HC Deb 22 April 1980 vol 983 cc221-6 3.39 pm
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Edge Hill)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law on abortion so as to enable registered medical practitioners to terminate pregnancies which have lasted for less than twenty-four weeks. I apologise to the House for bringing before it yet again an issue which many people may feel has been well aired. I remind hon. Members that we have spent a great deal of time in this Session discussing a matter that concerns many people in this country, and have failed to change one section, one comma or one full stop of the Abortion Act 1967. Yet, when the House debated the subject, it was quite clear that many hon. Members on both sides felt that there was room for change in the 1967 Act. Because of the almost obstinate view of people on both sides of the argument, that they will not give way or compromise at all, I feel that no progress has been made in achieving any sort of reasonable compromise to deal with the problems that many of us feel should be tackled.

I do not believe that a Ten-Minute Bill of this kind will fundamentally alter the reasons why women are forced to have abortions, and I am convinced that as a society we must do something about the stigmas that are attached to one-parent families and to those who feel that it is impossible to cope with having a child and who are driven into the hands of the abortionists. I also believe that the contraceptive services which we offer leave a great deal to be desired. But the fact that there is now one abortion every four minutes in this country must surely convince right hon. and hon. Members that the time has come to look again at the way in which our legislation is working and to challenge the sort of suppositions upon which it has been based.

Whether or not this Bill is given the opportunity of being debated further, I am sure that many hon. Members will continue to have sincerely held views either for or against abortion. However, I am certain that there cannot be many hon. Members whose views have changed since we took a vote only a few weeks ago on whether the length of pregnancy at which an abortion can take place should be reduced. That is the matter to which I want hon. Members to address their minds. I am certain that there is a need to reduce the time at which an abortion can take place from the present 28-week limit. Personally, I should like to see it lower than 24 weeks, and I voted accordingly. However, when the Question was put to the House, the vote was lost by 298 to 120, a majority of 178. When a further vote was taken on the 24-week limit, it was agreed to by 275 to 172, thus demonstrating that a clear majority of the House was in favour of a reduction from 28 weeks to 24 weeks. That is why I believe that we must introduce a series of one-clause Bills in order to amend the legislation, and I make it quite clear to those who hold views that are the opposite of my own that this is not the end of the argument.

Indeed, the Minister himself accepted that if further evidence is brought forward it may be necessary to look at a time limit lower than 24 weeks. Therefore, there can never be an end to this argument, and my Bill will not stop hon. Members from introducing further amendments and further Bills. I believe that there is room for this Bill, which the majority of hon. Members supported just a few weeks ago. In evidence, I refer hon. Members to the Lane committee, which said: Numerous organisations and individuals have recommended an upper limit on the period of gestation at which abortion may lawfully take place. Their principal reasons for so doing may be summarised as follows:—

  1. (1) To encourage early application for, and performance of, abortion and thus to avoid or minimise the risks of the operation, which increase substantially after the first trimester of pregnancy.
  2. (2) To spare the patient and the medical and nursing staff the revulsion and distress occasioned by later abortions, such reactions becoming progressively more severe as the fetus assumes an increasingly human form and movements may be seen.
  3. (3) To avoid the destruction of a well-developed fetus and particularly one which might survive termination of pregnancy."
Mrs. Justice Lane had this to say in her recommendations: Informed opinion is, and the Committee agrees, that a maximum gestational age of twenty-eight weeks for abortion is too high, having regard to modern methods of sustaining prematurely-born infants. Viability must be a question of fact in each case but, while it may be theoretically possible for a fetus to survive at twenty-four weeks' gestation, in practice there is little hope of survival at a gestational age of less than twenty-six weeks. An upper limit of twenty-four weeks' gestation for abortion should afford protection for any fetus with a real chance of survival independently of its mother. Further research may justify a reduction of this period". Indeed, that is one of the reasons why in the amendment, which he accepted and supported, the Minister talked in terms of exceptions being made and the possibility of further reductions in the future. The committee recommended that the Abortion Act should be amended to authorise abortion up to the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy and not thereafter". A leader in The Times, commenting on that, said: There is still room for medical argument about whether it is necessary to stipulate 20 weeks to secure that objective, or whether 22 or 24 weeks would do; but there should be little disagreement about the objective itself. The Guardian newspaper said of abortions: Two out of every 1,000 are carried out on women who have been pregnant for over 24 weeks. About 200 in a year. But both Mrs. Justice Lane's Committee, which spent three years reviewing our abortion procedures, and the World Health Organisation have recommended a limit of 24 weeks. In opening, I said that a number of right hon. and hon. Members had tried to amend the legislation since my right hon. Friend the Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) introduced the 1967 Act. I must say that I opposed his views then within the political party of which I am a member, and I have consistently taken that view. However, I am pleased that today both he and I are sponsors of this Bill, which demonstrates that there is support on both sides of the argument for the change.

Since 1967, many attempts have been made to change the legislation. On 15 July 1969, the right hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), now Leader of the House, failed to get a First Reading for his Bill by 210 votes to 199. The Abortion Law (Reform) Bill in the 1969–70 Session, in the name of the hon. Member for Rye (Mr. Godman Irvine), was talked out on Second Reading. Numerous other attempts were made, but I shall not go into them as my time is running out.

I believe that there is a need for this change. I hope that hon. Members will support the Bill, which seeks to amend the law on abortion so as to enable registered medical practitioners to terminate pregnancies which have lasted for less than twenty-four weeks.

Mr. Speaker

I understand that the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon) wishes to oppose the motion.

3.47 pm
Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)

There is no prerogative of moral concern on this issue. There are those such as the hon. Member for Liverpool, Edgehill (Mr. Alton) whose moral principles make them oppose abortion in all circumstances. There are many whose moral principles make them believe that it is for a woman to choose whether she wants to have an abortion. I have never taken either of those extreme views, nor did the House in 1967. It came to a balance of the moral concerns, between concern for the life and health of the mother and the life of the foetus. We thought then that we had achieved an appropriate balance.

The arguments that I advance today are addressed not to those who are confirmed in their view on either extreme but rather to those in the middle who accepted that balance but who may consider that, in the light of events since then, it is time to change. To those who argue that perhaps we ought to do so in order to give finality to the argument, I must point out that the hon. Member for Edge Hill has already destroyed that argument by indicating that his Bill would not be the last enactment upon the subject, and that those who are opposed to abortion would continue to introduce Bills in the future.

I suggest that those hon. Members who want finality vote strongly against the Bill today so that the House can show to the country that the balance which was achieved in 1967 was the right one and ought to continue.

I address most of my arguments to the point that has been made in favour of the Bill, namely, that, because it is now possible to save a foetus at a much earlier period than it was in 1967, we ought to reduce the top limit in order to avoid the circumstances in which, because of an abortion, a child may come into the world who was capable of living but who was then put to death. I want to make it as plain as I can that that has never been the law. It will not be the law if we pass the Bill. Indeed, there has never been an occasion when it has been permissible for a viable foetus that is capable of living to come into the world and for it then legitimately to be put to death.

It would be an offence under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act, and it would be an offence of murder if it were done deliberately. It would be an offence of manslaughter if the consultant or doctor who brought that child into the world were to neglect it, and thereby imperil its life. For that reason, since 1975 the regulations for carrying out abortions have insisted that whenever an abortion takes place after 20 weeks gestation it should take place in circumstances where there is the machinery to resuscitate the foetus if it is capable of living.

We are not discussing the question—so emotively put in much of the propaganda—whether foetuses will be put to death after they have been born. If a foetus is capable of living, it must continue to live. The argument about a 28-week limit is misconceived. No limit is laid down in the Abortion Act 1967. The limit of 28 weeks is laid down in the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929. It is stated there that it is an offence to kill a child capable of being born alive. If an abortion takes place after 28 weeks of pregnancy the presumption is against the accused, that the child would have been borne alive, and the accused has to refute that presumption. That has always been a rebuttable presumption, and from 1965 onwards it was always possible for legitimate abortion to be carried out after 28 weeks, which was not an offence under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act.

The difference between the Corrie Bill—if I may so call it—and this Bill is that that arguable presumption was removed. Any abortion carried out after 24 or 28 weeks would have been an offence. If people argue about whether that offence is desirable, they should then consider the circumstances. At present, very few abortions take place after 24 weeks. Only 183 such abortions took place in 1977, and of those the majority were dictated by the circumstances of the life or health of the foetus or of the life or health of the mother. Some people now say that we should shift the moral balance so that the time limit is held at 24 weeks or less. Incidentally, this Bill does not say that the limit should be 24 weeks or less. It says that the limit should be less than 24 weeks, which means 23 weeks, and when the two weeks that consultants allow as a buffer period are taken off, the limit is 21 weeks. If we say that the balance must be held at 21 weeks we are shifting the balance of moral concern from the life and the health of the mother, and the life and health of the other children, towards the foetus.

Given the circumstances that I have indicated, I do not believe that a foetus that is capable of being born alive will ever be destroyed, and that that is the right balance to hold. It means that we would stop the abortion of a foetus that would be born dead, and we would do so merely on the grounds of the moral concern of some people against the interest of the health and life of the mother and other children and towards the foetus. I do not believe that that is a desirable thesis.

We should now say to the country as a whole, and to all those who campaigned against the 1967 Bill, that we struck the right balance in 1967. It is the right balance for us now and we should hold to it in the future, and we should tell our constituents that. Let us now vote against the Bill in order to make that plain.

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), and negatived.