HC Deb 05 November 1996 vol 284 cc1023-4
5. Mrs. Ann Winterton

To ask the Secretary of State for Health what response he intends to make to the document "Fetal Sentience", a copy of which has been sent to him. [613]

Mr. Horam

Prevention and relief of unnecessary pain is a primary concern in clinical practice. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has set up a working party to conduct an independent review on the evidence of fetal awareness and to consider whether there is any need for change in current practice. I understand that the working group will report in the new year.

Mrs. Winterton

Does my hon. Friend agree that that authoritative paper, written by 15 of the world's top doctors and scientists, shows that the structures necessary for the perception of pain are present and functional from the 10th week following fertilisation? Does he agree that the onus should now be firmly placed on those who claim that the unborn child feels no pain during abortion and that they should prove their case? Is it not a good time to review the workings of the law in this sphere, bearing in mind that 4.5 million abortions have taken place—90 per cent. of them merely for social reasons?

Mr. Horam

I assure my hon. Friend that the working party set up by the royal college will look into all the scientific and medical evidence that comes before it. I am sure that it will give a balanced view. On my hon. Friend's second point about reviewing legislation, that is a matter for Parliament.

Mr. Alton

Notwithstanding that reply, is it not a matter for the Government rather than the royal college to examine how legislation works? Given that, since 1990, we allow abortion up to and even during birth in the case of a handicapped baby and up to 24 weeks gestation in the case of a perfectly healthy unborn baby, is it not time now to consider from a legislative point of view the latest scientific evidence about foetal sentience and the pain and awareness experienced by the unborn child? Will the Minister contrast the lack of care that is shown towards the unborn with the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, which gives protection even to an amoeba?

Mr. Horam

The hon. Gentleman knows a great deal about this. As he is aware, there is conflicting medical evidence on foetal awareness. Clinicians who are expert in the field must undertake a balanced study of the evidence. Of course the Government will give full consideration to the working party report.

Dr. Spink

Does my hon. Friend agree that there is a lack of knowledge and understanding of foetal sentience, even in the House? Does he agree that it is time for the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology to examine the matter and report to the House?

Mr. Horam

I take my hon. Friend's suggestion, which we shall consider. However, it is right for the evidence to be studied by the royal college, which has undertaken to be specific in its report. It is better for the matter to be examined by one group rather than by two or three, especially if one of those has Government status. The royal college is the right body to consider the evidence.

Mrs. Anne Campbell

Is the Minister aware that several highly critical papers have appeared in the British Medical Journal, suggesting that foetal pain is a misnomer? Will he give the House an assurance that he will wait until a report is published by Dr. Anne McLaren before he makes any Government pronouncement on the issue?

Mr. Horam

Yes, I take the hon. Lady's point. That is why I used the phrase "foetal awareness", which is perhaps a more accurate description of what we are speaking about and could include pain. Clearly, the subject requires careful consideration.

Sir Patrick Cormack

Does my hon. Friend not find it rather odd that many of those who lobby for animals to be treated as sentient beings also lobby for abortion on demand?

Mr. Horam

I hear my hon. Friend's point.