HC Deb 11 February 1985 vol 73 cc40-72 4.40 pm
Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough and Horncastle)

I beg to move, That this House notes with concern the continuing high numbers of abortions in the United Kingdom, particularly the number of late abortions highlighted by the recent study group of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists; and calls upon the Government to pay attention to the moral and ethical questions raised by abortion.

A Member of Parliament may have to wait a considerable number of years before he is fortunate enough to have a motion called for debate. I could have decided to ask the House to debate the economy, which is of central concern to the nation, but the House spends virtually every day of every week discussing such issues.

Abortion is one issue of vital moral and ethical concern to millions of people which has not been discussed in the House for nearly five years. Since that issue was last discussed, about 600,000 abortions have been performed. Since the passing of the Abortion Act 1967, 2,234,326 abortions have been carried out — 145 every day of every year. As one person put it, "It seems that the Abortion Act has got cancer." It has resulted in many more abortions being performed than the original sponsors of the 1967 legislation intended. For those reasons, I believe that it is my duty to give Parliament an opportunity to debate this issue.

The abortion issue raises classic arguments between principle and expediency. I shall deal, first, with the arguments of principle, then go on to the arguments of expediency and finally review the law as it stands.

Two questions are raised in the arguments of principle. First, is human life sacred? Secondly, where does human life begin?

The answer to the first question must be an unequivocal yes. Human life is sacred to the Christian who believes that every soul has a right to conscience so that it can know God. Human life is sacred to the humanist who believes that, because life terminates with death, everyone has a right to life. I believe that human life is sacred because everyone has a right to life. The mentally retarded have as much right to life as the mentally normal. The old, the sick, the weak and the stupid have as much right to life as the young, the healthy, the strong and the clever.

The second question is: where does human life begin? Foetology has made great strides in recent years. Ultra-scan techniques allow us to peer into the secret life of the womb. We know that the embryo is genetically complete at conception. We know that at the 25th day following conception the heart beats. We know that the bones are being formed by the sixth week and that by the 10th week all limbs are established. Even to the layman's eye, the foetus is obviously a human being. We know that at the 16th week the heart pumps about 50 pints of blood a day. We know that at the 20th week eyebrows and eyelashes have already formed. From the knowledge that has been built up during the past 20 years, we know that birth is an incident in a long-established process. A line cannot be drawn at any one stage — whether at six, 12 or 20 weeks, or even birth—at which one can say, "This is where life begins." The only logical conclusion is that life begins at conception.

Another objection to these arguments is that life begins when it is capable of being sustained away from the mother. That begs other serious questions. Is life sustainable immediately after birth when a baby is still reliant on outside support? A baby left in the womb would have a chance to survice. Most important of all is the question: does dependence deny existence?

A woman certainly has a right to choose to have, say, her appendix taken out. Her appendix is dependent on her and can have no prospect of independent existence. Does a woman have a right to choose to terminate the foetus, which is certainly dependent on her but which has the opportunity of independence in the future? Those are two very different arguments.

I should have thought that those arguments show that, if one looks at this issue purely from the point of personal principle, there can be only one answer—that abortion is wrong. However, many would say, "Although, speaking for myself, I may think that abortion is wrong, I am not prepared to impose my views on society."

I do not want to deny the seriousness of the back-street abortion argument or to deny the pain and humiliation suffered under the previous law by many women through back-street abortions. I must, however deal with the moral argument put forward by the anti-abortionists who say, "Because burglaries will always take place, is that an argument for making them legal?"

One need not take the moral point of view alone. There is evidence that the 1967 abortion laws created a new clientele for abortion. Society today is very different from society in 1967. Birth control is universally available. Society hopes to care and counsel women faced with unplanned pregnancies rather than to censure them.

An interesting report published by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1966 showed that, based on hospital admissions and deaths, there were about 14,000 illegal abortions in 1966. That compares with 128,000 abortions a year now. It is said by those in favour of abortion that the official statistics camouflage the real state of affairs. If that were the case, one would have expected the deaths to figure somewhere in the official statistics. In fact, the figures show that, although the number of deaths among women of child-bearing age was decreasing by 300 a year before 1967, in the first full year of the operation of the 1967 Act the number increased.

Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that Britain has one of the lowest abortion rates in the world—a rate that has changed little during the past 10 years — contrary to the impression that he is trying to give?

Mr. Leigh

I said that there had been about 128,000 abortions a year. The abortion rate has been fairly steady in recent years, as the hon. Lady said. That is a matter of interest and concern to the House.

Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

Since the passing of the 1967 legislation, there have been about 2,333,000 abortions. That is a substantial and damaging figure.

Mr. Leigh

I said that at the beginning of my speech. My hon. Friend has made a fair point.

Mr. Martin Flannery (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

The hon. Gentleman has cited the number of abortions since the 1967 legislation was passed. He seems to be motivated by the increased numbers. Have we any means of finding out the number of back-street abortions? Does the hon. Gentleman assume that the number is less since the 1967 Act and that more abortions are now carried out in a proper way because that is the more sensible approach?

Mr. Leigh

I said that the report by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists suggested that there were about 14,000 illegal abortions in 1966. There is no doubt that, although the Act has resulted in fewer backstreet abortions, it has created a considerably enlarged clientele for abortions, and that is a matter of anxiety. They have increased. There have been 2 million abortions since 1967. There is no doubt that the Act has resulted in a considerable increase in abortions in this country.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)


Mr. Leigh

I am sure that the hon. Lady will wish to speak. I want to go on to other points. If she wishes to intervene on them, I shall give way.

I shall deal with the difficult arguments about rape. I do not deny the existence of the serious and heartfelt anxiety about that issue. The Churches take a moral line which I must mention briefly. It is that one act of violence can never justify another, but the figures show that only about 2 per cent. of abortions are for genuine medical reasons, including rape. Many people who are worried about the abortion legislation as it now operates would be prepared to provide for rape, but that would not affect the 108,000 abortions carried out last year under section 2.

The main argument pursued by pro-abortionists is: better no child than an unwanted child. In modern Britain there is and need be no such thing as an unwanted child. For every child there are 10 childless couples desperate to adopt. Our want is not a reliable judgment as to whether a human life should be allowed to exist. There is no evidence to show that wanted children are not maltreated. Dr. Edward Lenoski calculated that 91 per cent. of child abuse took place with wanted children. Since the passing of the Act, there have been 317,000 more children in care. The arguments about wanted or unwanted children are the same as those used in the pagan world about infanticide and exposure of children on the hillside.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the statistics show that in 1968—the year that the Abortion Act came into effect—there were about 24,000 adoptions in this country, and that in 1983 there were about 9,000 adoptions, of which only about 3,000 were for truly illegitimate children and were non-parental applications? Does not that vast decrease in the number of children available for adoption since 1968 say a great deal in favour of the point that he is making?

Mr. Leigh

My hon. Friend makes a fair point. There is the argument that, as a man, I have no right to discuss this issue. It is not my business to apportion blame. I do not underestimate the considerable pressures caused by unwanted pregnancy. Society has no right to censure unplanned pregnancy. Society has a duty to care and to give unstinting love, guidance and advice on how life can be saved rather than on how it can be destroyed. The House has a duty and a right to speak up for the weak against the strong.

I said that I would begin by looking at the arguments of principle and then of expediency. I wish briefly to review the law as it stands. The fundamental law on this subject is the Offences Against the Person Act 1861, which proscribed abortion. That was amended by the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, which introduced the offences of child destruction or causing the death of a child capable of being born alive. That is an important point to which I wish to return later, because it is of significance to late abortions. The Act was amended as a result of the case of Regina v. Bourne which decided that a woman's life depended upon physical and mental health as much as anything else.

Those Acts were amended by the Abortion Act 1967. The Abortion Act provided four grounds for abortion—life saving, therapeutic, social and engenic. In 1983, out of 127,375 abortions, 108,806 — the vast majority — were performed under section 2, which relates to the risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the woman; only 538 abortions were perfomed under section 1, which relates to the risk to the life of a pregnant woman; and only 2,019 were carried out under the engenic section, which relates to the risk of birth of a severely abnormal baby.

Apart from the strongly pro-abortion lobby, there is almost universal anxiety about the number of late abortions. I am talking about abortions performed between the 24th and 28th weeks. Advances in medical science have ensured that babies of fewer than 24 weeks gestational age can be born alive. As The Times put it on 9 January 1984: Every advance in obstetric techniques makes the present position less tenable. My reading of the Acts, and that of many others, tells me —I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend will comment on this point — that the Infant Life (Preservation) Act defines child destruction as the killing in utero of a child capable of being born alive regardless of gestational age. A baby aborted alive is covered by the law relating to homicide.

I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to comment on the view that it is unnecessary to have a new upper limit Bill. All that the Government need do is to circulate and inform area health authorities that, with the advances in medical science, the age of viability stands, according to the Department of Health and Social Security, at 20, 22 or 24 weeks and that abortions committed beyond that gestational period are illegal.

Mrs. Renée Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)

How many abortions have taken place after 20 weeks of pregnancy during the past five years or so?

Mr. Leigh

I do not have the figures in my head, but I have them in my briefing papers.

Mrs. Short

That is the case.

Mr. Leigh

Of course, the hon. Lady is right. The vast majority of abortions are performed within the 10th or 12th week period.

Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)


Mr. Leigh

May I just answer the hon. Lady's point? As I said, the vast majority of abortions are performed early in pregnancy, but that does not deny the argument about principle that I put forward earlier. Abortions are still carried out beyond the 20th week.

Mrs. Renée Short

How many?

Mr. Leigh

I wish to deal with that point now.

Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

In the interest of accuracy, will my hon. Friend accept from me that in 1983 —the latest year for which figures are available—the number of abortions carried out later than 20 weeks was 1.38 per cent. of the total and that the reasons for those abortions were good and strong?

Mr. Leigh

To answer that point, I wish to deal with the confidential study carried out by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which was worried about late abortions, and some interesting facts emerged from that study. The number of late abortions was six to one in the private sector as against the National Health Service; 54 per cent. were carried out on women from abroad; 87 per cent. were under section 2, which, I think, answers the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison); and only 0.16 per cent. were carried out under section 1—risk to life of the pregnant woman.

There is anxiety about late abortions and the financial link between referral agencies and abortion clinics, which are not allowed to advertise, and how people are persuaded to go to abortion clinics on the advice of referral agencies.

Dr. M. S. Miller

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves the issue of late abortions—I sympathise and agree with much of what he is saying—does he accept that it is not as easy as he says to pinpoint the exact time when an abortion is late? He says that 26 weeks is accepted, but it is not accepted. There is no consensus that viability is certain at 26 weeks, for the simple reason that the exact moment of conception is never known. There can be differences of one, two, three or four weeks.

Mr. Leigh

The hon. Gentleman is right, but I think that most people accept that 28 weeks as the age of viability is far too late, given the advances that have taken place in medical science. There have been cases of babies being born alive, even though their gestational age is less than 24 weeks.

I do not believe that the sponsors of the original Act wanted to see a close financial link between referral agencies and abortion clinics.

On the conscience question, under English law, a person is innocent until proved guilty, but under the abortion legislation doctors are required to prove conscience. Recently nurses have been sacked for refusing to insert instruments prior to an abortion, for refusing to fill in forms or for refusing to make appointments. There should be an absolute right for doctors and nurses with conscientious objections not to be involved in abortions.

One of the most difficult areas considered in the recent amending Bill was the tightening up of the sections of the 1967 Act. In December 1979, during proceedings in Standing Committee C on the Abortion (Amendment) Bill, the then Solicitor-General dealt with the statistical argument. The Act in general gives the right to carry out abortions if the risk of childbirth to a mother's health is greater than the risk of her having an abortion. Abolitionists claim that the figures prove that fewer women die from abortion than used to die from childbirth. That is true, but the figures are not comparable, because women who die during childbirth tend to be suffering from some gross abnormality, whereas those who die from abortion tend to be healthy young women who would have had a normal pregnancy.

In 1979, the Solicitor-General stressed the lack of yardsticks in determining relative risks. I believe that the statistical argument could be overcome by including in the 1967 Act the words "serious or substantial". It is interesting to note that Sir John Peel, the Queen's gynaecologist, told the Standing Committee in 1979 that between 5 and 10 per cent. of women having abortions suffered sterility; that figure did not include abnormalities.

In my review of the law, I have refrained from taking the absolutist line that all abortions are wrong. I have simply tried to review the law as it stands. Politics being the art of the possible, I do not believe that one can take an absolutist line. There is a case for a step-by-step approach in this immensely important issue. Parliament has a right to discuss it, and I hope that hon. Members will support me for having given Parliament that opportunity.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. I remind the House that the debate must end at 7 o'clock, so we have less than two hours left. Many hon. Members wish to speak.

5.3 pm

Mrs. Renée Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)

I think that the House would have preferred not to have this debate. In the past 16 to 18 years, some of us have sat through numerous debates following the passing of the 1967 Act, which provided relief for women, and we remember hearing similar arguments to those presented today by the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh).

It is disappointing that so many years after the passing of an Act that has been endorsed by the medical profession an hon. Member should present ad nauseam the same old jejune arguments that the 1967 Act rendered out of date. I shall not bother to respond to those old arguments, though the Minister for Health may feel the need to do so.

As regards the new points raised in the motion of the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle, there are legal restrictions on late abortions. The clinics where terminations are carried out are controlled and inspected; an inspectorate was set up under the 1967 Act.

In 1975, the Department of Health and Social Security laid down that terminations in non-NHS premises should be performed after 20 weeks only if resuscitation equipment was available and staff were present on the premises to use it, thus obviating the danger to the mother. In 1980, the DHSS wrote to all places that are approved to perform terminations saying that in cases of terminations where the stage of gestation was believed to be over 20 weeks or there was a reasonable possibility that it may become 20 weeks and the period of gestation was in doubt, an ultrasound scan should be performed. In the same year, the Department also recommended that scans should be carried out on all women who were 16 weeks to 20 weeks pregnant, in the hope that the additional assurance of an ultrasound scan will serve both as a safeguard to patients and prove also to be in the best interests of both the operating doctors and the nursing home proprietors against the possibility of subsequent allegations being made that a foetus was viable at the time of termination. So strong regulations are laid down to control doctors working in private nursing homes.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Is the hon. Lady aware that in 1983 there were 1,747 abortions after the 20th week? Is that not still a matter of great concern?

Mrs. Short

I shall present figures later, but I wish to go through my argument in sequence.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle must have regard to what the BMA says, and the association's handbook of ethics states: the doctor should recommend or perform termination after 20 weeks only if he is convinced that the health of the woman is seriously threatened or if the child will be seriously handicapped. That is a clear instruction to doctors.

The latest figures from the Department—for 1983—were published last year. They show that only 1.19 per cent. of terminations were performed at 20 to 23 weeks, and that only 0.19 per cent. were performed at 24 weeks or later. That puts the matter in perspective.

We should congratulate all those involved and thank the DHSS for what it is doing to control nursing homes. We should also congratulate the medical profession on ensuring that so few terminations take place after 20 weeks. We should be celebrating those facts instead of discussing this sort of motion. Contrary to what the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle seems to think, the medical profession is carrying out its responsibilities.

The other serious ground for late abortion is that there is likely to be permanent injury to the physical or mental health of the mother. It is a serious decision, whatever the hon. Member and some of his supporters say, for both the woman and her doctor to terminate pregnancy at 24 weeks or later. One of the great benefits of the Act is that it has encouraged terminations to take place by a much simpler process and much earlier, so there is much less risk to the mother.

What does the hon. Gentleman suggest should he done when lateness is the responsibility of the NHS and not the patient? The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, whom the hon. Gentleman quoted twice in his speech, said that only last year—perhaps these are more up-to-date figures than the hon. Gentleman has —over 20 per cent. of women who had terminations between 20 and 23 weeks had been medically referred for termination before the end of the 12th week. It is clear where the delay occurs—in the NHS machinery. Had their terminations been carried out as soon as possible after the end of the 12th week, when they were referred, or as soon as is acceptable or desirable, they would have been terminated before the 14th week instead of at 20 to 23 weeks.

Therefore, I hope that the Minister for Health will discover why the delay occurs between consultation and operation in a small number of cases, which is obviously serious. It does not happen in the private sector where terminations are carried out very early. There is a considerable impetus for the private nursing homes to get their patients in as early as possible, and many of them are run precisely for carrying out that procedure alone. Therefore, I must conclude that either there is poor organisation in the NHS or perhaps some consultants hope that the patients will be diverted into the private sector, where they have an interest in performing terminations in private nursing homes. There could be that profit motive for some of the less scrupulous members of the medical profession. I am certain that they are only a minority, but they exist and delays are caused.

Does the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle give any thought to the problem of the menopausal woman who does not always realise when she is pregnant, or the young girl who is similarly unaware? The latter perhaps does not want to accept the fact that she is pregnant and hopes that if she does nothing about it, it will go away. What about the mentally handicapped woman who becomes pregnant, perhaps because of rape, and who does not realise that she is pregnant? There are many such cases. They can lead to late terminations which, I emphasise, are a tiny proportion of the total number of terminations carried out.

I hope that the Minister will also examine this point. One of the most serious problems that is the responsibility of the NHS is the delay in carrying out amniocentesis. There is a problem for the older woman who is pregnant. Amniocentesis is carried out to establish whether the child is likely to be handicapped. That is crucial to the older woman, who is at greater risk of producing a handicapped child. Does the hon. Gentleman wish to deny her the relief that the law allows?

Professor Eva Alberman, who is well known to the Select Committee because she was our epidemiologist specialist adviser when the Select Committee carried out an inquiry into perinatal mortality, recently published a report in The Lancet which revealed that, in the absence of any other change in medical practice, a reduction in the legal age of foetal viability to 24 weeks would have meant that during 1982 a total of 26 abortions for seriously handicapping conditions could not have been carried out. A reduction to 22 weeks would have stopped 77 such abortions from being performed. Professor Alberman also referred to the importance of early diagnosis of foetal abnormality and yet found that in at least a proportion of the late abortions studied there were delays, some of which, she and others suggest, might have been avoidable both before and after the tests for abnormality.

Therefore, it is clear that the weight of medical opinion supports early terminations. The figures show that over 90 per cent. of terminations are carried out within the time limit prescribed by the Act, and only a tiny proportion—less than 2 per cent. during the past four or five years—have been carried out later than the legal time limit provided for in the Act. They are for serious cases where there is a late discovery of a suspected abnormality.

Mr. Leigh

The hon. Lady has not answered the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Bruinvels). According to the official statistics for 1983, the figure was 1,509, which is a considerable number. It may be only 2 per cent. but some of us on this side of the argument realise that it is only 2 per cent. because the total number of abortions is so large anyway—and far too large.

Mrs. Short

If one takes the number of terminations that were carried out at that stage of pregnancy and thinks of the enormous number of deaths that occurred when women had terminations before the Act was passed, one finds that there is no comparison. The Act has brought enormous relief to women, and I am only sorry that so few terminations, certainly in my region, are carried out under the NHS. Nearly 5,000 legal abortions were carried out in the west midlands in three months up to December. Of the 4,919 total, the vast majority — that is, 4,225 — were carried out privately in private nursing homes, where the operation is carried out for private profit and gain. Only 694 were carried out under the Health Service in the whole of the west midlands region. Therefore, there can be no argument that terminations, certainly in the west midlands region, are preventing other gynaecological cases from having the treatment that they require. It is much to be regretted that the private nursing homes can make so much money out of carrying out those operations, but the Act provides for that.

The overwhelming majority of terminations should be carried out early, well before the 20th week, many before the 12th and 14th week. There should be proper inspection of the private nursing homes. The House and the country as a whole should be satisfied that the provisions of the Act can be carried out correctly and that there is no need for the present motion, which does not take account of the improvements in technique, in inspection and, above all, of the overwhelming number of cases where terminations are carried out so much earlier even than the limit that the Act now provides.

5.18 pm
Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

I should like to begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) on his good fortune in the ballot and his personal decision to choose what is to all of us a difficult, emotive and distressing subject. He argued his case with good sense and moderation. He is right to ask for a fresh look to be taken at the whole subject.

I should make it clear that I am not—and was not in 1966—opposed to abortion where there is a serious risk—I am using my words carefully—to the life of the pregnant woman, or a risk of grave injury to her physical or mental health, or where there is substantial risk that the child, when born, would suffer from physical or mental abnormalities which would deprive it of any reasonable enjoyment of life.

That, incidentally, was the view of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in 1966. If that advice had been taken by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), the Act, which I admit was necessary in the circumstances, might not have led to so much criticism and we should not have needed to debate the subject again today. I agree entirely with the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short) that in 1966 the law needed to be cleaned up. There is no dispute about that, although I do not think that it is possible to sustain the argument advanced by those who favoured abortion virtually on demand that the figures for criminal abortions were horrendous because, as the Royal College pointed out at the time, the figures it gave were without any secure factual foundation". They were guesstimates. Nevertheless, I do not think that any one of us would deny that there was a serious situation in regard to criminal abortions and therefore an urgent need for legislation. The pity of it was that too little attention was paid to the wording of that measure.

I was involved in those early debates and many moments stand out clearly in my mind. On 22 July 1966 the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale told the House that he simply wanted to get rid of back-street abortion. He added that it is not the intention of the promoters of the Bill to leave a wide open door for abortion on request."—[Official Report, 22 July 1966; Vol. 732, c. 1075.] I believe that the right hon. Gentleman's intention was indeed as he stated it. That was also the intention of the Standing Committee and indeed of the whole House.

Dr. M. S. Miller

The right hon. Gentleman is widening the scope of the debate, but he must remember that the inclusion of words such as "serious" or "substantial" lead to problems. The legal profession said that such definitions were impossible to make, and the medical profession was not prepared to be put in jeopardy because the circumstances in which abortion was permissible were not clear.

Sir Bernard Braine

That is quite correct. The medical profession was divided, but the leading bodies concerned were not. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists gave us very clear guidance, but that guidance was ignored. In addition, I recall that the British Medical Association had carried out an inquiry into the subject. I believe that the present director, Dr. Havard, was a member of that working group, as was Dr. Gullick. They, too, gave clear guidance. But it is the business of Parliament to make up its mind on these matters and nothing that the hon. Gentleman has said weakens my argument that Parliament's failure to realise what was at stake led to serious difficulties.

In those early debates I repeatedly warned that the legislation would lead to abortion on demand, and I was quite right. [HON. MEMBER: "No."] I was indeed right, because the law has allowed abortion on demand. That is how it has been interpreted by a great many doctors. [Interruption.] We shall not make much progress if there is a running commentary on every speech. I listened in silence to the speech of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East because I respect her greatly and wished to hear what she had to say. Constant interruptions merely show a lack of conviction that one knows what it is all about; such chatter does not help parliamentary debate.

Week after week following the enactment of the Bill, anxiety increased at the practices developing. For example, there were taxi touts at London airport picking up foreign women who wished to take advantage of the new law. Those women were driven to abortion clinics which were able to pay the drivers generously out of the fat earnings which they were making from frightened women. I agree entirely that the whole matter should have been under the proper direction of the National Health Service from the start, and I said so at the time. It was not, and racket after racket developed. Taxi touts were even stealing girls from other clinics. One driver took girls to a clinic in Bournemouth although they had been booked for operations at a clinic in London.

Such was the public outrage and the ensuing row in Parliament that the Government were forced to set up the Lane committee. That committee consisted entirely of people who had originally favoured abortion on request, just as the more recent Warnock committee was made up of people who favoured the use of the human embryo as a guinea pig. Such was the weight of evidence, however, that the Lane committee was forced to admit that some doctors were practising abortion on demand. The fact that its members advocated no steps to prevent such practices was simply a measure of their views. They were also forced to admit that there was disappointingly little evidence to suggest that the legislation had stopped criminal abortions. [Interruption.] The report is in the Library if any hon. Member wishes to consult it.

Mrs. Clywd

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Bernard Braine

No, I wish to develop my argument. I am dealing with matters that arose in the House long before the hon. Lady became a Member.

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

The right hon. Gentleman will accept that I was here at that time. I hope that he intends to quote the main finding of the Lane committee, which was that the advantage gained from the legislation far outweighed any criticisms that could be levelled against it.

Sir Bernard Braine

If the right hon. Gentleman had been here earlier he would have heard me say that in my view his Bill was necessary and that certain advantages flowed from it for that very reason. The Lane committee said that. Interestingly, however, increasing public disquiet led the hon. Member for Glasgow, Pollok (Mr. White) to introduce the Abortion (Amendment) Bill which led in turn to the establishment of the Select Committee on Abortion, of which I was a member. That Select Committee, chaired by a distinguished Labour Member, exposed the fact that abortion on demand was virtually the order of the day. The evidence clearly established the fact.

Mrs. Clywd

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Bernard Braine

I am telling the House what the Select Committee recommended. When I have done that I shall give way, although I know that many of my hon. Friends wish to speak. [Interruption.] This method of conducting the debate does not help us to make progress.

The Select Committee not only exposed the fact that abortion on demand was the order of the day, but suggested a number of amendments to the Act to ease the situation. One involved the severing of financial links between abortion clinics and referral agencies. The Committee also advocated strengthening the conscience clause and urged that Parliament be given ample time to debate and vote on the criteria for abortion to establish whether we wished the law to be changed.

It is to the everlasting shame of the Government of the day that they failed to implement the main recommendations of the Select Committee. Moreover, it is dishonest of the pro-abortion lobby to claim that repeated efforts to change the law in Parliament have failed. They have failed for one reason alone — the perpetual and successful attempts to talk out every private Member's Bill.

We must not declare that the Abortion Act has achieved nothing. However, one of its achievements is nothing to be proud of. It has resulted in the denial of life to some 2 million unborn children. In fact, while this debate is taking place, some 60 babies will be deprived of the right to life.

Ironically, the Warnock committee was set up to deal with the problem of infertility. Infertility has always been with us, but the problem has been thrust into the foreground because the natural and laudable desire of childless couples to adopt has been frustrated as there are no more babies available because, under the law, we are killing them in increasing numbers.

There is another tragedy associated with infertility. It must be a very bitter thing for some women to have to bear. Few of us can claim to have done nothing in life to cause us regrets. I know that I cannot. But comparatively few of us have to live with the fruits of our misdemeanours. What must make infertility hard to bear is the fact that in many cases it is avoidable. Many cases of blockage to the tubes, for example, are avoidable. It is often caused by infection, which can result from previous abortion or sexually transmitted disease. Secondly, while I believe in contraception, I wonder how many women fitted with the coil realise that it can make them barren.

One of the most appalling aspects of women's right to choose, as it is often expressed, is the fact that they are not properly informed about what they are choosing. That is why I have always argued that there should be no connection whatever between abortion referral agencies and abortion clinics, because the one has a financial interest in the other.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East put her finger on the point long ago. If we are to have proper, therapeutic abortion in this country, it should have been controlled from the beginning under the NHS.

People complain about the way things are going, but refuse to see what is happening under their very eyes. They refuse to see that the cheap and shoddy rarely supplies the answer.

I refer again to the original abortion debates. One of the reasons put forward by the abortionists for liberalising the law was that by doing so they would reduce the number of unwanted children and level off—that was an often-used phrase—the rate of illegitimacy. In vain we said that killing babies in the womb would hardly lead to a more responsible society in which children would receive more love. We were right to say that. The numbers of children in care were not reduced after the abortion law came into operation. On the contrary, the numbers have risen by leaps and bounds. Between 1951 and 1967 the numbers rose by fewer than 7,000, from 62,700 to 69,300. In the 10 years after the Act came into operation, the numbers rose at an unprecedented rate and hit the 100,000 mark, where they remain today.

Pro-abortionists give every possible reason for this rise — and I would agree that our liberal divorce law has something to do with it—but the fact is that every other country which has liberalised its abortion laws has witnessed a similar increase in child tragedies.

Mrs. Clwyd

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Bernard Braine

In so short a debate, I shall not enter into an argument on the causes. However, there is no scrap of evidence from anywhere in the world to support the claim by the pro-abortionists that their policies result in greater love and care for born children and that we are overcoming the tragedy of unwanted children. All the evidence suggests the reverse.

Mrs. Clwyd

Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Bernard Braine

I wish to be brief, to give others a chance to speak. I end by asking a simple question: where should we go from here?

Mrs. Clwyd

The right hon. Gentleman said earlier that he would give way when he had developed his argument. If he is interested in evidence, he might like to know that I was a member of the Royal Commission on the National Health Service. We gave evidence to his Government and pointed out that far from abortion being available on demand the reverse was true. It is now more difficult to get an abortion under the NHS. According to the latest figures available, those for 1983, only 49 per cent. of women in this country who had abortions had an abortion on the NHS. How can the right hon. Gentleman say that we have abortion on demand?

Sir Bernard Braine

I am talking about abortion not on the NHS, but in the private sector. The hon. Lady has been so anxious to intervene that she has not listened to what I have been saying.

We started off on the wrong foot. From the beginning, therapeutic abortion based on clear-cut criteria—and the criteria were certainly not as clear-cut as they should have been— should have been performed within the NHS. The whole matter could then have been properly controlled. It was not, and, overnight, abortion clinics sprang up by the score. The racket was so great that the Lane committee had to be set up. Even then the racket failed to disappear. There was then the Bill of the hon. Member for Pollok. There followed the setting-up of the Select Committee. The hon. Lady was not a Member of the House at the time and cannot remember what intense anxiety there was both in the House and the country.

Mrs. Renée Short

The right hon. Gentleman keeps referring to abortion on demand and the need for better services under the NHS. I cannot recall whether, when I introduced a ten-minute Bill in 1981 appealing for an extension of NHS facilities, the right hon. Gentleman voted for it. Can he tell me whether he did or not?

Sir Bernard Braine

I would not like to give an answer off the cuff. However, I once served in the Ministry of Health and have always been a strong supporter of the concept of the National Health Service. In 1966 the leaders of the medical profession were concerned about two things: first, to whom the task was to be entrusted; and, secondly, where it was to be done. They said that there was no need for complicated legislation. If strict rules were laid down on those two points the matter could be left to the medical profession. By that they meant that at least one of the two doctors concerned should be a consultant and also that there should be the strictest possible control over where the operation was done.

If that had been our aim from the outset, we would probably not have been discussing the subject today. However, the decision was made not to entrust the task to two medical practitioners, one of whom would have to be a consultant. And so, presumably because of the fear of strain upon the NHS, the greater part of the demand was met by the mushroom growth of clinics, with all the abuses that I have mentioned.

I should like to recommend a number of courses of action. At the appropriate time the Government should give the House adequate time to debate an amending Bill. That is unlikely to be in the present Session, but the Government should be prepared to help an amending Bill through, so that it cannot be talked out by its opponents. Only in that way shall we see whether or not Parliament wishes to retain the present law unamended.

In my view, the grounds for abortion in the present Act should be more carefully defined to stop abortion on demand. I believe that that result could be achieved by the addition of two words to the Act. We should also put an end to the hypocrisy of allowing the referral agencies to advertise so that they can refer women to clinics in which they have a financial interest. All financial links between referral agencies and clinics should be severed. That should apply equally to those clinics described as charities, from which doctors take home the bulk of the large fees of patients who have abortions.

The conscience clause should be strengthened. In addition, something should be done to help those genuine charities and agencies which offer positive assistance to girls with problem pregnancies. It is scandalous that abortion clinics should be receiving help from local authorities, while agencies which look after girls who wish to keep their babies receive no Government grants.

The Government should also take a positive stand to ensure that under-age girls are not aborted without parental consent. A dentist in this country is not allowed to extract a tooth from a young patient without parental consent, yet the entrepreneurs of the abortion business are allowed to carry out an operation on a young girl which could blight her entire life and leave her sterile. Indeed, if we look at the abortion figures, we cannot fail to realise that those most in need of protection—the young—have become more and more vulnerable. Abortions on girls under 16 increased from 2,619 in 1969 to 10,555 in 1983–8 per cent. of all abortions in England and Wales.

Great play has been made of the fluctuations in the number of abortions on girls in this group since 1978. Frankly, this means nothing at all as the total number of girls aged 13 to 15 has declined, while the number of abortions has remained constant at about four per 1,000 girls in this age bracket. That is a very sad commentary on the state of affairs in this country.

During the last election some of the leaders and spokesmen of my own party made great play of the importance that we attach to the family unit and our concern for the young and unborn—

Mr. Flannery

The hon. Gentleman said that he would be brief.

Sir Bernard Braine

Indeed, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that many Opposition Members share my view.

If, in fact, the Government are concerned about the family, children and the unborn, and intend to keep faith on this, they should give Parliament the time fully to debate the abortion law so that any amendments have the opportunity of reaching the statute book.

5.41 pm
Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

There is no point in my disguising my sincerely held belief on this issue, and I hope that the House will bear with me as I attempt to make a number of brief points. I am opposed to abortion and always have been. There is no point in saying that had I been in the House in 1967 I would have supported the legislation of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), because I would have been in the opposite Lobby. He and I have had many disagreements on this issue, although I respect his sincerity.

The right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) spoke of my right hon. Friend's intention when he introduced the Bill. It was to turn the tide of human misery. I know that my right hon. Friend intended to address himself to the question of back-street abortions. I have no simple, easy answer to that problem and am well aware that because of my position I am open to the argument that without an abortion provision on the statute book there could well be a return to the back-street abortion.

The right hon. Member for Castle Point also referred to the Lane commission. That led me to recall that in 1980 I introduced a ten-minute Bill on the termination of pregnancies and whether, as the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) pointed out, termination should be allowed to occur beyond 24 weeks.

During that debate I quoted Mrs. Justice Lane's committee, which said: Informed opinion is, and the Committee agrees, that a maximum gestational age of 28 weeks for abortion is too high, having regard to modern methods of sustaining prematurely-born infants". Elsewhere in the committee's recommendations it stated that the Abortion Act should be amended to authorise abortion up to the twenty-fourth week of pregnancy and not thereafter". In fact, The Guardian commented that two out of every 1,000 abortions which take place do so on developing children between the ages of 24 and 28 weeks. That goes some way towards answering the interjection made in the speech of the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle.

I believe that this is something on which the House could agree, and I know that my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale is very much of a view that at the very minimum there ought to be a reduction from 28 to 24 weeks. It is something on which he and I agree. Indeed, my right hon. Friend was a sponsor of my Bill. The World Health Organisation takes a similar view.

I am conscious that we are going over arguments that have been rehearsed before, but that is inevitable. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short) said that she had heard these arguments before, but when 162,000 abortions take place each year it is inevitable that this House should want to continue to discuss the legislation and the way in which it is working. It would be surprising if it did not, given the sincerely held views of hon. Members and their constituents, apart from the fact that our constituents would require us, as their representatives, to raise these important issues.

Dr. M. S. Miller

Does not the hon. Gentleman accept that many operations are performed in this country, yet he is distinguishing between this one and the others? However, the Act has given some consideration to the 162,000 women who would otherwise have been placed in difficulty.

Mr. Alton

I shall come to the hon. Gentleman's latter point in a moment. Like him, if I were concerned that insufficient was being done to help people who needed kidney transplants or those with cardiac complaints, and if I felt that the NHS was not helping them or that the system was not operating as it should, I would want to raise such matters in this House. However, when discussing a sincerely-held view among many people outside this House that too many abortions are taking place, it is legitimate for hon. Members to return to this issue. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept the sincerity of those who seek to raise the matter in this way.

Last week, a group of Liverpool women came to see me about the general problems that women face. I accept that society does not treat women in the dignified way that it should, and that many of the prejudices and taboos about women and their place in society have placed women at a lower level than men. That is something to which we must address our minds.

Those women told me of a recent survey of women at Liverpool university who had undergone abortions. It showed that had a creche been available for under two-year-olds, 14 per cent. of the women would have been happy to go ahead with their pregnancies. Perhaps we can do something about that. If some people genuinely have abortions for such simple reasons, we ought to make adequate provision for women in that position.

To some of my fellow Roman Catholic churchmen I say that attitudes on birth control, which sometimes seem to have more to do with the Middle Ages than with life in contemporary Britain and the centre of places such as Liverpool, are undoubtedly one of the reasons why people have abortions. I hope that they will address themselves to that problem.

Like the right hon. Member for Castle Point, I also believe that there is a desperate need for more counselling facilities. There is also a need for more tolerance among families who reject their pregnant daughters and cast them on to the streets. Up to 30 per cent. of people living in parts of my constituency are single parents with one child, then two, who find themselves on the rackety road to ruin as they get lured into things such as prostitution.

We have already heard about a woman's right to choose, and women will ultimately make that decision whether they come within the system or are forced to use the back-street abortionist. However, many of us also believe that the developing child has rights. For purely philosophical and ideological reasons rather than reasons of religious conviction, I believe that the liberty of the individual is paramount. It is because I place such a high price on the rights of the individual that I take the view that I have just expressed.

There is a strange contrast between this debate and the one which will take place on Friday. That contrast concerns the premium that we place on life, the reflections of the Warnock committee, which has examined the whole question of in vitro fertilisation, and the Bill to be introduced by the right hon. Member for South Down (Mr. Powell).

A few weeks ago, a child psychologist and a doctor addressed a group of hon. Members at a forum held in one of the Committee rooms. The right hon. Member for Castle Point, who was present, will recall that during that discussion we were told that in London medical students were now paid £12 for sperm which is used to father up to six different children. That is £2 per child. The problems that they may cause to those children later in terms of a possible identity crisis over parentage—

Ms. Clare Short

That is out of order. Why not wait until Friday?

Mr. Alton

It is not out of order. I shall come to the point when I relate it to today's debate.

Ms. Harriet Harman (Peckham)

The hon. Gentleman's local newspaper probably comes out tomorrow, not Saturday.

Mr. Alton

The hon. Lady is mistaken. I assure her that there are as many people in my constituency who take the same view as she does, whom it would be easier for me to placate by not speaking, as there are those who maintain my view. It is wrong to try to ascribe such motives to hon. Members who have sincerely held views.

In the discussions that took place last week, many hon. Members listened to remarks, which concerned us all, about what would happen as a result of the in vitro fertilisation methods that are to be introduced. On Friday, we shall be having a debate about people bringing children into the world scientifically, as a result of methods that we shall place on the statute book. Today, we are talking about ways in which to remove the rights of children to be born. There is an odd and stark contrast. It is right that the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle has given us a chance to discuss the other side of the equation, and it helps to put into some perspective the debate that we shall be having on Friday.

5.51 pm
Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

I declare an interest, in that I am president of the Brook Advisory Centre, which counsels not only on birth control but on whether pregnancy should be terminated. As I did medicine and set up birth control clinics at about the time that the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) was wrecking the law of Scotland in this respect, I have always had a particular interest in these matters. Without attempting to upset him —beautifully groomed as he ever is—I shall tell the House how the Abortion Act 1967 came about.

In Scotland there was a perfectly satisfactory law, the common law. It was exactly the same as the common law that governs every other medical condition. In other words, if I go to my doctor and ask him to cut off my ears, he will advise me that he does not think that it is in my interest to do so if I do not have leprosy, but it is if I do. The decision whether to terminate a pregnancy was, in Scotland, a matter of common law.

Until the week of the wretched 1967 Act, passed for England and Wales and extended to Scotland, there had never been a prosecution of a doctor or medical person in Scotland. I acted for the only person who ever was prosecuted, until he did not turn up for trial. It was quite proper that this person was prosecuted and pled guilty, because he did an unprofessional operation without anaesthetic on a woman to terminate her pregnancy, and sent her home on a tram, and in a condition in which she was still subject to the likelihood of septicaemia. Therefore, it was proper that he should have been prosecuted. However, that was the only prosecution for the termination of a pregnancy in Scotland.

Dr. M. S. Miller

Is the hon. and learned Gentleman implying that no illegal abortions were carried out in Scotland? Does he not realise that there were quite a number of deaths from abortions in Scotland?

Mr. Fairbairn

I am sorry if I did not make myself clear, and I am glad to be able to be able to do so now. That was the only prosecution of a medically trained person for the termination of a pregnancy. Many people were prosecuted in Scotland for improper, non-medical abortions, just as someone would be prosecuted in Scotland if a person came along and asked him to pull out his teeth and he proceeded to do so with a pair of pliers. That would be an assault.

At that time there was a desire for change in England because, under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, quite a large number of medically trained people had been prosecuted in England and sentenced to terms of imprisonment. It was to get over that difficulty that, when the then newly born foetus from Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles arrived in the House, the midwife stuffed into his hand, when he won the ballot, the Abortion Bill that became the Abortion Act 1967.

Having done that, and realising that it would look a little odd if this new tartan fairy were to cure the law of England, having been elected for a Scottish seat, he applied it to Scotland and ruined a perfectly satisfactory law. Interestingly enough, although Scotland has a much bigger proportion of Roman Catholics than any other part of the United Kingdom, there was never any complaint about the common law of Scotland and its application. If I were to ask my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) to say anything, it would be to say that he would have the words, "This Act does not apply to Scotland" put at the end of the 1967 Act.

Mr. David Steel

As always, the hon. and learned Gentleman is entertaining and inaccurate. He may recall that in 1966–67 Professor Sir Dugald Baird, who was the chief exponent of a liberal abortion law in Scotland, was in the Aberdeen health area, the only one to which the law which the hon. and learned Gentleman is describing applied. Professor Sir Dugald Baird told me that the reason for this was that a Lord Advocate of a few years before had sent round a circular to consultants in Scotland saying that they were liable for prosecution for carrying out abortions. It was because of that threat, arising out of the uncertainty of the common law hanging over doctors, that Sir Dugald Baird was one of those who advised me strongly to include Scotland in the Act.

Mr. Fairbairn

That is a strange recollection. I remember trying to persuade the right hon. Gentleman not to extend the Act to Scotland, and I personally addressed the Royal College of Physicians, with Professor Sir Dugald Baird in the chair, on the law of Scotland and on abortion. He did not take that view then or in any of the correspondence that I had with him afterwards.

Dr. M. S. Miller

My experience in general practice in the years before the Abortion Act was passed totally conflicts with the views expressed by the hon. and learned Gentleman. I was never able to have an abortion terminated for a patient by referring her to any hospital. No gynaecologist in Glasgow would perform abortions except in the most serious circumstances.

Mr. Fairbairn

That may be the hon. Gentleman's recollection of his private practice in Glasgow, and practice varied throughout the country, but, as Professor Sir Dugald Baird demonstrated, the law was satisfactory.

I introduced birth control clinics into Scotland and I am anxious about this matter because of what I have come across in my legal practice. I spent part of my time divorcing people who had married in the first place only because there was an unintentional pregnancy. I spent a great deal of my time in the High Court with children who had been unintentionally conceived and whose parents were not emotionally capable of looking after them. It was never the last child, but always the one in the middle. My practice involving this catalogue of misfortunes arose out of unintended pregnancies.

The difficulty which my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle gets into when he starts talking about the limitation of time period is that of the consistency of those who say that the correction of a mistake is forbidden, that the mistake is hidden or denied until later and later in the pregnancy. People say, "Perhaps I have missed my period, but it may be natural," and they say that about the next one as well, and so on. Unintended conception is a mistake. The parties may have used a contraceptive method which did not work, or they may have made a miscalculation. If a woman becomes pregnant unintentionally, is it right for this House to say that that is a mistake which she is not allowed to correct? That seems to me to be a strange moral judgment.

People talk about the right to life of the unintended foetus. The unintended foetus did not have a choice whether it should be unintendedly conceived in the first place, so why should it have a right not to be intendedly disconceived thereafter?

Mr. Nicholls

No hon. Members have yet said in the debate that they would ban abortion entirely in all circumstances. It is simply that, for a combination of practical politics and personal morality, they are saying that there should be fewer circumstances in which abortion should be allowed—not that it should be abolished.

Mr. Fairbairn

I appreciate that, but what I am trying to stress—it is very important and rarely understood—is the psychological barrier facing a woman who becomes pregnant unintentionally. The barrier is such that she tends to defer the taking of any action. If she were able legitimately, and with public approval, to correct the mistake when it was made, she would not face the difficulty later of getting into the period of gestation before any operation was performed.

I agree with the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short) that it is disgraceful that a woman who is referred to a consultant under the National Health Service can be held responsible for the lateness of the proposed abortion. I agree that the later the termination, the more difficult it becomes. I am in favour of very early abortion, but that can be achieved only if the moral climate alters and we move away from the idea that abortion, even if it is permitted by the 1967 Act, is wrong.

In looking round the Chamber—not, of course, this evening—one may well feel that from time to time a good many mistaken conceptions have taken place. There is no other mistake in human activity which we do not think it right to try to correct. What is wrong with correcting that one?

6.2 pm

Mr. Willie W. Hamilton (Fife, Central)

Before commenting on the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn), I should like first to refer to one or two of the points made by the mover of the motion, the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh). There seemed to be one or two contradictions in his speech.

The hon. Member referred to the sacredness of all human life. In looking round the Chamber, I noted that most of the Conservative Members who accept that view are in favour of capital punishmment. Either human life is sacred or it is not. It cannot be said that it is sacred in some circumstances and not in others.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Will the hon. Member give way?

Mr. Hamilton

In view of the limited time available, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will understand if I do not give way to him.

Another point that the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle made has been mentioned frequently in all the debates on legislation dealing with abortion—that nurses and other people have been persecuted and even dismissed because of the exercise of their conscience. Whenever that has been alleged, we have asked for one such case to be produced. No one, in any circumstances whatever, has been able to produce a case of a nurse or anyone else in the medical profession who has been dismissed for the exercise of conscience under the 1967 Act.

The hon. Gentleman asserted that there is no such thing as an unwanted child. I wish that were so, but we live in the real world and we know that there are unwanted children. There are many women throughout Britain and throughout the world who find that they are pregnant and who, for whatever reason, do not want to bear the child for very good reasons. The ultimate test must be the consultation between the patient and her general practitioner, and the law should be at a minimum in dealing with that relationship.

The right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) laid rather more stress than did the mover of the motion on the development of private clinics. I think that we are all agreed on the undesirability of such a development, but the only possible acceptable alternative is the improvement of facilities within the National Health Service. The answer is not to abolish all such clinics but to improve NHS facilities. I hope that the Minister will give the House some assurance in that respect.

Throughout the country public opinion, no matter what people's political or religious persuasion may be, is massively in support of the way that the 1967 Act is operating. There may be a case for considering a time limit for abortion. I served on Standing Committees which dealt with two abortion Bills. The right hon. Member for Castle Point will remember them vividly. Those Bills were talked out of existence. I think we were right to do that, because public opinion was massively on our side.

It is right that minorities should express their opinion. I understand that a petition containing 1.5 million signatures is to be presented by a Conservative Member. There are another 55 million signatures that are not on the petition. Let us not be under any illusion as to the strength of feeling on abortion. Minorities have a right to be heard but the majority have the right to prevail.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle was right not to lay too much emphasis on the grounds for abortion. I do not think that there is an authoritative body, in the medical profession or anywhere else, in support of any tightening up of that part of the 1967 Act. The main argument relates to a time limit. There may be a case for that. However, even if it is set at 24 weeks, there will always be cases where, for one reason or another, exceptions will have to be made. For that reason, the greater the flexibility in the legislation the better.

The 1967 Act does not lay down a period of 28 weeks or any other period, and that is for a good reason. There is a degree of flexibility to enable the medical profession to examine and treat each case on its merits. The less we do about changing that the better.

We are all against late abortions; indeed, we are all against all abortions. It is a horrible operation. At the weekend I was talking to a doctor who does abortions and he said that there is not a more undesirable operation, because it is an expression of failure. But if we can do anything in this House to eliminate that failure, it will bring happiness to many women and many families who would not otherwise have it. We legislate in this place for the sake of humanity. We legislate to make practices more humane than they would otherwise be. Whatever this House does, women will have abortions. They have had them over the centuries. It is up to us to make the operation more humane by putting on the statute book legislation which is flexible and which recognises the human problems that lie behind abortion.

6.9 pm

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

I shall not take up too much time by going over points that have already been made, especially as some of my comments may be almost identical to those made by my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh).

I should make it clear that I am not against abortion per se. In whatever proposals I might make, I am not working towards a day when abortion will be completely abolished. Whatever my private and personal views may be, other people will hold different views, and on this subject—perhaps more than on any other—one tries to achieve a consensus.

Two points need to be made. First, it concerns me that the word "abortion" seems to be caught up with the concept of contraception and birth control. That is extremely dangerous. Hardly anyone would now argue against contraception, but in talking about abortion we are not talking about contraception. Contraception ensures that human life or conception does not occur. Despite the argument that the spermatozoa and ova are alive, there is no human life until they are fused at conception. Thus, even a hard-line Roman Catholic — if I can use that phrase in a non-pejorative sense — who might be opposed to both abortion and contraception, would probably admit that one of them is much worse than the other.

It must be recognised that abortion is ultimately a form of population control. Whatever the motives may be, it terminates human life. That is not the same as preventing that life from forming in the first place.

Dr. M. S. Miller

The hon. Gentleman argues that human life begins at the moment of conception. But what are sperm and ova if they are not human life? What does he call them?

Mr. Nicholls

I call them on the one hand sperm and on the other ova, but they are not human life. The hon. Gentleman has asked a question so he must listen to the answer. Until they are fused, they are not human life which, unless it is interrupted by nature or some other physical event, will inexorably lead to a birth —[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman goes on heckling from a sedentary position, but if he does not like the answer to his question he could at least have the courtesy to listen to it in relative silence.

Secondly, we are used to referring to the 1967 Act and to the fact that it liberalised abortion or allowed it in certain circumstances, as though that Act was the complete source of our abortion law. But it is not. It has to be read in conjunction with the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929. Subsections (1) and (2) of that Act say that if the gestation period is more than 28 weeks, it is assumed that the child is capable of being born alive. In combination, those two Acts form the basis of our abortion law. When the 1929 Act spoke of 28 weeks, it did so because at that time it was not expected that a child could be born alive before then. In law, capable of being born alive was not even taken to mean capable of surviving. I hope that the one common ground uniting us all is that 28 weeks can no longer be considered appropriate.

Ms. Clare Short

The hon. Gentleman has touched on a crucial point that is frequently misunderstood. It is not the case that it would be legal to abort a foetus that was capable of life, even if it was less than 28 weeks old. It is illegal to kill any foetus that is capable of being born alive. That is the law. Therefore, many of the arguments for reducing the 28-week period represent a misunderstanding of the present law.

Mr. Nicholls

I suspect that this will be the first and last time, even in this Parliament, that I say that the hon. Lady and I are in total agreement on a point.

The essence of that Act was the capability of being born alive and not the period of 28 weeks. The difficulty is that in practice the exception becomes the norm. It would be a brave, optimistic and, probably, well-heeled man, who would tell a doctor, who had gone through the procedures under the Act and who had aborted a foetus at 23 weeks, that he was to be subjected to a private prosecution claiming that at that age the child was capable of being born alive. That is the difficulty.

I think that I have correctly identified the source of the abortion law. We have moved a long way since 1929, and it is now obvious that a child is capable of being born alive at 28 weeks. It is not just a question of making a slight advance involving a week here or there. It is now possible for a child to be born alive at 23 weeks and, moreover, for it to survive. In such debates, the evidence inevitably tends to become anecdotal, and is sometimes no worse for that. But here the evidence is better than that.

On 10 March 1984 an article appeared in The Lancet entitled, "Capable of Being Born Alive". Mr. Dunn and Mr. Stirrat of the Bristol maternity hospital reviewed the state of the law as we all understand it to be. A footnote to that article read: At the time of writing two infants of 23 weeks gestation are in our care, one now being 2½ weeks old the other 1 week old. I do not know whether those two children even survived the date of publication, but if they did, there cannot be the slightest doubt that the child who survived two and half weeks was capable not only of being born alive but of surviving.

I hope that my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister will make a statement along the following lines. If those two statutes taken in combination are properly the foundation of our abortion law, it cannot be right that that 28-week guideline — I hestitate to use that word for reasons that the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) would correct me for — with all the implications that it has, should still be valid. If we are concerned to get our abortion laws right, something must be done, sooner rather than later, to ensure that that time limit is reduced.

The hon. Member for Fife, Central, (Mr. Hamilton) spoke about the sacredness of human life, and that is right. He might have correctly identified me as being one of those who are in favour of capital punishment and in favour of strengthening or, as he might have it, of deliberalising our abortion laws. We could both argue until we were blue in the face, but neither of us would be convinced that the other was right. But I would argue that a person can forfeit his right to life by a crime so heinous that he should be subject to a capital penalty. But ingenious though the mind of a lawyer is, I cannot begin to conceive of how a foetus that has yet to be born can have committed some crime that requires its extinction. Therefore, the hon. Gentleman's point was no good.

The hon. Member for Fife, Central also spoke about the elimination of unhappiness. Again, that unites us. I am not arguing in favour of the abolition of abortion. With all due respect, however, the hon. Gentleman will have to do better than talk about the elimination of unhappiness. In talking about eliminating unhappiness, we are talking about eliminating human life. To consider the woman's happiness does not mean to say that one can simply ignore the fact that the child will be subject not just to unhappiness but to death.

Where do we go from here? We are entitled to say that the legislaion under which abortions are performed should be tightened up in view of what we now know about foetology. There is also a job to be done in terms of educating the public, and especially the child-bearing public, about exactly what is involved in an abortion. It is not just a question of going into hospital and having an anonymous collection of cells removed. If a woman has an abortion by vacuum aspiration, she is committing herself to allowing the child within her to be dismembered. If that is the sort of thing that abortion involves, the public should know about it. If a woman, knowing that, still goes ahead with an abortion, she has at least done so with her eyes open. I hope that a film such as "The Silent Scream" will be broadcast on ITV and BBC with all the counterbalancing propaganda that I am sure that the hon. Member for Ladywood will be able to provide.

Ms. Clare Short

That film is completely fabricated.

Mr. Nicholls

The hon. Lady howls that the film is fabricated. The death of the child certainly is fabricated, but if it is such a monstrous fabrication, I can see no reason why it should not be given air space so that the hon. Lady can produce her arguments to prove that it is fabricated.

Since 1967, 2¼ million babies have been killed before being born but after conception. In only 2 per cent. of the cases were the mothers' lives at risk or the babies seriously deformed. In 98 per cent. of the cases, therefore, the babies were killed because under the Abortion Act 1967 one can have one's child killed for what amounts to little more than the fact that one finds it inconvenient to bear it or because it might be inconvenient to its existing brothers and sisters. In a civilised society, we cannot allow that to continue indefinitely.

6.20 pm
Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking)

The hon. Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) has just made the most unbelievably, incredibly patronising speech. He talked about educating the child-bearing population. It is about time that he and some of his hon. Friends were educated. The trouble with this House is that it is dominated by males who think that they know what is best for women.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) is one of a string of hon. Members who have said that the Abortion Act brings to the country an air of permissiveness, a lowering of moral standards and a diminution in the sanctity of the family. He and others suggest that the Act allows abortion on demand. That is not true. They say that women frivolously use abortion as a contraceptive. That is not true either. They say that the tightening up of this already limited legislation will ensure a rosy picture of happier and more stable parents and children. Nothing is further from the truth.

As everyone in the House knows, abortion has existed since the beginning of time. Throughout history, wealthy women have always been able to have abortions without problems or questions; they simply had to provide the money. No comfortable place in a private clinic was open to those without money. Poorer women had two options. Their first was to continue the pregnancy and have an unwanted child. It is not true that children are always wanted when they arrive. Their second option was to have a back-street abortion—a messy and dangerous practice which I am glad to say has almost disappeared. However, I fear that it may be on the way back if some Conservative Members have their way.

Many figures have been quoted, and I want to put mine on the record. The number of abortions on residents in England and Wales fell each year between 1980 and 1983. However, in the first half of 1984 the number increased by 3,052–5 per cent.—compared with the first half of 1983. That rise occurred in the 16 to 29 age group. The Office of Population Censuses and Surveys has pointed out that this took place about three to five months after the publication in the previous October of papers associating certain malignant diseases with the long-term use of oral contraceptives. It is obvious that many women were frightened by the pill scares and changed to less reliable means of contraception. The result was more unwanted pregnancies and more abortions.

It is more important to consider the rate of abortions rather than the numbers, because the rate takes account of the increases and decreases in the numbers of women in the fertile age group.

The abortion rate has remained at or under 12 women per thousand for the past 13 years. That is one of the lowest abortion rates in the world, as my hon. Friend the Member for Cynon Valley (Mrs. Clwyd) said. It is remarkable that it has remained so steady. It shows that women are using contraception in the most effective way possible. There is no foolproof method of contraception. Women are not using abortion as a method of contraception. Abortion is used only in the most dire circumstances — when contraception has failed or when conception is the result of an unplanned act.

Much has been made of the number of abortions performed on young women between the ages of 16 and 29 who are not married and have no children. The implication is that all such women are fit and healthy and that they should have babies or, if they do not want babies, that they should bear them and offer them for adoption. Many hon. Members have said that. It is an odd argument, because many of those who use it are now holding up their hands in horror at the idea of surrogacy. They suggest that everyone should go through with an unplanned pregnancy to term and then offer the child for adoption, but when it comes to surrogacy they say, "No, we cannot have that." I do not understand their argument.

The House should take account of the trends. Women are no longer prepared to put up with a pregnancy that they do not want and with which they cannot cope. Many women want to plan a family. They want to develop their talents, to work and to earn a living before having a family. Few women now feel compelled to marry if they become pregnant. In 1969, about 44.5 per cent. of pregnant women married before the child was born. In most cases, they were shotgun marriages. In 1981 the figure was 19 per cent.—a much healthier figure.

Society no longer condemns a woman for having an illegitimate child. That is another reason why women do not feel that it is necessary to marry. Many women categorised as single live with their partner in a stable relationship. They simply do not think it important to marry. In 1982, 59 per cent. of illegitimate births were jointly registered. Parliament must take account of changes in attitudes and values and in the way in which people live.

Births and abortions to under 16-year-olds since 1974, when contraceptives were made freely available to all, regardless of age, have remained static. At least, they have up to now. Abortions for women in that age group have remained at under 10 in 1,000 since 1974. The rate of live births in that age group has been at or under three in 1,000 since 1974. The number of illegitimate births has risen as young girls have decided to keep their children, because they believe that society will tolerate that decision.

An acute danger to that stable position now hangs over young girls and their doctors. I refer to the recent judgment by the Appeal Court which stops girls under 16 from getting help from their doctors without the express consent of their parents. Lord Justice Parker, one of the Appeal Court judges, said that that might lead to pregnancy, backstreet abortion or even death.

On 8 February, The Times reported that the British Medical Association had received information that two young girls were alleged to have committed suicide as a result of not receiving the contraceptive advice that they sought. One was a girl who was sexually assaulted by her father, and who learnt that she could not obtain contraceptive advice without her mother knowing of it. The other was a 12-year-old girl who sought advice, but her parents objected. They are reported to have taken their lives. Is that really what Conservative Members want?

Perhaps hon. Members with teenage daughters have a close and understanding relationship with them. I hope so. If so, they are fortunate, because many do not have that relationship. Many daughters do not feel that they can discuss sex with their parents. Family situations vary enormously, and there is often conflict in the home which creates a tense atmosphere in which young girls find it difficult to talk about matters at that time in their development. Therefore, they need access to their doctors.

Under-16s are badly frightened and feel abandoned. I suppose that that fear and sense of isolation is viewed by the moralists on the Conservative Benches as a healthy deterrent to young girls under the age of 16 having sex. Goodness knows how many girls have become pregnant since the Court of Appeal judgment. The moralists have tabled an early-day motion against abortion for girls under 16. I am afraid that that will not stop pregnancies. I hope that the Court of Appeal judgment is changed. Do hon. Members really want no advice, no counselling, no contraception and, if the worst comes to the worst, no abortion, other than illegal or back-street abortion, for girls under 16?

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

I want girls under 16 to take advice from their parents and not to obtain contraceptive advice that is not officially allowed because it is against the law. That would help to bring about a decent family life for those girls.

Ms. Richardson

The hon. Gentleman is mistaken. Contraceptive advice for under-16s is not against the law. He overlooks the fact that many girls cannot and will not discuss it with their parents. They feel that they cannot talk to them. Of course, it would be preferable if they could, and that is what the counselling service and the doctors advise. If we follow the advice of Conservative Members, the clock will be turned back.

Almost every day during Question Time we urge girls to make the most of education and employment opportunities. We tell them to stay at school, get on with their education and grasp the chances to make something of themselves, yet we deny them the understanding advice and help that would enable them to view sex in a sensible manner at a difficult time in their lives.

There is little support among the public or the medical profession for restricting the grounds for abortion. In 1983, the Gallup Poll found that 74 per cent. of the public thought that the decision whether or not to continue a pregnancy should be left to the woman in consultation with her doctor. Support for that view has been high since 1979 —never lower than 74 per cent., which is three quarters of those sampled. The support is high regardless of the age, sex, political opinion or religion of those polled. There is growing support for a more liberal abortion law that would allow women to make their own decisions on abortion. In 1979, the National Opinion Poll found that 56 per cent. of people thought that abortion should be available legally to those who wanted it. That was confirmed in a later NOP survey in The Sun.

People tend to think that it is easy to obtain an abortion. It is not. Many of my hon. Friends have pointed out the difficulties that face women and girls seeking abortion. We know of the widespread concern about the unevenness of NITS provision—from the disgraceful figures in the west midlands where only 3 to 4 per cent. of women can obtain abortions on the NHS to the 97 per cent. who can do so in the north of England. It would have become the hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle more and earned him my respect if part of his motion had referred to the inadequacies of NHS provision for abortion. That would have been a good point to debate, and preferable to the high moral tone that the hon. Gentleman chose to take.

A number of different organisations and bodies have taken a similar view about NHS facilities—for example, the Royal Commission and the Select Committee which considered abortion in 1981, on which both the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) and the Minister's predecessor served. Indeed, the Minister's predecessor expressed his concern that NHS abortion facilities should be improved. However, those facilities are still not good enough. Only last month the Women's National Commission working group on health, chaired by Dame Ann Springman of the Conservative women's national committee, said that where an abortion is permissible, NHS facilities should be made available at the earliest possible stage and that day care facilities should be extended. The Labour party's programme gives priority to improving NHS facilities, including day care, so that choice can be effective wherever the woman lives.

During all the agitation, the pontificating, the attacks on the existing abortion laws and the moralising that we have heard this evening, nothing has been said about the role of the man. Women are blamed for needing abortions. It is represented as their fault if they become pregnant —they have not taken precautions; the precautions have gone wrong so it is bad luck on them; they must bear the agony and the fear of not finding a doctor willing to help; they must bear the main brunt of an abortion and all the difficulties that go with it. Nowhere in the argument is the role and the responsibility of the man pointed out. That was most noticeable in the speech of the hon. Member for Teignbridge. The women are made to feel blameworthy and guilty. If they cannot cope, people look down on them. They are talked about as though they did not exist or work in this place. They are continually put down by less than half the population—the men—who want to decide for them what they should do with their bodies.

Even in the argument about the under-16s and the recent Court of Appeal judgment, it is the daughters' difficulties that are exposed and it is their lives that are being endangered. The law actually protects boys of 14, but they have not been mentioned in our discussion. The House should remember that in our moralising we must understand that women will not for ever be prepared to go on being unable to control their fertility and their bodies. They will continue to demand more rights and more of a say in how they shape their lives.

6.39 pm
The Minister for Health (Mr. Kenneth Clarke)

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh), first, on his good fortune in obtaining this allocation of parliamentary time and, secondly, on giving the House the opportunity to consider this subject again. Since the Abortion Act 1967 was passed the House has considered its provisions on several occasions and several attempts have been made to introduce amending legislation, although none has been successful. But it is surprising — it has surprised me during my time as Minister for Health—that the House has not considered the subject since 1981. The previous occasion on which the House considered it was when the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) introduced a Ten-minute Bill, which did not reach the statute book.

Although some hon. Members criticised my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle, and although I do not agree with all of his views on this subject, the way in which he put them forward commanded respect, and I am sure that his reasonable proposition will be supported by many inside and outside the House.

I must make it clear that the Government, like all their predecessors, are neutral on the great issues of principle that are raised by abortion. The Government believe that it is for Parliament to decide the law and to take any opportunity that the majority wishes to change the law. Since Parliament has decided that abortions may lawfully be carried out in the circumstances specified in the Act, the Government have a duty to ensure that the provisions of the law are properly applied. That must remain our view. I have always been a supporter of the 1967 Act and believed that the way in which it has been applied has, on balance, been beneficial to society. But as I speak in this debate, because I happen to be the Minister for Health, I shall not take advantage of the time to discuss at length some of the issues that have been raised, which I might have done were I not on the Front Bench.

Following the examination of the working of the Act by the Lane committee and later by the Select Committee on abortion, we now have a strict system of control over the application of the Act. I assure the House that my Department takes seriously its duties of inspection and control of private clinics. We monitor closely the operation of the Act, and I assure hon. Members that our monitoring machinery does not reveal any abuse of it. The Government are satisfied that they are ensuring, to the best of their ability, that the wishes of Parliament are respected. That means that abortions are being carried out in proper circumstances and only when the provisions of the Act are satisfied. Obviously, we must strive to ensure that that continues to be the case.

I and the Government share my hon. Friend's concern that many abortions are still considered necessary, for the reasons that were expounded by the hon. Member for Barking. The background to most abortions is at least error, but often it is severe emotional crisis. Abortion is often the cause of considerable distress and difficulty. The figures for 1981, 1982 and 1983 showed a slight decrease in the number of abortions. From the best test that can be applied, which is the number of abortions per thousand women between the ages of 15 and 44, we discover that the rate fell from 12.62 in 1980 to 11.94 in 1983.

It is regrettable that the 1984 figures that we have so far show a slight increase in abortions. No one knows what caused that, but I share the theory of the hon. Member for Barking that it almost certainly resulted from the scare that followed last year's reports of possible dangers from the contraceptive pill. When those stories emerged, we did our best to give proper advice to women, which included asking them to ensure that they finished the course of contraceptive treatment upon which they had embarked, and that they took advice about alternative methods of contraception. But it seems likely that some women, in panic, stopped the course of pills that they were taking or made a mistake in changing to other methods. Everyone who has spoken in the debate, with whatever views, must hope that the downward trend which we previously witnessed will soon return and continue.

I agree with my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross (Mr. Fairbairn), who put his views in his usual colourful way, that one of the best things that we can do to reduce the large number of abortions is to encourage the sensible use of family planning. We do that by the provision of a free family planning service, which we believe is an essential preventive measure which contributes to the avoidance of unwanted pregnancy, to the proper spacing and timing of children and, therefore, to better maternal and child health and to a secure and stable family life. For that reason, we support financially those voluntary bodies that work in this area and the family planning information service.

The hon. Member for Barking felt free to express her views about the case that has been brought against the Department by Mrs. Gillick. She will understand that, as the matter is still waiting to go to the House of Lords, I would rather not be drawn into that discussion. But it is important that that Court of Appeal decision is appealed, if only to clarify some of the doubts left unanswered by the way in which the judgment was expressed. This is an important matter for our society, and the highest court in the land must give a clear ruling on whether the guidance issued by the Department was lawful.

In the brief time that I propose to take in the debate, I shall say a few words about the matter which most concerned my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle. He was worried, as were many hon. Members, about the late stage at which some abortions are performed, especially having regard to the advances in medical techniques of helping premature babies to survive. This matter has caused anxiety for many years, and it has been considered from time to time since the Lane committee produced its report. Several hon. Members have accurately described the legal and statistical position, so I shall not repeat everything that has been said about the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, which was described by my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls), and its relationship to the present law. As he said, the Act requires prima facie proof that a foetus is capable of being born alive if a pregnancy is of more than 28 weeks' duration.

As the hon. Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Ms. Short) made clear, the Infant Life (Preservation) Act protects the life of any foetus capable of being born alive, but in practice the 28-week period has been taken as the usual guideline for the application of that Act. The Lane committee recommended that it should be made illegal for an abortion to be carried out after 24 weeks, but, after repeated attempts, the House has not yet been able to resolve that matter, and the law stands as it was in 1929 and in 1967.

The Government have become concerned about the state of the law because of the changes in medical techniques. In March 1980, my predecessor—my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, East (Sir G. Vaughan) — asked the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to undertake a review of late abortion practice. Its report was published early in 1984, and I commend it to those hon. Members who have not read it. The Government have been considering how best to follow the eight major recommendations in the report, which examined the causes for late abortions and the way in which unnecessary delays and, therefore, the number of late abortions might be reduced. The report has been helpful in drawing attention to the factors which cause abortion to be carried out later than need otherwise happen. We hope that those who provide abortion services, whether it be the National Health Service or the private sector, will consider its findings carefully.

The Government propose to act in several ways. First, to take the point made by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Short) among others, we propose to discuss with NHS representatives the report's findings about delays between referrals and operations in the NHS. We shall be having serious discussions with National Health Service representatives to ascertain whether improvements can be made in practice in areas where delays seem to be inexplicably longer than in other parts of the country. We shall try to disseminate the best practice so that the lessons learnt in one place can be applied by authorities elsewhere. I understand that there is a good scheme which appears to be working well in Newcastle. If it is proved that Newcastle has a better method of handling these matters, we shall do our best to commend it to other health authorities and so spread it through the service.

Secondly, the recommendations of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists point to a need for more education, especially for younger women, to make them appreciate the urgency of early consultation and decision making when pregnancy occurs. We shall be consulting our colleagues in the Department of Education and Science about the prospects for more health education and counselling facilities for young people in this sensitive area.

Thirdly, we shall be seeking to reinforce in every other way the importance of early recognition of pregnancy and recourse to advice when anyone faces a crisis of the sort that we are discussing. That message has already been highlighted by the Maternity Services Advisory Committee, which the Government set up and whose report we have already commended to health authorities.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, together with other medical bodies, is considering actively whether to recommend that the 1929 Act should be amended to change the definition of "foetal viability" from 28 to fewer weeks. The hon. Member for East Kilbride (Dr. Miller), the only Member with a medical qualification to speak in the debate, told us that there is not unanimity within the medical profession on this matter. However, I feel that most doctors consider that 28 weeks is too long a period. This important matter needs to be considered at the level at which the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists is now examining it. When the medical bodies produce their advice, I am sure that it will be widely debated and that the House, as well as the Government, will want to consider it and decide what implications it has for abortion law. I suggest that until we have had time to consider the views of the Royal College it will be foolish for the Government to take a view about any alternative to the 28-week provision. It is probably a little premature for anyone to try to introduce a proposal to make changes in the law.

I think that we all expect the Royal College to come out with a shorter period than 28 weeks. Long ago the Lane committee said that 24 weeks should be the maximum for a legal abortion. Practically everyone who has contributed to the debate has suggested that perhaps 28 weeks is too long a period and that it should be reduced.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) and others reminisced about previous Bills. I remember the issues which have been discussed this evening being canvassed when the House considered the Bill that was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Corrie). My hon. Friend tried to introduce a substantial amendment to the 1967 Act. In this debate those with views as opposite as the hon. Members for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) and for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) have supported a reduction from 28 to 24 weeks. I remember that I did when the Cowie Bill was passing through the House. I think that I voted to that effect, although I have not checked to ensure that I was present when the Division took place. However, I recall that I supported a reduction from 28 to 24 weeks.

The majority of the House voted in favour of the reduction when the Division took place in the course of our consideration of the Corrie Bill.

It is my recollection that the sponsors of the Corrie Bill insisted on adding many other drastic amendments, with the result that those like the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), for Fife, Central and for Barking and myself, who would otherwise have been happy to see a reduction from 28 to 24 weeks placed on the statute book, found that everyone's wishes were frustrated because the Bill was eventually talked out.

If the Royal College returns with some clear advice, I think that the House will have a duty to recognise that there is an amazingly wide spread of opinion. I hope that I shall be forgiven for referring to the opinions of my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point and of the hon. Member for Barking. Probably 28 weeks is too long a period, and the House must concentrate on making progress on that issue, if on nothing else, if that proves to be the recommendation of the Royal College. It will be for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to decide whether the Government will provide time for these matters to be considered by the introduction of a Bill, if and when this hypothetical situation ever arises. That is not a matter to be decided before the Royal College reports to us.

Mrs. Renée Short

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that only 0.6 per cent. of terminations take place at 28 weeks or later? It is still a tiny percentage and we should not get it out of all proportion when considering this matter.

Mr. Clarke

I accept that the number is tiny, but it is not insignificant. If the Royal College says that 28 weeks is now an unrealistically long period for "foetal viability", to use the jargon, and that medical practice has been transformed during the period from 1929 to 1985, I think that the House will wish to address itself to modern practice and, perhaps, to insert a more realistic limit in the statute book. However, I accept that we must not get this issue out of all proportion.

Mr. Alton

I think that earlier the Minister said that he did not think that this would be the right moment for any hon. Member to introduce amending legislation to reduce the time limit when abortions can be carried out from 28 to 24 weeks. The Lane committee, a long time ago, said that that should be done, the World Health Organisation said that that should be done and the sponsors of earlier legislation took the same view. When does the right hon. and learned Gentleman think will be the right time?

Mr. Clarke

The Government will not produce any legislation of that sort. I was expressing a personal view. As the Royal College is considering the issue at this moment, I take the view that we might as well await its report. It may be that the Royal College will not say that 24 weeks is the right time. It is possible that it will opt for some other period. As I have said, I do not think that it will be long before it reports.

My hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle addressed himself to nurses and whether the so-called conscience clause needed to be strengthened. When the Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North was being considered, it received a great deal of support from all sections of the House as it contained provisions that suggested that the conscience clause might be rewritten. I have no evidence that the clause is not being applied properly now. I am not aware that any nurses have been dismissed for refusing to take part in abortion operations. I can assure my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle that we would wish to intervene to ensure that something was done if we found that any nurse had been so ill-treated.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

I have been told that when doctors have applied for posts in certain hospitals they have been denied appointments because they said that they would refuse to terminate pregnancies. Will the Minister corroborate or reject that allegation?

Mr. Clarke

I am not aware of any such cases. We have no evidence that such cases have arisen. The allegation has been made repeatedly, but no cases of that sort have been brought to me as Minister. That applies to nurses and to doctors seeking appointments. If anything of that sort has happened, it should not have done.

Dr. M. S. Miller

Let us suppose that there are two gynaecologists at a hospital, one of whom performs abortions and the other does not because of his conscience. Let us suppose also that the one who performs the abortions leaves. The post would have to be filled, and the board would be within its rights to insist that at least one gynaecologist at the hospital should fulfil his obligations to the Health Service.

Mr. Clarke

I cannot say what considerations a hypothetical board might take into account in the hypothetical situation that the hon. Gentleman has postulated. However, nurses are protected. We insist that they have a conscience clause. A doctor's prospects should not be adversely affected if, for some religious scruple, he does not want to take part in abortions.

I have considerable sympathy with the two basic issues that my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle raised. I do not believe that he had a fierce opponent or critic on the proposal to shorten the period during which abortions can take place or on his remarks about a conscience clause. I am grateful to him for raising these matters. I assure him that the Government will maintain their neutrality while seeking to ensure that all the safeguards in the present Act are applied in practice from now on.

6.59 pm
Ms. Harriet Harman (Peckham)

To pregnant women, especially those in an advanced stage of pregnancy, the decision whether to have an abortion is agonising. I do not believe that abortions are lightly entered into. I am convinced that the decision whether to have a late abortion is not taken without a great deal of heart searching. Because it is a difficult decision, I very much deplore the attitude of those who talk about abortion in terms of numbers or as though it were entered into flippantly. That attitude is particularly deplorable when it comes from men.

The hon. Member for Gainsborough and Horncastle (Mr. Leigh) will never have to struggle with the problems of contraception which, despite recent advances, can not only make a person ill, but be painful and unreliable. He will never have to face the shock of a pregnancy that has not been diagnosed until it is well advanced. The hon. Gentleman will never have to face the agony of deciding whether to carry to term an abnormal foetus and bring into the world to lead a short life a child who might be severely handicapped.

It being Seven o'clock, the proceedings lapsed, pursuant to Standing Order No. 6 (Arrangement of Public Business).