HC Deb 16 December 1988 vol 143 cc1200-67 9.36 am
Mr. John Watts (Slough)

I beg to move,

That this House notes the growing public concern about experiments on unborn children and abuses of the Abortion Act 1967; recalls the substantial and sustained majorities given to the Abortion (Amendment) Bill in the last Session and to the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill in successive Sessions; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to bring forward at an early date the proposed legislation concerning research on human embryos and to consider introducing a Bill with alternative sets of clauses to reform the Abortion Act 1967 in order to allow the House, on a free vote, to reach a decision on this important matter.

It is with a measure of sadness that I move the motion. After 21 inglorious years of the Abortion Act 1967, introduced by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), 2.6 million unborn children have been killed under cover of that Act. Only 123 abortions out of that appalling total—0.005 per cent.—have been performed in emergencies to save the mother's life. Four out of five abortions are performed for social reasons under ground two— risk … of injury to the physical or mental health of the … woman". That cover is used to allow abortion effectively on demand.

I do not believe that the House intended in 1967 to legalise abortion on demand, but in practice that is what has happened. The House demonstrated in the last Session with a substantial majority for the Abortion (Amendment) Bill that it has the will to act to curb the practice of late abortions, many of which must be in contravention of the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929. I am very concerned at the apparent unwillingness of Her Majesty's Government to take action to enforce effectively the provisions of that Act.

I wrote to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health about the matter. In her reply, she said: The Infant Life (Preservation) Act protects any child capable of being born alive, regardless of the gestational age at which this point is reached. That is a clear and precise explanation of the letter of the law and of the intentions of the law. However, the objective is not achieved if the Director of Public Prosecutions is unwilling to prosecute doctors who commit offences by aborting a baby who, despite their worst endeavours, is born alive and who then compound and their offence by failing to take the necessary steps to sustain that life.

Although I was not in the House at Question Time yesterday, I understand that this matter was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) and other right hon. and hon. Friends. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health said that she did not see the need for action by her Department to remind doctors of the law. Perhaps of late her mind has been too much on other things and if she were in her place, my advice to her would be—

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)


Mr. Watts

Well, I would not go quite as far as the hon. Gentleman suggests. My advice to her would be to switch her attention from embryonic chickens to embryonic human beings. There is clearly a will in the House at least to tackle some of the worst abuses of abortion, yet our procedures frustrate us in that desire, and meanwhile abortions continue at the rate of 170,000 per year. If just a fraction of that number of babies die every year because of inadequate medical care or from curable or preventable diseases, there would be an outcry in the country and in this House. However, supporters of the status quo in abortion law and those who support its further relaxation are capable of drawing a distinction between the death of a wanted baby and the legalised killing of a baby who would be a social inconvenience. It is not a distinction that I can understand.

I do not hope or expect that there could be agreement within the House on the rights and wrongs of abortion because I know that just as I hold my views deeply, many of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members hold contrary views with equal sincerity. It is important that we respect each other's views on such weighty issues.

Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

My hon. Friend and I share great concern about the care of the born —we are not concerned only about the unborn. In many cases the unborn may be severely handicapped. I do not know my hon. Friend's views about a mother who does not want to give birth to a severely handicapped child, but perhaps he could say a little more about care for the born who are severely handicapped and who may be so severely handicapped that there parents cannot manage to look after them and they are in institutional care.

Does my hon. Friend know that there are hundreds —no, thousands—of severely handicapped children in institutions because their parents cannot manage to look after them and that there is great difficulty in finding foster parents or people to adopt them? Would my hon. Friend put his children into an institution?

Do not handicapped children deserve just as much love and care—or even more love and care—than ordinary children? Can he give me the names of a mere 100 families who would be prepared to adopt or foster a handicapped child?

Mr. Watts

I cannot answer my hon. Friend in the terms in which he asked his question. I know that many thousands of both physically and mentally handicapped children are loved and cared for by their parents or foster parents. I hope that my hon. Friend is not trying to lead me down the route of agreeing that any child who is likely to be born severely handicapped—either mentally or physically—should automatically be aborted.

Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

In order that this matter might be kept in perspective, is it not a fact that of late abortions—that is to say, after 18 weeks—92 per cent., if allowed to have been born would have been perfectly fit and healthy children, and that of those who were aborted for so-called handicap reasons, quite a high proportion were aborted for trivial handicap reasons? That does not minimise the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) properly made a moment ago, but for goodness sake, let's keep it in perspective.

Mr. Watts

My hon. Friend is entirely right. The number of abortions performed because there is concern that the child will be born severely physically or mentally handicapped are miniscule against the appalling death total of 2.6 million since the Abortion Act was passed in 1967.

These difficult issues face parents every time they are expecting a child. My wife and I made a conscious decision not to seek to find out by tests whether any of our four children was likely to be born handicapped because we did not wish to put ourselves in the position of having the pressure of that knowledge upon us before the birth. However, all parents must be able to consider such matters for themselves.

As I said before my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) intervened, it is important that we recognise the differences of opinion within the House and have a mutual respect for the views that each of us holds. However, I hope that there can be some agreement within the House on the issue of reform of the Abortion Act 1967 because it should be resolved by the House.

It is our procedures that have prevented us from coming to a conclusion. I say "our procedures" rather than our opponents, if that is how I may refer to those who take a different view from me. I accept that the procedures of the House are there to be used. I say frankly that if a Bill were to be introduced in the House to make abortion legal on demand, I would use every device that I could think of to try to prevent it from reaching the statute book. Therefore, I make no criticism of my hon. Friends and Opposition Members who used the procedures of the House to prevent the law from being reformed in a way of which they would not approve.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

Is my hon. Friend aware that in the proceedings on the Bill in the previous Session to which he has referred, a clear majority in the House was in favour of my amendment of 24 weeks —[Interruption.] Well, it was absolutely clear that if the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) had so wanted to get his Bill on to the statute book, the 24-week amendment would have ensured that, but he and other supporters of his Bill had no desire to do that because they wanted to make abortion illegal.

Mr. Watts

I am not sure whether what my hon. Friend says is correct. I am sure that there was a majority in the House for 24 weeks, instead of for a significantly lower limit.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

Is it not the case that on 22 January when the House voted there was a majority of 45, with 296 hon. Members—the biggest pro-life vote ever—voting for 18 weeks? If hon. Members of all parties had not decided to try to frustrate the Report stage by using procedural devices, we could have had a vote not just on 20 weeks or 22 weeks, but on 24 weeks. We would have been happy to have that vote because we are certain that we would have won something far less than a time limit, which would not have saved a single life.

Mr. Watts

I am inclined to agree with the hon. Gentleman that the majority in this House favours a limit lower than 24 weeks, and probably a limit that is much closer to 18 weeks—

Sir Bernard Braine

So does the majority in the country.

Mr. Watts

The sadness is that the House was not enabled to bring the debate to a conclusion and to enact its will.

Mr. Cryer

The hon. Gentleman is fair in his comment on the behaviour of the House. Does he think it unfair and unwarranted for Members who took part in the proceedings, which were carried out perfectly in accordance with the rules of the House, to go outside and talk about parliamentary skulduggery and cheating?

Mr. Watts

Right hon. and hon. Members must be answerable for their views on these matters. I did not indulge in any criticism of those who opposed the reform which I supported because if there were a reform of which I disapproved, I would use the same tactics to prevent it from being enacted. The use of parliamentary procedure is a perfectly fair way for right hon. and hon. Members to seek to block legislation of which they disapprove.

Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West)

Does my hon. Friend agree, therefore, that it was improper for the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) to write to my constituents—he subsequently apologised, for which I am grateful—accusing me of filibustering and delaying the passage of the Bill by speaking at length to delay the Committee stage of another Bill on which I spoke for less than one minute? Does he agree that it was disgraceful conduct to send that letter to my constituents without my knowledge?

Mr. Watts

I do not wish to be drawn into a disagreement between my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for Mossley Hill. If this is still a live issue for them, no doubt they can slug it out later.

Our procedures should not prevent the will of a substantial majority of the House from prevailing. If Session after Session there is the will to reform this appalling Act but the procedures prevent it, it will lower the standing of the House in the eyes of the public whom we serve. We shall look foolish as an institution if we cannot allow the will of the majority to prevail.

Last Session, at a late stage in the proceedings on the Abortion (Amendment) Bill, it was suggested to the Government that they should provide extra time to allow the Bill to complete its stages. At that time I supported the proposal, partly because it was clear that the disastrous 1967 Act would never have reached the statute book had it not received extra time from the Labour Government. Last year my right hon. Friends in Government resisted that proposal and I can see that granting extra time to one private Member's Bill could be the start of a slippery slope. If one Bill were favoured, why should not every private Member's Bill that could not succeed for lack of time also be given more time?

Two wrongs would not make a right. The first wrong was for extra time to have been granted in 1967. In effect, that Bill was not a private Member's Bill but a Government Bill which the Labour Government lacked the courage to introduce. The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale was merely the stalking horse for that Labour measure.

In order to amend what was effectively a Government Bill in private Member's clothing, we need a Government Bill to allow reform to proceed. We have a model in the Government's proposals to introduce a Bill to regulate research on human embryos. They have told the House that they intend to introduce a Bill during this Parliament which has alternative sets of clauses so that the House can reach a decision on a free vote. As it is a Government Bill, it will have both time and the weight of Government behind it so that it can reach the statute book.

I urge my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider whether a Bill of similar format could be introduced to permit the reform of the Abortion Act 1967 which the House has often clearly shown it wishes to reform. If there were a Government Bill, even with unlimited time, the worry is that it, as with private Members' attempts to reform the law, would be obstructed by whichever side of the debate did not like the outcome of the free votes on its constituent clauses. Clearly that is a danger, but it does not present an insuperable problem.

I have always been in favour of timetable motions for all legislation. I know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that you will not allow me to sidetrack the House into a debate on that broader issue this morning, but the danger of obstruction to such a Bill could be overcome with prior agreement on a generous timetable to cover all its stages. In that way, the House would decide that a Bill to reform the 1967 Act would reach the statute book. We would agree on the amount of time that would be needed to debate its provisions and we would know before Second Reading that it would reach the statute book. That would bring to a conclusion our long-running and consecutive debates on this issue. The House would then have an opportunity for a full and fair debate on the issue and to reach a final conclusion.

I hope that there will be a consensus in the House on the desirability of finding a means to reach a conclusion on this. Otherwise, in successive Sessions, much of private Members' time will be taken up by private Members' Bills to reform the Abortion Act which cannot succeed because we are essentially seeking to reform a Government Bill in private Members' clothing. Without the time which a Government Bill can command, such a reform will never find its way on to the statute book, although I shall continue to come to the House on every occasion when such a Bill is before it to vote in support of reform.

I am aware that many right hon. and hon. Members wish to speak on this motion and possibly even on following motions if time allows. One of my purposes this morning is to provide an opportunity for a wide-ranging debate on the pro-life issues and I do not wish to prevent others from taking part by speaking for too long. I have already been on my feet for close on half an hour, so I shall touch only briefly on research on human embryos.

Over four years ago the House debated the Warnock report. On that occasion the time available to me was limited. I had about three minutes at 1.45 pm. I concluded my brief speech by saying: there is urgent need for legislation to outlaw any experimentation on human embryos and to provide full protection for all human embryos."—[Official Report, 23 November 1984; Vol. 68, c. 580.]

Mr. David Steel (Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale)

Whatever may be the strong feelings in this House on it, we recognise that this is a very difficult ethical consideration. Will the hon. Gentleman address himself to the latest opinion published the other day which was repeated this morning on the radio by Professor Robert Winston of Hammersmith hospital? He told us of a patient who had watched four brothers and a nephew die from a form of muscular dystrophy and in addition had had two late abortions at 20 weeks after it was discovered that the foetus was affected by muscular dystrophy. Professor Winston is conducting research into embryos to provide a way to allow women to carry healthy embryos to term. He made the point that if embryo research is outlawed, late abortions will continue. People who campaign to ban embryo research are encouraging late abortions to continue by preventing medical research. Another purpose of embryo research is to get to the root of natural abortion which greatly exceeds the rate of medical abortion in this country. The campaigners never address themselves to that.

Mr. Watts

I did not hear the radio interview to which the hon. Gentleman referred. Of course there are always persuasive arguments that benefits may arise from such research. However, at the end of the day we must decide whether the ends justify the means. I do not think that they do.

Mr. Alton

I urge the hon. Member not to be misled by the bogus arguments put forward by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel). My right hon. Friend's comments are totally misleading because 92 per cent. of late abortions are on perfectly healthy children who are aborted under the social clause. That has nothing to do with disability. The hon. Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) should be aware of the comments of Professor Jerome Lejeune, professor of fundamental genetics, who said: I explained that human embryo research as recommended by the Warnock Committee could not produce any positive results in the investigation and treatment of congenital and genetic diseases because at 14 days the organs and systems affected by these conditions have not yet developed.

Mr. Watts

As the hon. Gentleman has expressed so clearly, medical and scientific opinion on the necessity for such experiments is divided. We can find supporters on both sides of the argument to support our case. For example, I am persuaded by the views of Sir John Peel, the Queen's former gynaecologist, and 26 fellows of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists—including two of the college's past presidents—who issued a statement which read: The rejection of experimentation on human embryos is implicit in the code of professional ethics, relating to all human experimentation, which has from time immemorial been endorsed by the medical profession and repeatedly confirmed by the World Medical Association and other professional bodies. The central principle of this code is that concern for the interests of the subject, namely the patient, must always prevail over the interests of science or society. The human embryo conceived by in vitro fertilisation is the subject of the doctors concerned, and as with an adult patient, may not be put at risk for any reason other than to enhance his or her own well-being. The effective investigation of pathological conditions developing during pre-natal life should not require the killing of human embryos. I prefer to align myself with that professional and ethical opinion.

That view is put even more succinctly by the Royal College of Nursing, which described all such research techniques as repugnant and unacceptable and in direct conflict with the RCN's view that basic human rights are applicable from the moment of conception. I am not a scientist and I am not burdened by their knowledge. However, it seems to me that from the moment of conception there is no other significant event in the development of human life before it reaches the stage at which a child can be born. Arguments such as those rehearsed in the Warnock report about whether experiments on an embryo up to 14 days are acceptable, but not beyond, or perhaps at 40 days or two months are an attempt at moral hair splitting. I see no moral or logical difference in experimenting on human life at any stage. I reject such proposals.

Inevitably there are widely differing views on whether experiments on human embryos should be allowed and in what circumstances. Whatever view one takes, there should be a general agreement that it is totally unsatisfactory for such experiments to be conducted outside the law because this House has failed to provide a legislative framework.

The Government have undertaken to ensure that a Bill will be introduced during this Parliament. However, we are already into the second Session and there is still no sign of it. I recognise that the legislative timetable is crowded and that the Department of Health has a very important Bill this Session, the Children Bill, which deals with protection of the born child. It will be a pity if that Bill comes forward only at the expense of a Bill to protect the unborn child. If my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is looking for some space in the legislative programme, I suggest that the Department of the Environment is overburdened with legislation this Session. Perhaps the half-baked proposal for a football membership scheme could be dropped to make way for this much more important Bill for which the House has been waiting for more than four years.

No matter how it may be achieved, I urge the business managers to provide the House with an early opportunity to consider a Bill on embryo research. If my proposal for reforming the Abortion Act 1967 finds favour, there is a prospect that progress could be made in this Parliament to provide comprehensive protection for the unborn child at every stage of its development. I believe that my supporters are in the majority in this House. I ask the Government to provide the House with the time.

10.7 am

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

We are all indebted to the hon. Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) for giving us the opportunity to debate these important questions this morning. Far too often there is a conspiracy of silence about the unborn child. The media as well as the House regularly minimise and eliminate the importance of these questions. It is shocking that the second most widely practised operation in the National Health Service, abortion, is never seen on our television screens. If the video, "The Eclipse of Reason", which was sent to hon. Members earlier this year, was seen by the British public, it would radically alter attitudes and change minds. Far too many people in the media and in this House are still steeped in 1960s attitudes and reflect the sterile slogans that were chanted then. They are not looking more deeply at the questions raised by pro-life supporters.

Attitudes have been changing. It is not without significance that when my Abortion (Amendment) Bill came to the House earlier this year, we achieved the biggest pro-life vote ever and 296 hon. Members are now in favour of pro-life legislation compared with only 29 hon. Members who opposed the Third Reading of the Bill introduced by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) in 1967. That shows how attitudes have changed.

Since 1974, there have been 15 pro-life Bills and not one was defeated on a fair and free vote. They were all defeated by the use of procedural devices, techniques and tactics. However legitimate that may be in terms of parliamentary procedure, there is a growing body of opinion in this House and elsewhere that Parliament is brought into disrepute when tactics and not arguments can win the day.

Mr. Thurnham

The hon. Gentleman is talking about tactics. Will he say a little more about the tactics in which he engaged in the last Session? He and his hon. Friends were up to such tricks as writing to constituents, making false allegations and issuing a "list of shame". Will he say more about that "list of shame" and why he did not retract it?

Mr. Alton

As the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) knows I spoke to hundreds of people in his constituency who were very much in favour of the Bill that I promoted. All over the country. thousands of people supported the Bill. I received 18,000 letters in favour of my Bill and only 2,000 against it. Every opinion poll showed a massive majority in favour of what we were trying to do, yet the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East expects me to say, naively, that it was mere coincidence that the Committee that considered the Licensing Bill, which was just ahead of my Bill in the Committee queue, was made up of the same people who were doing their best to try to thwart the progress of the Bill. An actuary tells me that the mathematical probability was millions to one against the likelihood of that happening. All this may be fair in terms of the way in which Parliament operates, but I ask hon. Members to consider whether that is the way to deal with important, life and death questions.

Mr. Andrew MacKay

I promoted the Licensing Bill. I do not mind if the hon. Gentleman abuses me, but I object when he abuses a senior and distinguished Member of the House who chaired the Committee extremely well—my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, (South (Mr. Cormack)—who knows that filibustering is not allowed. the hon. Gentleman seems to be suggesting that my hon. Friend, who is a distinguished member of the Chairman's Panel, was incompetent and did not chair the Committee properly. I refute that and put on record that I have every faith in my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire South.

Mr. Alton

So have I. That is not the issue. Hon. Members know that it is a question not of filibustering but of using legitimate procedures. Hon. Members can talk on and on and can move as many amendments as they want. That is perfectly in order. Then there is injured innocence, as though they had no intention of trying to prevent my Bill from making progress. They must think that I have just got off the banana boat.

Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West)

When talking about the composition of Committees, does the hon. Gentleman agree that it was perfectly proper for me, as a sponsor of the Bill of my hon. Friend the Member for Winchester (Mr. Browne) on cruelty to animals—a subject on which I have a long-term interest as witnessed by my own private Member's Bill on the slaughter of deer in the same parliamentary Session—to sit on that Committee? I was immensely restrained in speaking for less than one minute in that Committee. Will the hon. Gentleman explain, therefore, to the House rather than in a private apology, why he wrote to my constituents behind my back—and to people all over the country—from whom I subsequently received letters accusing me of action that I had not taken? Will he explain how, when he cannot conduct a case honestly himself, he expects me to respect his own parliamentary concept?

Mr. Alton

I understand the strength of feeling of the hon. Member for Torridge and Devon, West (Miss Nicholson), but she will remember that many members of the Committee—such as the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen)—spoke at length on many amendments. Although I am happy to recognise that the hon. Lady was not one of the people who were speaking at length in that Committee, other people were. It was my right, as a Member of Parliament, to write to constituents to explain that some members of the Committee were speaking at length, and although I am happy to say that the hon. Lady was not one of those who sought to draw out proceedings, others did.

Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that when my hon. Friend the Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) was intervening in the previous Animal Protection (Amendment) Bill, he actually effected some improvements to that Bill? If he had not persisted, that might not have happened.

Mr. Alton

The hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) is right. I know that the hon. Member for Leyton has an interest in such questions. but if the hon. Lady examines the record, she will come to the same conclusion as I have—that it was unnecessary to protract the proceedings at such length. Hon. Members should not be frightened of a vote on the substantive question about whether there should be a lower time limit. If we could have moved to that vote—we were a tantalising twelve and a half minutes away—we could have subsequently decided whether the vote should have been on 18, 22 or 24 weeks. That would have been a matter for the House to decide, if people had wanted genuinely to arrive at a conclusion.

We must contrast what happened in January 1988 with what happened in 1967, when the Government provided 25 hours for the Bill promoted by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) to become law. The hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg) said yesterday, at Question Time, that he thought that the proper way to proceed with the matter was through a private Member's Bill. We are caught in a constitutional lacuna. The original Bill was neither private nor public legislation. It became law because it received public time, as the hon. Member for Slough has pointed out. It is in a unique constitutional position and has been turned into a great untouchable. It will not do for Ministers to say that we should bring in more private Member's Bills.

I will support the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) when she brings in her Bill to limit the time for abortions, but the Government should face the issue head on and introduce a Bill on which the House could debate the merits of the argument rather than allowing the Bill to fail as a result of being frustrated in Committee. If it will always be a matter of tactics, I am afraid that people will grow increasingly frustrated and angry at the barbarism that takes place daily in our name with the full connivance of British law.

Mr. Steel

I think that my hon. Friend was not in the House yesterday when the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Office said: My hon. Friend puts his point very firmly. The 1929 Act provides that at 28 weeks of development, there is a rebuttable presumption that the foetus is capable of survival. There is quite clear and compelling evidence that the rebuttable presumption should arise not at 28 weeks, but at 24 weeks, but the House may feel that this matter could be best tackled by Private Member's legislation."—[Official Report, 15 December 1988; Vol. 143, c. 1077.] The 1929 Act is a Government measure. Does my hon. Friend agree that the matter could be resolved if Ministers in the Department of Health and the Home Office were to bring forward an amendment, in one of the criminal Bills, to the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 for a 24 week limit, which the House could then discuss? My hon. Friend and others could press for a lower limit. That would get rid of the matter and we could then leave the Abortion Act 1967 alone.

Mr. Alton

I shall not be tempted down that road. The legislation that needs to be amended is the right hon. Gentleman's 1967 legislation and not the flimsy legislation that exists to protect the unborn child. I am interested to see the Minister of State for Health agreeing with a 24-week limit.

The Minister of State for Health (Mr. David Mellor)

I do not want to mislead the hon. Gentleman inadvertently. I was agreeing with the statement by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, which was quoted by the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel), which describes the position as we understand it. I agree with the diagnosis, but not with the remedy.

Mr. Alton

I feel reassured by that because a limit of 24 weeks would not save a single life. That is why those who introduced the 1967 legislation are so enthusiastic about such a limit. We should search our hearts occasionally about the double standards that we apply. The slogan makers confidently demand the right to choose. Can it ever be right to take the life of someone else on the spurious ground of choice? Choices should be made earlier. The right to life must always be paramount. Plainly, it is inconsistent to demand rights for animals, welfare rights, women's rights and minority rights and yet to ignore the basic right to life.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby is a great opponent of any pro-life legislation, but he is also the president of the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Vivisection. He said in its 1987 report: In other fields of animal welfare higher standards of human behaviour towards animals are emerging. There are no Victorian values we can fall back upon. We are now having to formulate our own against a background of conventional indifference and cruelty. Page 58 of the report shows a chimpanzee foetus. People could say it was an emotive photograph if it showed an unborn child. It shows a chimpanzee foetus at 126 days —just 18 weeks gestation. It is inconsistent to oppose the practice of vivisection on an animal—which I, too, oppose—while giving the unborn child no protection whatever.

Last week, Parliament square was decked out in United Nations flags as we celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Declaration of Human Rights. We should remember the depravity, barbarism inhumanity and indifference that necessitated that declaration. After all that had gone before, during the preceeding 20 years, it was thought necessary to affirm the right to life. We said 40 years ago that everyone had a right to life, and that right is being affirmed again today by those of us who recognise the consistency of protecting the rights of the vulnerable, weak and powerless by protecting those of unborn children.

Paradoxically, during a debate on the reintroduction of capital punishment the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley), who speaks on home affairs matters, said that all our laws were based on the principle of the sanctity of human life. How inconsistent it is to oppose capital punishment and yet to be in favour of abortion. A society that condones experiments on the unborn child and abortions of its own species condemns itself and loses the right to call itself civilised.

What do we allow under British law? We allow abortions later than any other western European country—up to seven months into pregnancy. The average EEC time limit is 12 to 14 weeks. We do not believe that the compromise that we are told is necessary falls at 24 weeks. The House must recognise that there is a difference between humanity and viability.

Yesterday we raked over the entrails of the Carlisle baby case. That baby would not have been saved if there had been a time limit of 21 weeks. Last year, at Carlisle general hospital, a baby was aborted after 21 weeks gestation because its mother had been told that it would be "a monster". She was told that it would have a life-threatening disease. In fact, no life-threatening disability was involved; it was a non-recurrent skin disorder which was not a serious disability in the terms of the disability clause of the 1967 Act. No resuscitation equipment was available in the ward where that abortion took place. They subsequently failed to tell the mother that the baby had struggled for three hours for life. There was no registration of that baby's birth, after those events had taken place. In an answer given on 13 June the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State said: Following the decision made by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department not to direct that an inquest should be held"— although the local coroner took the view that an inquest should be held and referred the matter to the Home Office— the Registrar General has made her own inquiries and these indicate that the requirements of the legislation governing the registration of births and deaths do apply in this case."—[Official Report, 13 June 1988; Vol. 135 c. 64.] I hope that the Minister will explain why that birth has still not been registered, as implied in the written answer on 13 June.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale referred to the 1929 Act, which refers to a baby being protected if it is capable of being born alive. What did happen in the Carlisle case if the baby was not born alive? It could not survive beccause it was not sufficiently developed. It had not reached the 23 or 24 weeks of gestation that meet the criteria that hon. Members constantly cite. It was at 21 weeks, but it struggled for life for three hours. It had undisputed life for three hours and then it was unceremoniously put into a black sack and incinerated.

What else do we allow under our law? We know that 88 per cent. of late abortions are carried out in private clinics rather than in the National Health Service. We know that the majority of them are done using dilation and evacuation. We can only consider as barabric and uncivilised the mutilation of children which we allow. Everyone knows what happens in the procedure. The baby is between 10 and 12 ins long and pumps 50 pints of blood a day. All its organs are in place and it is clearly recognisable as a human being. A pliars-like instrument is inserted, the baby's skull is crushed and it is removed piece by piece.

Mr. Steel

Same old speech.

Mr. Alton

Yes, it is the same old stuff and I make no apology for it. Since the legislation of the right hon. Gentleman—whom I often call my right hon. Friend—has been introduced, 3 million babies have been aborted in this country at a rate of 174,000 a year or 600 every working day. I do not believe that the right hon. Gentleman thought that that would happen when he introduced his Bill in 1967.

In the procedures, no anaesthetic is used and no account is taken of the pain inflicted on the child. The publication entitled "Human Procreation—Ethical Aspects of the New Techniques", published by the Council for Science and Society, says that pain is experienced after the foetus has developed a nervous system, six weeks after pregnancy being the earliest. Mr. Peter McCulloch, an eminent immunologist says: babies can be in agony during abortions.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)

I am the hon. Gentleman's hon. Friend on this matter. Can he confirm that no less than 60 per cent. of late abortions are carried out by the same 11 doctors and that there is clear evidence of abuse?

Mr. Alton

Yes, and last year they netted £2 million for their efforts. It is inconsistent that the Opposition who complain about the private sector and the profit motive, to be the first to jump into the breach to defend those people. In the first three months of this year alone, £4.5 million changed hands in the abortion business. There are financial links between the clinics and counselling agencies: 32 of the people who run counselling agencies run clinics as well, and they have a clear profit motive in sending people to have abortions. Those financial links should be severed and the financial exploitation of women ended.

Only the pro-lifers in the House can say that they care for both the woman and the child. We are the only ones who can point to the mounting evidence of the massive increase in post-abortion trauma. I should like to read some letters that I have received in the past few months. One lady wrote: I was only 7 weeks pregnant when I had a termination many years ago, but the trauma and nightmare are still with me. The damages mentally and physically are awful, but no one bothered to tell me the facts and that it could affect my chances of having a normal pregnancy Another wrote: I had an abortion which nearly destroyed me and that was eight years ago. I was an older mother and therefore high risk. I panicked a bit as I already had three children and had heard that older mothers have more disabled babies. The doctors all encouraged me to have the abortion and no one told me what could happen. I became very depressed and thought another child might help but as it turns out both my tubes were blocked as a result of that abortion. I think that women should be told that some people never get over an abortion. A third said: The memory of my abortion nearly three years ago was until six months ago with me every day—destroying my life and eroding my marriage. My husband agreed to have another baby and now I am six months pregnant and we are both overjoyed. In 1976 the Royal College of General Practitioners established a study in the Manchester unit to examine post-abortion trauma. Can the Minister tell us when the promise made in Committee that that report would be published will be honoured?

Abortion clearly has consequences for all involved. I have shown the consequences that it has for the child and for the women. In 1967, we were told that abortion would give women new rights. Clearly, it has not. In 1967, we were told it would reduce illegitimacy because it would mean that every child would be wanted, yet 15 per cent. of all births today are of illegitimate children. We were told that it would end child abuse. What nonsense that is. Hardly a day passes without an example of physical or sexual abuse of a child. Surely, the ultimate form of child abuse is taking the life of a child in the womb.

Miss Nicholson

I must ask the hon. Gentleman not to use the term "illegitimate". I am very pleased indeed that illegitimacy no longer exists. Children are born to one-parent families. There are no bars on children whether they are born of one-parent or two-parent families. I believe that that point must be made because it will help many people whose parents were not married when they were born.

Mr. Alton

The hon. Lady must accept that a child's prospects are far better if it is born inside marriage than outside marriage. I did not use the word "illegitimacy" in a legal sense, but simply to make the point about the way in which a child will be brought up and cared for.

Part of the trouble is that people get behind slogans but do not examine the details. They do not use words such as "child" or "baby". It is much easier for them to use phrases such as "pre-embryo", "product of conception" or euphemisms such as "foetus" or "zygote". We must look more deeply at the consequences of abortion for all involved and recognise it as a violent and degrading act that takes life and turns our doctors and nurses into destroyers rather than defenders of life. It is the counsel of despair. It is sheer defeatism. As a society, we must be able to do better than that.

It is not enough merely to be anti-abortion, and I am not. We must be positively pro-life. We must look for radical alternatives that are based on decent human values, not on mere utility. We must consider adoption as a way of providing people with the chance of bringing up a child instead of encouraging the never-ending tide of abortion. We should seek more positive pro-life counselling. We should remove the fear of disability that people often try to engender. The amniocentesis test is used increasingly as the first part of a search and destroy mission. If we use a form of perfection test to decide who may or may not live, it will bring society to a sorry state. Two hundred years ago in the House people challenged what was then regarded as the greatest contemporary evil—slavery. These days, the greatest contemporary evil is abortion. Just as in the 1970s the peace movement caught the imagination of the country, as did the green and the ecological movement in the 1980s, in the 1990s people from all sorts of backgrounds and from across the political spectrum will make the pro-life issue no longer a marginal or cranky issue that can be pushed to one side, but a subject central to debates in the House and in the country. We in the pro-life movement in the House and the other place will ensure that Parliament will not be allowed to run away from the debate. That is why I shall support the hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), who will introduce a Bill to lower the time limits, and I hope that the Duke of Norfolk's Bill on embryo experimentation will make progress in the other place.

Perhaps in 20 years' time another William Wilberforce will rise up and abortion will wither on the vine. Two hundred years ago, Wilberforce began his final assault on the slavery laws from the constituency of Maidstone. I hope that we can take comfort from his words—that the bravest of all are not those who win but those who take the first steps.

10.53 am
Sir Bernard Braine (Castle Point)

I join the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) on his good fortune in the ballot and on choosing this pressing and moving subject for debate. With the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel). I am one of the few hon. Members who have been involved in the debate on and the fight against the present abortion law from the time that his Bill reached its Committee stage in 1966. It became obvious to some of us that if the Bill reached the statute book it would be little more than a licence to print money for the shady end of the medical profession.

It gives me no satisfaction to say that all our predictions then and subsequently have proved to be mild compared with the reality. My hon. Friend the Member for Slough said that almost 3 million unborn children have been killed. The authors of the Abortion Act 1967 swore to Parliament and to the British public that they had no intention of leaving the door wide open to abortion on demand—I wish to be fair to the right hon. Gentleman in that respect—yet from the very day that the Act became law it has been abused constantly. One cliché after another has been used to pull the wool over people's eyes and to render respectable what in effect has been abortion on demand.

We regularly hear hackneyed phrases such as "abortion on request" "every child a wanted child" and "a woman's right to choose". The first—"abortion on request"—is illegal. The second is hypocrisy of the worst order, especially because since 1967 child abuse has spiralled. Yet because of the wholesale slaughter that has been encouraged it has been impossible to meet the pleas of decent childless couples whose heart's desire is to adopt and care for children.

I wish the House to consider further the third slogan—"a woman's right to choose". It has become increasingly obvious that the last thing that abortionism inspires is choice. That applies even to the women themselves. There is no doubt that unborn children are not the only victims of abortion. Like the hon. Member for Mossley Hill, over the years I have received hundreds of letters—probably because of my known interest in the matter—from women who have had abortions and have regretted it or have suffered as a consequence. Women involved in this terrible procedure are victims of a deliberate and malicious campaign promoted by the moneymakers and those who have built their careers on an acceptance of killing unborn children—sometimes using them for experiments. It involves a conspiracy of silence and lies regarding the nature of the unborn child and the physical and psychological effects of abortion on the mother. I shall not repeat the arguments in detail because they were put to the House clearly and succinctly by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill.

Mr. Steel

The right hon. Gentleman said that he has received letters from people who regret that they had abortions, and my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton)—he is still my hon. Friend despite our differences on this issue—read out some of them. But I hope that both will accept that some of us have received letters from women who were deeply grateful for the opportunity to have a legal and safe termination of pregnancy. We could all exchange emotive letters on the subject. None of us has ever denied that abortion is an unpleasant process.

Sir Bernard Braine

In 1966 and 1967 there was a need to revise the abortion law. There is no argument about that. My argument is that the 1967 Act has led to widespread abuse. The right hon. Gentleman knows that it led to so much abuse that Bills seeking to amend it were introduced in Parliament. The James White Bill which called for reform had a substantial majority, but he was bought off by a promise from the Government that they would set up a Select Committee. The Committee, of which I was a member and which had a distinguished Labour Chairman, met for two years and made recommendations, none of which was implemented by the Government. The Act has been open to abuse from the beginning. I do not malign the right hon. Gentleman's intentions. He has said many times that it was not his intention to introduce legislation that would lead to abortion on demand.

All over the world doctors are speaking out about post-abortion syndrome and about the many women who suffer from psychological trauma, sometimes for the rest of their lives. In Britain most of the information comes not from doctors, as it should, but from moving letters that women write to newspapers, magazines and hon. Members. It is an appalling indictment of some members of the medical profession. It has been the women who have undergone abortions—not the doctors—who have come together to support and counsel their sisters suffering from the trauma of which they have an intimate knowledge through their own painful experiences.

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

While clearly some women may regret having had an abortion, is the right hon. Gentleman saying to such women, "I will help you to make up your mind, because I shall make you a criminal if you decide to have an abortion"?

Sir Bernard Braine

I am not quarrelling in any way with the hon. Lady's views on this subject. It is capable of being looked at, I hope, with charity, understanding and sympathy from many different points of view. I am not, therefore, railing against abortions in those circumstances where the mother's life is at risk or where the mother's health and that of her other children may be gravely impaired. One can think of other circumstances, which are all laid down in the Act. All I am saying is that there has been a steady resistance to any kind of reform to ensure that the Act is not abused.

A second indictment of some doctors is that for years they have insisted that the physical after-effects of abortion are minimal. In debate after debate in the House, we have had letters and statements read from doctors who laughed at and scorned any claim regarding the possible dangers of abortion. Here in December 1988 we are faced with the development of the well advertised French abortifacient pill, RU486. We see doctors attacking the pro-life movement for opposing this obnoxious form of chemical warfare on unborn children. They justify this pill on the ground that it is so much safer for a woman than are abortion techniques, such as the suction method, which is so repellant that I did not intend to say anything about it. However, a description of it was given by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill. For nearly two decades the same doctors have sworn that that method is safe. It is so repellant that I advise hon. Members who really care about the matter to find out what happens in abortion clinics and hospitals throughout the country.

We must ask whether RU486 is safe any more than the suction method has been safe. What long-term studies have been carried out into the possible effects of deliberately imbalancing the chemistry of a woman's body to ensure an early abortion? Furthermore, we know from statements of the makers of RU486 that it was intended ultimately for use by Third world women. With all the concern that we express in the House from time to time about the plight of the deprived and the poor in the Third world, they were no doubt expecting us to remain silent while women from poorer countries are used as their long-term guinea pigs.

However, one thing of which we can be sure is that those who advocate freedom of choice are bitterly opposed to informed choice. We know that they do not want women to be made aware of the dangers to themselves. We must also ask why they object so strongly when the public are shown scientific pictures on the development of the unborn child.

For example, the hon. Member for Mossley Hill will remember that during the campaign on the Abortion (Amendment) Bill we used the picture of a baby of 18 weeks gestation. In their fury, the pro-abortionists immediately launched a campaign claiming that the picture was a fraud because the baby was already dead. I had never heard such hypocrisy. The picture was from a medical text book used in nursing and medical schools throughout the world. The book sold more than 1 million copies in many different languages and is lauded in many countries because of the realistic manner in which it shows babies at different stages of development before birth. Pro-abortionists told us that the picture must be discounted because the photograph had been taken after the baby had died. They were frightened because women would realise, having seen that picture, that abortion involved the destruction of a human baby. By those standards, a woman may have the right to choose an abortion so long as she pays and is left in ignorance as to the full implications of the choice she has taken.

We heard recently of a medical secretary who was sacked because she refused to write a letter for an appointment for a woman having an abortion—

Mr. Thurnham

Quite right too.

Sir Bernard Braine

My hon. Friend says, "Quite right", but he should not rush to judgment until he hears the facts. The facts are terrifying.

After the secretary was sacked, she appealed. However, according to the Law Lords, she had no right to object because she was not directly involved in the abortion and, therefore, was not covered by the conscience clause in the Abortion Act, for which we fought so hard through the Committee and Report stages of the original Bill. Why should anyone lose her job because she refused to write a letter which revolted her conscience? It is monstrous that a tribunal should have ruled that she had been properly dismissed for misconduct. Section 4(1) of the Abortion Act 1967 provides that no person should have to participate in any abortion to which they have a conscientious objection. Making arrangements for an abortion is participation. The law is clearly defective and is one more example of the way in which common sense has failed to prevail in respect of the workings of the 1967 Act.

We have also heard the case of a young hospital chaplain, who was sacked. I use the word "sacked" deliberately because pro-abortionists will claim that he was not sacked and his contract simply was not renewed. I served on the Select Committee on the Abortion (Amendment) Bill and in our third special report, published in July 1975, we recommended that no abortion should be carried out after 20 weeks in centres unless resuscitation equipment was available for live babies and staff trained in its use. A copy of that report is available in the Library. That recommendation was correctly accepted and embraced by the DHSS.

However, more than 13 years later, at the hospital about which the chaplain complained, a baby was aborted at 21 weeks and lived for three hours. The child was not given resuscitation at that hospital, and one of the excuses was that, although such equipment existed, it was not in the same building. In other words, the hospital—the Carlisle City hospital, referred to by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill—acted in breach of the requirements laid down by the DHSS. The fact that the child lived for so long showed that it was capable of being born alive, making the abortion an act in breach of the Infant Life Preservation Act 1929, which stipulates that abortion may not take place if the child is capable of being born alive.

I ask my hon. and learned Friend why there has still not been an inquest. Why was not the resuscitation equipment used in such circumstances? This case raises serious issues and there are questions to be answered.

On 9 February, The Times stated: The foetus, of a baby girl, was born in July 1987 in Carlisle City General Hospital after its mother had an abortion. It lay in a kidney dish for nearly three hours, allegedly gasping for breath and with a heartbeat of 80 beats a minute, and was then wrapped in a plastic bag and incinerated. The doctor on duty apparently did not know what to do. One of the nurses present performed an unofficial baptism. The story came to light earlier this month when a Roman Catholic priest, Father Peter Houghton, revealed that three nurses had come to him for advice. Following correspondence with Mr. Alton, Mr. Ian Morton, coroner for North-east Cumbria, asked the police to investigate, and said yesterday that he intended to apply to the Home Office for an inquest. Home Office permission must be sought if there is no corpse and is usually a formality". I repeat my question: why was there no inquest? Who stopped it? What was the reason for the cover-up? There was a cover-up, because the ground for abortion in this case was that the child would be handicapped. One must presume that the child would have been seriously handicapped, because that was the intention of the authors of the Act. However, the handicap from which the child was apparently suffering, Elhers syndrome, in no way threatens life. Some adults have that disability throughout their lives without being conscious of having it. It was an excuse for the abortion. Incidentally, the mother had been advised against the abortion by her general practitioner. She was never told the nature of her child's disability, nor that the baby was born alive.

The House is entitled to know why there was no inquest, the purpose of which would have been to establish not only the cause of death, but the circumstances surrounding it. It was a matter of public concern and interest. I have little doubt that, if the coroner had ruled that a wrong-doing had occurred, swift Government action would have resulted. Why was no inquest ordered? Why was it stopped?

The Select Committee on the Abortion (Amendment) Bill of which I was a member also stressed that the conscience clause in the Abortion Act needed strengthening mainly because of objections that the Committee had received from members of the nursing and medical professions who had been discriminated against because of their objections to abortions on social grounds. However, 13 years later, the nurses involved with the abortion at the Carlisle City general hospital were deeply upset by what happened, but terrified to speak out in case they were sacked or penalised. They were right to be terrified because, although nothing was done about the consultant gynaecologist or the registrar who induced the abortion, the chaplain, whose calling requires him to care and to speak the truth, was sacked. The rights of the innocent were thrown to the wind.

Ever since 1975, Bills to amend the abortion law have had substantial majorities in this House. We also know from polls conducted in the country that there is a substantial majority in favour of such amending legislation. However, the procedures governing private Members' time are such that, on each occasion, the amending Bills have been talked out by a minority. I am not questioning the right of those hon. Members to do that under the existing procedures. That is a sterile argument. All hon. Members are entitled to their views.

My complaint is against the authorities of the House that have permitted procedures to obtain that blatantly frustrate the will of the majority. The authorities say that it is not a matter for the Government and that they do not provide extra time. What does that mean? It means that the substantive Act of 1967, which got on to the statute book only with Government help, is written in letters of stone. It will never be amended because time will never be found to do so. Such an abuse could continue. How much longer do we have to rail in the House against such wickedness before the Government take hold of the matter and act responsibly?

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

Although my right hon. Friend says that the opponents of the Abortion (Amendment) Bill used the procedures correctly, the use of parliamentary procedures as delaying tactics suggests a failure in their argument. They were scared to let the matter go to a vote. That is the strength or weakness of their argument.

Sir Bernard Braine

I know that my hon. Friend feels passionately about this and I strongly sympathise with him.

The House of Commons has many functions, and we seek to persuade one another. I am not impugning hon. Members who abuse our procedures. For many years I held the record for making the longest speech from the Back Benches since 1828. The Government of the day, a Labour Government, recognised that I was speaking in defence of a threatened community, the people of Canvey Island. The Government realised that something had to be done and they ordered inquiries to be conducted. The Health and Safety Executive carried out what I understand to be the only comprehensive safety survey of an entire community to be conducted. Three Canvey Island safety reports have been issued by the House as a consequence. I do not apologise for that speech and many people felt that I struck a blow for my constituency, but that is not for me to say.

I used the procedures of the House. I cannot agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) has said. If hon. Members have strong objections they should use our procedures in the way in which they think fit.

Those opponents of the Abortion (Amendment) Bill, however, ignore the fact that the will of the majority in this House should, in the end, prevail. They ignore the fact that there is an overwhelming majority of people who want reform—they may not wish to go the whole way with us in the pro-life movement, but they want reform.

Mr. Steel

The point that the right hon. Gentleman repeatedly ignores is that there is no majority in this House for a limit lower than 24 weeks—

Sir Bernard Braine

There is.

Mr. Steel

No. When my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) quoted the votes on Second Reading, he forgot that he had promised the House that there would be amendments in Committee.

Sir Bernard Braine

There were.

Mr. Steel

Oh yes, but not on the central issue of the deadline. There is no majority in this House for a time limit below 24 weeks. It is a minority of Members who keep introducing such Bills.

Sir Bernard Braine

I am astonished that the right hon. Gentleman, with his considerable parliamentary experience, should put up such a phoney argument. The Bill called for an 18-week limitation and he knows perfectly well that the House gave it a substantial majority vote. He also knows that the only votes taken that morning in the limited time available gave us a substantial majority. He does not know what the House would agree to. All he knows is that it threw out an amendment for a 26-week limit.

We took a careful sounding among hon. Members and we believe that there was a majority in favour of a 20-week limitation.

Mr. Steel

indicated dissent.

Sir Bernard Braine

We had that majority. I do not wish to speculate on that. The point is that the House was not given the opportunity to pronounce on the matter. That is my complaint.

I do not wish to delay the House as other hon. Members wish to speak. People outside this place, however, cannot understand how we can permit this scandal to continue. It is high time that we resolved this matter once and for all by insisting that our procedures should facilitate, not block, the will of the majority. I believe that the Government have a clear duty to give that lead. I commend the motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Slouth (Mr. Watts) to the House.

10.58 am
Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)

I do not wish to detain the House too long because a number of other hon. Members wish to speak and we have already had three speeches that have each lasted about 30 minutes. Earlier this year we also had an opportunity to take part in a debate on abortion, embryonic research and the possibility of restrictive legislation preventing research into congenital handicap. On 4 February I spoke at some length and I do not see much point in repeating the arguments now.

When the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) spoke he said one thing that caused offence to Members on both sides of the House. He suggested that only those people who agree with his stance have regard to the needs of the mother and her children. I took offence at that statement and I intervened from a sedentary position to register my offence.

Mr. Alton

I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman interpreted my remark in that way. I would not suggest that he or any other hon. Member had no concern for the woman and the child. What I meant to say was: no concern for the woman and the unborn child.

Mr. Wigley

That is slightly different. The issue is whether there is a continuum of regard and responsibility and whether the unborn child, as the hon. Gentleman calls it, or perhaps even the most elementary cluster of cells 24 or 48 hours old, should have the same status in law and in our perception.

Mr. Steel

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise to the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), but I gave him notice that at 11 am I would raise a point of order again pursuant to that raised earlier by the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). Mr. Speaker said that there might be a statement at 11 am. There is no sign of one. Have you anything to tell us on the matter?

Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It has been widely reported in the media this morning that, following the grossly irresponsible statement by the Under-Secretary of State for Health about eggs, which has literally devastated the egg and poultry industry in Britain, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is to be forced to introduce a scheme costing up to £40 million to compensate egg producers for their loss of income and to gas millions of healthy hens. The hon. Lady truly has the most expensive mouth in history and should resign.

We believe that the House should hear details of any compensation scheme first. I have asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to come to the House to make an urgent statement, but neither he nor the Under-Secretary is present. Can you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, advise us whether we may have an assurance that the Minister will be present at 2.30 pm to tell us about the situation?

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

I think that I can help the House and save time by dealing with these points of order. I have been informed that the Government will seek to make a statement to the House on Monday.

Mr. Steel

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I support what was said by the Opposition spokesman. On the radio this morning we were led to believe that the scheme was in preparation and details of it were given. If we are not given a statement, which has to do with the conduct of a Minister, until Monday, and if we have to wait over the weekend while we read more details in the Sunday newspapers we are being treated with contempt. This is quite intolerable.

Mr. Cryer

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. On the House Press Association tapes, which are provided for hon. Members' information, there is a report which clearly implies that the Government will make a statement today about the details of the scheme, so we shall be presented with a fait accompli.

The massive damage done by the Under-Secretary of State for Health will give rise to a scheme whose details will be given in the press. I have no doubt that secret briefings are going on now—with two tape recorders running because these occasions are so important. We shall be left trailing after the Government, after they have made a statement and the press have had the information.

I know that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, are concerned with the status of this Chamber and the accountability of the Government to Parliament. It is outrageous for the Government to ignore Parliament and to tell the press that they will issue a statement over the weekend, although the House is sitting this morning and Opposition Members are willing and able to listen to a statement and ask questions about it.

I ask you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to use your influence with the Government to tell them that they are accountable. I know that you are not responsible for statements to the House; but I also know that if you and Mr. Speaker intimate to the Government that you regard them as accountable to the House for the deprivation caused by, and the savage irresponsibility of, the Under-Secretary of State, they will reconsider.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Further to the point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of the actions of the past 24 hours, it seems that the chickens of the Under-Secretary of State for Health are coming home to roost. The House should be the first to be able to question what looks like a massive amount of public expenditure which appears to have come from her mouth. We should have the statement before it is given to the Sunday press.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before I take more points of order, I remind the House that we are taking time from the debate. It is private Members' time. All I sought to do earlier was to convey to the House the information that has been conveyed to Mr. Speaker by the Government. I cannot add to that.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

Further to that point of order Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is quite clear that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food heavily briefed the press yesterday and was willing to tell it about its proposals. The chief medical officer of the Department of Health appeared on almost every television and radio channel that would take him this morning to give a briefing.

We want to know why no Minister is here to answer to the House,. We do not believe undertakings that no statements will be made over the weekend. We want to know why the Minister apperently has to clear this with the bureaucrats in Brussels before he can sort out the mess made by his hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie)—but he is not willing to come to the House. This is a most important matter.

You, Mr. Deputy Speaker, have conveyed to the House your understanding of the position. We should be grateful if you would convey to the Government our belief that it is unsatisfactory that the Minister is not prepared to tell the House what is happening. Perhaps he cannot positively say what has been agreed because he needs to clear it with Brussels if it involves extra money, but we are happy to listen to the interim position, which the people of this country and we are entitled to know. We do not want this leaked to the Sunday papers; we are sick to death of that.

Mr. Mellor

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I agree with you that the sooner we can return to the important matters for debate the better, but I hope that I shall be able to assist right hon. and hon. Members who have spoken.

As you have said, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a statement will be made on Monday by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, but I understand the concern that has been expressed about details of any scheme, if scheme there be, being the subject of briefings that might then appear in the press. I certainly accept that Parliament should be the first to know of any such scheme and that the first knowledge of it should come from any statement on Monday.

That is why I undertake to the House on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture that there will be no question of any press statement or briefing giving details of any of the matters that will be the subject of a statement to the House until that statement has been made. I give that undertaking in good faith, and I hope that those who raised the point in good faith will accept the spirit in which it is given.

Mr. Dobson

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is all very well talking about undertakings not being given this weekend, but the briefings have already been given. I do not believe that 10 British newspapers suddenly concocted a story about a compensation scheme. They were told by press officers or Ministers, or both.

We also want to know, if the writ against the hon. Member for Derbyshire, South (Mrs. Currie) is proceeded with between now and Monday, whether we shall be obstructed by the sub judice rule from raising this matter. It is important that we be able to raise it untrammelled by anything, particularly the sub judice rule. We want that clarified, if not now, then at least by 2.30 pm.

Mr. Allen McKay (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

It is arrogant of the Government to tell us we shall have a statement on Monday. At 7.30 and at 8 o'clock this morning we heard on the radio that a scheme had been devised. The headline in today's Daily Mail was written based on information given not this morning but last night. The Government know about the scheme they are bringing in. They are arrogant to think that they can steamroller the Opposition, the House, the House rules and Mr. Speaker. They should make a statement here this morning to let hon. Members and the country know what is going on. Hundreds of people have been put out of work and there are hundreds of bankruptcies and impending bankruptcies. The Government say that they will leave it until Monday. That is just not on.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Will you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, undertake to convey to the Government the deep feelings of the House? We are again being presented with a fait accompli. We accept the good faith of the Minister of State, Department of Health in relation to any future briefings. However, the Government have already given briefings and the Sunday press will be full of them. Given the nature of this case, Monday's statement should be made not by the Minister, because it is about the personal responsibility of a junior Minister. We can imagine what would happen if a Labour local authority had cost the public purse so much. In that case a statement would have been made immediately to the House and there would be a surcharge. In this instance the House is being ignored. Is the Prime Minister afraid of dismissing a junior Minister?

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

We are in a somewhat unique situation because we have just had news that a writ is to be issued against a Minister. At the very least the Secretary of State for Health should be in the Chamber to tell us what the procedure will be. We already know that the blunder by the Under-Secretary of State for Health has cost £500,000 in advertising and will cost many millions more in a scheme to protect producers. Will the British taxpayer be placed in the absurd position of having to pay the legal protection costs of this loud-mouthed junior Minister?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

It has already been trailed by the press, as you probably know and have heard this morning, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the junior Minister's mouth has already cost the British taxpayer £10 million. No statement will be made today and that means that over the weekend, as a result of more bankruptcies and further bailings out that will undoubtedly take place, the figure of £10 million will probably increase. The taxpayer needs a statement today to clear up the mess and to stop this financial seepage. We are constantly being told by the Prime Minister that taxpayers' money is sacrosanct and that there should be no subsidies, no bailing out.

We have already heard that £10 million is to be paid out to subsidise firms that have gone bankrupt or are likely to go bankrupt as a result of the junior Minister opening her big gob. It is high time that the Government had a message conveyed to them through you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that there should be a statement today to stop any further financial leakage. I am informed that briefings are now taking place with Bernard Ingham and other Government spokesmen and that half the press lobby has gone to them. If Bernard Ingham is doing the briefing, the Prime Minister should be brought to the House to answer the charges. Why is the Minister of State, Department of Health replying to a debate that should be answered by the Under-Secretary of State, who is in Liverpool with her mother and has been there for three days? What kind of Government do we have? There is a big financial scandal and the Prime Minister does not have the guts to sack the person who has caused it. Thousands of workers have been thrown on the scrap heap and Government spokesmen do not have the guts to explain to the House what is going on. It is time that that situation was altered.

Mr. Andrew MacKay

Further to these points of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Could it be that some of this indignation is a shade frothy? If we had a statement today, would there not be general indignation in the House that on a sparsely attended day many hon. Members who have a particular interest in poultry farming are in their constituencies talking to people in the industry and are therefore unable to take part? There would have been genuine indignation, and that is why it is much more sensible to have the statement on Monday when those hon. Members can contribute.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have allowed a good run on these points of order, which are interrupting an important debate in private Members' time. I have given from the Chair the information that is available to Mr. Speaker, and the Minister of State, Department of Health has added his contribution. I suggest to the House that it is high time that we got back to the debate.

Mr. Cryer

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I have called the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) and shall call him again, but there is nothing that I can add from the Chair. These points of order are cutting into private Members' time.

Mr. Cryer

On the tapes and in the newspapers there is a story that a large egg-producing company is to sue and intends to issue a writ against the junior Minister in question.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

So what?

Mr. Cryer

The hon. Gentleman says, "So what?" This week Mr. Speaker said that the House cannot discuss the sale of 50 residential homes in Bradford because the matter is sub judice and subject to judicial review. May I have your assurance, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the issue of a writ will not prejudice a statement being made in the House on Monday by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or the Prime Minister or any personal statement by the Minister involved?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

The hon. Gentleman will understand that I cannot give rulings on hypothetical situations. There are Ministers present and I am quite certain that they have heard all that has been said in these exchanges. I call Mr. Wigley.

Mr. Wigley

I did not expect to be interrupted in the way that I was. On this rare occasion, had I not been speaking when the points of order were raised, I would have come in on them myself. A chicken farmer in my constituency has already had to slaughter a third of his birds and expects to slaughter another third very soon, so I have every sympathy with the points that have been raised, albeit at my expense. One thing that clearly emerges is the greater interest in chickens than in the debate about the protection of the unborn child. I am not sure what we should read into that.

It is clear from what has been said by the three hon. Members who have spoken so far that basically the same arguments have been advanced at this time towards the end of 1988 as were advanced in earlier debates on this subject. Of course, that does not in any way debase the argument. I respect the sincerity of hon. Members who put forward such arguments. I wondered why the debate was taking place now and thought that it might be because there were new arguments and points to be considered. Hon. Members have spoken about Professor Lejeune. He seems to be the perennial professor put on parade in such debates. Given the amount of attention that hon. Members have paid to the Carlisle case, it might have been better for the motion to refer directly to that case rather than in general.

Once again, we have had debate about the legitimacy or otherwise of pictures that were used in the previous campaign, and we have had debate about parliamentary procedures. It seems that we are going round in the same circle. I want to speak about one or two new developments that may well help the argument more than the points that have been made so far. Before doing so, however, I should like to refer to two other matters. One concerns the votes that have taken place in the House. I accept that the hon. Member for Mossley Hill had a vote for a Second Reading of his Bill, and I know that many hon. Members voted in favour of Second Reading and wanted to see amendments to the Bill about a different termination time. I talked to colleagues on both sides of the House, and it seemed that the most favoured time limit was 24 weeks. That came through loud and clear. The hon. Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) shakes her head, but I spoke to at least three or four dozen people who voted in favour of the Bill but who were in favour of a limit of 24 weeks.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

If the hon. Gentleman believes that to be the case, why was it that the opponents of the Bill made sure that the House did not have an opportunity to vote on the longer time limit, through obstructing the vote by tabling bogus amendments?

Mr. Wigley

Those who prevented the vote taking place were those who supported the Bill and wanted the votes to be taken in a certain order to ensure that the vote on the 24-week limit did not take place earlier. One can cast aspersions on both sides of the House, but that is a reflection of the unsatisfactory ways in which we deal with such matters. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill made an error of judgment in the way that he handled that vote, and as a result, he lost the Bill. The House might have passed a Bill introducing a limit of 24 weeks. I doubt whether a 22-week limit would have passed, but I accept that other hon. Members think that it would. From what the hon. Member for Mossley Hill has said today and before, a Bill imposing a 24-week limit would not be acceptable to him. In other words, what appeared to be the judgment of the House was not what he wanted.

The motion, and the debate, have linked two different matters. One is research into and using embryos, and the other is abortion reform. Those who tabled the motion have a fundamentalist approach on these matters. In other words, it is a question not of drawing a line at 22, 20 or 18 weeks, but of not drawing a line at all. If that were not so, the two matters would not have been linked as they are. We have already heard comments about the sanctity of clusters of cells at an early stage of development.

Mr. Barron

That fundamentalist approach would be honest if those who advocated it were prepared to test the House on it and instead of playing games with the number of weeks introduced a Bill to stop abortion to see what the House thought about that.

Mr. Wigley

The hon. Gentleman is right. Some hon. Members do not take a fundamentalist view but believe that there is a need to examine the abortion laws. If a Bill to amend the abortion law were introduced on a bona fide basis that included taking note of the changes in medical science since 1967 and 1969, with a view to reducing the abortion limit from 28 to 24 weeks, or whatever is appropriate, rather than on the basis of a fundamentalist attack on the whole law, there would be more sympathy in the House towards it. I voted against the Abortion (Amendment) Bill introduced by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill on Second Reading not because I would oppose consideration of cutting the limit to 24 weeks but because it was the thin end of the wedge and if the hon. Gentleman had had his way the limit would not be 18 weeks or 12 weeks—there would be no limit at all. He has acknowledged that his Bill was a compromise, and he would like to go further.

Mr. Alton

It is a bit like the nuclear arms race. I should like to see the dismantling of all nuclear weapons systems, but if we could get rid of one I would regard that as progress. The hon. Gentleman implies that there is something dishonest about saying that one is opposed to abortion but recognises that there should be changes in the light of medical advances. Surely it is legitimate for an hon. Member to test the attitude of the House about a matter of public policy, which is all that my Bill tried to do.

Mr. Wigley

I am explaining to the hon. Gentleman why some who might be willing to consider moderate changes to the 1967 Act will vote against Bills in principle, although some will vote for them on Second Reading but be sympathetic to stopping them, as happened with the hon. Gentleman's Bill, because of the fear that such Bills would be a vehicle for going very much further than is wanted.

The hon. Member for Mossley Hill cannot have it both ways. He cannot pander as a fundamentalist to the extreme lobby with which he is associated and at the same time appear as a moderate reformer. I understand the passion with which he holds his beliefs and I hold my beliefs with an equal passion, but if there is a move to reform the 1967 Act, with a reduction of the limit from 28 to 24 weeks, it will have to be done differently from the way in which it has been done so far.

Unfortunately, the motion does not address this problem in any detail and there is no reference to the exact changes that those who tabled it wish to see. The terms are general, and the generality provides an umbrella for people of many different persuasions. Some may be uneasy about the workings of the Act and whether resuscitation equipment is available, which is a legitimate concern, while others want to see the end of abortion altogether because they believe that the abortion of an early embryo only a few days old, is murder. Hon. Members will have received letters and correspondence earlier this year suggesting that that is so, and I respect people who have such religious beliefs, but that is a belief that neither I nor, I believe, the vast majority of hon. Members share.

Mr. Thurnham

Many millions of women throughout the world use the IUD coil as a method of contraception, but I am sure that none of them believes that she is committing murder every month.

Mr. Wigley

I am sure that that is so. Nevertheless, many hon. Members and others campaigning on this issue are wholly opposed to contraception. That is the great irony. Because of the lack of contraception and contraception advice, many young women become pregnant when they do not want to be. That is a basic inconsistency in the position taken by some, though not all, hon. Members taking part in this debate.

I find the reference to "private profit" strange. I am opposed to the making of private profit out of abortion or any other NHS service, but the argument should be that the NHS must provide a better service so that people do not have to resort to private health provision.

There is also the question of research into congenital handicap. I find it strange that people who are willing to accept, even as a compromise position, a limit of 18 weeks for abortion are not prepared to countenance any period during which research can be undertaken on early clusters of cells. In other words, they take a fundamentalist position on that, but a compromise position on abortion. We know that in the in vitro fertilisation work that is undertaken, half a dozen clusters of small cells may be produced, of which only two or three will be used for re-implantation. Some are frozen and held for possible further use, some may be used for research purposes, and some may be thrown away.

If restrictive legislation were passed along the lines of Bills introduced in earlier Parliaments which have had no support yet in this Parliament, there would be a block on valuable research that is being undertaken. On 14 December, The Guardian published a report on research being undertaken at Hammersmith hospital. It said: Those facing cystic fibrosis, muscular dystrophy and haemophilia are the individuals who will benefit from in vitro genetic screening, a technique first described on Monday at a meeting of scientists at the Royal Society. In other words, rapid progress is being made on this medical frontier. The questions and the potentials change from month to month and the potential is immense. The report continues: The work about to be carried out at the Hammersmith, which may eventually benefit thousands of families plagued with inherited and incurable diseases, falls within the present guidelines laid down by the Voluntary Licensing Authority. This means it would be done before the embryo reaches 14 days, when, it is thought, the cells that will eventually form the baby organise themselves along a line called 'the primitive streak.' This could not even have been attempted if Enoch Powell had had his way in 1985 with his Unborn Children Protection Act.". In other words, exciting research of major relevance to people who are suffering from genetic diseases of that sort would be threatened if the type of legislation supported by the hon. Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) were to reach the statute book.

There is public concern that abuse could take place. I still accept the Warnock recommendation of 14 days. One can argue about where to draw the line. I accept that some people want legislative safeguards so that the decision is not left wholly to the voluntary sector. For that reason, the motion is a bit of mixture and I am not opposed to many parts of it. I want legislation that does not ban vital research which holds out the possibility of cures for some congenital handicaps and conditions.

Given the advances in medical science, made even since our earlier debate in February of this year, I urge the Government to give greater weight to the alternative clause in the White Paper which allows research to take place for up to 14 days. An overwhelming majority of people would accept that as a reasonable compromise. I urge hon. Members, although there are few in the Chanber at the moment, who seek an 18-week limit for abortion but who say that they would regard 20 or 22 weeks as preferable to 28, to search their consciences when they say that they are not prepared to compromise in that way on research which has such an effect on so many people. Those questions are of considerable interest and we need specific proposals before the House if we are to reach decisions on them.

The motion facilitates debate but does not take the argument much further forward. The best result of the debate would be some sign of the Government's most recent thinking on controls on research in view of the enormous progress that has been made even during the past year.

11.32 am
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East)

I am glad to have this opportunity to follow the hon. Member for Caenarfon (Mr. Wigley) who made an excellent and helpful speech. His stance on the subject has been clearly stated and is helpful. Hon. Members from both sides of the House know that his views are sincerely and personally held.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) on his success in the ballot. I have entered the ballot whenever I have had the opportunity, but I have never reached anywhere near first place. I am a little surprised that my hon. Friend should put forward a motion linking the Abortion (Amendment) Bill and the Unborn Children (Protection) Bill. They deal with separate issues and it is only because of the confused attempt to follow matters of principle right through that my hon. Friend has linked them.

Mr. Frank Dobson (Holborn and St. Pancras)

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I apologise to the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) for interrupting his speech. May I make it clear that I am in no way challenging the good faith of the Minister when he assured us earlier, when we raised points of order about whether there would be a statement on what the Government are to do about eggs and chickens, that there was no question of the Government making a press statement or issuing any briefing outside the House before a statement was made to the House on Monday. It has come to our attention that, while that assurance was being given, Mr. Bernard Ingham's deputy from the Cabinet press office was in the Press Gallery briefing journalists and saying that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is to make a statement outside the House this afternoon. Since then the MAFF press office has been in touch with other press people to tell them that that is indeed the case.

I am sure that the Minister, the hon. and learned Member for Putney (Mr. Mellor) was speaking in good faith earlier, but I think that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will agree that it is essential to get this matter cleared, up. We must establish who is deciding policy. Is it the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of Health or Mr. Bernard Ingham? We are entitled to know. We must have a statement at 2.30 pm. This is a gross abuse of the House and of egg producers who are bothered about their future. Some of them may have to make desperately difficult decisions about their flocks and how to dispose of their eggs during the weekend. They will want to know whether, if they gas 10,000 chickens this weekend, they will receive compensation, but they will not know until a scheme is announced on Monday. It is imperative that we have a statement. This is the grossest abuse of the House and of the poor Minister of State who was put up to tell us something that turned out not to be true.

Mr. Steel

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I hope that you will be able to convey to the Government before 2.30 pm the strength of feeling on this matter in the House. It is not simply, a question of how the House has been treated, but fundamental ministerial responsibility to the House that is at the heart of the argument. With great respect to the Minister, even having him here will not do, because this issue concerns the damage that a Minister has caused to the interests of taxpayers whom we are elected to represent and protect. That is at the root of the argument. I hope that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will relay that and the strength of feeling in the House to the Government so that they might reconsider the decision to delay the statement until Monday.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Further to that point of order Mr. Deputy Speaker.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. The House will appreciate that these are not matters for the Chair. I am sure that what has been said will have been noted by those on the Government Front Bench. I do not think that we can carry the matter any further. We are taking valuable time out of a private Members' day. I hope that we can leave the matter there and that these clearly important issues will be pursued in other ways.

Mr. Dobson

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. As you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and other hon. Members know, I am interested in, and recognise, the fundamental nature of the debate about the protection of the unborn child—as it is described—so I do not wish to interfere with that debate at any great length. However, an assurance was given to the House and to Mr. Speaker, but at the time that assurance was being broken. The matter affects the Chair directly. The understandings on which you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, based your response to the point of order turned out not to be true. That was not your fault, nor that of the Minister, but the Government appear to be in total chaos. We must have a statement in the House today to clear up who is making the policy and what the policy is. We would like a statement from the Minister now, if he can give it, that he will set about getting the matter clarified. I am not accusing him of doing anything wrong. The Government are wholly at fault and the matter must be sorted out in the House today.

Mr. Mellor

Further to that point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson) for what he said about my earlier intervention. I assure him that it will be honoured to the letter.

Mr. Allen McKay


Mr. Thurnham


Mr Deputy Speaker

Order. I recognise that there is a problem here. There may or may not be misunderstandings. Whether there are or not, they will not be sorted out on the Floor of the House. The most prudent course, and that most likely to bring satisfaction to all involved, is to have discussions elsewhere to try to get the matter sorted rather than taking up valuable time in this debate.

Mr. Thurnham

I am grateful for the opportunity to continue with the debate. I was saying that I regretted that my hon. Friend had linked two Bills which I saw as being quite separate. It would, however, be unfair for me to blame him for moving his motion on a day when we have become tangled up with another "eggs" issue. We are talking here about the development of the human embryo and the child, and I trust that we can concentrate on that. I look forward to hearing the reply from my hon. and learned Friend the Minister, and I hope that he does not continue to be harassed about other matters which I am sure would be better dealt with on Monday, when a full House will be here.

I intend to concentrate mainly on in vitro fertilisation research. I do not intend to say much about the Abortion (Amendment) Bill. However, public opinion—a question that is constantly raised by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton)—is quite clear on the issue. A Marplan poll carried out in 1987 for the Abortion Law Reform Association found that 79 per cent. of those questioned thought that the decision whether a woman should continue her pregnancy should be left to the woman, in consultation with her doctors. Let me remind the hon. Gentleman and his friends that that is the position, and that I shall continue to support it.

That public feeling is reinforced by a British attitudes survey which shows that attitudes in general have become more liberal since 1983. There is, in fact, a clear global trend towards the liberalisation of abortion laws. Over the past 20 years 65 jurisidictions have liberalised the laws, and only four have subsequently restricted them. Many countries now place much less restriction on abortion than does this country. It is grossly unfair to suggest that a freak Act in 1967 led to today's laws, which the public support.

The debate on IVF research is not taking place in this country alone; it is taking place worldwide. The more informed people are, the better they are able to make wise judgments. As new medical technology improves, so do the chances of survival both before and after birth. This country is a world leader in the field, and I should like to pay tribute to all who have made that possible. We lead the world not only in medical science but in the philosophers and religious thinkers who found a basis on which the research could be carried out in a proper and moral way.

Let me pay tribute especially to the Rev. Professor Gordon Dunstan, and refer hon. Members to his recently published book "The Status of the Human Embryo". In it he sets out the moral justification for such research, commenting not only on the position of the Church of England—which has come down in favour of the research —but on that of the Roman Catholic Church. There is a useful chapter written by Dr. Brendan Soane which illustrates the extent of disagreement within that Church.

We should pay the greatest possible regard to the care of those who are born as well as those who are unborn. We should remember that in this country alone more than 10,000 babies are born handicapped each year. We are still waiting for the report by the Office of Population Censuses and Surveys on handicapped children. The data are not very clear, but the figures that I have seen suggest that more than 2,000 severely handicapped children are born each year, many of whom end up in institutional care if their parents are unable to cope with their afflictions and if adoptive or foster parents cannot be found. Thousands of children are still in institutional care in this country.

The risk of congenital handicap is very real. Premature babies are more prone to such handicap, and the younger the baby—the closer its age to the lowest age at which survival is possible, whether it is 24 weeks or any other age —the greater the risk. One of the most important recent developments, referred to by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley), is in pre-natal genetic diagnosis. A meeting of the Royal Society this week discussed the good work that has been done at Hammersmith hospital. Such work provides a chance for fewer children to be born with congenital handicaps as the research proves. It will also mean fewer abortions at 20 weeks on the ground of foetal diagnosis. I should have thought that those who want fewer abortions would therefore favour it.

In the 10 years in which IVF babies have been produced 10,000 have been born throughout the world, but that was only possible because of the 10 years of research that preceded it. I ask those who condemn the research what harm has come from it. Is the world a worse place because of it? I do not think so; I think that it is a much better place. We must face the challenge, not run away. Throughout the history of mankind we have faced up to technological advance. We discovered fire and learnt to use it, but there is of course an attendant risk. We discovered the use of the wheel. That has benefited mankind, but there is still a risk, as is shown by the recent rail disaster at Clapham Junction. We have come to terms with such risks and learnt how to control them so that we can use technology for our benefit.

The secrets of the atom were discovered earlier this century at Cambridge. Much of the IVF research has also been done there. We should be proud of that work, and not run away from it. We should try to establish exactly what limits and controls there should be and how they should be exercised, rather than attempt to introduce legislation to ban the work.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

My hon. Friend and I have crossed swords on this subject for many years. Does he agree, in the context of his analogy with the nuclear bomb and the uses of nuclear power, that the manipulation of human characteristics by genetic engineering falls into about the same category of importance? Whereas it is possible to reorganise and scale down nuclear power, human genetic engineering, once engaged in, is irreversibly built into the future. If there are benefits to be derived, they must be weighed most seriously against the incredible dangers.

Mr. Thurnham

My hon. Friend is talking about genetic engineering. The voluntary licensing authority which sets down the criteria for research work in this country has listed that as one of the four criteria that it is not allowing. There are arguments in favour of genetic engineering if it can be shown to reduce the incidence of illnesses such as diabetes. I believe that work has been done in America to show that it is possible to work on a mouse embryo and to remove the gene responsible for diabetes. If that could be done in this country and we could reduce the suffering that results from the common illness of diabetes, that would be welcomed.

However, I agree with my hon. Friend that we should think carefully about genetic engineering and, indeed, the voluntary licensing authority lists genetic engineering as one of its key criteria. We should bear in mind that the voluntary licensing authority is recognised throughout the world as an excellent institution. It is a British institution and one founded on common sense and on a practical approach to how we should manage the new developments that are taking place in that area.

I look forward to hearing what my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Health will say about the voluntary licensing authority. I hope that he feels that its work is as excellent as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that it is. It is funded largely from private resources. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend will say a little more about how the Government can help its work. I am sure that we are all in favour of the licensing authority being made a statutory licensing authority so that if it needs to have more teeth than it has been given so far, it can have them. As I have said, its work has been excellent and I hope that the Government will reinforce it by announcing some help with funding.

The voluntary licensing authority has laid down a limit of 14 days for work on embryos. That limit is beyond any period for which an embryo has been kept alive, as far as I am aware. I believe that eight or nine days is the maximum period for which an embryo or pre-embryo can be kept alive in a test tube, so 14 days is beyond what is practical anyway. By that stage an embryo would naturally have to be planted in its mother's womb to develop fully. Therefore, the 14-day limit is perfectly sensible and practical for research work.

The other criteria involved limitations on the use of any other species for gestation and on cloning. Although cloning is used in the animal world, I am sure that we would all agree without the slightest hesitation that that criterion should be strictly enforced. If we had a statutory authority, it would have the legal right to do that. Only those people who believe that our scientists and doctors are malevolent in some way would imagine that such things could occur at all.

The issues that we are discussing are being debated also in America, Australia and Europe. I should like to draw hon. Members' attention to Science magazine of 25 November in which an article is headed: Europe Split on Embryo Research". A statement beneath that heading runs: We cannot have a situation in which the same research might lead to a Nobel Prize in some member states of the European Economic Community, and to prison in others. I very much regret that people should feel that scientists should be sent to prison for conducting research that is within the limitations laid down by the voluntary licensing authority. I am sure that when the time comes for this House to consider legislation on such matters, hon. Members will want to support a statutory licensing authority as the way forward because by laying down limitations, a statutory licensing authority could allow research to continue in a way that would be beneficial not only to the people of this country, but throughout the world on the basis that we lead the world in that sphere.

Mr. Cash


Mr. Thurnham

No, I have already given way once to my hon. Friend. I am sure that he will have his own opportunity to speak later.

I hope that the restrictions that may be brought in for some European member states, such as Germany, will not be enforced throughout the whole Community because that would be a mistake. I do not think that anybody in this country wants to take lessons in moral ethics from Germany. There is no doubt that some of the German proposals are reactions to the dreadful state of affairs there during the last war when 20 medical officers were sentenced for experiments carried out in concentration camps.

I am sure that we could approach this matter with a commonsense attitude. I hope that we shall not have any restrictive European legislation imposed on us. It is tempting to imagine that there might be restrictions in other European countries, but none here, which would give us a competitive advantage. However, I do not advocate such a policy because it would be risky. I would rather see developments throughout the whole of Europe, rather than just in one part of it.

The voluntary licensing authority has licensed 38 research projects, many of which were mentioned at the Royal Society meeting this Monday. I understand that at Hammersmith hospital 400 embryo experiments have taken place and that the hospital hopes to have a preventive system shortly for couples who are suffering from the disorder known as Lesch Nyhan-syndrome, which is a most grievous affliction. Anybody at risk of having children with that disorder would need every possible help and encouragement. I do not understand the attitude of hon. Members who want to stop research which could help couples who suffer from such a dreadful plight.

There have also been arguments about the use of foetal tissue in the treatment of Parkinson's disease. I remind those who condemn doctors for doing that work that they do so only after their hospital ethical committee has given careful consideration to whether that should take place, bearing in mind the particular circumstances of the patient and those prepared to make the donation.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone)

Does my hon. Friend accept that the surgeons and doctors involved in the experiments can and do sit on the ethical committee? Does he agree that Parliament should consider whether we need to revise that, so that no man can be judge in his own case?

Mr. Thurnham

I tabled a question on that a while ago, and the Government have said that they are reviewing the way that ethical committees work. That is only sensible and right. I would not for a minute advocate that ethical committees should consist solely of people who do not know what they are talking about. They must consist of people engaged in the work as well as lay members of the community who can offer wise, informed judgments. It is absurd to imagine that ethical committees could consist of people who did not know about the work.

Parliament should not be arrogant and prohibit research. When the time comes to consider legislation I hope that it will agree to appoint a statutory licensing authority and that, meantime, the work of the voluntary licensing authority can be well supported. Hon. Members who have spoken should stop and think what more they can do to care for the born—who are with us. The considerations of those working in this area—the scientists and philosophers who put forward the arguments—are guided by a concern for the born, not by highly principled, remote, aloof consideration of what may or may not happen to the unborn. Let us face up to what is happening to the born. That is the hallmark of a civilised society.

11.56 am
Mr. Doug Henderson (Newcastle upon Tyne)

I did not originally intend to speak in this debate, but I was concerned to see that the House was again to consider the question of abortion and in vitro fertilisation in the same debate. Since I have been a Member of the House I have been convinced that it does better when it considers specific rather than general matters. This morning the debate has been general.

I wish to address my comments to research on human pre-embryos. The wording of the motion is emotive and talks of concern about experiments on unborn children. I could take issue with the hon. Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) on that wording, but I shall desist and stick to some of the more substantial issues.

I am not sure that this debate is necessary at this time. On 4 February we had a useful debate and it would have been best for each side to reflect on the arguments about in vitro fertilisation for a while. I know that the Government are reflecting on these issues. More reflection and perhaps less debate might have been a better way forward at this time. As we are forced into considering the matter once again, we have a chance to express our views on the nature of any legislation.

I am in no doubt that the main issue about in vitro fertilisation is whether research can continue and whether the research work of devoted scientists, working with minimum facilities, using their talents and endeavouring to help those people referred to by the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) should be allowed to continue.

I was not clear what position the hon. Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) took on research. I note that he has left the Chamber, but I will give way to him if he comes back and will make his position clear. I know that some hon. Members on both sides of the House believe that research should cease. They must test their consciences against the denial of treatment. They must consider what would happen if treatment was denied to couples who face a high risk of passing on genetic diseases to their offspring or what would happen if treatment was denied to couples who want children but have a family history of genetic disease. Those people face the anguish and morality of bringing a child into the world who may have a high risk of disability and they may fret over their right to bring that child into the home. Couples so afflicted must consider whether they can look after a disabled child in future and endure the physical, social and psychological effects that that may bring. If we deny treatment, we deny those people a better chance in life.

I will not dwell too long on that aspect because the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) put the case clearly and eloquently in the debate in February for research to continue. He wanted to help people afflicted by diseases such as those mentioned today by the hon. Member for Bolton, North-East.

Treatment may also be denied to people who are in despair because they want children, but discover that they are unable to conceive. If we deny those people treatment, we will deny them any hope of relieving their anguish, soul searching, sense of inadequacy and mental pain. I hope that those who would outlaw research will weigh the feelings of those people against their own ideological beliefs. I hope that the people who would deny treatment are aware of the scale of childlessness in this country. They should know how many of their constituents suffer that anguish, soul searching, and sense of inadequacy. They should know how many of their constituents will seek help from local medical practitioners and hospitals.

The White Paper published in 1987 made it clear that one in six people have some form of infertility problem. It also showed that one in 10 couples need major hospital help to relieve infertility. That means that there are 6 million couples of child-bearing age and 1.25 million are childless.

Medical science has advanced significantly and it can bring relief and hope and, in many cases thankfully, joy. By 1987, more than 2,000 babies had been born in this country through in vitro fertilisation treatment. That is quite a substantial proportion of the number who have been born in that way throughout the world—about 30 per cent. or 40 per cent.—and reflects great credit on our own medical science.

However, the success rate is still low. The Voluntary Licensing Authority made it clear in its statistical analysis in 1986 that of the 4,687 couples who had received a treatment cycle, out of a total number of treatment cycles of more than 7,000, over 1,000 had failed before the stage of egg collection, another 2,200 had failed at the point of entry transfer and only 754 pregnancies had resulted. Of those, 605 live births occurred. That is a success rate of less than one in 10 of those who received in vitro fertilisation treatment.

I am not clear what position the hon. Member for Slough is adopting. Is he against IVF in any circumstances? He and others who share his view will not choose to support either of the options in the White Paper. I concede that their position has some internal logic, although I do not agree with it and they must weigh their logic against the logic of others. But I do not accept that there is any internal logic in the view that was outlined in a debate in February by the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine). I am not picking him out for special comment, but he and others said that they accepted option one in the White Paper, which was to agree on implantation when it occurred immediately and in relation to a woman, but that they did not accept any embryo research.

I repeat the point that I made then, that there is no internal logic in that argument. If one accepts that some IVF treatment can take place, one is effectively endorsing scientific developments in the past that involved research on embryos. When hospital authorities first mixed sperm and eggs, it did not result in a baby. Ten years of research took place before any major developments occurred and they required historic research. If one says that it is acceptable for a form of IVF treatment to take place to have an immediate and intended impact on fertility, one must say, to be consistent, that within the rules, regulations and agreed framework, one accepts that there should be further research to try to improve on success rates. Those who argue for the centre position have no logic on their side. Those who are fundamentalists and who are opposed to any idea of IVF treatment are being logical, but those who adopt the centre position should agree that some research is essential.

Mr. Cash

That is one of the most intelligent arguments that I have heard from those who take the opposite view to mine. However, I want to ask the hon Gentleman a question. If he looks at the statutory framework proposed by the new White Paper—we have had several previously on the subject—does he not agree that, even within the areas of constraint, where there is an absolute ban connected with a criminal offence, the constraint is merely on the basis of a temporary ban pending further research? Is that not, even to the hon. Gentleman, incongruous and highly dangerous?

Mr. Henderson

I understand the hon. Gentleman's point, but I fear that, if the centre option is chosen, so many restrictions will be imposed on research in future that it will prevent any meaningful discoveries from taking place, and therefore make a breakthrough unlikely.

If we are to continue to have in vitro fertilisation, we need further research, if for no other reason than that it is crucial to try to save medical facilities. Much medical time and many facilities are tied up in treatments that the medical authorities themselves recognise have only a one in 10 chance of succeeding. Because they believe that they can help some people, however, they feel compelled to give the maximum opportunity to those who visit them. I have observed the work done at King's College hospital in south London and I am impressed by the facilities there and at some other hospitals.

Research is crucial to identify the factors in pre-embryos that can help to explain why there is still such a low rate of fertilisation, and to discover how possible causes of damage to the pre-embryo can be evaluated during in vitro culture. The third, equally important, aim is to reduce the risk of multiple pregnancies. We all know that there is such a risk in IVF and associated treatments. While most families will very much welcome the birth of a young child, they would prefer not to undergo a high risk of multiple pregnancy.

We need research to investigate pre-implantation diagnostic techniques on human embryos which can reduce the risk of children being born with genetic diseases and help to reduce terminations by allowing diagnosis and treatment before a pregnancy is established. Research is needed to show that these techniques are safe, to determine that the pre-embryo is not irreparably damaged by the removal of small cells for diagnosis, to examine how many cells can be removed in that process and to determine the optimal stage of development for the removal of the cells.

Research is required further to investigate treatment for male infertility. At the moment, much of the treatment for male infertility has to involve the active participation of a woman. It would be much better if an in vitro system could be used to remove not only the women's direct involvement but the anguish and pain that go with it.

I do not expect all hon. Members to agree with me that there is scope for research to investigate new forms of contraception and that that is important. People at the forefront of medical development say that blocking agents can be tested in vitro very successfully, and that would be an efficient use of medical research and resources.

I could have referred to the need for better facilities all round, and to the need to reduce regional inequalities in facilities and improve public sector provision. I could have dealt with the licensing authority and said that I support the 14-day limit. We need to consider all those matters, but I am conscious of time. I passionately believe that when we consider introducing legislation we should address ourselves as dispassionately as possible to the real issues.

I accept the need for a legislative framework. It is somewhat incongruous that the Government, who argue in favour of having voluntary arrangements in many areas, should argue that there is a need for statutory arrangements in this case. I agree with them. I hope that the guiding principle behind that statutory framework will be the liberty of the 1.25 million childless people in this country who seek help.

12.14 pm
Mr. Andrew MacKay (Berkshire, East)

I hope that the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) will not complain if I do not pursue his arguments on embryo research. I agreed with every single word that he said in an outstanding speech that will need careful reading in Hansard on Monday.

I shall concentrate on abortion, which was the other issue mentioned in the motion so ably moved by my hon. Friend and neighbour the Member for Slough (Mr. Watts). I defend my hon. Friend from an allegation made by the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer), who suggested that after the fall of the Abortion (Amendment) Bill last Session, my hon. Friend said that Parliament had been brought into disrepute and that the wrong tactics had been used. I share two local newspapers with my hon. Friend and I know that he has always behaved correctly. He has made none of the slurs or insinuations that we have heard from the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) and his friends in the anti-abortion lobby. My hon. Friend is the acceptable face of some pretty unacceptable people.

I was pleased that my hon. Friend came first in the ballot and that he chose this subject for discussion, and I am delighted that I was able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, so that I can say a few words.

The hon. Member for Mossley Hill is not in his place now, but I am sure that he will return in due course. It was disingenuous of him to suggest that because there was a substantial majority for the Second Reading of his Bill, it had overwhelming support in the House. The hon. Gentleman has been in the House for several years and was for some time the Chief Whip of the Liberal party and the alliance. Sadly, he is not the Chief Whip of the Social and Liberal Democrats because he does not support the new leadership of that party. The hon. Gentleman should be aware that a vote on Second Reading is a vote on principle. Many of my hon. Friends and many Opposition Members voted for the Second Reading of the Bill because they believed that the issue should be taken a stage further into Committee. They believed mistakenly—I warned them of it during the Second Reading debate—that they could persuade the hon. Member for Mossley Hill to amend his time limit from 18 weeks to 22 or 24 weeks. He gave them some woolly undertakings. They were deliberately woolly, because the hon. Gentleman is not normally a woolly speaker. Somewhat naively, they accepted those promises and he was able to slide out of them in Committee.

I am confident that had there been a vote on 24 weeks, as set out in an amendment that I tabled on Report, it would have been passed overwhelmingly. The House should recall that my early-day motion attracted many signatures and widespread support throughout the House, which shows that 24 weeks, with medical exceptions, would have been a reasonable compromise that would have been passed and widely supported.

If that be the case, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you may ask why the hon. Member for Mossley Hill did not agree to my amendment and why we do not have on the statute book a law that abortions may not take place after 24 weeks except in exceptional medical circumstances. The answer is that those who sponsored his Bill, and the hon. Gentleman himself, are anti-abortion. They do not want limits of 24 weeks or even 18 weeks. They want abortion to be made illegal. There are a few extremely honest people on their side, such as my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe), who is good enough to admit that she believes that abortion should be made illegal, and I respect her views. My hon. Friend is fortunate to have been drawn fairly high up the ballot, as I have been. I am slightly more fortunate than her as I was drawn fourth and she seventh. No doubt, she will be introducing a Bill in this session of Parliament, which, I am told will be similar to the Bill that was introduced by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill.

Miss Widdecombe

indicated assent.

Mr. MacKay

I am glad to see that my hon. Friend is confirming my last sentence. My hon. Friend will be wishing not to have that particular Bill passed, but will be wishing to make abortion illegal. That is why there is no compromise with people who have no desire—

Mr. Watts


Miss Widdecombe


Mr. MacKay

I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone after I have given way to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough, but I shall just finish this point.

There is no possible compromise with people who want to make abortion illegal rather than bring the time limit down a little to take into account the advances in medical science since the original legislation was passed in 1967.

Mr. Watts

My hon. Friend asserts that a majority of the House would have been in favour of a 24-week limit. I believe that there would have been a majority for 18 weeks or something much closer to it than 24 weeks. Does my hon. Friend agree that it would be far better if it were unnecessary for either of us to make assertions on these matters, but that the House, instead, should have a chance to bring this debate to a conclusion? If my hon. Friend is right, he will be happy. If I am right, I shall be happy. Either way, the House will have reached a conclusion and the issue will be put to bed.

Mr. MacKay

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's intervention, because there is a part of my hon. Friend's motion which specifically refers to how he would like the House to move to forward on legislation on abortion reform. As I shall cover this in some detail a little later, if my hon. Friend will bear with me, I shall answer him fully.

Does my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone wish to intervene?

Miss Widdecombe


Mr. MacKay

If my hon. Friend is not entirely happy with anything that I have said, I shall be willing, as always, to give way.

The question was raised about extra time being given to the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill in the last Session. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House was right not to have given extra time to that Bill or to any other private Member's Bill. In recent times, no Conservative Government have given extra time to any private Member's Bill. What happened in 1967 is entirely a matter for the Labour party and the then Labour Government. I believe that giving extra time to private Member's Bills puts any Government in a difficult position and, especially, this Government. If the Government give extra time to one private Member's Bill, why should they not give it to another?

I am hoping to introduce a Sunday sports Bill next Wednesday, and if extra time had been given to the Abortion (Amendment) Bill, I would be very peeved if extra time was not given to my Bill. I believe that the Government are right and that they must stick to their guns. They must be completely consistent and say that it is not practical, possible or right to give extra time to private Member's Bills.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

Would my hon. Friend be in favour of private Member's Bills being subjected, if possible, to timetable motions? At present, it is not possible for a private Member to seek leave of the House for a timetable motion. We are not asking for more time in future, but if we had a timetable motion perhaps we could actually get to the vote.

Mr. MacKay

That is a matter for the Procedures Committee. I believe that if I proceed down that road, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will be calling me back to order. It would also be grossly unfair to other hon. Members who are waiting to speak.

It is important that we look at this motion carefully. Mention has been made of growing public concern. The oldest political trick in the world is to throw up some straw and then blow that straw away. My hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Amos)—who was in his place and will try to catch your eye in due course, Mr. Deputy Speaker—did this very successfully, but, in my view very irresponsibly, at the Committee stage of the Abortion (Amendment) Bill. He made some wild allegations about people who run private clinics. I then asked him on the Floor of the House to substantiate those allegations. I said that if those allegations were true, those people were breaking the law. I asked him to give me their names and addresses, and I said that I would write to the Director of Public Prosecutions. I believe that, if someone is breaking the law, they should be prosecuted or at least evidence should be put before the DPP. My hon. Friend refused to do as I asked.

Some public concern is caused by those in the anti-abortion campaign who make allegations that they cannot in any way substantiate. Another interesting example of that occurred on the Floor of the House during Home Office questions yesterday. It also occurred today during the speeches by the Father of the House, my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) and by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill.

You will no doubt have noted, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that Home Office questions yesterday were hijacked by a number of anti-abortionist Members—[Interruption.]

Miss Widdecombe

We made some useful statements.

Mr. MacKay

I do not disagree with that. However, I do not believe that my hon. Friends gained much support in the House by ruining Home Office questions.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

What nonsense. The questions were in order.

Mr. MacKay

Of course they were in order, otherwise they would not have appeared on the Order Paper.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

They inconvenienced my hon. Friends.

Mr. MacKay

I was far from embarrassed by those questions.

Let us consider the case of the abortion carried out at Carlisle City general hospital. It is another example of straws being thrown in the air. Consider the response of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Deaprtment, my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Hogg), who spoke on behalf of the Home Secretary when he said: In reaching that conclusion"— whether to have an inquest into the Carlisle case, the Home Secretary— 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.

Miss Widdecombe


Mr. Nicholas Bennett

Come on.

Mr. MacKay

It is all very well for my hon. Friends the Members for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett) and for Maidstone to mock, but I believe that we have one of the finest Home Secretaries that this House has ever seen. With no disrespect to my two hon. Friends, if I had to choose which person was right, my right hon. Friend the Horne Secretary—who has had all the facts made available to him, who is an outstanding Home Secretary and a man of great integrity—would be my choice. I believe it ill behoves my colleagues to question his judgment. It is, of course, their right to do so.

I have a high regard for my right hon. Friend and for the Parliamentary Under-Secretary who is an eminent lawyer from a family of eminent lawyers. I suspect that they are slightly better qualified than my hon. Friends in such legal matters and better able to decide whether the matter is right or wrong.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett


Mr. MacKay

I will not continue to give way because other hon. Members wish to speak.

Let us consider what happened yesterday. When we finished discussing the first question about the Carlisle case, we then had a question about cruelty to children. That is an important issue and it is one that should concern the House. My hon. Friend the Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Coombs) asked the Home Secretary: if he proposes to take any action to increase the penalties available to the courts for the offences of cruelty to children.—[Official Report, 15 December 1988; Vol. 143, c. 1074–75.]

I assumed that all my hon. Friends who had been jumping up trying to catch Mr. Speaker's eye would stand up again because cruelty to children is an equally important issue. The only one of my colleagues who stood up, however, was my hon. Friend the Member for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire). He is not an anti-abortionist, but all the anti-abortionists took no interest in the debate on the second question. That is extremely revealing. It should reveal to people outside this House the priorities of those who are desperately keen to intervene about the spurious Carlisle case, but who have no possible interest in the protection of children and child abuse.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

What absolute nonsense.

Miss Widdecombe


Mr. Cash


Mr. Nicholas Bennett

My hon. Friend should not make such allegations.

Mr. MacKay

I shall give way to my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash).

Mr. Cash

My hon. Friend has made a comparison with the protection of children. Does my hon. Friend accept that the Protection of Children Act 1978, which received unanimous support in the House when introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Bexleyheath (Mr. Townsend), was given time by the then Government? Does he accept that he is putting forward an extraordinary argument? On the one hand he does not want a Bill to amend the abortion legislation to be given any extra time, but he was prepared to give extra time to a Bill for the protection of children. Is it not an extraordinary paradox that we are attempting to protect unborn children—who are children—yet my hon. Friend is not prepared to give protection to children who need it at the time when they are most vulnerable?

Mr. MacKay

My hon. Friend was not listening to my speech; he will have to read Hansard. At no time have I said that Government time should be given to any private Member's Bill—I made that abundantly clear. I do not believe in giving time to private Members' Bills. I merely made the correct observation that during Home Office questions yesterday a large number of my anti-abortionist hon. Friends sought to catch Mr. Speaker's eye—some of them unsuccessfully—on question. No. 1. But they did not try to catch his eye on question No. 2, which most of us would have thought concerned a more serious issue—child abuse.

Miss Widdecombe

As I was not in Question Time yesterday, my hon. Friend cannot be accusing me. But I should have behaved in exactly the same way. Surely, my hon. Friend knows that there was another question about the Carlisle baby case further down the Order Paper and my hon. Friends had come in specifically for that, in the way that hon. Members with specific interests do. Does he not accept that that was reasonable?

Mr. MacKay

The only thing I accept is that my hon. Friend was not in her place yesterday afternoon—

Miss Widdecombe

For perfectly good reasons.

Mr. MacKay

Of course. I did not intend to imply that my hon. Friend was not carrying out her duties. We are all aware that she has the finest voting record in the House, one of which we are all immensely proud. I only wish that I could compete with her in some small way. Sadly, I cannot: I am a relatively dilatory Member compared with her. I was not suggesting that my hon. Friend had been dilatory yesterday; if she thought that I meant that, I apologise unreservedly for the offence that I may have caused her.

I must move on and not be diverted by these interesting interventions. I want to question another part of the motion which mentions growing public concern and says that opinion is changing. The social attitudes survey, an independent and highly distinguished study which all hon. Members believe to be important, made it quite clear that more and more people in this country think that women should have the right to choose an abortion, and that if an abortion takes place it should be done earlier rather than later, and that the law should be changed.

I offer one or two positive proposals in this context. First, it is a disgrace to this country that so many late abortions take place. The anti-abortionists will agree with that. At this point, however, I would diverge from them in giving my reason: it is that in many cases it is very difficult for the most innocent of girls to obtain abortions earlier. I think that there should be abortion on request for the first 12 weeks, as happens in many countries in Europe. That would be a great help and it would reduce late abortions.

Secondly, only one general practitioner, not two, should refer the case of a woman who requests an abortion. That would be immensely helpful. Thirdly, we need better sex education in our schools. Some do an excellent job; others are dilatory in the extreme. Fourthly, we need a far more comprehensive family planning service. Every health authority should give that high priority. The number of abortions, which we all want to reduce, would be greatly reduced if there were better family planning facilities and a better understanding of contraception. I hope that that is not a contentious view and that it will be shared by my hon. Friends in the pro-abortion camp— Mr. Nicholas Bennett: The anti-abortion camp.

Mr. MacKay

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention because I should have said the anti-abortion camp. I am happy to correct that.

We must look in the way that my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point looked at the new French drug RU486. I shall not go into the details of the arguments about that drug except to say that it raises many interesting questions and presents difficulties to both sides in the argument. I see much merit in a drug that can be taken by a woman and which means that she does not necessarily have to go to a clinic or hospital to have an abortion. I readily agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point that we must make sure that any side effects of the drug have been properly researched. We must take the subject further on another day.

Mr. Nicholas Bennett

I wrote to the laboratories about my worries on the drug RU486. My concern is that all drugs, once they are produced, are liable to end up on the black market. There is no way to prevent the theft of drugs or their replication for the black market. That means that abortion drugs will become available and that people will be able to procure abortions without any of the controls that exist even in the 1967 Act.

Mr. MacKay

My hon. Friend raises an interesting point on which I do not have a view. He illustrates my point that with this drug we are coming to a new era in the abortion debate and extra factors will have to be examined. I willingly concede that and look forward to further debate.

I shall now turn to the last part of the motion—the part that concerns me. It asks the House to persuade the Government to consider introducing a Bill, with alternative sets of clauses to reform the Abortion Act 1967 in order to allow the House, on a free vote, to reach a decision on this important matter. About the only thing that I agree with in that section of the motion is that we must always have a free vote on these issues.

It has been suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) that he is merely following a precedent set by the Department of Health in saying that when embryo legislation comes before the House it will be the formula that will be used then. Perhaps the Minister who is winding up will say something about that because it seems that we are getting into all sorts of difficulties and uncharted waters.

Let us say that we can vote on 26, 24, 22 and 18 weeks and, I suspect, on a shorter time than some of my hon. Friends in the anti-abortion camp would like. If there is a majority on one of those periods, the matter is simple and that one will be agreed. However, if there is a majority for all of them, which is quite possible, do we choose the one that has the biggest majority? We have never had anything other than straight yes or no votes on Bills and amendments. I shall be corrected by the Minister if I am wrong about that. We have never had a slate on which we can vote for many things that contradict one another, We seem to he in a minefield and perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Slough will address these matters when he is winding up. I think that that part of his motion is ill-founded.

Some hon. Members have accused hon. Members who were against the Bill presented by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill of being pro-abortion. Speaking for myself—I do not wish to speak for any of my hon. Friends—I most certainly am not pro-abortion and resent being told that I am. I shall tell the House my precise position. I am in favour of women having the freedom to choose. I am also in favour of the potential father having some say in the matter, although the final say must always be with the woman, the potential mother. The House is not helped by busybody politicians, Governments and civil servants telling individuals what they should or should not do—whether it be to trade on Sunday, to go racing and gamble on Sunday or to have an abortion. I believe in freedom of choice. This is a frightfully difficult decision for any woman to make. It is a horrendous and emotional decision and it is not made one whit easier by interference from politicians, the great majority of whom are genetically incapable of having a child anyway.

If legislation were passed which at best further restricted abortion, or at worst, as my hon. Friend the Member for Slough would like, made abortion in almost all circumstances illegal, that would have a great effect. It would not hurt my affluent, articulate middle-class constituents one iota. They are people who know their way around the world. They can go to private clinics abroad rather than break the law here. By and large, if such people have an abortion, they have it early, unless a handicap is found later in pregnancy. There would be no trouble for them.

However, such legislation would be the worst class legislation imaginable—[Interruption.] I am glad to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke finds this funny. The people who would be hurt the most would be the innocent, the inarticulate and relatively uneducated, and often those who are potential single parents, who have nobody to turn to and nobody to look after them. They are the ones who very often are late in realising that they are pregnant.

Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

That is patronising.

Mr. MacKay

It also happens to be true. If my hon. Friend wishes to intervene, I should be happy to allow him, because this is an important point. He obviously does not wish to do so.

Mr. Thurnham

There is a report today in the Daily Mail saying that there are cases of 10-year-old children being pregnant. How can hon. Members expect a 10-year-old to know whether she is pregnant?

Mr. MacKay

I have not seen that article. It sounds horrendous. I do not wish to pursue that argument because it will lengthen my speech and restrict others who wish to speak.

Let us return for the moment—this is a vitally important point—to those who would be most affected by such legislation. They are those who are relatively uneducated, innocent and naive and who have nobody to help them. They are more than likely not to be aware that they are pregnant until quite late in the day. They are the most fearful of being pregnant, and will be scared to tell anybody—their parents, or the father, even. They will not know where to go and will tend to have a late abortion or, if abortion were made illegal, be driven to the back street abortionist.

In Question Time yesterday, the hon. Member for Bassetlaw (Mr. Ashton) made a valid point which summed it all up. He said, and this was readily conceded by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, that a large number of women died at the hands of backstreet abortionists before 1967. Do we really wish to go back to a dark age when working-class girls died with knitting needles in their hands? Do we want to go back to an age of backstreet abortionists making substantial profits and providing little health care? I most certainly do not, and I know that the great majority of people do not want to go back to that, but that is what will happen if legislation such as is mentioned in the motion reaches the statute book.

Another group of people who would suffer are those who might have severely handicapped children. During debates on the abortion (Amendment) Bill, many charities and individuals came to tell me of their personal experience of severely disabled children. They were extremely worried about what they would do if the time limit were reduced to 24 weeks without medical exceptions, and certainly if it were reduced to 18 weeks. One could not help but be moved by their arguments. If abortion were made difficult or illegal, such people would suffer the most.

People who are least able to look after themselves and people who are most vulnerable and at risk, would be most hurt by this ill-considered motion and by ill-considered legislation which I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone will attempt to introduce in the House next week.

12.46 pm
Mrs Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) on his constructive speech. I agree with much of what he said about choice. If we had a decent rate of child benefit, the restoration of statutory maternity benefit rates, adequate housing and an end to poverty wages, many more women could make the choice to have the baby rather than an abortion.

The right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) spoke of the many letters that he has received from women who regret having had an abortion. I am sure that he is telling the truth, but has he ever had a letter from a relative of a woman who has died as a result of having had a back-street abortion? Has he ever spoken to somebody who lost a wife, sister or friend before the 1967 Act? He certainly has never nursed a dying woman who may be young and has lost the life that awaited her or who may already have a family which she has left motherless. That is what happened before the Abortion Act 1967.

I offer those who support the motion some real life cases. They are not particularly dramatic, but they are of people who would be affected by the legislation which some hon. Members favour. Mrs A., aged 40 and with two children, suspected in November 1987 that she could be pregnant. She went to her doctor who told her not to worry as she was starting the change of life. She returned to the surgery in December. Her GP was on holiday, so she saw another doctor who told her that there was no need to worry. In January, she returned yet again when her own doctor prescribed hormone tablets. On 8 February, she went back again with her husband. They insisted on a pregnancy test and, 10 days later, she was told that the test was positive. The doctor was apologetic and signed the form authorising an abortion. She was finally seen at the local hospital on 3 March. The consultant refused abortion on the ground that she was too late, but he added his signature to the green form and referred her to the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

Miss B., aged 28 ended a long-term relationship during which she had successfully used oral contraception for a number of years. She stopped taking the pill in November 1987. In late November, she felt unwell and went to her doctor. She had a negative pregnancy test and was told that it was quite usual to feel sick after stopping the pill. It certainly is. At the end of December, she returned to the doctor saying that she was sure that she was pregnant. A second pregnancy test was negative, and this time she was told not to fuss and that it was quite normal to have no periods after stopping the pill. She returned yet again in February, still having had no period and with a funny feeling in her stomach. The doctor said that it was indigestion caused by the stress of separation from her long-term partner, and prescribed antacids. In March, back at the surgery, she saw a different doctor. Examination revealed that she was 22 to 23 weeks pregnant.

Mrs. C., a 28-year old mother of two who started feeling unwell in January and went to her GP, had a positive pregnancy test result at the beginning of February. She thought carefully about her position, because her husband had recently left her for another women and divorce proceedings had been started. She returned to her GP on 19 February, only to be told that no more funds were available for abortions locally until April. The doctor gave her the telephone number of BPAS and told her that she would have to pay for the operation. She eventually approached them at the end of March, having spent the intervening period trying to save or borrow money. At that time she was 15 weeks pregnant.

Mrs. D. had one child and had miscarried several months previously. After the miscarriage she was fitted with a contraceptive coil. At the end of October she felt that she could be pregnant again and went to her doctor, who sent a test to the local hospital. Two weeks later the GP's receptionist telephoned with a positive result. She tried for an immediate appointment but was told that her doctor was on holiday and that it would be best to await his return. She finally saw him and asked to have the coil removed as she feared that it would do harm. He said that he could not do that but would make a hospital appointment for its removal.

The earliest appointment was in January, when a scan was done and the consultant told Mrs. D that it would be seven weeks before he could offer an appointment to remove the coil. Two weeks later she returned to the hospital because she had a discharge and intermittent bleeding, and was in great discomfort as well as feeling ill. She was told that nothing could be done before the appointment. In great distress she telephoned the Samaritans, who sent her to BPAS, where she was found to be 17 weeks pregnant.

Miss E is a 20-year-old single parent bringing up two children under five. Her boyfriend had attacked her repeatedly, leaving her with serious head injuries on one occasion, and she had recently found the strength to end the relationship. She was taking the contraceptive pill but had irregular periods, and after one negative pregnancy test her GP assured her that she was not pregnant and that her symptoms were psychosomatic. Eventually a scan revealed a pregnancy of 18 to 20 weeks. After careful consideration she requested an abortion, feeling sure that she could not cope with either adoption or bringing up a third child alone.

Mrs. F has three young children. She and her husband used sheaths ad spermicide for contraception, having used the pill and the IUD in the past. These failed and she discovered that she was pregnant. She became very depressed, because her husband is out of work and the family lives in a two-bedroom flat on supplementary benefit. She went to hospital after eight weeks hoping for help. She had had all her babies at the hospital, and her contraceptive history and social circumstances were known there. But the hospital refused termination and suggested no alternative. Eventually BPAS gave her an abortion at 20 weeks because she felt completely unable to cope with a fourth child.

Miss G has two children under five. She, her partner and the children live on the 15th floor of a tower block on a total of £84 a fortnight. When she found that she was pregnant and requested a termination her doctor delayed her, hoping that she would change her mind. She remained adamant, and he eventually referred her to St. Bartholomew's hospital, but she was by then over the hospital's time limit for abortion and came to BPAS in desperation at almost 18 weeks.

That woman feels that late abortion is wicked, but she was certain that she could not support another child. She has a complicated gynaecological and obstetric history which includes two miscarriages and an ectopic pregnancy.

There are hundreds of such cases. I am picking out real-life examples that are not too dramatic. The last that I shall give involves a woman whom we shall call Mrs. H. She is 37 and married with eight children whose ages range from seven to 19. Her husband is an alcoholic, and she is sure that she could not cope with a ninth child. When she found that she was pregnant her doctor referred her for an NHS termination at Guy's hospital, but she was kept waiting for six weeks for an appointment before finally being refused an abortion. At that stage she felt distressed to the point of contemplating suicide.

Will hon. Members who are in favour of the motion, since they wish to criminalise abortions tell me what punishment or sentence is appropriate for each of those women? What sentence would they pass on those women or on the doctor who performs the abortion? They failed to answer such questions during our debate several months ago when we discussed the Abortion (Amendment) Bill and they are failing to answer them today. If abortion is a crime, what punishment would they inflict in those cases?

Hon. Members will not abolish abortion by such measures; they will drive women to the back streets, as the hon. Member for Berkshire, East has said so eloquently. They will be driving women back to the knitting needle, the syringe, the slippery elm bark, the knife and to appalling methods that cause pain and create the risk of death. In many cases, they did cause death. Two years before the Abortion Act 1967, 98 women died in back-street abortions, but from 1982 to 1988 none died. Now if women such as I have described had made up their minds to have abortions because of their distressing circumstances, at least they could have the abortion in a clean and sterile hospital and have it performed by people who know what they are doing. Legislation will not end abortion. It will throw women into even more distressing circumstances when they are already upset and send them back to back-street abortionists. I wish that some hon. Members would face up to that fact.

12.55 pm
Miss Emma Nicholson (Torridge and Devon, West)

I have not spoken on this subject before, but I feel that I need to do so because of the constituency concern that arose from the Abortion (Amendment) Bill that was introduced by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton). I had a huge postbag, as we all did, as a result of it. A great batch of people who wrote the standard postcards were totally against abortion. Many people stated that they were for abortion, with reservations. They may have been concerned about the deficiencies in the National Health Service, for example. A mother who wrote to me had had to have an abortion at 16 weeks because of the deficiencies of the National Health Service in her area. She lives in a rural area, as do many of my constituents. There is but one general practitioner and she could not therefore obtain the second signature so that she could have, in her terms, a necessary abortion before 12 weeks, which she would have preferred. She had to travel to another town where there was a full waiting list. The general practitioners were not able to see her for some time as she was not their patient. Hence, she was drawn towards what she considered a late abortion at 16 weeks.

Disabled people contacted me. I can recall one case in particular of a disabled man whose mother had had German measles while he was in the womb. He is significantly disabled and has a difficult life, with a weak heart, rheumatic fever and deafness and blindness. He wrote to me saying that if his mother had had German measles earlier in the pregnancy—she was about six months pregnant at the time she contracted the disease—he would have been grotesquely deformed. He believed that the Abortion Act 1967 should remain in being.

People wrote to me who were unreservedly for abortion. Interestingly, they were mainly young mothers, mostly at the bottom of the income scale, who were having great difficulty with their small families without the greater resources that some people have for their families. Those women might not have had abortions, but they felt strongly that they had the right to determine how many children they had and that if somehow their control over their fertility failed, they should be allowed that final choice.

Like all hon. Members, I received many thousands of letters because, of course, this is a huge subject. The motion relates to human fertility. The beginning and ending of life is the most important thing of all, which is why I take so seriously those who are against abortion. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill is totally against abortion. Although his Bill referred to 18 weeks, he said to me in the Lobby that his aim was to outlaw abortion entirely. He believed most sincerely that abortion would disappear by such means. Strong feelings emerged among the groups whom he mobilised to support his Bill. Feelings ran so high in one of the church groups which I met to discuss this matter that all Members of Parliament who had not supported the hon. Gentleman were deemed non-Christian. When we live in a Christian society and culture, it is sad that this Bill should have so split Christian people that one side could hurl what to them is the deepest abuse of all against the other.

Nevertheless, that is a strongly held view which derives from the belief that the life of the child comes before that of the mother. The coming life is more important than the life that already exists. For many years that view led to the Roman Catholic Church believing strongly that contraception was improper because it denied the right to conceive.

In my work with Save The Children Fund I remember visiting Colombia and being approached by a woman who seemed in her 70s. She was toothless, had grey hair, was wrinkled, small and unhappy. It turned out that she was 36 and had had 16 children. Perhaps it was because of such women that the Catholic bishops there have defied the Pope and now promote birth control. The question we must ask is: is any life worth living at any cost? I cannot accept that it is, but it is a proper and honourable position to take if one is wholly against abortion.

I cannot let this argument pass without again questioning the tactics of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill in conducting his campaign. This morning he did not apologise to me for misusing my name as he did, and I am sorry about that. He merely accepted that I had not done what he accused me of doing. I suggest to those who support the motion and who are against abortion that the ends do not justify the means and that to slur other people's genuine, honest beliefs and parliamentary work is an unjustifiable means to any end.

There are those who believe unreservedly that abortion should be allowed. A great deal of noise is made about abortion on demand. I intend to make my comments on that as unemotional as possible because otherwise even more confusion is caused. No abortion takes place without a woman choosing to have it. It is her choice. The question is whether society allows her to exercise that choice. Any and every abortion is on demand, because it is on the demand of the woman who believes, for many different reasons that she cannot cope with the pregnancy. I wish that hon. Members would stop saying that the 1967 Act led to abortion on demand. All abortion has always been on demand.

Under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 the rich bought abortions, but the poor could not. The wealthy were within the law because the 1929 Act only required a couple of psychiatrists or doctors to sign a piece of paper. The rich could find those signatures by signing a cheque in Harley street, but the poor could not.

The Abortion Act 1967 brought the poor within the law and offered non-life threatening abortions to women who could not afford any other kind. Perhaps we should be a little more careful with the use of the words "on demand". The 1967 Act made it possible for poorer women to exercise choice. The question is whether that choice is right and whether it should be exercised. The people who support the Abortion Act 1967 unreservedly include the Child Poverty Action Group and the National Council for One Parent Families. Those organisations above all others deal with families in trouble. I remind the House again that we should not misuse words. Similarly, we must not overlook changes in the law which have benefited society. We must not talk about illegitimate children. There is no such thing as illegitimate children these days, nor should there ever have been. Why should a child suffer because its parents were not married?

We should not ignore family lifestyles that do not adhere to our ideas of what families should be. I was enormously lucky. I was brought up in a family of the classic kind identified by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill as the only proper way to bring up children. I had three sisters, a father and a mother. When we had a family party the other day, I had to stop my invitations after I had asked 93 close cousins, although I could have invited another 120.

It is improper to ignore family lifestyles that do not fit the classic pattern. That classic pattern has all but disappeared. There are very few households these days where the single head of household works, the mother does not and the children are at home. Only 5 per cent. of families fit that pattern. It is morally wrong of us to deny the word "family" to mothers bringing up children whose pattern of life falls outside our concept of perfection.

The hon. Member for Mossley Hill asked me to agree that children were better brought up if they are born to parents within wedlock. Sometimes that is the best way to bring up children, sometimes it is not. Sadly we often read in the newspapers of child abuse cases. We may read of cases where a father has committed incest with a child under the age of 10. I read that 3,700 children under the age of 10 had abortions last year. I doubt very much whether those children became pregnant other than through rape within the family. Although I have not committed the figures to memory, I believe that it was announced this morning that nearly 3,700 children had abortions in the past year in this country.

Fathers and stepfathers are often involved in child abuse. While we must bear in mind that the stepfather may be married legally to the mother, sometimes children have been abused, beaten up and even killed. All sorts of unspeakable things are done to children. In some circumstances children are better brought up in a different lifestyle from that which we consider to be—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

I am reluctant to interrupt the hon. Lady in mid flow. However, she should address her remarks to the Chair.

Miss Nicholson

I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was speaking to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr. Watts), who moved the motion.

I bitterly regret the fact that we have a small number of women Members in this House. Women bear children. They also rear them. It is a great pity that on this of all subjects we do not have more women Members. Women have a special problem because they cannot, as men can, create a child and then disappear.

I shall now deal with the people who wrote to me who were for abortion, with reservations. They may share my view that it is the lesser of two evils. Whether abortion is legal or not, it will always continue. Nature herself aborts many pregnancies. One in five pregnancies ends in miscarriage and a far greater number—30 to 50 per cent.—end too early to be reported or even recorded. More than 50 per cent. of pre-embryos abort or fail to implant. Mother nature is unbelievably profligate with potential human lives. Many people, therefore, believe that abortion, with reservations, is the lesser of two evils when a mother feels that she cannot cope with the coming addition to her family.

If we can accept the principle that the needs of the living take priority over potential lives and over the chance of a reasonable life, we should wonder whether we should allow abortion. We may think about social needs, rape—for which the average sentence is now six years—incest, to which I referred just now, and acute poverty in which hunger and squalor prevail, particularly in the developing countries. I use the phrase "developing countries" rather than the old-fashioned phrase "Third world" which the Father of the house, my right hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine) used, because those countries are part of our world. It is proper that we should encourage women in developing countries to have access to medication such as depo provera, which allows them to control their fertility with far less trouble than the methods used in this country. We should also consider the medical needs. Will the life of the mother come first?

I was interested to see that the wife of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill, in an interview at the time of her marriage, said that if her life were threatened when she was pregnant, she would think seriously about an abortion. That was a brave and honourable remark. We should also consider the pain-free life of the coming child. Is it right that we should allow children to come to full term when we know that they will have a lifetime of acute pain and misery because modern science is able to keep them alive? There is even a reasonable chance of life for a child who is born without a brain. A parent in my constituency who came to see me has such a child, who is being reared at home. I believe that in all such cases, the mother's views should be paramount, given all the facts.

Perhaps because of the work that so many hon. Members, including myself, have carried out with disabled people, I strongly support the proposal in the Warnock report that scientific investigation is carried out before the embryo reaches 14 days because that gives us the first real chance to break the chain of human suffering, which probably none of us in the House has experienced.

Doctors and scientists are often unfairly blackened when we talk about scientific experimentation. I shall speak about immunisation techniques. I was close to a group of scientists in the Netherlands, the Institute of Public Health, and their triumph when they found a new form of creating the polio vaccine, which reduced the need for experimentation on animals from 40,000 to 4,000 monkeys a year, had to be seen to be believed. Can we not allow scientists and doctors the keen knowledge that the possibility of human life is in their hands when they are carrying out experiments and allow them to continue under proper licence?

I shall now describe my own thoughts on abortion generally, and on the motion in particular. I put forward an amendment, which was not accepted because it was outside the narrow scope of the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill. The amendment sought to make abortion easier in the first trimester, in which 84 per cent. of all abortions now take place, by reducing from two to one the number of doctors' signatures needed. That would meet circumstances in which poverty, or the inadequacy of current or future motherhood, mean that abortion is perhaps the best way forward in the interests of those already alive.

I would make abortion more difficult to obtain thereafter, and provide for it only in cases of medical need, rape and acute disability. If we cannot reach that position, which is in line with that of the House of Lords Committee and of our partners in the European Community, we should retain the 1967 Act and honour and respect the mother and her doctor, who should be making these most difficult decisions themselves.

1.16 pm
Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) for introducing the debate. I am especially grateful for this opportunity to speak because, as the House will doubtless know, I propose to introduce a private Member's Bill to allow us once again to consider the control of late abortions as originally proposed by the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), who is not in his place but who explained earlier that he would have to leave.

I should like to explain why—contrary to the views advanced by my hon. Friends the Members for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) and for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham)—we should not go for a compromise of 24 weeks but instead should reconsider the original Alton Bill, as it came to be known. Whatever our views on abortion, and however sincerely and deeply held are the differing opinions in the House, there is a growing consensus that the Abortion Act 1967 is not working properly and that revision is urgently needed. If any hon. Member had given the descriptions of late abortions that the hon. Member for Mossley Hill gave when the right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) introduced his Bill, the cry would not have been, "Same old stuff". In those days, such descriptions would have been unbelievable; they would have been considered to be scaremongering and distortion of what the future might bring.

Mr. Steel

First, I did not say, "Same old stuff," which my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) thought I said. I said, "Same old speech" because my hon. Friend was citing the same figures as he cited during our debates in the last Session.

Before I introduced my Bill, I went, at the invitation of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and accompanied by a medical person who was then a Member of this House, to see an abortion operation and I have subsequently seen one in a private clinic. I am in no doubt about the horrors of the operation itself but I do not think that exaggerated and graphic descriptions help the debate. So far as I know, none of the opponents of the Act has seen such an operation. They rely on the television, photographs and the rest. Of course it is a very unpleasant process.

Miss Widdecombe

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for agreeing that it is a most unpleasant process. It is because it is so unpleasant and because it is performed so late and on fully sentient babies, that the facts are repeated time and time again by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill and others who want the public to be fully aware of what goes on.

The majorities against the 1967 Act have grown ever since that Act has been questioned and debated in the House. The last Bill got further than any previous attempt at reform. That is because the vast majority of hon. Members believe that that Act is no longer effective. My hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East and others have said that it is deceitful that people like me, who do not believe in abortion, should bring forward measures to control late abortions. That is like saying that it is not right for a teetotaller to join forces with a moderate drinker to curb alcohol abuse. We do not deny that we are against abortion, but there is common ground with people who do not fully share our views. We are trying to find that common ground and to control the abuses of the 1967 Act.

As always, today we have heard the slogan—"a woman's right to choose". I have decided that the Bill that I introduce will be in exactly the form that the Bill of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill left the House. We recognise the limitation of a woman's right to choose. If a woman gives birth to a handicapped child, no matter what terrible distress may be caused to her and the rest of her family, and no matter what suffering may face that child, we would never say that she had a right to choose whether the child continued to live. There is a point at which we recognise that the child's rights are paramount.

If we go back two months into the pregnancy and if, after the 28th week, a woman discovered that she had a severely handicapped child, no matter what distress it would cause to the woman, she does not have the right to choose. At that point, we recognise the baby as a child and as having full civil rights, the most basic of which is the right to life.

If we go back a few weeks more, we enter a grey area. The Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 says that it is illegal to destroy a child that is capable of being born alive. At that point, we start to argue about what is capable of being born alive. We know that it is usually possible to preserve the life of a child born at 24 weeks. If the child is put in an incubator and is given the right intensive care, it will live. Very few abortions are carried out after 24 weeks because the child has a right to live.

The question asked by the hon. Member for Mossley Hill—it is a question on which the House should decide—is whether we have the line right or whether it should be lower. One factor that influenced me in considering a limit of 20 or 22 weeks was the Carlisle baby case. I understand that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Amos) wishes to mention that case in some detail as it happened in his regional health authority. The Carlisle baby was not 28 weeks, 24 weeks or 22 weeks—it was 21 weeks and it was born alive. It was not just capable of being born alive—it was alive. We are told that the child lay gasping on a kidney dish for three hours before dying. That means that the child lived. The local coroner was sufficiently convinced of that to recommend an inquest, and the Department was sufficiently convinced of it to believe that the child should be registered.

We have been told that we are raising an emotive issue. We are indeed, and I make no apology for it. That child was not held in her mother's arms for those three hours. She was not put into an incubator while medical science tried to save here. She was not even decently tucked up in a warm cot for the few hours of her little life. She was left on a kidney dish, and her mother did not even know that she was alive. That is emotive, and a society which allows it is a brutalised one. That is why I sincerely believe that the House must have an opportunity to vote on limits of 18 or 20 weeks as well as limits of 22 or 24 weeks.

In a similar vein, although I do not intend to cover it in my Bill, the mover of this motion has introduced embryology. I believe that we are worried not so much about whether the experiments should take place—although that is a major cause of worry—but how far things will run away from us, how far medical research will escalate and whether the medical profession can be trusted to contain its enthusiasm if we do not obtain early controls. We are worried because of what happened with the Abortion Act 1967. Only a handful of people opposed that Act because they believed that it would be used with great discrimination. They did not believe that nearly 3 million unborn children would be destroyed. They did not believe that there would be abortions right up to and beyond 24 weeks. People did not seriously believe that that would happen, but it has and we therefore need time to amend what is a very unsatisfactory Act.

Mr. Cash


Miss Widdecombe

No, I shall not give way. That is not because I do not respect my hon. Friend, but I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Amos) wishes to speak about the Carlisle baby.

I believe that we did keep faith with the House when we went into Committee last time, because the Second Reading debate showed that the vast majority of the objections coming from those opposing us were centred on the handicapped baby issue. When we went into Committee, we had a choice. We could take that on board and, in the teeth of our own views—we might not like the amendment that we passed—seek to meet those objections and tell the House that we had met those objections and exempted all severe handicaps, or we could put on some upper limit and take within it all those that were not handicapped. We tried to take into account what was said on Second Reading. I accept that the Second Reading vote was one of principle, but we kept faith with those who were worried. That is why we received the majorities that we did through the Report stage and why I believe that—if we can come back again to the House we shall not need 24 weeks—I am convinced that we shall get a majority for 20 or 22 weeks. If anybody asks me why we should be allowed to vote on those lower limits, I say to them: "Suppose that the Carlisle baby had been your granddaughter or your daughter" That was a baby, not a foetus.

We have a completely dual standard. We have two children of exactly the same age. One is put in an incubator, loved, and all the resources of the Health Service are used to try to save it. The other is wantonly destroyed and dismembered in the mother's womb. We cannot say that one is a baby and the other is a foetus—they are both exactly the same. It is either a baby that we are destroying in the womb or it is the foetus that we have in the incubator.

I have been grateful for the opportunity to put my views.

1.27 pm
Mr. Alan Amos (Hexham)

I am glad that we have another opportunity to look at the Carlisle baby case, because it is outrageous and appalling. I want to describe the case and put it on the record, because it took place in the Northern regional health authority area in which my constituency is situated, and many of my constituents use Carlisle city general hospital. In so doing, I want to show the House that the existing lax law on abortion needs reform and that even the meagre protection that the existing law is supposed to provide is a sham. As the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) said earlier, he had heard many familiar arguments. We shall continue to hear these familiar arguments until the House resolves the matter by voting on it and until we get answers to all the questions that have been asked unsuccessfully.

I hope that at the end of the debate we shall get an answer as to why the Home Office decided not to hold an inquest into this matter, although the coroner said that there should be one. What criteria were used? I asked the Home Office the question yesterday, and I received a long and detailed answer. I was told: The conclusion was reached after careful consideration of all the information provided by the Coroner. The criteria used remain a secret and it is only because I am so respectful and trustful of the Establishment on this issue that I did not take that answer to be an insult or a cover-up.

Who is protecting whom? The Daily Express this morning said that 3,763 youngsters, some of them 10 and 11, have received abortions. Who is carrying out those abortions? I have already named nine of those doctors, but I will be interested to know who else has carried out such operations. Doubtless we shall get no answers. The information will be unavailable as it is confidential or not held in the required form.

The facts about the Carlisle baby are becoming well known and I am delighted about that. The baby was born at 21 weeks, she was making "gasping movements" and had a pulse rate of 80 beats a minute. That child was alive. The nurses, hardened to the outrage of abortion, then decided to do something about it. The first of many questions that I wish to pose to my hon. and learned Friend is why the registrar refused to go to the ward. Why did he refuse to attend that case, leaving it to an inexperienced houseman? I gather that, shortly after this incident, the registrar moved to Newcastle—lucky Newcastle.

Eventually the baby was placed in a metal dish and put in a side room. Half an hour later the doctor was again called because the baby was alive. One member of staff baptised the girl who lived for three hours in her sorry state. The poor little thing eventually died and was put in an incinerator.

Thus ended the tragically sad and short life of a little girl who had been cruelly neglected. She died in the most dubious and wickedly suspicious circumstances. The third special report of the Select Committee on the Abortion (Amendment) Bill said that no abortions should be carried out after the 20th week of pregnancy except in places specifically approved by Secretaries of State where there is appropriate equipment including resuscitation equipment, and staff trained in its use". That recommendation was accepted by the Secretary of State. So, why was a 21 week-old baby aborted in a department where resuscitation equipment was not to hand?

The nurses were extremely distressed and they contacted Father Peter Houghton—incidentally he is the hospital chaplain at a different hospital. The East Cumbria health authority sacked Father Peter Houghton, not because he had done anything wrong, but because he knew the truth and had had the audacity to tell the world.

Clearly, that abortion contravened the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 that defines the crime of child destruction as the killing of a baby capable of being born alive". The Carlisle baby was not capable of being born alive; it was alive.

On what grounds did the DPP fail to bring a case? Why was the child not registered as a live birth? That omission is another clear breach of the law on the registration of births and deaths.

Unfortunately, this rotten saga gets even worse because the mother was not informed that her baby had lived until six months later. She was told then only because the press had printed the story. Why were the details of the birth deliberately withheld from the mother? That question will be asked again and again until an answer is given. I gather that the mother is taking legal action, but I am unsure of the outcome.

What about the grounds for that abortion? The mother was told that there was a 50:50 chance that the child would inherit the father's skin disease. That disease is not life-threatening and only a small number of people with the syndrome are diagnosed as sufferers because the symptoms are usually extremely mild. The mother, however, under the clear impression that the child would be severely deformed, decided to have an abortion.

According to the Abortion Act termination can be carried out if there is substantial risk that the child could be seriously handicapped. The abortion was carried out under the terms of that Act. However, no substantial risk was involved. Why was no charge brought against the consultant for carrying out an abortion that was in breach of section 1(1)(b) of the Abortion Act?

Finally, earlier this year the Home Secretary was asked, in view of the baby's having been born alive and having survived for three hours, whether there could be an inquest into its death. That has been refused time and again. On what grounds did the Home Secretary decide that there should be no inquest? The abortion contravened the Infant Life (Preservation) Act and section 1(1)(b) of the Abortion Act and was contrary to all the requirements of the Department of Health that resuscitation equipment should be available. The birth and death were not registered. This is a matter of such major public concern that the whole case should be investigated. Answers barely two lines long are not satisfactory. What were the criteria for refusal?

These arguments will not go away. We shall hold these debates time and again. Questions will be asked until we receive answers. I plead with everyone responsible to stop this cover-up and this inbuilt bias which allows abortions on demand. I know of no case of a person who wanted an abortion being refused one. A few doctors carry them out for profit. This is a scandal, and until the House resolves the matter we shall keep returning to it until we have a resolution.

1.36 pm
Mr. Nicholas Bennett (Pembroke)

I am delighted to have an opportunity for the first time to debate abortion on the Floor of the House. I served on the Standing Committee on the Abortion (Amendment) Bill, but was unfortunate in not catching Mr. Speaker's eye in the debates at Second Reading, on Report and at Third Reading.

I am concerned about the muddled thinking of the proponents of abortion who oppose this motion. My hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay), who has disappeared since he made his speech, talked much about freedom of choice, a subject on which my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) also touched. Of course, we believe in freedom of choice, but that choice is limited by its effects on other people. No choice is completely unrestrained; one must examine its implications for other people. With abortion, we are talking about the effects on the unborn child and the rest of the family. None of those who support abortion mentioned that in their speeches today.

I notice that my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East did not mention children, except to make a muddled and unworthy attack on those of us who oppose abortion, by suggesting that we were not concerned about protecting children who have been born. We are equally concerned about them; but we are also concerned about the rights of the unborn child.

I am also worried about abortion's implications in society for those who have been born. It is no accident—the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) touched on this—that child abuse has increased since 1967, because the abortion mentality says that it is all right to abort unborn children. This consumerist attitude to children carries over into attitudes towards the children who have been lucky enough to be born.

I also feel strongly about the misrepresentation of the attitude of those of us who supported the Alton Bill, which runs as follows: we could have had the Bill if we had gone for 24 weeks. That is nonsense. If we had gone for 24 weeks, we should not have saved the lives of the unborn, and the scandal of late abortions would have continued. To suggest that inflexibility or obstructiveness on the part of the hon. Member for Mossley Hill and of those who supported him prevented us from getting the Bill passed is arrant nonsense. We would not have achieved the Bill's objective, which was to reduce the number of late abortions.

Mr. Kenneth Hind (Lancashire, West)


Mr. Bennett

I would love to give way, but my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) is waiting to speak and there is an agreement, for which I am grateful, between Front Bench spokesmen on both sides to restrict the time of their speeches.

The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) talked of the fundamentalist approach. I take such an approach and have never made a secret of it. I happen to believe that abortion is morally wrong. I stand by that, but I recognise that I live in a pluralist society. Not everybody agrees with this approach. The majority of hon. Members do not agree with that point of view, but that does not mean that I am not entitled to start from the moral basis of being opposed to abortion and then seeking to find the point at which we can carry the House on the question of abortion. That is what the hon. Member for Mossley Hill sought to do and what my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone will seek to do. We shall seek to find the point at which a majority of hon. Members will support reform of the abortion law.

We should be concerned about where our society is going. As my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone says, the process of abortion brutalises society. It also brutalises and dehumanises the people who are forced to take part in the operation. It takes away from the staff of the hospitals their human compassion because day in, day out nurses and doctors take part in abortions. I shall describe to the House part of a late abortion operation. I have no doubt that hon. Members who oppose our stand will say that this is emotive.

Let us have on the record what we are talking about in a late abortion, the sort of abortions that my hon. Friend the Member for Mossley Hill wishes to restrict. The dilation and evacuation method is as follows. By this method the cervix is dilated and the baby removed piece by piece. No anaesthetic of any kind is administered to the baby. We know that children of that age are capable of feeling pain and are hurt in this process. At this stage of pregnancy, the cervix is described as "green," unready for the dilation that will come naturally at birth. The doctor has to dilate the cervix up to 22 mm while inserting the instrument that is used to dismember the baby. This dismemberment is necessary because the baby has a fully calcified skeleton, is about a foot in length and cannot be removed in one piece. After the abortion a nurse will reassemble the baby's body to make sure that no bits have been left behind in the womb that might cause infection.

That is what goes on in our National Health Service hospitals day after day, week in and week out in late abortions. Nurses, some of them 22 or 23 years of age, are asked to reassemble bits of carefully formed babies on the operating table to make sure that no bits are left inside the mother. I shall quote from an eye-witness account of dilation and evacuation done at 22 weeks in a London hospital. First came an arm, perfectly formed, a tiny baby's hand, fingers curled. A limb was extracted, then two limbs lay in the bowl. The intestines, brain tissue, liver and lungs came away. Last of all, the most difficult part was the brain. The skin was torn and there was not much more than a skull. That is done every day in our name in British hospitals. Hon. Members who support abortion think that we should not discuss that and put it on the record. The crux of the debate is about what we are asking our nurses to do. If that does not brutalise the people who have to take part in these operations day in day out I do not know what does.

I should like to draw attention to a couple of other unfortunate facts about which hon. Members who support abortion have been quiet. We have not heard much about multiple abortions. In April, I asked my right hon. Friend the then Minister for Health, now the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, about abortions. He told me that 23,838 residents of the United Kingdom had had a previous abortion. The number of non-residents who had had a previous abortion was 3,042. A further 3,228 had had two previous abortions; 548 were on their fourth abortion; 131 were on their fifth abortion and 23 people who went for an abortion had already had five previous abortions.

During the debate on the Bill that led to the Abortion Act 1967 some hon. Members told us that abortion would not be used as a means of contraception. Abortion is used time and again by the same women and if that is not contraception I do not know what is.

I should now like to deal with late abortions. We know that no fewer than 92 per cent. are carried out on perfectly healthy children, but time and again we hear nonsense about how late abortions are necessary to save the life of the mother, because the baby is the result of rape or because the child will be handicapped. I am concerned about the victims of rape and incest, but the statistics show that fewer than 100 of more than 170,000 abortions carried out in the early 1970s, when the figures were last published, were of foetuses that were the result of rape or incest. We should be concerned about what is done in our name and about ensuring that this law, which has manifestly failed to operate properly, is repealed.

1.45 pm
Mr. David Amess (Basildon)

It is difficult to follow the excellent speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Pembroke (Mr. Bennett), but I shall do my best. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr. Watts), and I congratulate him on the motion, which I wholeheartedly support. Unlike me, he cannot be accused of being involved in a papist plot. This is not a party political matter. I suspect that many people in my constituency support me on wider issues while not sharing my view on this one, but I am not prepared to compromise myself on this fundamental issue.

I shall first examine why hon. Members reach the House. I am an avid reader of The House Magazine, and I particularly enjoy the parliamentary profile. It is interesting to learn what it was that encouraged hon. Members to go into politics and become Members of Parliament. Some say they did so because they enjoy being involved in the legislative process. Some are more blunt, and say that they enjoy the concept of power. Some say that it is because they enjoy helping people. At the end of the day, it is about people that we are talking, whether we debate social legislation, education or whatever. As hon. Members, we are all involved in a process that recognises life, and we are all trying to work together to improve our constituents' quality of life. Each and every one of us is saying that life itself is the fundamental.

I was delighted with the frank response that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department gave me yesterday when I asked a question about the Infant Life (Preservation) Act yesterday. I shall not read it out, but he more or less said that the Government thought that the limit should be 24 weeks, although he also said that it would be best to achieve that through a private Member's Bill. Since the Abortion Act 1967, some 2.7 million abortions have been performed. A number of hon. Members have spoken about the small number of women Members of Parliament. We now have 41, which is many more than there were in 1967. In the debates on the 1967 Act arguments about that legislation being taken successfully through a House with fewer women Members than we now have were not raised.

I do not believe in the equality of men and women. I am not a supporter of women's rights. If I were pressed, I would probably say that I believe that women are superior to men. They now outlive us by 10 years, and they take stress and anxiety far better than we do. I have seen my wife deliver three children, and anyone who can go through that experience must be superior to men. I hope that we shall not raise the red herring of the number of women Members in the House when in future, we discuss legislation on this subject. I understand the arguments advanced in favour of abortion, such as the right of women to choose, which my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire. East (Mr. MacKay) mentioned, disability, rape, social problems and backstreet abortions.

My view is that life begins at conception. I am sure that the hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) would say that that is a fundamental and pure view and that by voting, for instance, in favour of the Bill that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) advanced in the previous Session I am compromising my principles. The hon. Gentleman was right when he said that politics is the art of the possible. When I arrived in the House, I did not believe that I could change the world. I am happy to work within the system and chip away. That is why I am happy to support the motion and legislation on similar lines. I know that hon. Members who take the opposite view think that this is a conspiracy and that if we get away with 26, 24, 20 or 18 weeks we shall not let the matter rest there. Our opponents feel that at the end of the day we do not want abortion.

I should be content if that which my hon. Friend the Member for Maidstone (Miss Widdecombe) told us earlier were legislated for. It is a nonsense that in special care baby units 24-week-old babies are kept alive on ventilators—my wife is raising money to provide an extra piece of equipment for the special care unit in Basildon hospital—when in the same hospital we allow the abortion of babies of the same age.

I entirely understand the terrible physical and mental ordeal of women who undergo abortions. I have met a number of such women at my surgery and I am unhappy with the level of counselling that some of them have received. There is no follow-up to the traumatic experience. In the previous Parliament I concentrated on the subject of late abortions. My right hon. Friend the Member for Brentford and Isleworth (Sir B. Hayhoe) answered an Adjournment debate on that subject. He said that guidelines would be given to clinics. That was two years ago and no progress has been made.

Mr. Hind

Does my hon. Friend agree that the strength of feeling on these Benches about late abortions and research on embryos is such that neither we nor the public outside who feel as we do can allow the issue to rest until there is some much needed reform. Such reform would have to allay the worries of the public and meet the needs of medical science.

Mr. Amess

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that none of my hon. Friends will take offence when I say that Members of Parliament are not modest people. We are all vain, and we display that vanity in different ways. The idea that we are dragged to this place because we attend meetings at which everyone insists that a particular individual should stand as a Member of Parliament is nonsense. I ask the House to show some humility and courage, and not to deny others what we certainly would not deny ourselves. Let us join together and protect the unborn child.

1.54 pm
Ms. Jo Richardson (Barking)

We have had an interesting and combative debate, and I have listened to almost every speech with the greatest interest.

Let me first say to the hon. Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) that, although he was fortunate to come first in the ballot, I regret his decision to merge the two distinct issues of pre-embryo research and the Abortion Act 1967 in a single motion. Most of the speeches today have concentrated on either one or the other issue, which shows that they are separate in some people's minds.

Let me also say how sorry I am that yet again the inflammatory language of "abuses" and "killings" has been resorted to both in the motion and in speeches. I hoped that at least one lesson had been learnt from the debate forced on the House earlier this year, that unsubstantiated claims of abuse of the Abortion Act either by the medical profession or by women in need of safe legal abortion add nothing constructive to the debate or, indeed, to the esteem in which the House would like to be held.

I shall deal with the question of reform of the Abortion Act a little later. As I have said, I am sorry that the motion did not cover the issue of pre-embryo research on its own. Many hon. Members, including myself, were shocked and disappointed that the Government did not give time for this important matter when they introduced the Queen's Speech. Although hon. Members' reasons for wanting a decision and legislation differ, and although our views on the outcome are opposed to those of the hon. Member for Slough, I think that we all agree that a decision on the whole question of Warnock and the White Paper is essential to the health, wellbeing and integrity of all concerned—those with sub-fertility problems, those who face the actual or potential threat of hereditary congenital defects, scientists, doctors and all informed and concerned opinion.

As the Royal Society has said, since the birth of the world's first test-tube baby Louise Brown over IO years ago about 10,000 babies have been born successfully, thanks to the techniques of in vitro fertilisation. Thousands of otherwise childless couples have been able to start a family. The procedure of IVF, which has benefited large numbers of infertile couples, was developed only after many years of research on animal and human embryos. Until there was reasonable certainty about its safety and efficacy, IVF could not ethically have been offered as a treatment to an infertile couple, and even now the chance of any one treatment cycle resulting in a child is only 10 to 15 per cent. Further research is therefore essential.

It is of course true that the fundamental principles of human IVF were established with the use of animal models, but different animal species—including the human—differ from each other in biochemical and developmental details. That means that, however much enormously useful information can be provided by animal models, there will ultimately be a point in the research when the human system must be directly examined. That is why it is necessary that we ensure that there is an opportunity for the research to continue.

We know that it is hard fully to estimate the scale of the problem of infertility. However, it is widely reported and generally accepted that it affects one in six couples in this country, three quarters of whom may benefit from IVF and associated techniques. At present those working in the area know that the relatively low success rate of IVF means that people embarking on the treatment are taking a gamble, with the odds stacked against them. The possibility of improving that rests on continued research, using the human pre-embryo so that ultimately every woman treated will have a realistic chance of becoming pregnant.

In the past year I have been fortunate in having been invited to discuss the problems that infertile couples face with two different groups in two different fertility clinics in London—one in Hammersmith and one at St. Bartholomew's hospital. Such people are looking anxiously to Parliament to legislate positively to ensure that the problems and tragedies that they face in their lives can be solved by continued research.

We all know that the development of such techniques is at an early stage, especially in terms of genetic disease. Scientists, clinicians and doctors need the opportunity of research up to 14 days—I entirely accept that limit—to ensure that their diagnostic techniques can continue to progress to the benefit of all. We have all read and heard this week—it has been referred to this morning—about Professor Robert Winston and his pioneering unit at Hammersmith hospital and the work that it is preparing to carry out in the next few days. I heard him speak on the radio this morning and it was thrilling. We must ensure that what was stated in the White Paper, and what the Government propose to do about Warnock, are brought into the House in the form of a Bill. I entirely agree with the hon. Member for Slough that the Government should have brought forward a Bill. I have no disagreement with that part of his motion. However, I suspect that when the time comes, we shall vote in different Lobbies about the options in relation to research.

I have my eye on the time and shall deal now with the subject of abortion. In many ways, that issue has occupied a disproportionate amount of time in the debate. I wish to put the Abortion Act 1967 into context. I remind hon. Members that that Act marked a milestone in women's history. There had been years of struggle and campaigning throughout the country before the legislation giving safe, legal National Health Service abortion rights was finally enacted. That Act freed British women from the dangers of illegal back-street abortions and self-induced abortions which, for some, had caused severe illness, subsequent infertility and even death. Between 1952 and 1953—only two years—110 deaths were recorded from abortion, compared with only six between 1983 and 1985. Surely that shows the progress that has been made in terms of women's deaths. It is a substantial and significant decrease and a direct result of the fact that abortion is legislated for and carried out safely and legally.

In answer to a point made by the right hon. Member for Castle Point (Sir B. Braine)—I know that he has had to leave—there is no such thing under the Abortion Act as abortion on demand. We do not have abortion on demand in this country. British women have no right in law either to contraception or to abortion. The Act merely makes abortion legal within specified limits, which are entirely at the discretion of doctors. Women are dependent on two doctors agreeing that there are legal grounds for abortion before it can be performed.

Some hon. Members may agree with me that a way of ensuring safe, early abortions would be to have some sort of self-referral up to 12 or 14 weeks. Alas, we are not yet at that stage in the House, but still defending the 1967 Act. The law does not require health authorities to provide an abortion service. As a result, the level of provision varies considerably between districts. In some areas 90 per cent. of abortions are carried out on the National Health Service and in others the figure is shamefully less than 10 per cent.

That is why the private sector has had to have a role. The private abortion sector developed after the 1967 Act to meet the needs which could not be met by the NHS. I keep abreast of events and I know that private clinics would be only too glad if the NHS had the resources and was allowed to take over the facilities that the clinics have to provide. So please let us not go round accusing the private sector, as hon. Members do so intemperately, of making millions out of women's misery.

The control of fertility is fundamental to women achieving real equality and choice in their lives. The hon. Member for Basildon (Mr. Amess) spoke not of equality but of the superiority of women. If women cannot decide freely whether and when to have a child, they are constrained in all the other important decisions of their lives. They cannot decide about personal relationships, the type of job that they want or the size of their families. They cannot decide on participation in a whole range of social and political activities. In many ways, that is why there are so few women in the House. Because women do not have that control over their lives they cannot say, "For this period of my life I shall do that and for that period I shall do such and such." I beg hon. Members to believe that until we accord women dignity and respect, and until we say to them, "You can make the decision—one hopes in conjunction with your partner or husband—about what you will do with your life and the size of your family", women can never achieve genuine equality.

Some have continued to say that the majority of abortions are carried out for what they call social reasons. Others have gone further and renamed the social reasons "trivial reasons". I do not regard the reasons of the majority of women having an abortion as trivial. They think carefully about it. Some are mothers, and both their families' and their own futures are involved. They have to make difficult, complicated and sometimes unpleasant decisions, so let us not look at them with disrespect but accord them some dignity in their decisionmaking. Let us not trivialise this difficult subject. Women do not want an abortion if they can avoid it, but there are many reasons why it may be necessary. Slip-ups occur and difficulties are created which are not always of their own making. For Conservative Members who support the totality of the motion, which I do not, to suggest that women are trivial is to demean women's dignity. I do not believe that they are trivial, so I hope that the motion will fall. Once again, we have aired the argument about abortion—linked, unfortunately, with the issue of research. I hope that the research question will at some stage be resolved. For the time being, we should leave the Abortion Act 1967 as it is.

2.10 pm
The Minister of State, Department of Health (Mr. David Mellor)

This has been a most absorbing debate. I am glad that we were able to hold it, thanks to the good fortune of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Mr. Watts) in winning the opportunity to bring this motion forward. As a relative newcomer to this issue, my learning curve has been raised by several notches thanks to the detail with which the issue has been considered today. I congratulate those who have taken part in the debate on the way in which it has been conducted.

The conduct of the debate reflected a deep awareness on both sides of the argument. The right hon. Member for Tweeddale, Ettrick and Lauderdale (Mr. Steel) who sponsored the Abortion Act 1967 participated in the debate as did his hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton). I am glad that cordial relations have been resumed and that they are now sitting together on the same Bench. The hon. Member for Mossley Hill made a valiant attempt to change the 1967 Act last Session. We also heard contributions today from several of my hon. Friends. I know that some hon. Members have formidable family experiences of matters that are central to this issue. One of my colleagues had the enormously distressing experience of seeing two children die of a severe degenerative condition. Another of my colleagues has adopted a severely handicapped child. Therefore, it is with some diffidence that I seek to respond to the debate. Time is limited and I want to give my hon. Friend the Member for Slough an opportunity to reply. If I miss any points, I trust that I shall be reminded of them and brought to account later.

Life has a funny way of treating us. I first became a friend of my hon. Friend the Member for Slough when I assisted him in selling banana lollies to the unsuspecting population of Hayes as a holiday job. Little did we think then that we would find ourselves here 21 years later debating such important topics. Certainly our customers could have had no such inkling. I shall deal first with some of the points that arose about the Warnock report and the Government's intentions on legislation. I will then consider abortion.

A number of hon. Members raised the important matter of new legislation. We stand completely by the stated intention of legislation during this Parliament. We intend to do so and we have taken some comfort from the fact that, following the publication of the White Paper in November 1987, the debate last February and some of the points raised today, there is a basis on which to proceed. There is a clear recognition on both sides of the question of the need for a framework within which such research and development as is permitted can be taken forward. There is also recognition that the House will have to nerve itself to make a central decision. Leaving on one side the work to deal with the problems of infertility, the House must decide whether further research should be permitted on an embryo up to the age of 14 days. We stand by our proposal that, when the Bill is presented in due course, alternative clauses should be presented, which would permit the House to make its decision on what should be within the law and what should be within the scope of the statutory licensing authority.

My hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay), whose courage and vigour on these issues I admire—I say that sincerely—has challenged whether that is a sensible course to adopt. My reply is that there is no other principled basis on which we could proceed. At heart, it is for hon. Members to decide on the basis of individual conscience at what point the work of embryos should not be permitted. The Government are not abdicating responsibility in offering the House, as we propose to do, a clear choice. A framework will be established, which the Government and the House believe is important and necessary, because it will have the effect of bringing under regulation matters that cannot merely be left to develop haphazardly and which are already being examined carefully through the work of the Voluntary Licensing Authority. That has been commended by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) and others and I shall deal briefly with its work in a moment.

Mr. Wigley

I am grateful to the Minister for his earlier remarks. Can the Minister tell the House whether, as we all accept the validity of having a free vote on an issue that crosses party lines and see why such a vote might be facilitated by having alternative clauses presented by the Government, his Department will give its opinion on the best way forward, as it has responsibility for these matters?

Mr. Mellor

As I understand it—and I am sure that hon. Members whose experience is greater than mine will correct me if I am wrong—my predecessors have never hesitated to give their personal opinion on the question of research. I must say that I am impressed by the quality of some of the research that is being carried out and, plainly, it would be part of the Department's duty to give such assistance as it could on the factual basis of that research and its aims, rather in the way that Home Secretaries have to set out some of the factual background to the decision on capital punishment, although the decision is left to individual choice. The Home Secretary makes his views clear as well. That is part and parcel of being a Minister because a Minister does not lose the right to his or her individual conscience on such issues.

I want to deal briefly with the Voluntary Licensing Authority. It has functioned well and I thank those who serve on it for demonstrating the highest standards of public service and integrity. It has shown clearly, in a practical way, that the statutory licensing authority, with which we intend to replace it in time, could work well and make difficult decisions. Although the Medical Research Council and others have been able to support the work of the Voluntary Licensing Authority from public funds, the authority has recently made an application for further financial help. I am glad to be able to announce today that the Government have agreed to contribute to the authority's costs in the next financial year a sum in the region of £45,000, to assist it in carrying out its important work.

My hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East not only raised the question of the benefits of research but sought re-confirmation of the fact that no genetic engineering would be permitted. I am happy to be able to confirm that. Whatever else may or may not be agreed to, that will not be.

Mr. Skinner

Currie's gone. The Government have had an abortion.

Mr. Mellor

I hope that the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) can contain himself. The debate has been serious. I am anxious to treat it seriously and to give answers to some of those who have spoken. I hope that the hon. Gentleman does not propose to disrupt this debate to make a cheap and facile point. I, myself, shall speak for no more than a further five minutes to make way for others. Let me deal with the question of abortion. All of us know how difficult it has proved in recent years for the House to agree whether the 1967 Act needs changing. I am afraid that I cannot say anything today that is different from what has been said by my predecessors and others on a number of occasions. We continue to regard abortion as a matter for private Member's business, and to believe that it would not be appropriate for the Government in any way to seek to take over the responsibility.

We also stand by the decision that we have always reached in these difficult matters that no private Members' legislation should be given Government time. The House will fully understand our difficulty. Where does one draw the line? While abortion for example, is a very important topic, there are many other important topics.

I recognise the difficulties of introducing private Member's legislation when there is a significant body of opinion against it, but I nevertheless feel that we would depart from that view at our peril.

My hon. Friend the member for Slough drew an analogy between the proposals post-Warnock and the abortion proposals. In effect, he asked, "Why should not a range of choices be offered within the framework of a Government Bill?" That argument was advanced skilfully by my hon. Friend and by others but, with respect, I believe that the two matters are different in kind. In the case of abortion a well-established procedure has been accepted in the house for several decades. With the follow-up to Warnock, on the other hand, we are dealing with the way in which the frontiers of science have been pushed back to permit a range of potential experiments that we would not have dreamt possible a few years ago. Such matters have at their heart questions of conscience, but they are also matters on which the Government should be expected to move forward. They are different in kind from the abortion issue, on which tradition is entirely different.

Mr. Steel

Will the Minister keep an open mind on a question that I raised earlier? The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department appeared yesterday to have made a new statement of policy on the Infant Life (Preservation) Act. That Act is not private Members legislation; it is a Government statute. I believe that further thought should be given to the possibility of amending that Act, which would have a consequent effect on the Abortion Act.

Mr. Mellor

I heard the right hon. Gentleman's suggestion and I remember the position from my time at the Home Office. The Infant Life (Preservation) Act merely establishes a time limit before which it is suggested a foetus would not be viable and after which the burden of proof switches to those who would say that it is not viable. Clearly, the line drawn in the Act, which is 28 weeks, is not the right one, and 24 weeks is now right. It is clear that the Government accept that, although my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department has said that he would prefer that to be remedied by private Member's legislation. I am sure that I should pass the matter to him for further consideration.

I was moved—anyone would have been moved—by the eloquent speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Amos) and others about the Carlisle baby. No one can hear about the case without feeling some distress. I am afraid that the questions that my hon. Friend raised are within the ambit of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and fall to be considered by the Director of Public Prosecutions and others. Especially now that the mother concerned has threatened legal action against the health authority I can say no more about the matter than that I know that the health authority concerned conducted a full inquiry. I am sure that lessons were there to be learnt, not least as to why no resuscitation equipment was available. It is a condition of the Secretary of State's licensing of private abortion centres that resuscitation facilities must be available for abortions after 20 weeks. I understand the anxiety about the Carlisle case, but I can say no more about it for the reasons that I have given.

The debate has established a good deal more common ground on the Warnock report than some may have imagined. It has exposed some difficulties that lie in the way of the House reaching a conclusion on abortion, but it has been a helpful and stimulating debate and I am grateful to my hon. Friend for having raised the matter in the way that he did.

2.25 pm
Mr. Watts

With the leave of the House, Mr. Speaker, in the limited time that is available to me I am sure that right hon. and hon. Members will understand if I do not pick up many of the points that have emerged during the debate. I have succeeded in at least one of my objectives—to provide an opportunity for a wide-ranging debate on these important issues.

The hon. Member for Barking (Ms. Richardson) was slightly critical that my motion dealt with both embryology and abortion. I had two reasons for framing the motion as I did. First, I wished to provide an opportunity for hon. Members to debate the entire range of pro-life issues and it would have been invidious to choose between one or the other. Secondly, in my mind they are connected issues as both involve our attitude to unborn human life.

The reply of my hon. and learned Friend the Minister was rather like the curate's egg. I welcome his renewed commitment to the legislation on embryo research and urge him to introduce it as early as possible, but I was disappointed that my proposal for a way in which the House could reach a conclusion on abortion reform did not find favour with him. He failed to take adequate account of the fact that the Abortion Act 1967 would not have reached the statute book had it not been given extra time by the Government of the day. As that is the legislation which many of us wish to amend, it would be an act of fair play to ensure the time necessary to reach a conclusion.

As I said in my opening remarks, I accept the Government's argument against providing extra time for a private Member's Bill—it was wrong to do it in 1967 and it would be wrong to do it now—but the standing of the House is called into question when we allow our procedures to prevent us from arriving at a decision on an important matter which causes anxiety to many hon. Members and their constituents. I hope that the Minister's remarks do not represent a slamming of the door and a drawing of the bolts, but that he and his ministerial colleagues will be open to further persuasion that this is one way by which reforms could be achieved. He has not said no for all time. I believe that if a way is not found—there may be ways other than those that I have proposed—in every Session we shall spend a great deal of private Members' time debating abortion and Bills seeking to amend the legislation.

It being half-past Two o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.

  1. BUSINESS OF THE HOUSE 134 words