael, Neil Davis, Clinton (Hackney C)
Bagier, Gordon A. T. Cartwright, John Deakins, Eric
Baker, Kenneth Castle, Rt Hon Barbara Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)
Barnett, Guy (Greenwich) Colquhoun, Ms Maureen de Freitas, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (Heywood) Conlan, Bernard Dormand, J. D.
Bates, Alf Cook, Robin F. (Edin C) Douglas-Mann, Bruce
Bean, R. E. Corbett, Robin Drayson, Burnaby
Bidwell, Sydney Crawshaw, Richard Ellis, John (Brigg & Scun)
Body, Richard Cronin, John Ennals, Rt Hon David
Boothroyd, Miss Betty Crouch, David Evans, Fred (Caerphilly)
Bottomley, Peter Crowther, Stan (Rotherham) Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)
Evans, John (Newton) Kinnock, Neil Rodgers, Sir John (Sevenoaks)
Fairbairn, Nicholas Knox, David Rooker, J. W.
Fairgrieve, Russell Lamborn, Harry Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Farr, John Latham, Arthur (Paddington) Scott, Nicholas
Faulds, Andrew Lester, Jim (Beeston) Sedgemore, Brian
Fernyhough, Rt Hon E. Lestor, Miss Joan (Eton & Slough) Selby, Harry
Flannery, Martin Lewis, Arthur (Newham N) Sever, John
Fletcher, Ted (Darlington) Litterick, Tom Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)
Food, Rt Hon Michael Loyden, Eddie Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Forman, Nigel McDonald, Dr Oonagh Short, Mrs Renée (Wolv NE)
Forrester, John MacFarquhar, Roderick Silkin, Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)
Fowler, Gerald (The Wrekin) MacGregor, John Silverman, Julius
Fraser, John (Lambeth, N'w'd) MacKay, Andrew (Stechford) Sinclair, Sir George
Freud, Clement Madden, Max Skinner, Dennis
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Mallalieu, J. P. W. Smith, Timothy John (Ashfield)
Garrett, John (Norwich S) Marks, Kenneth Spearing, Nigel
Garrett, W. E. (Wallsend) Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin Spriggs, Leslie
George, Bruce Maynard, Miss Joan Steel, Rt Hon David
Gilbert, Dr John Meacher, Michael Stewart, Rt Hon M. (Fulham)
Gilmour, Rt Hon Ian (Chesham) Mendelson, John Stoddart, David
Graham, Ted Mikardo, Ian Swain, Thomas
Grant, George (Morpeth) Miller, Dr. M. S. (E Kilbride) Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)
Grant, John (Islington C) Mitchell, Austin Temple-Morris, Peter
Grimond, Rt Hon J. Molloy, William Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E)
Grist, Ian Morris, Michael (Northampton S) Thorne Stan (Preston South)
Hardy, Peter Morrison, Charles (Devizes) Tomlinson, John
Harper, Joseph Moyle, Roland Townsend, Cyril D.
Hayman, Mrs Helene Mulley, Rt Hon Frederick Viggers, Peter
Heffer, Eric S. Newens, Stanley Wainwright, Richard (Colne V)
Hooley, Frank Ogden, Eric Ward, Michael
Hoyle, Doug (Nelson) Orbach, Maurice Watkins, David
Huckfield, Les Orme, Rt Hon Stanley Watkinson, John
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N) Palmer, Arthur Weetch, Ken
Hunt, John (Ravensbourne) Pardoe, John Wellbeloved, James
Irving, Rt Hon S. (Dartford) Parker, John Whitehead, Phillip
Jackson, Miss Margaret (Lincoln) Pavitt, Laurie Whitlock, William
Jeger, Mrs Lena Perry, Ernest Wilson, Alexander (Hamilton)
Jenkins, Hugh (Putney) Price, C. (Lewisham W) Wilson, William (Coventry SE)
John, Brynmor Radice, Giles Wise, Mrs Audrey
Johnson, James (Hull West) Renton, Rt Hon Sir D. (Hunts) Young, Sir G. (Ealing, Acton)
Johnson, Walter (Derby S) Rhodes James, R.
Kelley, Richard Richardson, Miss Jo TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Kerr, Russell Ridley, Hon Nicholas Mr. Robin Hodgson and
Kilroy-Silk, Robert Roderick, Caerwyn Mrs. Joyce Butler.

Question accordingly agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Sir Bernard Braine, Mr. Frederick Willey, Mrs. Margaret Bain, Mr. William Benyon, Mr. Leo Abse, Mr. Cyril Smith, Mr. Robert Bradford, Mrs. Elaine Kellett-Bowman, Dr. Jeremy Bray, Mr. James White, Mr. Keith Stainton and Mr. Ian Campbell.

  1. ABORTION (AMENDMENT) 84 words