HC Deb 15 December 1988 vol 143 cc1066-7
1. Mrs. Ann Winterton

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department how many inquests were held in 1988 on babies born alive following abortions; and if he will make a statement.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Douglas Hogg)

I am not aware of any. Such information is not collected centrally.

Mrs. Winterton

Will my hon. Friend give his reasons for failing to hold an inquest into the death of the Carlisle baby, who, in July 1987, was delivered alive in the city general hospital Carlisle after 21 weeks' gestation hut died, having struggled for three hours to live?

Mr. Hogg

I entirely understand my hon. Friend's concern. My right hon. Friend felt that there was no compelling reason to hold an inquest. In reaching that conclusion he had a number of considerations in mind—that this was a bona fide and lawful abortion; the reasons for carrying it out were compelling; the foetus was incapable of surviving; and it was desirable to spare the mother further distress.

Mr. Alton

How can the Minister say that, when the ground given for abortion was disability—a non-recurring possible skin complaint that was not life-threatening? Did he take into account the absence of resuscitation equipment in the hospital when the abortion took place? How does that square with the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, which says that a child may not be aborted if it is capable of being born alive? This child struggled for life for three hours before being put in a black sack and incinerated.

Mr. Hogg

It is desirable to avoid emotive language in these painful subjects. Ministers gave the case careful consideration and came to the conclusions that I have outlined. I believe that they were right.

Sir Bernard Braine

Is my hon. Friend aware that in 1976 the Select Committee on Abortion recommended that no abortion should be carried out on a baby of 20 weeks' or more gestation unless resuscitation equipment and trained staff are available? Is he further aware that resuscitation equipment was available in the hospital for the Carlisle baby but that it was not used because it was in another building? Is that not of itself sufficient reason to order an inquest? Can an inquest be ordered to show the nation that regulations passed by the Department of Health and accepted by the hospital service were flagrantly broken? Is it not high time that we ended disgraceful happenings of this kind?

Mr. Hogg

I am conscious of the strong feelings that a number of hon. Members most particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine)—have on this subject. This matter was given careful consideration by Ministers, including my right hon. Friend—

Sir Bernard Braine

The law was broken.

Mr. Hogg

The conclusion at which we arrived was the one that I have outlined to the House, and it would be wrong to depart from it now.

Mr. McAvoy

On what ground did the Home Secretary decide that there should be no inquest? This abortion contravened the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, section 1(1)(b) of the Abortion Act and, against all requirements laid down by the Department of Health, no resuscitation equipment was available for this child. Given all those facts, surely this case should be investigated.

Mr. Hogg

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, which he has expressed most clearly. I do not accept that there was a breach of the 1929 Act. The Ministers who examined the case did so carefully, realising that many hon. Members felt strongly about it, but the conclusion that I have outlined to the House is the right conclusion.