HL Deb 19 July 1967 vol 285 cc258-355

2.45 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is the third time that I have had the privilege of moving a similar Motion. I hope that the third time will be lucky, and that we shall have this Bill passing through all its stages before the end of the present Session. I first moved the Second Reading of an Abortion Bill on November 30, 1965. On that day I made a long speech in support of the Second Reading. At that time the subject was new to the House and new to most people in the country, who had given little thought to this question. But it at once created great interest and has been the subject of considerable discussion ever since.

The facts, as I outlined them in November, 1965, have not changed. If anything, they are stronger to-day than they were at the time when I made my speech. It is no wonder that the matter is arousing a good deal of interest. Childbirth, and problems growing from it before, during and after the event, affect at some time the majority of married women, and occasionally unmarried ones as well. For many years there has been a growing opinion that the law of abortion was in need of clarification and amendment. The Statute Law goes back to the Offences Against the Person Act 1861. Under Section 58 of that Act abortion is a criminal offence punishable by life imprisonment. That is still the law as it stands. The Act states that any woman who, with intent to procure a miscarriage, administers to herself any poison or drug or uses any instrument for the like purpose is guilty of an offence and is liable to imprisonment for life; and so is any other person who administers drugs or uses any instrument on a woman for the same purpose.

It is true that in recent years some common sense, humanity and mercy have been introduced into the harsh application of this law. There has been no sentence of life imprisonment for a long time past, and the maximum, in practice, is six years. The prospective mother who commits an offence is rarely charged. In recent years three different Judges of the High Court who have had before them doctors charged with the offence of bringing about an abortion have interpreted the law, in their directions to juries, so as to make it lawful for a doctor who honestly believes that a mother's life or health is seriously endangered, to carry out an operation for abortion.

That is satisfactory so far as it goes, but it is still a fact that these decisions depended upon directions to the jury by three specific Judges, and it is by no means certain that other High Court Judges in similar cases would direct juries in the same spirit. And there has been no decision of any higher court confirming or otherwise these decisions. Therefore, there is still an element of doubt and uncertainty as to whether these decisions would be upheld in the High Court and as to what the law really is. In fact a number of doctors, about two every year, are convicted—and have been since the first decision in 1938—and they have been sentenced to up to three years' imprisonment and have been struck off the roll of doctors. It may well be that the view is taken that they did not honestly believe that the mother's life was in danger, but it does not help to remove the doubt.

The first Bill of November, 1965, had, therefore, as one of its main objects the removal of this doubt and the clarification of the law, but it also sought to extend cases where abortion would be legally permissible. A great deal of controversy has naturally centred upon these extended provisions. The Bill, however, received overwhelming support on Second Reading and received an unopposed Third Reading in March, 1966. Unfortunately, shortly after that Parliament was dissolved, and the Bill could not proceed further. Soon after the new Parliament assembled, I introduced a second Bill on exactly the lines of the first Bill as approved on Third Reading. This second Bill received an unopposed Second Reading in this House, and except for the re-introduction of what has become known as the social clause which had been rejected during the Committee stage on the first Bill, it went through the Committee stage virtually unchanged. By that time this House had spent some nine days on the two Bills, and, after so searching a test, it certainly was a far better Bill than the first one.

Having got the second Bill through the Committee stage, I with some of my colleagues considered the chances of getting it through another place, and it so happened that the opportunity arose of getting the Bill introduced there by a person who had been successful in the ballot for Private Members Bills, Mr. David Steel. He expressed his willingness to undertake the task, and we are all very grateful to him. He is a young Liberal—none the worse for that—and all supporters of the Abortion Bill will be most grateful for the energy, ability and skill which he brought to bear on getting the Bill through the other place. It turned out to be a feat of great physical endurance, and altogether 104½ hours, including an all-night sitting, were devoted to a minute, exhausting and exhaustive examination of the two or three controversial clauses in the Bill—because that is all there are—and the Bill finally obtained its Third Reading by 167 votes to 83.

The Bill which I am introducing this afternoon is, of course, the Bill which was eventually passed by the other place last Friday. I am sorry to say that in the course of its passage through the other place the Bill has been considerably emasculated. It was the subject of fierce opposition, and the sponsor of the Bill made every effort to meet the reasonable, and even sometimes unreasonable, wishes of the opponents and in a number of cases arrived at compromises which have substantially modified the Bill. I should have hoped that the Bill as it now stands would have been accepted by even its original strongest opponents as a fair and reasonable compromise. It certainly provides for what I think everybody would wish; that is, the clarification of the law and putting it on a proper footing.

As to the remaining provisions, they are matters which could have been threshed out again in Committee, if need be. Unfortunately, this does not appear to be the case, and the more one throws to the wolves the hungrier they become. I am given to understand that there may be a quite considerable amount of opposition to this Bill both at this and the next stage. I notice that the noble Viscount, Lord Barrington, is going to move the rejection of the Bill. Well, he is quite entitled to do it. I cannot say that I wish him luck, and he will certainly have some very strong opposition. I will only say that, if a compromise is not adhered to, both parties are free to go back to the original provisions. If the noble Viscount and his friends are not going to accept what was in many cases the result of a compromise in another place, we must be free to put back some of the provisions which were lost there.

Those noble Lords who took a close interest in the measure as it went through this House will remember that we had provisions providing for abortion for girls who became pregnant at the age of 16, or were the victims of rape or were mentally defective; and we had a social provision for a mother who was unable to cope with an increased family and where two doctors were prepared to agree that an abortion was permissible at her request. All these and other provisions have gone from the present Bill. The only provision which, to a very limited extent, takes its place is the provision set out in Clause 1(1)(a): … whether or not there is such risk of injury to health account may be taken of the patient's total environment actual or reasonably foreseeable. … One change in the Bill as now presented is that the two doctors who must authorise and certify an abortion are not described. In the original Bill as it went to the other place one of the doctors had to be a gynaecologist. That has now been withdrawn and they may now be two general practitioners. This has somewhat upset the gynaecologists, who had urged that one of the doctors should be a person possessing the qualifications of a gynaecologist. But this change was thought desirable by the medical profession as a whole, who supported it overwhelmingly, by the Minister of Health, as well as by members of the Committee of the other place. The other provision which has been incorporated is the conscience clause which permits doctors, nurses and other staff to opt out of the Bill.

This clause is not quite right as it stands in the Bill, because it goes a little too far in enabling those who have a conscientious objection to opt out, even in cases of extreme urgency where a mother's life is at risk and where the only means of saving the life would be to carry out an urgent and immediate operation involving incidentally the removal of the child. This would be only incidental in the course of saving the woman's life and should not be regarded as an abortion. I hope at a later stage, if I have the opportunity—if the noble Viscount permits me—to be moving an Amendment along those lines.

One would have thought that the very heavy and fierce penalties under the Offences against the Person Act would have practically stamped out illegal abortions, but this is far from being the case. In fact, the number of illegal abortions has increased over the years. The Government of 1937 set up an Interdepartmental Committee, under the chairmanship of the late Lord Birkett, to inquire into the provisions for abortion and what changes in law were required. Their figure of the number of illegal abortions, which was the best estimate they could make after a great deal of evidence, was that at that time there were up to 60,000 illegal abortions a year. But the Committee also stated that in medical, police and social circles illegal abortions were thought to be becoming more common and frequent. If we were to take the figures to-day as against 1939, bearing in mind, I am afraid, the changes in attitude towards sex relationships, and even allowing for the effect of greater use of contraceptives, it would not be unreasonable to say that there are probably more than 100,000 illegal abortions a year at the present time, and that this number, like almost everything else in life, is going up.

Yet the total number of convictions for illegal abortions is only about 50 a year, or one conviction in 2,000 cases. Clearly, the law has broken down. It is neither respected nor obeyed. Many women to-day are so desperate that they resort to any means, including those which are gravely damaging to their health or even to their life, to bring about an abortion. Where these methods are unsuccessful, many then resort to unqualified abortionists or what are known as "back-street" abortionists, or they even, in some cases, in despair, attempt suicide. There are a number of authenticated cases of women who have attempted suicide, mostly unsuccessfully but sometimes successfully, in complete despair as to what to do. In fact, in 1964 there were 50 deaths from abortion not carried out by doctors. There were also between 30,000 and 40,000 cases of women, suffering from the effects of abortion or attempted abortion, admitted into hospital, and the number is steadily increasing.

But for those who can afford to pay one can get an abortion in and around Harley Street at a cost of £120 as a minimum, and up to £500 in some cases. When I introduced my first Bill the charge was £100, but of course since 1965 the cost of living has gone up and the specialist is now charging a higher figure. There was a reference in another place to one specialist—his name was not given—who was stated to be doing six or seven of these abortions a day. So there is a very big difference between women desirous of an abortion who can get it because they can afford to pay—that is abortion on demand, if you like—and women who cannot afford these fees and have to resort to back-street abortion or even more dangerous methods.

I am not suggesting that this Bill will bring an end to illegal abortions: that could come about only if abortion were obtainable on demand. But the conditions in the Bill under which abortion is permissible are very carefully circumscribed. It is certainly not a general licence to a medical practitioner to carry out an abortion on anybody who desires it. Nor does the Bill compel any medical practitioner to carry out an abortion if he is not satisfied that proper grounds exist. Investigations show that it is not, in general, the young married women who constitute the majority of women seeking an abortion. It is probable that of these four out of five are women who are in their late thirties or early forties, who already have an existing family of children, some of them grown up, and who, by reason of their domestic circumstances, just cannot face having another child.

Provision was made for such women in my original Bill and in the Bill first introduced in another place. It was known as the "social clause", to which I have already referred. But it was strongly opposed in another place and a compromise was arrived at. That particular provision was dropped, but words were inserted into the Bill which are much more restrictive and which make the carrying out of an abortion in similar circumstances dependent upon the effect on the life or health of the mother, and it is not a ground standing by itself. In a recent Government Report it was stated that out of 1,000 investigated cases of death from abortion, no fewer than 345 of these women were already mothers of six or more children; that is, one-third. In a recent Registrar-General's report it was stated that pregnancy, childbirth and illegal abortion are an increasing cause of death among married women as one passes down the scale from social class 1 to social class 5.

The principles contained in this Bill have enormous support throughout the country among informed and responsible bodies, such as the national women's organisations—the National Council of Women, the Women's Co-operative Guild, the National Council of Labour Women and similar bodies. All of them have passed resolutions by tremendous majorities in support of a measure of this kind. So have the Magistrates' Association and the Eugenics Society. A National Opinion Poll was held this year, which showed that nearly 75 per cent. of the general public were in favour of this measure. A poll taken of general practitioners showed that about the same percentage was in favour—some even wanted still further liberalisation—and 80.5 per cent. were in favour of abortion where there was a likelihood that the child would be born with abnormal defects, as described in the Bill. Nearly 60 per cent. of psychiatrists were in favour of the Bill as it passed Standing Committee in another place. Of those, 25 per cent. were in favour of even more liberal legislation.

I, and very many others, regard this Bill as an enormous step forward in the liberation of women. There are many who take the view that this is so much a personal matter that the final decision should be with the mother, and the mother alone. Whatever one's views may be on that matter, that is not the position under this Bill, whatever its opponents may say. But even in its limited and restricted form this Bill will be a great step forward. It will help to remove a great deal of unhappiness, misery and even despair among many women, and will add to the sum of human happiness. My Lords, it is in that spirit that I confidently recommend this Bill to the House.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Silkin.)

3.10 p.m.

VISCOUNT BARRINGTON rose to move, as an Amendment to the Motion, "That the Bill be now read 2a", to leave out now "and insert" this day six months". The noble Viscount said: My Lords, before I begin advancing my reasons for moving this Amendment, I think I ought to declare at least one interest and deny several—I do not know what the opposite to declaring an interest is, but I deny several other interests. I think it is only fair to say that I am not the mouthpiece of the Liberal Party; I believe they would agree with that. I am not a Roman Catholic. I will leave it to the judgment of the House as to whether I am a wolf who is asking for more, as the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, indicated. I am not a married man; I am not a registered medical practitioner; and I am not a qualified lawyer.

If I am asked to present what qualifications I have for doing what I admit is a very unusual thing—suggesting that a Bill which has come up from the other place should not be given a Second Reading—I cannot, because I have not got them with me. But they are a birth certificate, which is the only form of registration I have (because, like many of your Lordships, I was born) and this is a Bill which, if it is nothing else, is about the right to be born. I believe it should have, and will have, a very full discussion in your Lordships' House before it is either rejected, under this Amendment, or goes on to the further discussions, which it will certainly have, in Committee and at further stages.

My Lords, in addition, I have one particular interest, and that is that, owing to circumstances over which I had only the control of acceptance or rejection, I am temporarily chairman of a society which has been interested in this question, which has been very doubtful whether the public are widely enough informed about it, and which has questioned a great many of the premises on which is based the admirable exposition by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, of what his Bill is trying to do: and if it were doing even three-quarters of that I would heartily support a great deal of this Bill. But this society has asked questions. At the moment, I will not go into the detailed points raised by the noble Lord, because time is of the essence, and I want to come to the general principle why I think this House should divide on the issue whether we discuss it.

I would leave it to the lawyers to say whether the noble Lord's interpretation of the Statute was quite correct by leaving out the word "unlawfully". I had always understood that it was as a result of the word "unlawfully" that Mr. Justice Macnaghten altered the law in what I should say was the very liberal direction of allowing abortion if there was risk to the life, or seriously grave risk to the health, including mental health, of the woman. Of course, if the purpose of the Bill were to clarify the law on the grounds of the Bourne case, I think there would have been very little opposition in either House. I know that Mr. Alec Bourne himself, who is a member of our committee, feels—and, indeed, he has stated in a letter which I will not quote—that the law is satisfactory as it is. That is a matter for lawyers, of course, to go into, simply on grounds of clarification, on the health clause.

To avoid wasting your Lordships' time, I should like to come on immediately to the social clause, which is, of course, the crux of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has given me, at any rate, the impression that there is no social clause in this Bill except in a very restricted form. My Lords, I should like to be happier about that; and I believe it would not waste your Lordships' time if I very briefly went through the history of the different forms in which the social clause has come up, both in the other place and in your Lordships' House, because it has appeared in four different forms, and I believe it to be here in this Bill now. If it is not, your Lordships will of course correct me.

One thing I would suggest at the outset is this. I am thought to be taking a very extreme course in opposing a Bill which wants to liberalise the law or go further than the Bourne case. That would be true if, of the two extremes, one were a party of extremists who wanted to make no alteration on what, with great respect to Lord Silkin, I should say is the Case Law of the country, which is almost unthinkable—that you should be able to stand on a higher cause. On that matter we have some very eminent lawyers who will give their opinion. If that were one extreme, and if the other extreme were what has been advocated by only a few of your Lordships—literally, abortion on demand—then I agree I should be an extremist.

My Lords, I feel that that is not so. The two extremes are going back to what the Statute originally clearly meant, whatever Mr. Justice Macnaghten's ruling on the word "unlawfully" was—and I think that was a very valuable form of legal quibble, comparable to the one on equity, by which our law is often improved. The two extremes are those who say that abortion should never be carried out except in possibly very few statutory circumstances, and those who say it should be carried out when you like. My argument will be that there is a deep division of opinion, not only in this House but in the country, on the question of whether an abortion should be performed only on medical grounds, on grounds which a doctor is qualified to decide, or whether there should be other grounds. I do not propose to go into the details of many of those other grounds, but I think the social clause is the operative test; and although I would oppose many things in this Bill, I should not dream of moving this Amendment if I did not think that the social clause had crept back into it in a false shape.

Your Lordships will remember when this clause first came up. I think I can fairly say that if one compares the forms in which this clause appeared with four beasts in the likeness of a bull, it first came forward in an open, forward way in the term "inadequacy of the mother". Then, on February 22 1966, I think it was—a fortnight later—that clause, which had been passed by a not large majority in a not large House, was attacked by a very formidable quartet consisting of the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, the right reverend Primate, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the late Lord Brain (whom we miss very much to-day) and the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger. I will not say that "inadequacy" makes strange bedfellows, or that four odder persons to move one Amendment have never been heard in your Lordships' House; but I will say that there seemed to me to be a general consensus of opinion that the social clause, in that form, anyway, ought to go.

I notice that among those who voted against it were the Chief Whips of all three Parties, the Deputy Leaders of the three Parties and the Leaders of two Parties. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, I understand, did not vote either way, as he was unable to be present. There was a fairly formidable consensus of opinion that the clause, in that form, should go. I know that the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, thought that this conjunction of signatories was so unnatural that she hinted darkly at back-stage manœuvres. I think that that suggestion was unjustified. I think it was a case which showed that in your Lordships' House eminence and common sense are not necessarily separated from each other.

That clause came up again in the form of "capacity", and in that form it seemed to me to be the same thing as "inadequacy". However, it passed into the other place and that was the form in which it was originally taken up by Mr. David Steel. During the Fifth Sitting of the Standing Committee, for reasons that I do not entirely understand, "capacity" was taken out and into the first clause—the "health clause", which I believe all of us would agree is acceptable—there was put in the odd expression: for the health and/or the well-being of the mother and/or the child and/or the other children". Although the arguments in favour of it seem to me to be not very convincing, that was overwhelmingly passed.

Perhaps I may read the way in which it was recommended to the Committee by the Minister's representative. She said: I am concerned about this Bill. I am concerned that it is not going to get back to the House of Commons in time to get its Report and Third Reading. It has become abundantly clear that it is impossible to draft in this Committee. Although, as I said at the first meeting of the Committee, we would give all possible drafting assistance, we have not had any request during the Sitting of the Committee". She went on to say: I believe it is too late now to go back and start drafting again, or even to get to the end of the Sitting this morning and go back and start drafting. The more Amendments we get to the Amendments which are before us the more muddle we will get into. None of those before us is ideal, but I believe we could come to a conclusion and re-word for the Report Stage". The form in which the clause has now come to us was put up in an Amendment by Mr. Steel (I think it was either Amendment No. 56 or No. 57, which came up at the Report stage in another place), and that Amendment has taken out the word "well-being" but has included the phrase: for the health of the mother and/or the existing children of the family".

Whether there should be a social clause or not is a matter on which opinions can differ very widely but if there is to be one this seems to me the least good example of what the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, rightly said was an attempt to clarify the law. I do not believe that there is any doctor—and here I defer entirely to the medical opinions in this House, for we have here four eminent doctors—would know what was meant by aborting for the health of the … existing children of the family".

I am inclined to believe that that would have been put in only if it was believed that it would give a reason (apart from health, on which the doctors are not permitted to argue) and that such a reason was, as it were, creeping into the Bill in a form that was neither clear nor desirable. We are not, therefore, debating this a first time; we are debating another matter of drafting, having had three forms which have been found unacceptable before. I am not convinced that this one is an improvement on the others.

In support of the view that it is vital to the supporters of the Bill to get in a social clause, I quote some words of the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, in an earlier debate, in which he said: I would certainly never have thought it worth while—somebody might have been willing to do it, but certainly not I—merely to legalise the Bourne case and the other cases which had been before the courts."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 7/2/66; col. 607.] Mr. Douglas Houghton, in a letter to The Times last February, when defending the "well-being" clause, said that the intentions of the Committee, which had been overwhelmingly supported, were that there should be reasons other than the health of the mother why an abortion should be allowed. That is perfectly honest and straightforward in relation to the word "well-being". But I am not satisfied that with the clause in this form we know where we are; that any doctor will know whether he can be sued for performing an abortion not on strictly medical grounds but on the ground that the health of the family was affected. On these points other speakers will have more information than I have as to what a doctor normally does. But I believe that if anything like that clause went through, doctors would be in a vastly more difficult position than they are in to-day in regard to knowing what they were entitled to do and what they were not entitled to do.

I do not wish to keep your Lordships longer than I need, and so I will not go in detail into any other of the clauses in the Bill, including the very controversial one about whether a child should be aborted because of the risk, the substantial risk, of its being born abnormal. If this is debated it will be debated fully. All I would suggest is that if this clause were to get through, I should find it very difficult to see any case against aborting a child, or rather killing it immediately, when it was 100 per cent. certain to be abnormal. There again, the question of when and whether that is known, and how it is known by a doctor that abnormality is likely, and how likely, I will leave entirely to Members of your Lordships' House who are more qualified to speak than I am. But I have heard from many doctors that in a great many instances it is impossible to tell until it would be too late for an abortion.

My Lords, the vital point which I think we ought to be discussing as a matter of principle is this: if abortion is to be done on any other grounds than the saving of life, or because of a serious risk to the health of the mother, is it tolerable? And that depends on the question whether we regard a fœtus as a human being, or whether we should be prepared to treat children who are borne abnormal in the same way as they are treated in an abortion. If it can be proved to my satisfaction that a fœtus is not a human being I should like to hear the arguments for it. They have not been raised in any debate we have had so far. The arguments have been put up on the other side by an embryologist whom I quoted in an earlier debate. He said there was no question so far as he was concerned, and so far as other embryologists he knew were concerned, that the fœtus was not only a human being but an individual with all the genetic instructions implicit in it from the moment of fertilisation. I will not repeat that quotation, but your Lordships will find it in Hansard of Monday, February 28, 1966.

I should like to read a short sentence from a zoologist, Professor Goodhart, of Cambridge, who, incidentally, has queried a great many of the statistics on which much of the case of the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, was based, but only in magazines and papers not very widely read. I will not bring them out at this point; but, speaking as a zoologist, he said that biologically the embryo is a separate, individual living creature right from conception. Later on it attaches itself temporarily to its mother and lives parasitically on her for nine months, but it is no more part of her than a tapeworm would be. Biologically of course it is a separated living human individual right from the start. Professor Goodhart, so far as I know, is not a Christian, but he is a man of unchallenged accuracy in his statement. He is also a member of the Executive Council of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children. At later stages I shall be ready to quote other things he has said, but I think that is all I can, and should, say on that point this afternoon.

As to the arguments that the fœtus is not a human being, I must leave that matter to the debate, because I have not personally heard them. I have asked on a number of occasions, including occasions in your Lordships' House, if by the word "person" we mean a living body, a human being. If a fœtus is not living, you cannot abort it; if it is not a body you cannot abort it. But if it is not a human being, what is it? I think that words like "potential" do very little to assist us. The only argument I have heard, except for one, was put up by the noble Lord, Lord Soper, who very courteously answered when I asked whether he would apply to Christ his dictum about rights, or the absence of rights, in any creature which had not full self-consciousness. He gave an answer based, I think, on the the teaching of Kenneth Ward which I hope he will develop in the course of this debate. I have not been able to find the relevant authorities.

The other argument was put up by the sponsor of this Bill in the form of the argument that because a fœtus is small and helpless it cannot be a human being. He, your Lordships will remember, during the Third Reading debate in another place, demonstrated a fœtus in a test tube. It was only half an inch long, and he asked the Members of another place whether they seriously thought that anyone who talked about a fœtus of this dimension—or any other—wriggling or crying should be taken seriously.

My Lords, with great respect, that seems to me an odd argument to come from a member of my own political Party. I am not suggesting that if the number of Liberal Members in another place (as distinct from here, where there are a great many) were held up in a test tube, it would not need to be a very much larger test tube than would hold a fœtus; but it would be a great deal smaller than a test tube of the size needed to hold either of the other substantial bodies. That never occurred to me as an argument for not joining the Liberal Party when it was smaller, or for suggesting that it should not be allowed to grow. It seems to me that one of the qualities it has is that, as an old Liberal with no qualification to speak, I am allowed to put up a Motion against a young Liberal with every qualification to speak; and that seems to me one reason why the Liberal Party should not be aborted. But if the only ground advanced for not allowing a fœtus to grow is that it is already small and immature, all I can say is that I feel that in this debate some better argument should be put up.

I will only say, in conclusion, that I think this a very important subject of which to debate the principle. This is a question of the devaluation of human life, and the question of whether it is or is not human life is not one simply to be passed "on the nod". That ought to be discussed, and until some argument is put up I shall continue to be as obstructive as I have been in the past.

Before I sit down I would quote four headlines which appeared in the Observer last Sunday on the subject of the devaluation of currency—and I think that the devaluation of human life is more serious. The four headlines were: "Our straitjacket"; "Anti-growthmanship"; "Is there a way out?"; "There is much …". I will not dilate on the first, because it would take me into a theological discussion about the whole predicament of mankind since creation and after it. "Anti-growthmanship" seems to me a very strong expression, even from the point of view of the sponsors of this Bill. "Is there a way out?". We all hope there is. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has suggested one. I believe that, given time, a Royal Commission might find another.

The last headline ends with three dots, or full stops, which I think symbolise the three stages which this Bill will have to go through in your Lordships' House before it can be returned, with or without Amendments, to another place. This is the first stage. Any of these stages may be a full stop; any of them may, like the dots in ordinary punctuation, lead on to better things. I believe that the question whether we should make a full stop at this stage or any other stage is one on which there is a division of opinion. It is usually said: United we stand, divided we fall. I submit that on this issue the value of your Lordships' House is that, united we may or may not fall, but divided we ought to stand as a Second Chamber which considers first principles. On those principles, I beg to move my Amendment.

Amendment moved— Leave out ("now") and insert ("this day six months.").—(Viscount Barrington.)

3.42 p.m.


My Lords, this is a Bill which raises a deep conflict of moral principle. I think that the best moral principles are those which can be stated without much elaboration. There are many people who believe that it is morally wrong to destroy embryonic human life for any cause whatsoever. I cannot accept that, because I believe that it is legitimate to terminate pregnancy if its continuation would involve grave danger to the life or to the permanent health of the mother. We all know that there are a great many women who refuse to terminate pregnancy because they prefer to risk their own lives in order to bring a new life into the world. These women deserve our admiration and our homage. But their heroism does not mean that we should deny to other women the right to ask that they should be saved from grave danger to their lives or to their health.

It is reported that when King Charles I was advised by his physicians that the Queen's life would be in grave danger unless her pregnancy were terminated, he answered, "Save the casquet". It seems legitimate and reasonable that in some cases we should save the casquet. If we look at it in the most practical sense, if the mother should die and unless her death took place after or immediately before the moment of birth, then the unborn child would probably die too, so that two lives would be lost instead of one. And if we look at it in its crudest form, permanent injury to health may mean that a woman may never be able to become pregnant again.

Our present law under the Act of 1861 is interpreted in this sense. As a result of directions given to juries by a number of High Court Judges, the law is interpreted now to mean that it is not a penal offence for a pregnancy to be terminated if it involves either danger to life or health, but from the words of the Act that is not at all plain. It is possible that this interpretation might be reversed by a higher court. I think that it would be more honest and straightforward to have a law which says what we mean, and therefore I am in favour of legislation. I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, will not think me ungracious if I say that I am strongly in favour of his Bill down to line 12, Clause 1, which provides that pregnancy may be terminated if there is danger to life or health. I am glad that, except in cases of emergency, a second medical practitioner has now been brought in, because that will make it much more certain that the opinion shall be a skilled one and a truthful one.

But I am afraid that I cannot support the next two reasons which allow termination of pregnancy where it is thought that it may affect the health of any existing children of the family, and where there is the risk that when the child is born it will suffer from physical or mental abnormalities which will handicap it seriously in life. Here again there may be some conflict of moral principle. These things are very hard to define to everybody's satisfaction. Even the most reverend Primate, whom we are all looking forward to hearing in a minute or two, has on occasion found that statements which he has made have had to be hurriedly corrected through fear of misunderstanding.

With regard to the first of these reasons, the health of other children of the family, it is perfectly reasonable to ask a doctor or two doctors to decide how a pregnancy is going to affect the health of a mother. They may be wrong, of course—anyone in any profession can be wrong—but we have done all that is humanly possible to get a reasonable opinion. But how on earth can one doctor or two doctors, or any number of doctors, determine whether the physical or mental health of any existing children who have been born before is going to be affected by the birth of another child? Surely that is not a question for a doctor to decide. Who can decide it, and what does it mean? If it means that there would be so many children in the family that it would be impossible to look after them and care for them properly, then I would ask what are our social services for and what is human charity for? It seems to me that to destroy the life of an unborn child because it might make it more difficult, by overcrowding, for other children to be looked after, is little different from the practice of the ancient Greeks, whose laws allowed them to take an unwanted infant and expose it on the side of a mountain that it might die of cold. Surely we have enough charity and enough social services in our country to provide for the children who are born already, without having to consider whether they will be affected by the new ones being born?

As for the second reason, the risk that if a child was born it would suffer from physical or mental abnormalities, I would make only two observations. First of all, what does a serious risk mean? Does it mean that the doctor can tell that there is a 50 per cent. risk, or a 30 per cent. risk, or what does it mean? If it is 50 per cent., it means that we should be destroying 50 unborn children in the hope that the other 50 might be saved from a life of abnormality. If it is 30 per cent., it would mean destroying 70 potential lives in order that 30 may not be abnormal. My second observation is this—and I think that it is far more important; that there are thousands of children in this country and in other countries, deformed, without eyesight, maybe without legs or arms, and with all kinds of the gravest abnormalities, who have been born, cared for and loved and lived happier lives, and more socially useful lives, than millions of normal, healthy people.

I do not wish to add anything more on the Second Reading of this Bill. I would say to those of my noble friends who may happen to agree with the principles which I have tried briefly to outline, that if the promoters of the Bill can tell us that they will give reasonable consideration in Committee to these arguments, which I think are of deep importance, then I would not advise my noble friends to refuse a Second Reading to this Bill. But if this is a subject on which the supporters of the Bill are going to be unyielding and adamant, then I would seriously say—and I would do so with deep regret, because I want some legislation to be passed—that I think it might be better to have no Bill at all than to have a Bill which would legalise the termination of pregnancy for reasons which many of us believe to be morally unacceptable and socially mistaken.

3.52 p.m.


My Lords, I am very glad to be following the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, because I think that he and I are on the same ground in our understanding of the principle on which this difficult matter should be judged, and on the same ground, also, concerning our view of the line between what is good and what is bad in this Bill. I think that the present law on abortion is shockingly bad, and that the state of affairs existing because of it is shockingly bad. I very much want to see reform of the law about abortion; but I hold that this Bill in its present form contains some very bad features, and unless it is amended in Committee I cannot support it.

Nearly two years ago there was published the Report by a group of Churchmen with the title AbortionAn Ethical Discussion, and I think that this Report has had a good deal of influence upon the consideration of ethical principles in connection with the subject of abortion. I am very glad that we now have the chairman of that group and a chief author of this Report with us in this House in the person of my namesake the Bishop of Durham. He will be speaking to your Lordships to-day for the first time, especially about the question of conscience, which comes under Clause 4 of the Bill.

I want now to speak about the principles involved in Clause 1 of the Bill. I start with a principle which often seems to be rejected or disregarded in these discussions; namely, the principle that the human foetus is sacred and has its right to live and develop. In pre-Christian Europe there was, the evidence suggests, almost no sense of the sacredness of the fœtus and very little repugnance about the practice of abortion. And I do not think we understand the story of our own civilisation unless we realise that it was an enhanced sense of the value of human life which came to condemn both infanticide and abortion.

Of course, infanticide and abortion were not and are not identical, and I cannot follow those who to-day would try to equate them, as we do not know at what stage a foetus becomes a human being or at what stage we should introduce a term like "person". Yet, because the human foetus is an embryo of a life capable of being God's child for all eternity, we believe it is right to reverence it and to think of it as having rights. But I should differ—and here I am on the same ground as the Report, AbortionAn Ethical Discussion, which I have mentioned—from the absolutist position in this. I believe that the right of the foetus to live has to be balanced on occasions against another right; namely, the right of the mother to live and not to have her physical or mental health wrecked by childbirth.

If those are our premises, it follows that we should regard as a sound Bill for reforming the law of abortion a Bill which made risk to the life or health of the mother the sole ground for a lawful abortion, and brought under this heading any considerations which can fairly be so brought. In a letter to The Times on May 24, 1967, the Archbishop of York, the Bishop of London and the Bishop of Durham joined with me in drawing the line at that point. Since then the Bill has been improved by Amendments in another place, but in the form in which it now comes before your Lordships' House it contains two features which we feel to be wrong.

In Cause 1(1)(a)(i) there is the reference to the health of existing children of the family. We think this carries the matter of diagnosis into an area of speculation beyond what is reasonable. Presumably, the "existing children of the family" are included because it may be thought that on social or economic grounds an additional member of the family may be prejudicial to their interests. If this is argued on social grounds, are we not coming back dangerously near the argument which this House rejected on February 22, 1966, that abortion is justifiable if the mother is physically or mentally inadequate? The late Lord Brain said on that occasion: … these issues ought not to be left to doctors—or, at any rate, not to doctors alone."[OFFICIAL REPORT, 22/2/66, col. 123.] As to economic considerations, if society's aid to a poor family is not adequate, it must be made adequate. It is not for doctors alone, as this Bill would provide, to take a line on these grounds. If we pass the clause with this phrase in it we shall be saying that, because of the existing children, another child should not be allowed to exist in the family.

Then, in Clause 1(1)(b) there is the provision that abortion is lawful when there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped". This has been debated in this House several times before, and all of us share the feelings of compassion which terribly handicapped children arouse in us. But once again, my Lords, if we legislate on the calculation of risks, there is the risk of the destruction of as many, and perhaps more, potentially healthy lives. I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Earl, Lord Dundee, that we cannot forget the people who were born severely handicapped, and yet would honestly say that they were glad to be alive, and also that society has been glad of what they have been able to give to society, in spite of the handicaps with which they start. In drawing the line where we would draw it, we believe that we are taking into account justice as well as compassion, together with the principle of reverence for the foetus as a part of the reverence for human life.

There are, I think, other places in the Bill where improvements can be made, and no doubt other noble Lords will be speaking about these to-day. As to the two matters on which I have concentrated, it would be possible to amend the Bill in these ways. In Clause 1(1)(a) I see no alternative to scrapping altogether the words: any existing children of her family". I believe those words ought to go out. I feel them to be the social clause coming in again through the back door of a single phrase. As to Clause 1(1)(b), it would be possible to move the reference to the substantial risk of the birth of a handicapped child so as to make it a part of the provision about the mother's total environment in Clause 1(1)(a). It would be possible, if the promoters of the Bill were so willing to make that change. With these changes, the Bill would make it clear that the mother's life and health is going to be assessed in relation to total environment, but it would still make the mother's life and health the sole matter for diagnosis by the doctor, and the sole ground for making abortion lawful.

I feel very strongly, my Lords, that the considerations of principle with which I began call for the amendment of the Bill in these ways. I cannot therefore vote for the Second Reading to-day. I do not want to vote against the Bill to-day, as it is still capable of being made a good Bill. I want, with many other noble Lords, to see the reform of the law on abortion. But if this Bill remains unamended in the matters of which I have spoken, it will in the last resort be a bad Bill, and a bad Bill, I fear, not to be accepted.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, I wish to speak to your Lordships as a surgeon and to try to present to you what I think is the reaction of many surgeons to this Bill. It has been stated that the majority of doctors are in favour of it. Whether this is so I am not in a position to say, but I would point out to you that the reactions of general practitioners may be rather different from the reactions of surgeons who will be called upon to do the operations necessary.

The original Bill, introduced to this House by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, which he has reminded us of in his eloquent address, first set out to give statutory recognition to the existing case law, essentially based on Rex v. Bourne. As it proceeded it acquired certain non-medical or social indications for abortion; and when the Bill which we are now discussing was first read in the other place it was heavily weighted with non-medical indications that left the door almost wide open for abortion on demand. As a result of resistance from various medical bodies and organisations, and as a result of formal debate in another place, a number of important modifications have emerged.

In its original form, the Bill was unacceptable to most doctors and medical organisations. It was realised, however, that a great weight of opinion throughout the country was in favour of considerable liberalisation of the law in regard to abortion, and certain modifications were agreed upon which were chiefly based on extending and expanding the medical criteria as far as possible, especially in regard to taking the fullest account of environmental and other factors which, although not strictly medical, were such as could be reasonably, and perhaps desirably, considered in assessing the whole picture on which the doctor could base his opinion.

The Amendments to the Bill, especially in Clause 1(1)(a), have satisfied many doctors, and also certain medical bodies, that the main basis of the Bill for abortion is medical. There remain, however, certain reservations about the phrase, in Clause 1(1)(a), or any existing children of the family". It is still felt that this is not really acceptable on purely medical grounds, in that it is largely or wholly social, or might be interpreted and implemented as such. Clause 1(1)(a)(ii) can be taken as a legitimate extension of full medical assessment, but to many it also encourages the introduction of social or non-medical criteria for the performance of abortion.

Let me say at once that it is against the ethics of most surgeons to take part in the performance of abortion for non-medical reasons. While many have been prepared to go a long way in stretching or expanding the medical criteria as far as they can, there is a limit to what they call be expected to do in this matter; and many, many surgeons are still uneasy and feel that even now the boundaries of medical indications have been overstepped and that the implementation of the Bill will disregard them. I must make it quite clear that, although some surgeons will agree to do operations for non-medical reasons, most will refuse to do so, and their resolution in this connection has hardened as a result of the pressures put upon them. That is the first point I wish to make, arising as it does from Clause 1(1)(a), but I shall return to this theme. Many fears would be allayed if the phrase, any existing children of the family were removed.

I wish now to speak about the Title of the Bill, which is proposed as "The Medical Termination of Pregnancy". This Title is loose and capable of more than one meaning. The prime object of the Bill is contained in the four words, "The Termination of Pregnancy". It is not clear why these four words have been used, instead of the completely expressive one word, "Abortion". In fact, "abortion" is better in the context of the Bill, because "termination of pregnancy" is a phrase that is used right up to term. "Abortion" is much more definitive. Perhaps the sponsors thought it was not a very nice word.

But the prime object of the Bill is qualified by the adjective "Medical"; that is, the "Medical Termination of Pregnancy". This can be taken as carrying the emphasis to "medical", a word that also has shades of meaning. It, for example, could be in contrast to the surgical termination of pregnancy. At present abortion is usually secured by an operation; it is a surgical procedure. It can also be induced, although with less certainty, by a noxious medicine, an abortifacient. There can be little doubt that in the future an abortion will be routinely secured by a medical means, and the surgical procedure will rarely be necessary. I, of course, realise that the Title is not meant to deal with the medical, as opposed to surgical, termination of pregnancy. I point out that this is one of the ways in which the Title is vague and open to misinterpretation. This is well shown if you present the title as "Medical Abortion", instead of "Medical Termination of Pregnancy".

This brings me to what I consider is a serious inaccuracy and ambiguity in the Title. As I see it, the meaning intended is, "The termination of pregnancy for medical reasons". Such a Title is simple, direct and clear in its meaning: even clearer if it were "Abortion for medical reasons". I suggest that the sponsors should agree to the Title being changed to this. The reservations of many surgeons would then be allayed, and it would then be clear that no extending pressure would be applied to increase the implementation of the Bill to include those degrees of abortion for social reasons which are unacceptable to many. If this Title is unacceptable, it could be "Abortion for Medical and for Non-Medical Reasons", or, "Abortion for Medical and Social Reasons". This would describe the intentions more clearly, if these are indeed the intentions of the Bill. I suspect that the real intent behind the present Title is just "Legal abortion" or "Legalised abortion". The word "Medical" is used and drawn upon in an attempt to make abortion more acceptable. If I am wrong and the sponsors feel sincerely that the prime reasons are medical, then let them say so and accept the change of Title to "Abortion for Medical Reasons".

Many honest and sincere people believe that, although the Bill gives approval of present medical standards for abortion, it is chiefly and firmly directed to the introduction of abortion for social or non-medical reasons. They fear that after the Bill becomes law they will be exposed to increasing pressure to do operations for non-medical reasons. I must point out what the position is likely to be if surgeons are expected to do operations for social reasons. Some will not object, but they are likely to be in the minority. Good ethics in medicine and surgery demand that an operation should not be done unless it is justifiable or indicated for medical reasons. Some surgeons do operations for non-medical reasons, but the main body of surgeons refuse to do so. I presume that your Lordships would not wish any surgeon to be forced to do an operation against his will. Many surgeons fear that a situation may develop in which they will be expected, or even directed, to do abortions for social reasons, especially if the pressure of numbers demanding operation becomes great. It is stated that this is not intended, but it is a fear that many have, and it is a move that would be firmly resisted.


My Lords, may I be forgiven for interrupting the noble Lord for a moment? Is the noble Lord aware of Clause 4 of this Bill, which allows a doctor precisely the right to withdraw from such an operation on conscientious grounds?


My Lords, I was just coming to that. Of course I am aware of it, and I have read it. This clause has given rise to many reservations and much criticism, and it has been stated that the drafting of the clause is bound to be amended. Indeed, it has been suggested that the revision should occur in your Lordships' House.

I have two criticisms of this clause, both of which go back to a consideration of what constitutes "conscience". The definition which seems to me to be most satisfactory is: The faculty or principle which pronounces upon the moral quality of one's actions or motives, approving the right and condemning the wrong". Clause 4 states: No doctor, nurse, hospital employee nor any other person shall be under any duty… and so on. This seems to make nonsense as a conscience clause. There must be many varieties, of conscience—for example religious conscience, political conscience, intellectual conscience, and medical conscience. Each of these people cited will have different conscientious motives, and it is misleading and unsound to lump them together. The only likely common conscientious objection of the group is a religious one.

My concern is with the recognition of the medical conscience of the doctor. He may be influenced by his religious conscience or he may have a political conscience, but I wish to emphasise how his medical conscience will direct him in this matter. There can be no doubt about this: the moral quality that influences the attitude of a doctor towards abortion, the approval of the right and the con- demning of the wrong, the ethics that should direct him—all these indicate, and all instruct him, that he should do an abortion only for medical reasons. If purely social reasons are involved, then his medical conscience should condemn them as wrong: the action would be unethical. I feel that no doctor, and certainly no surgeon, should have to explain or justify a statement that it is against his will to do an operation for non-ethical reasons; and least of all should he be compelled to prove it in a court of law. I can understand some forms of conscience being vulnerable in this respect, but I cannot accept that a medical man should be forced to defend the basic ethics of his profession in this way. It is intolerable and wholly unacceptable.

It has been suggested that this clause is unnecessary and should be deleted from the Bill. I do not like this idea. I am concerned that this Bill should contain definite indications that it recognises that a doctor may do for medical reasons things which it would be wrong for him to do for social or non-medical reasons; that it would be unethical for him to do operations against the tenets, morals or conscience of his profession. And I would remind your Lordships that the ethics of a profession are meant to protect not the profession but those with whose welfare that profession is concerned. In the case of medicine it is the patient. Ethics are for the protection of the patient. I therefore feel that an amended, a recast, conscience clause should acknowledge that a surgeon or a doctor must be guided by certain ethical considerations. This would go far towards encouraging surgeons into believing that both the letter and the spirit of the Bill will respect their fears that they may be pressurised into becoming involved in abortions for reasons that are not medical but purely social.

I wish to make one further comment. In another place, as has already been mentioned, a test tube containing a human embryo of only seven weeks was displayed. It was emphasised that it was only half an inch long, and it was said that a great deal of fuss was being made about such a small thing. Since this matter of size has been introduced, I thought I should continue the story a little. The time selected, of seven weeks, is about the earliest at which it is possible to arrange an abortion. From the time the women fears, or suspects, that she is pregnant, to the time the diagnosis is confirmed and consultations have been carried out, six to seven weeks is the minimum period that is likely to elapse. So the presentation of an embryo of half an inch can be correct. But one must consider the common occurrence of the need for abortion, and I am informed on sound authority that in the majority of cases the operation is done at eight to 12 weeks. At that time the length of the fœtus—not from head to toe but from head to tail—is three and a half inches; and, of course, it would require quite a big test tube to contain it.

Another date which has been given to me, on authority, is that the latest time at which the rather relatively minor—and I emphasise "relatively" minor—operation can be carried out, simply by dilation of the cervix, is twelve to fourteen weeks. By that time the embryo is four and a quarter inches long. But not all abortions can be carried out at that time. Quite a substantial proportion of them (and again I have authority to say that the proportion is 10 to 15 per cent. at least) are not done until 16 to 17 weeks. By that time the embryo is five and a half to six and a half inches long. I should not presume to bring the absolute evidence of these figures to your Lordships as was done in another place, as I know you would not like me to. I merely mention that I give these figures on the authority of Human Embryology and Morphology, a classic work by Sir Arthur Keen.

4.18 p.m.


My Lords, the House has listened with great interest to the speech which the noble Lord has just made. He speaks with great authority, and I hope he will find it possible to take part in the debates in Committee, should this Bill receive a Second Reading. I, for one, hope that he will take the opportunity then, which he has not taken to-day, of indicating to the House what are the risks involved to the patient in the performance of this operation under the best conditions.

From what I have read (I cannot speak with authority upon the matter) I have been led to the conclusion, which may of course, be wrong, that even in the best conditions this operation always entails a substantial risk and on a number of occasions in recent years has caused death. In weighing up the proposition that abortion should be made more easy to procure, one surely should take into account the risks that are entailed, if indeed they are substantial; and one should start, surely, by discounting the impression which is fairly prevalent at the present time, that this kind of operation is only a minor matter, rather similar to having a tooth removed.

I listened with interest to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin. I thought he moved the Second Reading of this Bill with singularly little enthusiasm. He made it quite clear that he did not like it nearly as much as the other Bills that he has moved, and he threatened—at least I took it as a threat—that if we did not take the Bill as it now stands he would feel at liberty to try to put back into it some of the things that are not there now. He said that this Bill is a compromise. It is not a compromise to which anyone in this House is a party, and if the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, thinks it will advance the chances of this Bill reaching the Statute Book for him to move Amendments to extend its operation beyond what another House would accept, then of course he is welcome to do so. It will be a self-destructive operation. I, too, speak this afternoon with singularly little enthusiasm. I have spoken, I think, on all the Bills the noble Lord has introduced. What I propose to say to-day I hope will not contradict anything that I have said on previous occasions, because I frankly could not face the boredom of reading through all the speeches I have made on the subject.

I start with this point. I think there is advantage in embodying in a Statute a statement of the law on this subject. At the moment, it depends on directions given by judges in the course of summings-up to juries, and it might well be altered—I do not think it would be—should the matter come before a higher court. But there is a case for making the law clear and in an Act of Parliament. The most reverend Primate has again—I do not think it is the first time—thought fit to attack the law. He said that the present law is shockingly bad. I wondered as he went on whether he really knew what the present law was, because when he came to Clause 1(1)(a) he said he thoroughly approved of that clause if the words "or any existing children of her family" were taken out; and he was loud in his praise of that provision. But if those words are taken out, that particular provision represents the existing law which the most reverend Primate says is shockingly bad. I therefore found his argument in that connection somewhat difficult to follow.

I do not myself believe that if a Bill is placed on the Statute Book it will abolish the back-street operation. I wish it would. I am inclined to doubt whether it really will make a tremendous difference to the number of these operations. Again, I hope a Bill would. It may be that in the case of the married woman who has had a number of children she will not be deterred from entering the public ward of a hospital for the purpose of this operation. Clause 2 makes provision for secrecy with regard to the notification of information. But there cannot be much secrecy about the nature of an operation on a patient who is in a public ward with other patients who have suffered the same operation, and it may well get known in her home surroundings that she has had this operation. I do not think that will deter—I hope it will not—a married woman from taking advantage of these provisions if this Bill is enacted in some form. But I should think that the absence of secrecy is likely to prove a tremendous deterrent to the single unmarried woman seeking to secure an operation under the terms of this Bill. I wish I could think of a way in which one could enhance the secrecy for her, because only if that can be provided do I think we shall be able to strike a real blow at the illegal back-street operation. If secrecy cannot be provided, then I fear there is a real risk that just for secrecy a single woman will undergo such an operation with all the grievous risks that that entails.

My noble friend Lord Dundee said that he agreed with the first 12 lines of this Bill. I was sorry to hear him say that, because I think that within the first 12 lines lies one of the major defects of this Bill. I will come back to that, if I may, in a minute. My noble friend went on to comment, as the most reverend Primate did, on the words in Clause 1(1)(a) about "or any existing children of her family". I think everyone who has spoken before me has criticised those words. I think they are very wrong, and, indeed, on the assumption, which may well prove to be unfounded, that this Bill will get a Second Reading, I have already handed in, in advance, perhaps a little too early, an Amendment to take those words out.

I think it would be very wrong if this Bill went through with those words in. Can one really think that in the ordinary way the birth of a child to a pregnant woman is going to create a risk of injury to the physical or mental health of … any existing children"? Those words can only be meant to mean that increasing economic pressures may affect the health of those children physically or mentally in the future; that, because of their financial circumstances, one more mouth to feed may mean less for the other members of the family, one more child to clothe may create difficulties in clothing the rest, or may mean overcrowding. I do not think the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, expounded at all what those words mean, but if that is what is intended to be covered by this provision, in my belief that is no justification at all for legalising the destruction of a prospective life.

Then one goes on to paragraph (a)(ii), which is in an odd place, but I will not spend time commenting on that, except to say that I think it needs rewording. What really is meant by "total environment"? I agree with the most reverend Primate that the test should be the health of the pregnant woman, and for a doctor to decide on that he is entitled to have regard to all the relevant circumstances and conditions. I would put it in this way. First of all the test must be: does the health of the pregnant woman necessitate this operation with all the risks this operation involves?

Then one comes to 1(1)(b). If one was able to tell in advance that the child was going to be born with such abnormalities as to be incapable of any reasonable enjoyment of life; if one was able to tell that the odds were on that happening, then I myself would be in favour of a provision on the lines of (b). But we may be told that you can never tell with any degree of certainty that that will be the consequence. I do not know. Supposing a woman has had four children, all of them seriously mentally defective, and she becomes pregnant again; I should have thought that the odds were on her having a fifth child similarly defective. In that case, I myself would have said that there was a case for a provision on these lines, not directly on the ground of the health of the woman, but because the child, if born, had no reasonable prospect of any reasonable enjoyment of life. Such a proposition is very difficult to formulate. It may be said that no such cases can be foretold in advance.

But this provision, to my mind, goes far, far wider than that. First of all, we have such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped". The loss of a leg, the loss of an arm, the loss of a hand, is a serious physical handicap. That should not suffice for the destruction of a potential human being. Then what about the words "substantial risk"? I wish the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, instead of referring us to opinion polls and matters of that sort, had dealt with this part of this Bill in some detail. What does he intend the words "substantial risk" to cover? An odds-on risk? That the chances are in favour of the child's being born with some abnormalities, serious abnormalities, or having one chance in four, or one in three of that happening?

I think we are entitled to know what the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, intends those words to cover. They are far too vague. Then, if he will tell us what they are intended to cover, we can see whether we agree with what he proposes and seek to draft what he intends in suitable language. But as the Bill now stands, and certainly if this were a Motion to pass the Bill and not one for its Second Reading, both on account of the inclusion of the reference to existing children and for this provision, I should have no hesitation in voting against it.

I have left to last what I regard as perhaps the most serious defect of all in the Bill. If I may say this to my noble friend Lord Dundee, it is one which comes within the first twelve lines. It is the provision that this operation can be performed on the opinion of two registered medical practitioners, two general practitioners—any medical practitioners. When the Bill left this House on one occasion I think we had inserted a provision to say that one opinion must be given by a hospital consultant or gynæcologist, or someone of that sort.


My Lords, may I say that I agree with my noble and learned friend on this matter. I think that the other one ought to be a consultant.


My Lords, I am glad I have converted my noble friend to the fact that there is a defect in the first twelve lines.


My Lords, it can be put right.


But my noble friend said that he approved of the first twelve lines. I hope I shall have his assistance in making the first twelve lines right. This is a most important point. One of the advantages of this procedure and this Bill, with the requirement that the operation shall be performed in a hospital or another place approved by the Minister or the Secretary of State, is that the possibility of collusive action will be reduced.

I have been sent a document by a gynæcologist of some eminence, and I should like to quote a passage from what he wrote in it. He said: There can be little disagreement, however, that in relation to abortion for indications which are social rather than medical, it is highly undesirable that it should be possible for substantial financial considerations to influence the doctor's decision to terminate the existence of a baby which, once delivered, would be a social inconvenience. Two or more doctors in collusion agree to abort on receipt of a handsome fee. This buying of abortions has understandably aroused widespread and strong public antipathy. I ask your Lordships to note this next passage: It has been claimed—and there is little reason to doubt the accuracy—that some such Harley Street practices have a turn-over of £750,000 a year, charging fees of 100 to 200 guineas a case. If this Bill stays in its present form such practices can continue. After all, the Secretary of State and the Minister of Health will only say if the hospital, or the other place that they have approved, is fit for such operations. But if it is left just to two registered medical practitioners, they can go into partnership and such practices as that can still be carried on. I think one argument in favour of legislation on the right lines is that any Bill that passes through this House should put a stop to that.

The question is, what should one do at the end of to-day's debate? I listened with interest to the noble Viscount, Lord Barrington, who speaks with great conviction on this matter, but it seemed to me that the points that he raised could be dealt with in Committee. I was rather inclined, in view of Lord Silkin's uncompromising attitude, to think that it might save a lot of time now to vote against the Bill entirely. But although he has been most uncompromising to-day, I hope that the noble Lord will see some wisdom in future; that he may abstain from trying to extend the operation of the Bill, and that he may join in accepting what I believe are the wishes of this House—Amendments about existing children, clarification about "substantial risk" and the alteration of the provision about registered medical practitioners. I would say this to him: if, and only if, Amendments of that kind are accepted by him or carried by this House should I support this Bill on the Motion, That the Bill do now pass. If those Amendments are not accepted or carried—


My Lords, the noble and learned Viscount is not asking me to commit myself to Amendments which I have not even seen, is he?


My Lords, I am not asking the noble Lord to commit himself now, but I hope when we get to the Committee stage we shall find him committed. I hope that he will say something about what he intends the subsection about "substantial risk" to mean. If I were satisfied that he was going to be entirely uncompromising I should have no hesitation in voting against him today; but I hope that we may prevail upon him, in Committee, because I, for one, should like to see this matter dealt with, and dealt with clearly, in an Act of Parliament. So long as the proper procedure is provided, and so long as the test is the health of the pregnant woman considered in its widest aspects, and so long as judgment on these health matters is rested with the medical profession, of the proper categories, then I think legislation on those lines will be an advantage.

4.37 p.m.


My Lords, the debate on the Second Reading of the Abortion Bill, which we had in November, 1965, covered not only the principle involved but the provisions of the Bill, and therefore I have no intention of wearying you with any tedious repetition. But I recall that on that occasion an attempt was made to delay arriving at a decision by setting up yet another Committee. I should like to remind the House that only two weeks ago another such attempt was made at the meeting of the British Medical Association at Brighton. It was put to the doctors there, whether this Bill should be accepted or rejected. The result was a decisive vote in favour of accepting this Bill. I would say to my noble friend Lord Silkin that he was not quite correct when he said that there was a certain Amendment which these doctors approved. It was not put to them specifically; but the broad Bill as they had seen it reported in the Press and in their medical journal, was accepted.

On reflection, I have come to the conclusion that it was a pity that the Government did not announce boldly that they would be responsible for this important social change and frame a Bill themselves to reform the abortion law, without all the delay, the frustration and physical exhaustion which in fact has been associated with the passage of this Bill through Parliament. I find it difficult to understand why questions of paramount social importance are left to the Private Member to tackle. The Private Member is handicapped because he has not the material that the Government can have.

In my opinion, here is an example of a Bill which should have been promoted by the Government. Either way, the Government will be blamed by interested minorities for permitting certain measures to pass, and no doubt political capital will be made at the next election. Therefore, they may as well be bold and be guided by popular opinion. The noble and learned Viscount disregarded the opinion poll, but I think we should remind the Government that they would have been quite safe in going forward, in view of the fact that 75 per cent. of the population were in favour of abortion reform.

I am most anxious to see this Bill on the Statute Book. In fact I feel a little like the noble Viscount, that I have to apologise for having to make another speech on abortion. Consequently, I am very reluctant to voice any adverse criticism. However, I feel impelled to direct the attention of your Lordships to one serious omission. It has been touched upon, and I am glad that the noble Viscount has benefited from my long discussion with him in the Peers' Room last night.

Clause 1 provides for a pregnancy to be terminated by two registered medical practitioners, but does not specify that one of them should be a doctor approved for the purpose. When the Abortion Bill was passing through your Lordships' House I understood that the two doctors would consist generally of the patient's general practitioner and a gynæcologist attached to a hospital. I remember raising the matter. I did not discuss it with anybody. I read the Bill and said, "This is a safeguard which must be introduced." I thought that my noble friend Lord Stonham showed himself to be sympathetic to this suggestion. Indeed, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynæcologists approved this arrangement, but it seems that certain Members of another place regarded this as too restrictive.

It is, of course, a fact that abortion is a simple operation, provided that it is undertaken by a doctor with some surgical experience. In the large majority of cases the doctor who will be responsible for the conduct of the termination will be a consultant obstetrician or gynæcologist holding an appointment in the National Health Service. There is no doubt whether a consultant holds a National Health Service contract, but it is more difficult to define a doctor of equivalent experience and status elsewhere. It seems to me that one way round this difficulty would be for the Minister to approve certain other practitioners for the purpose. It would be possible to compile a register of doctors with the necessary experience, even without specialist qualifications. For instance, even the general practitioner who does some surgery, including abortions, in the local cottage hospital could qualify for the register. He often will have had experience over many years—indeed, he might even have done more abortions than a consultant gyn¶cologist in a bigger hospital.

I believe that the principle of carefully selecting the appropriate individuals must be observed. Why go to the length of providing an adequate and proper place for the operation if you are not going to provide an adequate and proper person to do it? I am primarily concerned with the welfare of the woman, the patient, but I am also aware that this Bill without this safeguard will provide an opportunity for qualified medical men to obtain very substantial fees for performing abortions within the letter, if not within the spirit of this law. A doctor may be a saint, but a medical qualification does not necessarily confer saintliness.

I am very sorry that my noble friend Lord Taylor is not here. As your Lordships know, he has taken up a post in Newfoundland. Lord Taylor is an eminent doctor, and you will recall that he took a great part in our previous debates on the Abortion Bill. During the Second Reading he said: I think that abortion should never be done for a fee. It is a monstrous thing that, in a country where we have a National Health Service, an abortion should be performed for a fee. This is a terrible temptation to doctors to behave in an immoral way."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30/11/65, col. 1197.] If a list were compiled of doctors who are approved by the Ministry of Health, and it was found that a doctor on that list abused his position, then he could be removed. That does not mean that he would be struck off the register. He would still be able to earn his living, but he would be struck off the approved list as a man who was fitted to do this special work.

I was under the impression that the Parliamentary Secretary in another place gave an undertaking that the second doctor would have some special qualification for the work, but apparently, at the eleventh hour, the Minister has changed his mind. An approved register or list of doctors permitted to provide special services is not new, and it should not be suggested that it would be invidious to put some man or other on this list. The medical profession are accustomed to special lists being compiled. Indeed, the Mental Health Act makes such a provision, and the Dangerous Drugs Bill which we have recently debated prohibits medical practitioners, except those under licence, from providing addicts with specified drugs. Therefore I hope the Government will be equally vigilant on behalf of the woman who seeks an abortion.

4.48 p.m.


My Lords, it may be remembered by some of your Lordships that in November, 1965, I moved an Amendment on the lines of that moved to-day by the noble Viscount, Lord Barrington. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, that we do not want to retrace all the arguments that were used on that occasion. Therefore I shall avoid speaking at any length about the question of principle. I wish to devote a few words to those who, with the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, believe that the Bill can be amended satisfactorily.

I call attention to the time factor. We are, as I understand, to have the Committee stage of this Bill next Wednesday. After that we adjourn for the Summer Recess. We are to have the Report stage and Third Reading, I understand, on October 23: we are then to take two stages in one day. Well, I ask your Lordships to bear in mind what a vast amount of amendment this Bill seems to require. We are to deal with the question (a very urgent one) of the qualifications of doctors who give their consent to an abortion. We are to deal with the question of licensing certain doctors, and only certain doctors, to do abortions. We are to deal with the questions of fees—a most complicated question. I am sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, is quite right about the matter of fees, but this is not going to be an easy Amendment to draft; it is not going to be an easy Amendment for your Lordships to accept. I certainly hope that we are going to deal with the omission of "the existing children of the family"—a controversial matter.

We are then, I very much hope, going to discuss the question of what is meant by: total environment actual or reasonably foreseeable".— words that may have a very real meaning if the doctor concerned is the family physician, and has been the family physician for a great number of years; but mean very little indeed if the woman is seeing the doctor for the first time. I am informed that when women desire to have their pregnancy terminated they commonly prefer to go to a doctor whom they do not know. There is also the question of a reform of the "conscience clause". I see that I have the attention of the Government Whip, and I wonder very much how many hours on Wednesday next will be required to deal with this great number of Amendments. Shall we be able to deal with them satisfactorily on one day at the end of the Session in October, and do we really think that we shall easily obtain the agreement of the Commons to these somewhat radical proposals?


My Lords, as the noble Earl has referred to me, I think I should point out to him, and to the supporters and opponents of this Bill, and to the House generally, that the House itself controls its business. If the House feels that the time which we have been able to allocate within our normal business programme is insufficient, and if it feels that this Bill should go through but should be more adequately discussed, then it lies within the power of the House. There is no reason at all, if the supporters of the Bill and those who want to examine it wish further time, why this House should not sit in the first week of August or in the week prior to the time when the House intends to come back. The noble Lord must realise that it is the will of the House that decides, and if it wishes further time on this Bill, then the House can prescribe it.


My Lords, I am greatly obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd; and of course he is entirely correct. If the House feels that it wants to devote much more time to the Committee stage, that will answer my objection. But we must not assume that the House will be so willing.

For my part, I believe that your Lordships would be wiser, on the whole, to vote with the noble Viscount, Lord Barrington, as I firmly intend to do if there is a Division. We can then take up the matter again in the autumn, and pass a simple Bill legalising and giving statutory effect to the decision in Rex v. Bourne, and, if you like, other decisions which perhaps went rather further. I believe that such a Bill would obtain general agreement, with very little trouble, from both Houses. I honestly believe that that would be a wiser course than to attempt to pass this Bill through in the present Session.

But I have a wiser course still to lay before your Lordships. Let these difficult questions be examined by a Royal Commission. There are still many unknown factors affecting the questions which we are trying to decide in this Bill. Among them there is the question of monstrous births—a very difficult question indeed. A good deal of research is going on into embryology which may within a fairly short time make it possible to decide at a very early stage indeed whether the embryo possesses a sufficient number of chromosomes to enable the child to grow into a fully formed human being. I can refer noble Lords who are interested in this question, to articles which appeared a year or more ago in the periodical Science Today. I believe that it might be possible to obtain very interesting medical and scientific advice into the possibility of this kind of prognostication. I know that many embryologists are hopeful of their results. That is one matter which is bound to affect our judgment on this question.

I agree with those who have petitioned Her Majesty's Government to appoint a Royal Commission to investigate the whole of this difficult question, and I believe that there might result a Bill which would be far more acceptable than the one at present under discussion. Therefore I advise your Lordships, with that in mind, to vote to-night with the noble Viscount, Lord Barrington, and I very much hope that Her Majesty's Government will see their way to the appointment of the proposed Royal Commission to inquire into the whole question.

4.57 p.m.


My Lords, before I take up a few moments of your Lordships' time in talking about this Bill, I should like to say that I wish to dissociate myself as completely as I pos- sibly can from the words of my noble friend Lord Barrington. I very much trust that the House will not accept his Amendment, and that it will give this Bill a Second Reading this afternoon.

As I think I have mentioned to your Lordships on more than one occasion before, this is a Bill with which I am not entirely satisfied, with which I am not entirely pleased. Nevertheless, I think it is trying to do something which should be done, and it has come to us again in a rather more satisfactory form than the Bill we dealt with on former occasions. I think I am right in saying that the real purpose of the Bill when it started was to convert Case Law into Statute law, because I think it had been accepted by all people that it should be possible for an abortion to be performed upon a mother if her mental or physical health was in danger. I think that is something which we should be very firm about, and which we should keep as our basic factor in thinking about therapeutic or medical abortions.

That is why I am rather uncertain about the meaning of sub-paragraph (i) of Clause 1(1)(a), which refers to: any existing children of her family", and sub-paragraph (ii), which refers to: the patient's total environment actual or reasonably foreseeable". I take it that these are references to the quite numerous and extremely tragic lot of mothers who have been pregnant several times. They have brought up a family; they are becoming middle-aged, and by bad luck, bad chance, bad fortune, they become pregnant again, and find that they really cannot face the prospect of rearing a new family when the former family is just beginning to get off their hands. These are women for whom we must have a great deal of sympathy, and one would like to do what one possibly can to help them.

When we discussed this matter before I said that that aspect would have been dealt with quite well under the then Clause 1(1). But that was not agreed by the rest of your Lordships, and in the result a series of Amendments dealing with social well-being, and such matters were put in. Those Amendments were removed in another place, and we now have these other provisions, which I do not think are entirely satisfactory. Whether we shall be able to concoct a more suitable Amendment, I am not quite sure.

I am pleased to see (although one or two of my noble friends do not wholly agree with me) that the Bill does not intend to restrict the type of doctor who can perform an abortion under the Bill. All the same, it does in a sense restrict them, because a later clause states that the abortion must be performed in a hospital which has been vested in the Ministers under the National Health Service Acts for England and Scotland. That, I think, must mean that there is some choice about the type of doctor who is going to do the work. It also means, if that provision is widely and liberally interpreted by the medical profession, that it will do something to get rid of the back-street abortionists, which is one thing we want to do because of the enormous amount of harm they can do to pregnant women. It should also do something to stop the Harley Street racket—and I think the noble and learned Viscount said that the price has gone up from 100 to 120 guineas. That seems to me socially wrong and morally wrong, but I cannot take the same objection to it medically, because these abortions, I think, are generally carried out under quite reasonable conditions in medically well-run nursing homes.

Then, where one is going to get into further difficulty is in any attempt to limit the doctors. What is going to happen when, as the noble Earl who has just spoken said, some form of chemical means for abortion, some abortifacient pill, comes in? There again, it is going to be very difficult indeed to confine the use of that pill to any one type of doctor. I do not agree with the noble Earl when he says that because this work is being done some good results might come from it soon. It may take a very long time, and one cannot be sure of it. I cannot see why people should have to wait for this very long time. If the noble Earl could promise me that the pill would arrive in six months, that might change my opinion. But it may take six years, or it may take sixty years. So I am not very pleased with that argument.

The other point about which there has been a great deal of talk is whether an abortion should be allowed when the child is likely to be born so deformed that it could not lead a normal life. That, again, I think, is a valuable provision to keep in the Bill; but I wonder whether it would be possible to move an Amendment on Committee stage to tighten up that quite a lot, because I think there are occasions when one can be pretty certain that a child will be born so abnormal as to make life very difficult for it. I am referring to the mothers who catch German measles at the very beginning of their pregnancy. I do not think it is so important if they get the disease in the third or fourth month: then it becomes a possibility. Although I am not a gynæcologist or a paediatrician myself, I gather that if mothers catch German measles in the first few weeks of pregnancy the chances of a severe abnormality are more than probable. That is why I should like to see a provision like this kept in the Bill.

Further, there are one of two very obscure, I admit, mental abnormalities and neurological abnormalities, and we can be certain that, if a woman suffering from these becomes pregnant, the child will be like that. So I think that there should be some provision in the Bill to enable us to deal with that, but it has got to be used extremely carefully. The other thing about which I am not really very certain is Clause 4, which is the so-called conscience clause. That, I gather, was put in at the request of the General Nursing Council and the Royal College of Midwives. I am not at all sure that the doctor need come in there, because the doctor's first duty is for the welfare of his patient, and that is his sole duty. He can have no private conscience at all where the welfare of his patient is concerned. Therefore, I would not at all mind seeing the doctor removed from that clause if the nurses and midwives were kept there, provided they wanted to be.

I trust your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading, and will amend it on Committee. Here, I should like to make a plea to the most reverend Primate not to vote against the Second Reading of the Bill, but to pass the Second Reading and to amend it on Committee. If he then does not like it, we can defeat it on Third Reading. But I think it would be a disaster if the Bill were to be lost on Second Reading now, and I very much hope that your Lordships will give it a Second Reading with a view to amending it at subsequent stages.

5.7 p.m.


My Lords, I should like first of all to ask the indulgence of the House. I have an ecclesiastical appointment, for which I am already late, which I expect will prevent my being in your Lordships' House when, if there is a vote, the vote is taken. I want to support the Bill. I hope it will receive a Second Reading. I find two particular difficulties about it which I will advert to briefly. I am quite sure that as soon as a social provision is included in a Bill of this nature, imprecision in the wording becomes almost inevitable, and it is probably a quest in Cloud-cuckoo-land to hope that we can arrive by any process of continued discussion at a form of words which would as correctly and precisely express a social concern as is probably possible when you are attempting to evaluate a medical consideration. I shall advert to the question of the social clause a little later, but I should not be averse to emendations of wording and phraseology which would preserve the intention of the social clause even if it were found impossible to be more precise than at present seems likely.

The second real difficulty—and in this I speak with great respect for the cogency of the argument of the noble Lord, Lord Brock—is this. If the widening of the clauses permitting abortion include social, moral and ethical matters, then almost inevitably we are going to provide a kind of ordination for the medical profession; and to make them the custodians of the sacred mysteries as well as of the medical mysteries is asking a very great deal of them, and may in the end, I think, prove an impossible task for them to fulfil, even if they were so minded and so equipped. I would throw into the pool the consideration that the logical conclusion of what your Lordships are now considering, if you give this Bill its Second Reading, is, in the end, abortion by consent or abortion on demand; that is to say, it will in the end, I think, prove impossible to prescribe such a panel of authorities as will be able to evaluate in their final and complete form the kind of conditions in which a social clause is found as operative and necessary as a medical clause.

To return to the main propositions lying behind the Bill, I want to start by saying that I disagree most heartily and affectionately with the noble Viscount, Lord Barrington, when he says that this is a Bill about the right to be born. Here is a semantic statement which is obviously untrue. You have no right to be born unless you have an antecedent existence in which that right must reside. Nobody has the right to be born. I am concerned about the right of those who are born to live. I am concerned about their right to happiness; and it is the enormous weight of suffering that is now undergone by all kinds of humans in all kinds of circumstances connected with pregnancy that afflicts me. I speak with great care. I remember the Irish mother who, having listened for some time to a young celibate priest who was instructing her in the duties of motherhood, said: "I wish to God I knew as little about it as he does." This, I think, is not an inappropriate comment. Only one member of the opposite sex has taken part in this debate.

I do not know of the sufferings of women at first hand, but I could take your Lordships to-night to a little girl of 16 in a hostel which I run who is pregnant as the result of a drunken brawl and who is now almost out of her mind. From every standpoint that situation can be evaluated: if that pregnancy is allowed to come to term it will leave her with a permanent trauma and an imperishable memory. She hates everything associated with pregnancy; she is frightened to death. I cannot for the life of me see why this kind of suffering should be imposed on her if she could be relieved of it. I could take you, if I were permitted, to a woman and seven children in an overcrowded tenement. And in this respect how inept, if I may say so, I thought the comment of the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, when he wanted to know what was the effect on other children. The point is that if you consider the well-being of the woman, you are considering the room in which she lives, the environment in which she has to make a living and the conditions in which the new child takes its place in that family. I think of the suffering that she endures and is likely to endure; and I should like to relieve some of it.

For this reason, I believe that this Bill is substantially right in attempting to reduce the amount of misery that is now undergone by—I do not know how many women. But, my Lords, at least 600,000 women alive in Britain to-day have had abortions during the last twenty years; at least 85,000 attempt abortion each year; no fewer than 60,000 succeed in having abortions, and no fewer than 31,000 of these are criminal abortions. If there is no final and irrevocable moral objection to preserving the fœtal life at the expense of the welfare—the well-being, as the Church Assembly has said—of the mother and of her total environment, then there is in my judgment an overwhelming case for the presentation of such a Bill as this.

In the second place I am oppressed by the sense of social injustice. I know a little about the facility with which it is possible for those who have money to obtain abortions, and to obtain them secretly. I know something of the back-street abortions, the iniquity of them and—what has not been mentioned this afternoon—the blackmail associated with them. The intolerable racket and the sleazy, dreadful conditions under which these abortions are carried out add to the misery. Therefore, again in the interests of simple justice and in order that the legal position may be made clear, and that overall and general fair play may be extended, it seems to me that this Bill, possibly with suitable Amendments in wording, is entitled to your Lordships' support.

I turn now, at the invitation of the noble Viscount, Lord Barrington, to a very brief and somewhat timorous incursion into the field of theology. I am not impressed, and never have been, with the idea of instant life, like instant coffee. I think one of the great mistakes is being made generally in the discussion on when life becomes self-conscious, when the soul appears. I think, in the language of the linguistic philosophers, that we are asking the wrong sort of questions—questions to which, if we continue to ask them, there are no answers. There is no kaleidoscopic method, there is no instant method, of distinguishing at one point or another what is existence and what non-existence. The whole thing is a process; life is a river running rather than a series of stones. This could be very much more clearly studied in the teachings of my old tutor, Dr. Ward. I ventured to quote the last time in your Lordships' House one of the phrases I remember from his tutelaae: that life is sleep in the stone, dreaming in the flower and awake in man. The processes whereby these transitions take place are extremely difficult to analyse; and I think it is impudent for us to rest our case for the sacrosanct nature of fœtal life on what is, in any case, a mediæval philosophy of instant life which has no real counterpart in the teaching of theologians to-day.

Furthermore, lest I tread too dangerously on this ground, it seems to me that we are in great danger of asserting a sacrosanct nature for the fœtal life at the very moment when the same Church is committing millions of human beings of adult stature to mutual massacre in mass violence and war. There seems to be much hypocrisy in this over-assiduity with which we are concerning ourselves with the choice of life of the future human being. Until we are prepared to take a like concern for the adult and fairly full life of those who have grown to self-conscious maturity, we shall not, I think, attract much attention from those who see this as a great evil and are not particularly concerned with the pseudoscientific and, as I think, pseudo-theological reasons that we advance.

In any case, compromise is inevitable. I do not relish the thought of the termination of a pregnancy; although it is very different from the killing of a child—as, in an inadvertent moment, the noble Viscount, Lord Barrington, allowed himself to describe it, in a further semantic error. There is a world of difference between killing a child and terminating a pregnancy. I do not stomach as worth while the idea that we should endeavour to increase and facilitate the termination of pregnancy. But in the cases to which I have referred, and including the general social provisions, it seems to me that here we have to make a choice, a choice which is a compromise. It is a choice between the well-being of a potential life—or, if your Lordships do not like the word "potential", a forthcoming life—and the well-being of those who have already acquired a certain stature in human behaviour and are at least self-conscious.

When this ineluctable choice is ours then it would appear to me, with due humility—and probably asking afterwards, if we are of religious mind, for suitable forgiveness for our lack of further understanding—that at this juncture of time in the search for the Kingdom of God, which is the first consideration of a practising Christian, it is the well-being of little children already born, the well-being of mothers already mothers, the well-being of a family already a family; indeed, the well-being of society as a whole, which invite us to subscribe in principle to this measure. I hope that your Lordships will give it a Second Reading.


My Lords, may I raise a point of clarification? I understood the noble Lord last time to refer to the fœtus as an unborn child. I think he said that I made a semantic slip in referring to killing a fœtus as killing a child. It may have been scientifically wrong to say that it was like killing a child; but it was not a slip. I take the view that a child, unborn, is alive; it has fœtal life.


I quite understand.

5.19 p.m.


My Lords, I realise that I can hardly claim the customary indulgence of this House if I choose to make a maiden speech on such a controversial subject as abortion. But I feel that noble Lords will be the first to agree that no formalities of any kind should be allowed to take precedence over the kind of issue that concerns us to-day. May I first refer quite briefly to one point in the speech of the most reverend Primate whose views I share overall and whose reference to my committee I much appreciate.

The one point concerns Clause 1(1)(b) of the Bill. None of us can fail to be moved by the case of the child who suffers from such physical or mental abnormalities as the seriously handicapped. Few of us can imagine the burden which paediatricians bear when they deal with these children and their parents. None of us can fail to share in the sensitivity and compassion which I am quite sure must lie behind that clause. My Lords, I have been greatly moved by those who have spoken to me and written to me along these lines.

But to consider the fœtus in isolation from the mother, which is what Clause 1(1)(b) proposes to do; to leave the mother at that point entirely out of consideration and, having done that, make the decision to abort depend not on the diagnosis of the fœtus—which you might suppose was reasonable—but on a statistical probability and nothing else, seems altogether incoherent. Further, not only does it mark (or so it seems to me) a serious departure from medical practice; but, since the risk involved is rarely one in two but rather more like one in four, or one in eight—compared to the one in forty for normal births—it also means that far more than likely potentially human lives are, at this point, treated with scant respect. I realise full well the semantic jungle which the reverend and noble Lord, Lord Soper, reminded us that we get into when we start talking of the fœtus in terms of children, or murdering, or any such phrases. But one finds it incontrovertible that in the proposed Bill these potential human lives which are far more than likely to be so than not, are treated with scant respect.

My Lords, the only reliable way to combine sensitivity and compassion with a due reasonableness and a wide ranging concern is surely to provide for these sad cases in the context of the mother, so that we ask: is it the best of all possibilities or not that this mother in these circumstances should risk this birth? Can the mother in these circumstances have the customary duty of bringing the child to birth? So I share with the most reverend Primate the desire to see the Bill amended so as to incorporate the case of the handicapped child within the diagnosis of the mother.

To turn now, if I may, to another point, I recognise, of course, that both the supporters and the opponents of this Bill claim to be moved by a respect for life and compassion, spell it out though we would in very different ways. It is when situations are as complex as this, and when, if I may say so, having in mind the noble Lord, Lord Brock, they are never purely medical and never purely social; when we are grappling with complex and tangled issues of life and death such as abortion brings; when advice or judgment inevitably involve, whether we like it or not, our basic commitments; when the integrity of our very personalities is at stake—that is the time when the authority of conscience in all its senses has to be recognised. So, with very many other people, and not only members of the Roman Catholic Church, I greatly welcome a clause such as Clause 4.

I have two points to make. First, I hope that a conscience clause here will not be held to imply that in other similar situations, situations of similar complexity, such for instance as in the transplantation of organs and tissues, a person could not have conscientious objections. It would be tragic if the inclusion of a conscience clause here were taken legally to imply its exclusion elsewhere. Secondly, conscience, as one of my most distinguished predecessors at Durham would remind us had he been here, has its own peculiar authority. So said Bishop Butler. But for that very reason it can never claim to have compelling power over other people nor, while being authoritative, can it claim to be infallible. While this conscience clause is absolutely necessary to safeguard the position of doctors, nurses, medical and social workers, and others in the hospital service and beyond, it must never so work out in practice that one man's conscience becomes another man's master; still less his oppressor. Though the doctors concerned must certainly be safeguarded, the patient must never lose his right to have all the possible data and advice available; in very common language, to have a "square deal".

It would seem to me that it would help to ensure a greater conscientiousness all round; safeguard the doctor as he must be safeguarded and protect the patient as the patient must be protected, if those with a conscientious objection were required to declare it. They then would display the courage of their fundamental convictions; those advised would recognise the precise character of the advice which was being offered to them; and in any subsequent civil or criminal action the claim to have had a conscientious objection at an earlier stage could appeal to some explicit declaration at that time.

My Lords, may I conclude with just two other general points. It was the hope of that Committee which I chaired that not only should there be a second medical opinion—and I share the views expressed that that could well be from a consultant—as the Bill in a general way provides, but there should be genuine consultation in cases where decisions are difficult. The idea was that while obviously in the end the decision must be a medical one—and here I am, of course, with the noble Lord, Lord Brock—yet in such difficult cases there surely ought to be some preliminary assessment made by the gynaecologist in consultation, say, with the family doctor; and, where appropriate, a medical social worker; perhaps a consultant psychiatrist or a psychiatric social worker, or any other person competent to help the wife and her husband to share in coming to a reasonable decision whether an abortion should be performed; though the decision in the end must be that of the gynaecologist who is to be expected to perform it. Lest you think this consultation is a pipe dream, noble Lords may remember that such consultation already exists in some hospitals, which not only ensures more reliable decisions in this kind of case but helps to establish a moral tradition within that hospital, and to avoid disingenuities in either the law or medicine which reform of a law such as this inevitably tempts. The wider the provisions of the Bill the more is there need for such consultative group, and I think I have rather more hope of its success than the reverend and noble Lord, Lord Soper, may have thought.

Secondly, I hope that if the law is reformed there may be mounted an educational campaign like some of those which have proved so successful in other medico-social problems. Such a campaign would help to create a far more relaxed atmosphere in which the whole social problem would come out into the open, and in these ways contribute to the disappearance, not only of the back-street abortionist, but the front-street abortionist as well. Certainly with many noble Lords I am seized of the need for a reform, and for the removal of the uncertainty that exist at present in the law, the decisions of the Bourne Sturgess and Newton cases never having been tried in a higher court. As I greatly hope that this Bill can be amended to become the better Bill it could be, I certainly cannot vote against it to-day, though, at the moment at any rate, neither can I vote for it.

5.29 p.m.


My Lords, I know that the Whole House will wish me to pay tribute to the speech, the profoundly constructive speech, from a great theologian to which we have just listened. I hope that the right reverend Prelate will accept a tribute paid from this Bench, which is in some ways more elevated, and in some ways less elevated, than that which I usually occupy, as he would accept one from my usual position. At any rate, we all recognise that in him we have one of the leading theologians of our time, fit to be ranked, if one is allowed to make some assessment in this field, with the most reverend Primate. I hope that we shall hear from him very often, because this is possibly the only legislative Chamber in the world where theology is positively fashionable; and I am sure that the right reverend Prelate will find that out.

I do not think the House would wish me to explain my reasons for asking leave to speak from here. In 22 years in your Lordships' House I have only once failed to speak from one Front Bench or the other, and that was when our dear, revered friend the late Lord Alexander of Hillsborough and I adjourned for a while and made complementary, if contrasted, speeches from some position over there on the other side of the House. I do not know what he would say about abortion: I do not know whether anybody could form any opinion of what he would say on this subject. But I am sure that he would respect my motives for speaking from here, and I hope that that is also true of your Lordships.

We are asked to-day to make a certain decision. We are asked to give a particular Bill a Second Reading. We are not asked to pass any kind of general vote in favour of abortion law reform. I was referred to by a talented writer, Mr. Ian Aitken, in Saturday's Guardian, as a "long-standing opponent of abortion law reform". This conjures up a rather unpleasant picture. It is quite untrue. I do not think anybody who calls himself any kind of Christian, let alone a Socialist, could possibly be satisfied with the situation to-day, a situation which, as has been well brought out by various speakers with different attitudes to the Bill, presents far too often the appearance, and even the reality, of one law for the rich and another for the poor.

I was talking yesterday to a lady, charming and well-to-do who told me of a friend, no doubt also charming and well-to-do, who had had nine abortions. That is surely quite a lot, by any standard. She appears to be so well after all these abortions that she has now had a perfectly normal child. I do not think that any Member of your Lordships' House would favour that course, but no doubt it is possible for a rich person to obtain nine abortions and I do not suppose that anyone would say that these are open to a working-class woman or that, if she obtained a whole string of abortions, she would survive the experience.

Anybody who goes into this subject with any mind and heart must be in favour of abortion law reform. That brings me to the question of this Bill. The Bill has been given a pretty rough passage in your Lordships' House this afternoon, though perhaps no rougher than Lord Silkin's Bill in November, 1965. The noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, tore it to pieces very effectively. So he did last time: and on that occasion he voted for the Second Reading. To-day he has left his intentions delightfully clouded and we shall find out later on what he proposes to do.

There is this great difference in the situation as between 1965 and now. Then it was hoped that the promoters would bring about large changes; and they did make one important change, by introducing the requirement of a second medical opinion after the Second Reading debate. But (and may I use a vulgarism?) after all this "mucking about", here is the Bill again with the social clause in it in a new form. The promoters showed themselves to be completely adamant in another place. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has even told us: Better keep a hold of nurse, For fear of getting something worse. That was an unexpected bombshell. I do not think that it would win any votes. However, it was a very honest thing to say.

I submit that, whatever may have been the case in November, 1965, the arguments for voting for this Second Reading are very feeble, except for those who hold the extreme position of the Abortion Law Reform Society. I am afraid that I would describe the Bill in its present form (I hope that language a little more frank is allowed on these Benches than is permitted on the lower slopes) as a total mess. To use rather more genteel language, I would fall back on the phraseology employed in the Bill itself and say: … there is a substantial risk that if a child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped. We have all learned from the promoters what to do with a potential object of that kind.

A few words about the Roman Catholic position. If anybody is strong against abortion he has to make a sort of disclaimer for fear of being misunderstood. There are a good many Roman Catholics in your Lordships' House and maybe some of them will speak this afternoon. We have already listened to my noble friend Lord Iddesleigh. I speak only for myself and not for other Catholics here, and not for the Roman Catholic Church and its 500 million members (or whatever the number may be) in the world as a whole. We begin with the conviction that human life is sacred; that the unborn child possesses a form of human life; that to terminate a pregnancy is to take human life and, therefore, is to commit homicide. There is a strong presumption that it is unjustifiable homicide.

There are grounds, therefore, from what I have said in summary, for the general opinion that Roman Catholics are against abortion. It is noticed that Roman Catholic doctors and nurses are ready to make sacrifices in their profession for that belief. Of course, in a public statement of this kind, the question must be put, and must be faced: are there any cases at all in my view, speaking as an individual Catholic, in which abortion could be morally justified? I should be less than frank with the House if I did not say that I can imagine cases, difficult cases, desperate cases, if you like, in which the life of the mother is in real danger: if pregnancy continues, and if nothing is done, so far as human know- ledge goes she will die. In such cases there arises a real and agonising conflict of rights and obligations. Speaking only for myself, in such a case I would see as justified the acceptance of the more obvious and deeply felt obligation towards the mother. I would agree that her life should be saved.

The House will notice that I have deliberately presented this in terms of a dilemma, but, as we are all well aware, dilemmas are part of human life. They cannot be conjured away by words or by reference to a textbook. Anyone who has studied moral philosophy is familiar with dilemmas in theory. Anyone who has lived through two great World Wars and shared in some of the responsibility for them must be aware that dilemmas arise all too frequently in practice. In these dilemmas it is true that in the last resort a right may have to be overridden, an obligation may not be fulfilled and a wrong may be suffered—and, in this case, a developing human being may be destroyed.

The recent Vatican Council—we have just listened to a far greater authority on conscience than I am—asserted more strongly than ever before the ultimate supremacy of conscience. But no Catholic—this I feel sure I can say—whose conscience taught him that a particular case of abortion was a tragic necessity and was the lesser of two evils, would ever rely on that argument in practice, until after deep thought and study, until after the most careful consultation and, it may well be, until after days and nights of prayer.

The House is not being asked to-day, or at any stage of these proceedings, to choose between the Roman Catholic point of view and the point of view of the rest. There is no doubt that if we were forced to take a decision, a relatively small proportion of the House would take the Roman Catholic view. But we have a solemn choice to-day and next week. We have this particular set of proposals, and all of us, whether we be Catholics, agnostics, or whatever we may be, have a duty to consider these proposals in the light of the best, the most enlightened, contemporary opinion.

We have heard some strong criticisms to-day of particular aspects of the Bill from the point of view of the Church of England, from the point of view of medicine, from the point of view of the law, and from others, beginning with the noble Viscount, Lord Barrington, to whom I pay my humble tribute of very deep respect. But one point of view that I should like to place before your Lordships is that of some eminent gynæcologists with whom I happen to have been in touch. I have talked to more than one gynæcologist in recent times, and one of them particularly impressed me by saying that he would never take a fee of any kind for abortion. That viewpoint has been well brought out in earlier speeches. I should like to quote one particular gynæcologist who, like the others to whom I have spoken, is violently opposed to the Bill. He is a man who has performed some abortions and has refused many more. In the eyes of someone like this an abortion is something that one tries desperately hard to avoid performing; it is something that one does only in the last resort and in grave circumstances, when performance may be an evil but non-performance is a greater evil still.

This particular gynæcologist tells me that it has often been his painful task to refuse an abortion to a young woman, perhaps an unmarried young woman, in great distress. I gather that he has never regretted it afterwards, but he has always felt under a special obligation in those cases to see how he could help in a medical or psychological way. This gentleman, as I say, is vehemently opposed to the Bill. It embodies a point of view (and I speak with his authorisation) which is utterly opposed to his, which would make abortion an everyday affair, readily available for removing inconvenience or relieving anxiety.

I perhaps omitted to say that I am referring to someone whom the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, referred to in an earlier debate as "that noble doctor". I mean Dr. Alick Bourne, whose famous operation in 1938 initiated the whole modern history of this question. He told me, for example, that immediately after his acquittal in 1938 he was telephoned by countless young men who wanted abortions for girls whom they had got into trouble. They assumed that he was a sort of reach-me-off-the-peg abortionist. They did not realise that he was a very different sort of man, as would be the case with all other reputable gynæcologists. Dr. Bourne would call himself a Christian agnostic; but I believe that he and the Church of England are at one in this fundamental refusal to discard 2,000 years of overwhelming Christian emphasis on the sanctity of human life.

That wonderful booklet of the Church of England on abortion, which was sponsored and edited by the right reverend Prelate, the Bishop of Durham, has brought out very clearly, as was brought out to-day by more than one speaker, this big distinction between the Christian moral position in regard to abortion and that of the Pagan world. Here I think we are reaching deeper things still than the terms of this particular measure. I am, admittedly, shocked by the proposals in the present Bill, but I am far more horrified, and indeed terrified, by what I think may lie behind them. Indeed, we have already been warned by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, that if he and his friends had their way a much more extreme measure would be placed in front of us. I believe that there are gentlemen concerned with this proposal who would go much further than my dear friend Lord Silkin.

This brings me to my final point. If we pass this Bill in anything like this form, we are driving in the thin end of the wedge, whose final limit may well be foreseen by the promoters of the Bill, but, I would guess, by very few others, and perhaps by hardly anyone in this House. Does anyone think that if this Bill goes through with acclamation and general congratulation the trend against the sanctity of human life will stop there? I cannot believe that for a moment. It is surely no accident—I do not want to be personal—that the President of the Abortion Law Reform Society, and their most formidable intellectual, should be that brilliant, dedicated, high-minded man Professor Glanville Williams, who recently deployed the argument for euthanasia in front of millions on television.

On that subject, he wrote in his most famous book some years ago—and I have no reason to think that he would change these words: At present the problem has certainly not reached the degree of seriousness that would warrant an effort being made to change traditional attitudes towards the sanctity of life of the aged. Only the grimmest necessity could bring about a change"— that means, a change in the attitude towards the sanctity of the life of the aged— that … would probably cause apprehension and deep distress to many people and inflict a traumatic injury upon the accepted code of behaviour built up by 2,000 years of Christian religion. It may be, however, that as the problem becomes more acute it will itself cause a reversal of generally accepted values. So the execution time of the old people may not be so very far off.

The promoter of the Bill in another place, as we know, produced a fœtus in a test tube and dangled it in front of that House, and he insisted that the claims of this small object could not count against those of a mother. I wonder what would happen if such an operation were performed here. Would the possibility occur to any of us that a few years from now—perhaps a number of years, but still in a foreseeable number of years from now—one of us might be dragged here in his slobbering dotage and the House be asked whether there was much point, much social value, in keeping such a human being alive.

I have heard this Bill described as a symbol of radicalism. To my own political colleagues, in particular, but to all who count themselves progressive, may I say this: is there any evidence that society has progressed or become better in recent years? I hope—and I trust it is not too complacent—that in this country some evidence exists. There seems to be a greater reverence and respect for the individual human person. We seem, as a society, with all our faults, to be recognising our obligations more acutely towards all members, whether they appear individually to possess any special social value or not. Your Lordships will remember the words of the Gospel: But when thou makest a feast, call the poor, the maimed, the lame, the blind: And thou shalt he blessed … That is the Gospel, and I think that that is what we are struggling to move towards in our society. I think there are some indications, as I say, that we have moved towards that. It is surely not progress, but regression, if we begin to refuse to carry out obligations that have been previously recognised; if we decide to liquidate in future human beings, who would have been allowed to live, because of the possibility of their being born with a handicap, or because the economic circumstances are unpropitious. I am afraid that I should say that that was a step backwards, rather than a step forward, in human progress.

I have talked of the sanctity of human life. I have in mind, above all, the sanctity of helpless life, all forms of helpless life. The unborn child is the most helpless and most in need of the support of the community. I shall be asked, not unreasonably though perhaps rather roughly, whether I am genuinely in favour of abortion law reform at all. Yes, indeed. There are some who I respect most, like Dr. Bourne, who consider that the present law needs very little amendment. I should certainly be in favour of a change in the law which resulted in clarifying the existing law; in publicising the present legitimate facilities and, above all—as was suggested by the right reverend Prelate just now and by others—a change which induced women, particularly women not in a strong position in life, to go to seek advice and counsel from those best qualified to give it; in a change that produced greater access for working women of this country to those who can help and advise them in times of stress. Any such change would be welcome. But, my Lords, that we should pass a Bill whose inspiration runs flat contrary to 2,000 years of Christian history—and, may I add, 2,000 years of Christian and humanist respect for human life—God, in His mercy, forbid.

5.52 p.m.


My Lords, first of all, I should like to add my congratulations to the right reverend Prelate who has spoken to us for the first time this afternoon, to congratulate him on his speech and to hope that we shall hear him on many other occasions. I had a good many points to make which have already been made by other noble Lords, particularly the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and most eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Soper. I was very sorry that when Lord Soper was speaking the House was not quite full, and I hope that those who have come back to the House will read every word that he said to-morrow or the next day in Hansard, for it was a quite wonderful speech.

I was going to start by inquiring who were the people I should approach to find out whether a Bill of this kind was desirable and wanted. It would be the public, above all women of the public; general practitioners who see distress in the patient's own home; psychiatrists who have to deal with these problems, and social workers, of whom Lord Soper is, of course, an outstanding example. He has spoken for himself. Lord Silkin has told us, quite truthfully, that the majority, a very considerable majority, of general practitioners, and a very large majority of psychiatrists, are in favour of this Bill.

It is clear that one of the divisions of opinion, especially from the medical point of view, is whether we favour what my noble friend Lord Brock has described as "abortion for social or for non-medical reasons". I want to say something about that subject, because he has presented to us what he considers to be the surgeon's point of view, and what we know is the point of view of a very large number of gynæcologists, but by no means all gynæcologists, because some hold very different views.

First of all, I should like to know what are "social and non-medical reasons". In the way the Bill is worded at present the offending words, apparently, are: the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family". Surely, that is in fact a medical indication, because it refers to the physical or mental health …". But, even if this is interpreted as being a social rather than a medical provision, surely doctors for centuries have taken into account the social conditions of their patients before prescribing treatment for them. I know that I have always tried to do this and, what is more, I have always taught my students that they do not understand the full implications of a case unless they have taken into account the social state in which the patient lives, and every other relevant feature of the case. So I should not be one who would be ashamed of doing an abortion, within the provisions of this Bill; though I, as a physician, would not, of course, be called upon to carry it out.

But the real weakness of this conservative point of view which has been so ably stated is that it does absolutely nothing about the dreadful number of illegal abortions which are being performed annually. So many of them are done under circumstances of secrecy that we do not know the numbers. But those who are in a position to make some kind of estimate think that something like 50,000 to 100,000 illegal abortions are being procured in this country annually at the present time. I hope that those who are inclined to talk about the sanctity of human life will remember those 50,000 to 100,000 human foetuses which are being destroyed annually under conditions of either squalor or dreadful extravagance. And I cannot feel that I would be in favour of a grossly emasculated Bill which would leave us with the status quo and do absolutely nothing to lessen this number of illegal abortions.

Here I would refer to the speech of the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, who in the first place doubted whether the Bill would have much effect on the number of illegal abortions. Well, as this Bill has not been passed, and we have not tried it out for any number of years, I cannot, of course, forecast what the effect will be in this country. But, as your Lordships are all aware, in many countries in Eastern Europe very permissive abortion Acts have been in operation for quite a long time. Professor Cernoch, in Prague, estimates that the number of illegal abortions has fallen from 100,000 annually before the law was changed, to about 4,000.


My Lords, will the noble Lord forgive me for interrupting for one moment? Are there not cases also which show that where there has been a change in the abortion law the number of illegal operations has increased?


My Lords, I do not know of such cases, and I cannot answer.




I am afraid I do not know of such cases. But I do know also that in parts of this country where the law has been rather freely interpreted and in some other parts of the world—Denmark may be an exception; I do not know—the liberalising of the abortion laws has led to a drop in the total number of abortions; because women who have been through abortions are more inclined to be careful of contraceptive devices and to avoid a second abortion.

The noble Viscount also asked another question, that is: Under the best possible conditions, what are the risks of an abortion at the present time?—because he feels they are not negligible. Again, I did not come armed with figures about that. I am sure that the figures for this country exist, but I can only quote from the same document from which I was reading just now, that in the circumstances under which abortions are carried out legally in some of the Eastern European countries the death rate is as low as two in 100,000. This is very much less than the death rate from pregnancy in this country, although we congratulate ourselves, and quite rightly, on the fact that the death rate from pregnancy is extremely low—and, of course, it is very much less than the death rate, and, above all, the morbidity rate is very much less, from illegal operations. I think those are all the points that I need make since so much has already been said, so eloquently.

6.1 p.m.


My Lords, I hesitated whether I should address your Lordships, despite the fact that I had put my name down. I hesitated for two reasons. First, because, unfortunately, I was not able to be here during the earlier speeches and, secondly, because I am another Roman Catholic speaker, and it has been said that if all the Roman Catholics speak they will overdo their case and prejudice the situation of many who might wish to act otherwise. But, my Lords, I have felt compelled to speak—and I assure your Lordships it will be very briefly—just in case something that I say might, in some small way, influence one or other of your Lordships in the direction of the Amendment which has been moved this afternoon.

I am not going to talk on the Catholic position; the noble Earl the Leader of the House has done that. What I want to talk about for a minute or two is my worry that all this has been too hasty. I know that a Bill initiated in this House came before your Lordships a year ago. I know that there has been great debate in another place on this Bill. At the end of it all, I wonder whether another place are really happy at what they are putting before your Lordships to-day. I think it is significant that, as I understand it, the opposition to this Bill in another place has grown over the months—and evidence of that is to be found in the voting figures. I have heard it said, too, that at the end of the deliberations on the Bill in another place some people took the view: "Oh well, let it go forward as it is because it can be amended by the Lords in Committee stage when it is before them". I do not feel that that is a satisfactory way in which we should consider a Bill of this grave importance.

We are to have the Committee stage next week. Can we seriously tackle it in one night, or even two nights? I know that the Chief Whip has said that we can go on longer in this Session or be called back before the beginning of the next Session. But this is a difficult thing to ask, although I think perhaps it is right that we should do so. The point I am trying to make is that I have the feeling that we are being asked to consider something in too great haste, and something that has not been properly digested.

Turning to the Bill itself, comment has been made about questions such as Clause 1(1)(b) relating to the mentally or physically handicapped children and the substantial risk of such children being born. I noted that several noble Lords suggested that in some way the word "substantial" should be amended because they were not happy about that subsection as it stands, even although they may support the Bill in general.

We heard the noble Lord, Lord Soper, say that if we pass this Bill, blackmailing and the other awful conditions often associated with abortions at the present time will be alleviated. The noble Lord, Lord Platt, said that experience in some of the Eastern European countries showed that all of this would be better once abortion was made legal. On the other hand, the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, pointed out that this is not the situation in Denmark, and I believe it is also not the situation in some of the other Scandinavian countries.

I feel that a matter like this is of absolutely first importance and that we should establish whether by passing a Bill like this, we are in fact going to succeed in cutting out many—although certainly not all—of the illegal abortions. I do not believe it will have that effect. I believe that many women will continue to have illegal abortions, quite simply because they do not want their husbands or their fathers and mothers to know the state they are in. I think this is a question of fact which needs much more careful investigation before we come to our conclusion.

I understand the feelings of those who want to remedy the present tragic position. However, I have been struck by the fact that so many of your Lordships who support the Bill and who have spoken to-day have expressed doubts about one or other aspect of the Bill and would like to change it. This is a Private Member's Bill. Is that the right way to handle a Bill of this significance? If it is, should we not all be given a chance to know much more about the facts? Is not the suggestion made by the noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh, that a Royal Commission should be appointed to tell us all of this, one that we should consider very carefully? This could be achieved in some degree if the Amendment which has been moved to-day were successful.

So far as I am concerned, this is a Bill of a matter of life and death. Some people may quarrel with that description. I understand that, and I do not want to get into theological argument—or whatever is the right expression. I am quite clear, with the noble Earl the Leader of the House, that the sanctity of human life is going to be affected by what we do in relation to a Bill to reform the laws relating to abortion. Sooner or later other things will follow, unless we are extremely careful. My Lords, for these reasons I hope that what seems to me to be altogether too hasty a measure will be considered further, and that the Amendment which has been moved is one that will commend itself to your Lordships.

6.9 p.m.


My Lords, I hope the noble Earl, Lord Perth, will forgive me if I follow his somewhat emetic accents about this Bill. He has described the Bill to us as being "ill-digested" and then he proceeded to urge upon this House that we should support the Amendment, thus defeating the Bill and throwing it out. If anything that this House has attempted to assimilate is ill-digested, surely the thing to do is not to try to persuade the House to vomit it immediately. I should have thought the correct therapeutic procedure would be to encourage the House to proceed with the digestive processes, perhaps even to assist in those digestive processes, but not to persist in carrying the Amendment and thus destroying the whole effect of the Bill.

May I say at the outset that I yield to no Member of this House, not even my noble friend Lord Longford, in upholding the sanctity of human life; but just because of that I should hesitate to inflict upon your Lordships my own very deep religious convictions about the whole question of abortion. As a doctor throughout the whole of my professional life, I should have felt myself at every turn restricted in carrying out my work if I had had to inflict on all my patients my own religious convictions. Surely the whole usefulness of anyone who tries to render service to the community in any medical capacity must depend on his own ability to enter into the minds and feelings and sufferings of the patients he is called upon to treat.

I wish to intervene only very briefly at this stage in order to extend a very tepid, rather than a warm, welcome to the Bill in its present form. In my view, it still stands badly in need of amending, even though, as the noble Earl, Lord Perth, said, it has reached us in an illdigested—perhaps I may say more respectfully, a somewhat predigested—state after its passage in another place. There are one or two comments I would venture to make. The first is how much I welcome the conscience clause, Clause 4, whereby any doctor is enabled to opt out of performing an operation to which he has a conscientious objection. It is utterly monstrous, in my opinion, that a doctor should be compelled by any Act of Parliament to perform an operation of which he disapproves. I can conceive of no idea more repugnant to the profession as a whole, nor any grosser interference with the doctor's right to freedom of judgment in deciding whether or not to carry out an operation in which the patient's life may be at stake. Therefore, although in many respects I believe this Bill is greatly inferior to the Bill which passed your Lordships' House, I am glad to see the insertion of this conscience clause in the Bill, and hope it will receive during Committee stage full consideration by the whole of this House.

May I at this stage say how utterly wrong I believe it would be on the part of any of us to attempt to analyse a doctor's conscience. Whether he raises conscientious objections to performing an abortion on religious grounds, on social grounds, even, as the noble Lord, Lord Brock, said, on political grounds—perhaps the lowest assessment of all—I feel the mere fact of the inclusion of this conscience clause in itself should suffice. When it comes to a question of military service we have a tribunal to try conscientious objectors, but surely there is no parallel to that in the passing of this Bill.

The fault, so far as I can see, of Clause 4 lies in its wording. While I would emphatically support that no doctor should be compelled against the demands of his conscience to perform an operation, I would point out that this clause in its present form goes on to say that no nurse or hospital employee should be required to participate. I think this is a clause which ought to be gone into very carefully during Committee stage. In my present approach to the Bill, I would say that no doctor should be compelled to perform any operation authorised by the Act, but it may grossly interfere with the efficiency and running of a hospital if any nurse, who does not actually perform the operation and may only be present in case of emergency or may be attending in a minor capacity, or even a hospital employee who may be required to wheel a trolley into an operating theatre, is to be included in the conscience clause embodied at this stage of the Bill.

The second improvement I welcome in the Bill, with all due deference to the greater authority of the noble Lord, Lord Brock, is in its new Title. I have all along in our previous discussions welcomed a Bill couched in minimal terms which would command as wide support as possible, not only in both Houses of Parliament but also in the country as a whole. I think the time for such a Bill is long overdue, to enshrine in the Statute Book legal decisions which have been long accepted but which still leave a doctor under a risk of the severest penalties and the utmost anxieties. I hope that out of this Bill there will grow a large volume of case law which may be placed on the Statute Book in some future Bill at some future date when public opinion is more ready to accept it without controversy. I would now strongly oppose any attempt to change the Title of this Bill to its former title of the Abortion Bill, and this I say with the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Brock. I earnestly hope that this House, despite all its reforming zeal, will resist any such change.

It would be quite false to call it an Abortion Bill. Abortions occur every day in all kinds of circumstances. There are threatened abortions which do not happen, much to the relief of the parents concerned, and are often saved by the skill and the management of the doctor and nurses in attendance. There are inevitable abortions, which occur despite all the care which medical skill and medical science can bring to bear. Let us remember that this is only a limited Bill dealing with a limited number of abortions. It concerns only those abortions where active medical intervention is required. Therefore, the title of "Abortion Bill" to my mind is a misnomer and a misleading use of the word. I think that any sponsors of a change of Title would be very well advised to drop the word "abortion". After all, the term "medical" includes the term "surgical", because no one is allowed to practise medicine in this country unless he has already a qualification in surgery. And perhaps again, if I might be forgiven, since medicine is an older science than surgery—or virtually they may be recognised as almost Siamese twins—I should prefer to retain the title "Medical" in the Bill.

There are, I think, one or two retrograde provisions in the Bill as it stands. I have a great deal of deep hesitation in accepting in Clause 1 that another registered medical practitioner will be sufficient to legalise abortion, and, like my noble friend Lady Summerskill, I should very much prefer that far more stringent provisions should be made about the qualification of the doctor who is brought in to give a second opinion. This clause as it stands almost constitutes a medical abortionist's charter. Ever since the Bill was first discussed in the House I have been gravely disturbed about the gross anomaly of the buying of abortions by those who can afford to pay for them. With these few remarks I should like at this stage to reserve my intentions to assist in moulding—I almost said in mauling—this Bill about quite a good deal, and far more heartily, during its Committee stage.

6.20 p.m.


My Lords, the last time I had the opportunity and the honour to address your Lordships' House was to speak about Lord Silkin's Bill on the subject we have before us to-day. I am not very good at quoting the Scriptures, but did not somebody say: My father beat you with whips, but I will beat you with scorpions"? I was not particularly keen on the previous Bill, but I find this one immeasurably worse. I feel particularly strongly on this matter because I live right among the sort of people who might be most affected by it. I am a village priest in an industrial northern town. I know so many good and useful people who, had this Bill been law 20, 30 or 40 years ago, might never have seen the light of day. I see every day children who come from the same sort of background, growing up with the better educational facilities that are offered to them to-day, to be just as useful—and perhaps better—members of society in the future.

There are four points that I want to make about this Bill, and I will deal with them as succinctly as possible. First, I know that Her Majesty's Government did not sire this dreadful infant, but they have at least become most benevolent god-parents in point of the time allotted to it. But there, however, their benevolence seems to have run dry, if one may judge by the debate reported in Hansard of another place last week. There were several rather acrimonious complaints that the Bill is badly drafted, and that it had not the benefit of the Government draftsmen. I will not point out any particular complaints, because your Lordships can read them in Hansard, if you so wish. But what one wonders is how this Bill is to be operated in practice when it is already fraught with such difficulties in interpretation.

My second point is that this horrid infant which we are asked to bring to birth seems to present a blank cheque for abortion on demand. There would appear to be no circumstances in which abortion cannot be allowed so long as the would-be—or should I say "the would-not-be"—mother can simulate a sufficiently convincing degree of nerves to move her medical advisers to act in good faith. Should they refuse such action on grounds of conscience, whether based on religious belief or on their considered medical opinion, they have hanging over their heads the burden of proof of their conscientious objection, presumably before a court of law, if the disappointed lady goes off to enlist the services of her back-street practitioners and things go wrong. In other words, this Bill appears to me to give a strong incentive to the medical profession to plump for the easy way out.

Thirdly, I object to this Bill because I do not believe that it represents the will of the majority of ordinary straightforward English men and women, or indeed of the ordinary rank and file of the medical professions, the G.P.s whose practice is, like mine, among real people in their homes. The reason for this is, I think, that there are far too few safeguards. Most people, like most of your Lordships, would be content with a Bill that puts on the Statute Book what is at present the allowable practice—the sort of law, in fact, which has a bias in favour of preserving the life of the unborn babe but which allows of exceptions in exceptional circumstances. What people object to in this Bill is that its provisions militate against the unborn babe ever being born.

The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, included in his Bill a clause demanding the mother's permission. I see no such clause here. It appears to be left entirely to the doctors. Again, unless my memory is at fault, there was under his Bill some time limit after which the abortion could not be performed. In this Bill, apparently, the doctors will be permitted to kill the child up to the day before term, provided that they can act in good faith. It is things of this sort that honest Englishmen find objectionable. But here they are bundled into a sort of package deal which makes many people who want a part of this Bill take the whole for fear of losing the bit they want. Fourthly, and lastly, my Christian conscience forces me to take a stand against the provisions of this Bill. I find myself quite unable to accept the theory propounded by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Exeter on the last occasion when this matter came before your Lordships' House, and apparently the reverend and noble Lord, Lord Soper; namely, that the unborn babe has a sort of contingent or potential right to life. For me, it has a real or actual (to use the scholastic term) right to life because it has a human soul.

I will not go into the theology of the matter; it might bore your Lordships. But I would just say this. After following for many years the opinion, I think, of Saint Augustine, who held that the soul of a man was infused 40 days after conception, whereas that of a woman (with apologies to the noble Ladies present) only after 80 days, modern theologians nowadays, relying on the findings of scientists and of such gentlemen as the embryologist whom the noble Viscount, Lord Barrington, quoted, hold that the soul is infused quite shortly after conception; that the presence of the soul constitutes a human being, and gives that human being rights—a belief which I understand is shared, at least implicitly, by the formulators of our laws of property, inheritance and even, I need hardly remind your Lordships, in the case of the late King of Spain, succession. The right to human life is one of the basic rights of man, and he who infringes it infringes the Commandments of God; and surely not even as august a body as your Lordships' House should arrogate to itself the power to change the provisions of the Decalogue.

May I, for a brief moment, indulge in a little constructive, rather than destructive, criticism of this Bill, which is so obviously founded on great humanitarianism but, I suggest, is not the Bill that is needed. We want a Bill which is a straightforward Bill, protecting the baby's life except in exceptional circumstances. We want a great improvement in our social services. First, we want a nationwide campaign to inform women of the real dangers of abortion, especially when performed in un-ideal circumstances. Secondly, we want a much better service for unmarried mothers, to include some provision for a mother who cannot pay for it, to leave her normal surroundings at a much earlier time than is now possible so that she can avoid unpleasant publicity. Thirdly, we want a more realistic adoption service, which gives security of tenure to the adopters. Many to-day are unwilling to adopt a baby which may be taken away from them just as they are beginning to love it.

My Lords, I have spoken for longer than I had intended. I will conclude with an experience I had this morning in the minute Northamptonshire village which provides me with my title to address your Lordships. Last night there had evidently been some discussion of this Bill at the local, and the fact that I should probably be here came up. I met an old chap in the road this morning. He gave me a message from the village elders: tell his Lordship that the most suitable candidate for an abortion is the Bill itself. I hope that your Lordships will accept that advice.

6.29 p.m.


My Lords, I will detain your Lordships for only a short time this evening. I believe that there always will exist human problems refractory to the most earnest efforts of those most anxious to resolve them. I believe that this truth must be accepted, and that tidy precision of aims may be unattainable. I most earnestly believe that a Bill for the legislation of termination of pregnancy faces us with this fact. The sheer difficulty of attempting to codify the grounds for termination in precise terms has been overwhelming. The consequence is a Bill which is, to me, horrifyingly permissive. Nothing I have heard or read, and certainly no personal experience in my own professional life, has persuaded me of the need for precise codification. I must therefore reject it. All indications for termination can be covered by clauses safeguarding the pregnant woman from danger to her life and health, physical or mental, immediate or remote. This would simply mean the translation of the existing Case Law into Statute Law.

It has been argued that such a limited Bill would leave too much to the discretion of members of my profession. But the medical profession has been exercising discretion over matters of life and death for a long time. Public approval has not so far been withheld from this inevitable aspect of our work. I am sure that it will not surprise or dismay your Lordships that when a patient is suffering intolerable pain from, say, advanced cancer, pain-killing drugs are humanely prescribed; nor that the alleviating dose may become so high that a merciful release happens sooner than nature alone would have permitted. That is an example of medical discretion. I imagine that few of your Lordships would support a Bill at some future time which sought to codify the precise indications for such humanity.

Let there be a simple Bill, a short Bill, directed solely to the proposition that the mother's health must in all respects be safeguarded, and let my profession be allowed discretion in its interpretation. Such a Bill would have my sincerest support. There are only a small number of Members of your Lordships' House involved in the day-to-day assessment of these problems. I am one of those. I am unable to support this Bill in its present form.

6.33 p.m.


My Lords, I have an interest to declare in this subject, in that I happen to be the father of a child (and I have four, so I must be careful how I word what I have to say) who would not be alive to-day had this Bill been law just after the child was conceived. I will say that this child is one of my favourite children, if I may put it that way, and so far as I know enjoys being alive—it is normal I hope. Anyone having that experience, and realising what this Bill could have done to a child of one's own, is bound to feel more strongly on the subject than perhaps is the case if one is merely referring to somebody else. I am told that in cases of rubella there is a six to one chance that the child will be perfectly normal; and there is a further twenty to one chance that the abnormality will be minor. Even in cases where a child is born with disabilities, who can forget that poignant letter from the four spastics which appeared in the Daily Telegraph when we were discussing this subject on an earlier occasion?

Having discussed this subject with several of my medical acquaintances, I have not found one of them who is fully in support of this Bill. In fact two of them have continually bombarded me with cuttings from the medical Press, and so on, on the subject. With your Lordships' permission I should like to quote from just two of these letters which I think emphasise the point I am trying to make. The first letter is from a lady doctor, written in January last, and the point she makes there is: How is the doctor to know that the patient (and any relative or friend who backs her up) is not lying about the alleged misfortune which makes or will make the bearing of a child intolerable? These are not rhetorical questions but would arise all over the country the day the Bill became law. I have personally known women invent heartrending stories of brutal husbands or landlords or rape by mental defectives, even of risk of hereditary transmission of disease, and get away with their fictions. Then the writer goes on to say that doctors have not the set-up to find out the truth of these stories which are going to be put to them. I think this is a point which perhaps has been overlooked. She ends up by saying: Here the temptation would surely be for the puzzled medical officer or general practioner to sit back and meekly accept the role of 'sucker'. It seems to me that the proposed clause would operate simply as a clumsy method of 'abortion on demand'". The other letter was from a doctor in Wales, and was published at about the time of the Second Reading debate in another place. The letter says: How much, might we ask, do those who voted for the Second Reading of the Bill realise that the liberalisation of abortion laws in certain other countries, such as Denmark, has not appreciably reduced the number of illegal abortions? Have they fully considered the distress caused by such tragedies as the occurrence of a fatal pulmonary embolism after abortion under the best possible conditions or of a distressing post-abortal 'guilt' complex developing later? … How many politicians have any first-hand experience of the often surprising as well as gratifying manner in which many women later become reconciled to an 'unwanted' child and thank their medical attendant for refusing to consider abortion? That brings me to the point which doctors have made to me, that in the first three months many women are feeling perfectly "seasick" the whole time and will do anything. But after that their maternal instinct takes over and they do not wish to have their child aborted.

When we were discussing this subject last year I had staying with me a young Australian doctor who had just completed four years in a women's hospital in Melbourne. I gave him the Bill, in the form it was then, to read, and I asked his opinion. He said he thought that not enough research had been done into the subject before the Bill was drafted and that he saw a great deal of connection between the very high rate of female suicide in countries which had the easiest abortion laws. I think that rather follows on from what I was trying to say before. Another local general practitioner tells me that he has already been troubled by many people who think that the Bill is already on the Statute Book and who are getting very annoyed that he is not arranging things for them already. He says that he reckons this business may develop into an avalanche of demand once this Bill becomes law.

I wonder whether the Ministry have made, or are making, the necessary arrangements. Is that why there is a team in the United States now trying to get doctors to come back? I personally feel that if this Bill is inflicted on the medical profession there will be a good many more of them emigrating. I consider this to be an abominable "abortion" of a Bill, not because I belong to the minority who believe that fertilisation of the ovum completes the genetic endowment of an individual (for, as has beery pointed out to your Lordships' size is no criterion) but because I see in it a continuing process, by which our scientific humanists—if that is what they call themselves—are inflicting their views on the rest of us, and trying to make them laws. Are sterilisation, abortion and euthanasia all to be legalised, perhaps; all to be put in the hands of the State? What a gift for a pragmatic politician like Hitler! But to those of us who have simpler beliefs, this is just man in all his arrogance allocating to himself those functions which heretofore have been considered the province of the Almighty.

6.41 p.m.


My Lords, it is not my intention at this late stage to add to the views which I have already expressed on this subject in a number of the debates which have taken place on the Bills of the noble Lord, Lord Silkin. But there have been developments in the whole world situation since those debates took place, and I feel that it is fair to mention them as they have not been mentioned here to-day. Since those previous debates I, like every other Member of your Lordships' House, have had opportunities of discussing this Bill and the whole problem of abortion with other people; and I have had the opportunity of discussing the matter with one well-known gynaecologist in the North.

I believe no speaker to-day has mentioned the cloud of the world population crisis; the fact that humanity must face a doubling of the population of this planet by the year 2,000. This is a matter which I was given to think upon by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Soper. We must remember that this is a factor in life to-day, and it must be. There is another factor which has not been mentioned to-day, but which, nevertheless, is information to our hand, and that is the experience of a widespread abortion policy in Japan in relation to population control.

Be that as it may, I think every speaker is agreed that the law in England is in an unsatisfactory state. Despite what the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, said, I feel that the present Bill is not so good as the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, when it left this House. But that is a matter of opinion. The fact remains that the Bill which we are considering to-day, and to which we are asked to give a Second Reading—and the noble Viscount, Lord Barrington, has suggested that we should not—will obviously require amendment before it can be acceptable. But I believe that the Bill should be given a Second Reading. The Bill applies to Scotland, but the curious fact is that it will not much affect the situation either way there. Although it was discussed in our previous debates, I think nobody has mentioned to-day the Aberdeen experiment of Professor Dugald Baird, of which the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, whose absence from the debate to-day was mentioned by the noble Baroness. Lady Summerskill, made much in the previous deliberations.

It must be remembered that under the Scottish legal system, whereby a prosecution is in the hands of the procurator fiscal, an indictment cannot be laid unless evil intent can be proved. That enables the medical man in Scotland to operate, in the words of the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, without the shadow of the coroner. But this has not enabled Aberdeen to have abortion on demand, which would be quite wrong. Some speakers have said that this Bill will virtually mean abortion on demand. But that is not the case, any more than it is the case that any girl or woman who wants to keep her baby will be refused permission to keep it. Of course she can keep it. But this experiment in Aberdeen has taken the back-street abortionist right out of the picture. One new factor which has come my way since we last debated the matter is that this dreadful toll upon the women of this country, in terms of the back-street abortionists and the efforts which have to be made to recover distressed cases, is an enormous drain upon the reserve blood bank system in this country. But as it stands to-day this Bill will not eliminate back-street abortionists, and it therefore requires amendment.

I found myself very much in sympathy with what the noble Lord, Lord Soper, said, and not only in the examples which he quoted. They rang curiously true to me, because they correspond very closely with the case laid by Professor Baird in Aberdeen, who pointed out that nine out of ten of his patients who are asking for abortions are women who already have three children. He goes further: he has a system whereby women can be prevented from having further children, though that is reversible. In my belief, this is all done in the interests of humanity.

The Amendment says "six months", whereas the Motion says "now". I believe I have said enough to convey to your Lordships that I feel that "now" is the correct word; but not "now" for the passing of this Bill, but "now" for a Second Reading of it. If the Committee stage does not produce a satisfactory measure, then the Bill can be refused a Third Reading. I was greatly impressed by the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and perhaps he is right in saying that this is not the proper Bill. It might very well be replaced by a shorter Bill. But no time is going to be lost by doing what the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, has asked us to do, which is to give the Bill a Second Reading, and I for one will support him in the Lobby.

6.47 p.m.


My Lords, I have followed the debate on this subject in this House and have listened to debates in another place, and here we are now with the Bill as sent to us from the House of Commons. Without doubt we are getting into the position this evening of having to vote on this Bill, and, as a Back-Bencher with no legal knowledge or professional standing in any way, my only qualification being that I have been a Member of your Lordships' House for over twenty years, I should like to try to help myself and a few other Members by outlining what I feel is meant by this Bill as it is now presented to us. All we can do, as laymen, is to listen to the medical experts and others—I think we have all been deeply impressed by what has been said by the most reverend Primate and the right reverend Prelate—and then make up our minds whether we support the Second Reading or want to have the Bill thrown out.

I believe that we should get this Bill into Committee. I am certain there is a great deal of work we can do on it, and we shall then be able to resolve many of the problems. After all, we in this House are fortunate in that we have the most eminent members of the legal profession to help us. I know this Bill is a Private Member's Bill. The drafting, I am certain, has been complicated by the points of view of another place. The Government have, in a sense, been sitting on the touchline. But here we are fortunate, and I think that if we can push ahead and get the Bill to the Committee stage, then, as I have said, a lot of hard work can be done on it.

May I just for one moment turn to an aspect of the Bill which worries me?—and I am certain it worries many of your Lordships. As the Bill stands, it appears to me—and this has been said by many noble Lords to-night—that illegal abortion will not be cut out. I do not know how this problem can be dealt with. This is not a man's territory, after all. We cannot visualise how a woman can suffer in various ways when she has conceived a child. To me, there is something appalling in the thought of these women, of whatever age, though especially young women, who, having conceived a child, for one reason or another get desperate and then, in the end, go to a back-street abortionist. The mental suffering such a girl goes through may mark her for life. The operation may be successful, she may not get any infection and she may recover; but the memory of the sordid conditions under which the operation was done and everything else must, I think, remain as a mark in the back of her mind for many years afterwards. If, somehow, we can tighten the law so that we can, within reason, do away with illegal abortion, so much the better.

As has already been said in the debate to-day, one of the problems is that when one is trying to legislate on such a matter the wording of clauses is very difficult, and probably the only way of completely cutting out illegal abortion would be to say, "Very well; we shall have abortion on demand". But this, to me, is a shattering thought, and I do not think that any legislator would be prepared to introduce such a Bill into Parliament at any time. So, my Lords, as I say, I will support the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, to-night on this Second Reading, hoping that in Committee, when we shall have a tussle I am certain, progress will be made.

6.54 p.m.


My Lords, I hope that my short speech will not spoil the recent average of about ten minutes. In the first part of this Bill there are seven grounds for termination. They all amount to risks of one sort or another, not one of them amounting to certainty. Three are risks to the health of the mother; two are risks to the health of her children already born and still alive; and two more are risks to the child in her womb, alive but not yet born. In enumerating these I have taken "mental" and "physical" as separate risks.

With one grave omission, the risks to the mother incorporate very nearly completely what a large number of your Lordships, I think, believe to be the Case Law, which could well be confirmed by Statute Law. The omission, however, is important. In all cases of risk of in- jury or affliction there are two factors to be considered, both of them questions of gravity—the gravity of the risk and the gravity of the affliction. In this Bill as drafted, death is one of the consequences to the mother that is mentioned, but there is nothing to indicate the seriousness of the injury to health, although in two other parts "substantial risk" is mentioned in connection with health. This omission, I suggest, is too important to ignore.

There is in every pregnancy a risk to life and a risk of injury to health. If there were not, why do we fathers go stamping up and down, when our wives are confined, in a state of extreme anxiety lest some harm should befall the woman we love? If the Bill is left as it stands, not specifying the gravity of the risk, then I suggest that it is abortion on demand. Until I heard the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, to-day I thought that that was what he probably wanted, but he assured us that that was not so. Therefore, surely something must be added to indicate the gravity of risk. It should perhaps be "substantial risk", as is mentioned elsewhere in connection with health; and perhaps "serious injury "or" permanent injury". If that were done, part of the Bill would be altered to correspond with what I believe most people desire.

With regard to the risks to the children already born who are alive, the challenge to this on medical grounds was, I thought, disposed of, or at least severely knocked about, by the noble Lord, Lord Brock, and on social grounds by the noble and learned Viscount, Lord Dilhorne; so I will not add anything except to say that I agree, I think, very heartily with both noble Lords.

With regard to the risk to the unborn child living in the womb, during the course of our previous debates on this subject there was sent to me by a friend of mine at the B.M.A. a paper by a pediatrician which indicated a number of factors about the grave risk of deformity or abnormality which I had not previously realised. The first factor mentioned was that the chance of two healthy, married people producing a child suffering from grave abnormality, no matter how healthy they are, is one in forty. This paper suggested that once you get a risk greater than one in twenty you come increasingly near the point where you must consider it a serious risk, and consider terminating the pregnancy.

There are unquestionably some pædiatricians who would say that in cases involving the risk of gross abnormality a proportion of one in ten certainly represented a grave and substantial risk. To me, it is horrifying that ten infants can be destroyed because there is a risk of one of them being gravely deformed. I am wondering whether this aspect of the matter has been sufficiently examined, and is sufficiently known. I seem to remember that on one occasion during the last debates on this subject the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, agreed that there might be a number of healthy children—"healthy pre-children", I think he would have called them—disposed of in order that the risk of one grave deformity might be avoided.

My Lords, with this in mind I suggest that three matters have come to light which require further investigation and would fully justify the setting up of the Royal Commission suggested by the noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh. The first I have mentioned, the pediatrician's study of pre-natal dangers and abnormalities of a grave sort. The second is the matter mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, in connection with the gynæcologists, and the third is in regard to mental indications. At the time of the previous debate on this subject, a consultant psychiatrist in a group of hospitals in Birmingham came to London to discuss with me the results of his experiments. He claimed that a substantial proportion of psychiatrists (and we must remember that this is a new field of medical practice which has developed greatly since the last war) will say that there are no psychiatric indications for the termination of pregnancy; that if a woman is unstable the termination of her pregnancy is just as likely to make her worse as to make her better, and is likely to make permanent what otherwise would have been temporary.

The doctor in question was not a person of my faith; not a Roman Catholic; he was a Jew. He assured me that he has no particular help in his field from any Roman Catholic and that this body of opinion is increasing. The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, said—I am sure correctly—that 60 per cent. of psychiatrists were in favour of the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill or something like it. My estimate, before I heard him, was that from 25 to 33 per cent. are very strongly against it; that these numbers are increasing, and that a few years ago they would all have been in favour of it. Therefore I am going to support the noble Viscount, Lord Barrington. I do not think it is possible to amend this Bill suitably in the time.

Before I sit down I will say a word of defence against what I might call the disparaging note in the otherwise admirable speech of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, when he talked of the pagan world and the contrasts in standards. I have come across a pagan nation in Africa whose attitude in these matters could be a lesson to us all. In that case, from the moment a wife is known by the normal signs to be pregnant her husband may not have intercourse with her; and this veto, or taboo, continues until the child is two. The child is weaned at a special weaning ceremony (the weaning is dependent not on the woman starving and having no milk, but on a national custom) which takes place about two years after the birth of the child. Here is what one might call a model of family planning and of respect for woman's maternity and for the creature in her womb. These people, to whom Christ was unknown when they did these things, hold the fœtus in the womb to be the coming race, to be nursed and supported by the whole nation. It is not everywhere that pagans have been abominable. There are places where they can provide a lesson to all of us. I must add that the penalty for intercourse during the prohibited period was death. It was not always inflicted, but that was the punishment prescribed.

7.5 p.m.


My Lords, we have heard many speeches against this Bill; I am going to be one of the minority speaking in favour of it. Listening to the debate, I think the opponents of the Bill fall into two categories: there are those who do not oppose the Bill in principle, who agree that the existing law is archaic and needs reform but who feel that the drafting of the Bill is unsatisfactory and that the subject should be further studied before legislation is enacted; and there are those who believe that abortion is wrong in principle in almost any circumstances. It is true that this Bill does not appeal to all those in favour of reform, including a proportion of medical opinion. But it would be difficult, I think, if not impossible, to produce a Bill which did. There will always be some disagreement among the experts about the precise circumstances in which a pregnancy should be terminated. In any case, the Bill has not been hurriedly produced; it has been hammered out over a period of many months, after much heart-searching and after a great deal of argument—in fact, since November. 1965. It is by no means certain that further discussion will mean a better Bill.

Whatever defects the existing Bill may have, it can hardly be denied that it will help put an end to many of the anomalies, injustices and abuses which I think even the opponents of the Bill admit exist under the present law. I shall not repeat the details of those injustices; they are widely known and have been well covered this afternoon. But surely most of us will agree that the present position, whereby ability to procure an abortion depends on the length of the purse, is a terrible reflection on our society in the mid-twentieth century, and that the Bill, whatever its defects, goes a long way towards curing such a state of affairs. Whatever the law may say, abortions are carried out and will continue to be carried out; just as, in relation to a subject which was recently before the House, homosexual practices between consenting adults have continued despite the law. In both cases, unless the law moves forward with public opinion—and we know in both cases what public opinion is—the law itself is brought into disrepute.

There remain those who object to the Bill on grounds of principle, and obviously, one must respect the motives on which their objections are based. It is difficult to argue about this. It really boils down to the value, or importance, or even perhaps the sanctity, which one attaches to the human fœtus when, as I think the noble Lord, Lord Brock, said, it is three months old, which is the average age when abortion now takes place. I believe that the fundamental test should be whether or not the child is wanted by the mother. That is not quite the same thing as approving of abortion on demand, although I agree it comes very close to it. Under the Bill as drafted at present, a person who wanted an abortion on demand could well be argued out of it by the two medical practitioners whom she would have to consult.

My Lords, I strongly support this Bill, and I hope, therefore, that it will be enacted, if not in its present form, at least in a form very like it. It will not put an end to backstairs abortions but it will vastly reduce the number. A number of speakers have stressed that it will not end them, but surely even if it reduced them it would do a great deal of good; and I think it will bring immense relief and comfort to countless women who, because of an unwanted pregnancy, suffer untold mental anguish and, on occasions, even death. I think that the sponsors of this Bill ought to be warmly congratulated on the prodigious effort they have made, and I very much hope that the Bill will receive a Second Reading.

7.13 p.m.


My Lords, not the least satisfactory feature of this debate is that we have had some 22 speeches in the space of four and a half hours, and they have ranged over the whole spectrum of opinion. They have had this in common, that every speaker to whom we have listened so far has expressed very firmly held and deeply held opinions and convictions. In the speech to which your Lordships will now listen—which I hope will have your sympathy—I shall try very hard to express no kind of opinion at all, either on my own behalf or that of the Government. If I do that and satisfy the protagonists on both sides, it will at least be a minor miracle, but I shall do my best.

Until I listened to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Vernon, I do not think that I heard anyone congratulate my noble friend, Lord Silkin on introducing this his third Bill on the subject. I congratulate him in that for the third time he has moved the Second Reading of a Bill to amend the law on abortion, and particularly (I think your Lordships will all join with me in this) I am delighted that my noble friend has sufficiently recovered from a severe illness once more to assay this heavy task, because it is indeed a heavy task. Whether you agree with my noble friend or not, perseverance of that kind deserves great respect and sympathy.

I should also like to extend the warmest congratulations to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham on a first-class maiden speech; not only a very good maiden speech, but, in my opinion, one of the two really outstanding speeches in this debate. I thought the other outstanding speech was that of my noble friend Lord Soper. The right reverend Prelate spoke from his very great experience on this subject and his deep thought, and he brought forth a very important point, a vitally important point, about the the conscience clause. In his own graphic words he said that it would be tragic if the inclusion of the conscience clause here—that is in Clause 4—could be used so that one man's advice could be another man's oppressor. I understand that in another place this clause was not only the result of a compromise, but virtually a last minute compromise, and the point to which the right reverend Prelate has drawn attention has, of course, occurred to the Government. In the Amendment to which my noble friend Lord Silkin referred, it would certainly be our hope to ensure that in no circumstances could the contracting out or the conscience clause be in any way used to relieve a doctor of the duty he has now to save life, and I am sure that that will receive general agreement.

My Lords, I think it would be fair to say that this debate has shown that there is overwhelming support in your Lordships' House for some reform of the law. The noble Earl, Lord Dundee, said he supported the first 12 lines of Clause 1. He objected to paragraph (b) which refers to the "physical or mental abnormalities", and also to the words, "or any existing children of her family". But, within the comparatively narrow confines of that part of the Bill to which he referred, he supported a reform of the law. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury said that the present state of the law on abortion is shockingly bad, that he earnestly supported a reform, but was opposed to the part to which I have referred. The most reverend Primate made a valuable suggestion: that this much discussed and, apparently, much disliked provision with regard to the handicapped child should be brought M. line with the section dealing with the health of the mother. I am sure it is a suggestion which my noble friend would be prepared to consider when the time comes when, as he said earlier, he has looked at the Amendments.

Obviously there could be no kind of decision until one has had time to study these things. But over all, the most reverend Primate supported a reform of the law, as indeed did the noble Lord, Lord Brock, in another notable speech, when he made so clear the position of his fellow surgeons, many of whom, he felt, would refuse to perform an operation for abortion for what he called non-medical reasons. The noble Lord will forgive me if I do not enter into the controversy he had with my noble friend Lord Segal on the Title of the Bill; that is certainly not a matter for me, although it was extremely interesting.

I come to my noble Leader, Lord Longford, who said, if I heard him aright, that no one who calls himself any sort of a Christian could be satisfied with the position to-day. He was referring, of course, to the general position with regard to abortion, and he made reference to the situation in which, as he put it, there is one law for the rich and one for the poor. He said that anybody who goes into the matter must be in favour of abortion law reform, although I understood him to say also that he regarded abortion, at least in certain circumstances, as unjustifiable homicide.

My assessment of the speeches from which I have quoted and which I think are fairly representative is that they show a consensus of opinion that there should be a reform of the law. We have to face the fact that this is a subject on which there will always be many differing opinions, and I believe that this debate has revealed that there is a good deal of misunderstanding about this Bill. For instance, the noble Lord, Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, in his moving speech, said that if this Bill had been an Act of Parliament, one of his children would not have been alive to-day. I think that that is a misunderstanding, because no law on earth, either this or any other, can compel a prospective mother to have an abortion against her will. The only conceivable circumstance in which that might happen is if the mother were in hospital, unconscious, in imminent danger of losing her life and unable to make a decision, and, perhaps as a side issue, an abortion were undertaken. I hope that the noble Lord will realise that this Bill, in whatever form it may be enacted, would not have the result he suggested.

Whatever our opinions, we cannot fail to have the deepest respect for the views of those who, because of deeply held religious convictions, are opposed to any change in the law; but, as my noble Leader said, they are probably in a minority. The decisions in this House on the earlier Bills introduced by my noble friend Lord Silkin, the votes on this Bill in another place and again the debate, to-day, are a clear indication that there is a substantial majority in favour of a reform of the law. I mention this because it was in view of the strong indications the Government had that Parliament wished in principle to reform the law on abortion and because of the considerable Parliamentary time that had already been devoted to this subject that they thought it right to provide time to enable Parliament to reach a decision on the Bill now before us.

The noble Earl, Lord Lytton, and the noble Earl, Lord Perth, with other noble Lords, emphasised this question of timing. They said that there is not enough time. But, as my noble friend Lord Shepherd said in an earlier intervention, the time to be given to this Bill is a matter for your Lordships. So far as I am concerned on behalf of the Government, I will sit here as long and as often as we discuss this Bill, and I will always be prepared to give such advice and help as I can on matters of fact and refrain from matters of opinion. I hope that it will not be said that we are not prepared to give adequate time to this Bill, and that it will not be suggested that adequate time was not given in another place.

I must say that the action of giving time in another place by the Government was taken solely to enable decisions to be reached on a matter which had been exhaustively discussed, and did not imply Government support for the Bill or for any of its provisions. The Government's attitude to the Bill has been, and remains, one of neutrality. During the later stages of the Bill, if the Bill goes on, I shall endeavour, speaking for the Government, to assist the House by offering comments on any practical issues that might arise, and I shall try to assist your Lordships by explaining the effect of particular provisions or Amendments and by saying whether there appear to be any technical objections to them or whether they appear to be workable.

My noble Leader, in his interesting speech, described the Bill we are now considering as "a total mess". The noble Lord, Lord Vaux of Harrowden, expressed some doubt as to its paternity. I am not expressing an opinion one way or another. I would remind your Lordships that whatever our views about the Bill and whatever the difficulties about the Bill, it has come to us from another place after days and nights of the most earnest and careful consideration on both sides by those of strongly conflicting views, and for that reason alone it should be considered.

If I have not already made it clear, my noble friends and I are all free to vote on this Bill according to our personal convictions. Even among those who favour a reform of the law, there is a wide range of opinions on what that reform should be. There are those who think that we should give no more than statutory effect to the present case law. At the other extreme, there are those who would like doctors to be given complete discretion to carry out abortions on social grounds. The present Bill may offer a workable compromise between the two extreme positions. I do not suggest that the Bill is incapable of improvement. As my noble friend Lord Silkin has indicated, he will have some Amendments to bring before us in Committee, and it is clear that there will be others which the House ought to consider carefully.

Let us not lose sight of the main objective. The present law on abortion is unsatisfactory because it is uncertain, and we are agreed, I think, that there is an urgent need for reform. If it is true that your Lordships are virtually agreed that there should be some reform, then to bring that reform to fruition we must have a Bill. No reform will come if your Lordships reject the opportunity of passing this Bill. If that is done, not only shall we have no Bill, but we shall have no reform at all.

7.29 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to wind up the debate on behalf of those who are supporting this Bill. I do so with very great confidence, because I am asking that this Bill should be given a Second Reading. If I had been asking for it to be given a Third Reading I should be aware of the many criticisms that have been made in the many eloquent speeches that we have heard this afternoon. But I am asking your Lordships to give it a Second Reading. There has been a most remarkable consensus, among speakers who agreed upon nothing else, that there is need for a reform and codification of the law of abortion. The only speakers who have been opposed to the whole principle of this measure have been the Roman Catholics. We all deeply respect and sympathise with the theology, morality and the general moral principles which animate them, and I have no doubt that they will feel obliged to divide against this Bill and to go into the Lobby with the noble Viscount, Lord Barrington.

I am surprised that the most reverend Primate has indicated that he does not see his way to vote for the Second Reading of the Bill. He said in his speech that he found the present law on abortion shocking. This Bill is the only opportunity that he is likely to have for a long time to rectify a shocking state of affairs. I should have thought, therefore, that he would have wanted to avail himself of this opportunity. My noble friend Lord Dundee took very much the same line. He also wanted to see the present law codified and clarified, and he indicated that this would be done by enacting the first twelve lines of the Bill. I should have thought, therefore, that he also would have wished to vote for the Second Reading, however much he might reserve his freedom of action to seek to remove various other provisions from it, and if he were not successful in doing so, to vote against the Third Reading of the Bill. But when he wants to have the matter clarified and codified, surely he should vote in support of a Second Reading.

My noble and learned friend Lord Dilhorne had to draw attention to an oversight on the part of my noble friend Lord Dundee about the doctors who were to deal with this matter. But he also said that the beginning of this Bill only codifies and enacts what might be called the Bourne doctrine, which he regarded as being satisfactory. In fact he went further than my noble friend Lord Dundee, because he referred to the very serious social problem of children who are expected to be born with appalling mental or physical handicaps. And I understood him to say that, while he could not agree with the wording of the Bill, he recognised that this also was a serious problem that might justify legislation. So I should have expected that, if he had been here, he would have voted in favour of the Second Reading of the Bill, however much he might reserve his freedom of action.

I know from the speeches that have been made that many of your Lordships are not entirely happy with the wording of this Bill. I am authorised by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin—and certainly I do so on my own behalf—to give the fullest assurance that in the Committee stage we are prepared to give careful and respectful consideration to all Amendments that are put forward from any part of the Committee. There need be no hurry about the Committee stage. The Captain of the Gentleman at Arms said this afternoon—and he is perfectly right—that the timetable of your Lordships' House is entirely in your Lordships' hands in a way that does not apply in another place, as many of your Lordships will recall.

The noble Lord, Lord Silkin, authorises me to say that he is prepared to give time, if the House chooses, by sitting longer in this month, or by coming back a day or two earlier, in order that the Committee stage of this important social measure and any arguments put forward, shall be fully considered by your Lordships. There is no question at all, despite the disadvantages that we in this House suffer every year in July from the timetable in another place, that time will be given. In this case, there is no justification for anyone's saying that this Bill is being pushed through according to any special timetable. This is a measure of great social reform, conceived in humanity and compassion, and we are prepared to sit on, or to come back early, in order that it should be properly dealt with. That does not mean that any radical changes in the Bill after line 12 would necessarily be acceptable to the supporters of the Bill.

I want to put forward only one argument upon the merits of the Bill. I listened with great interest to the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, in which he made an appeal that the discretion which has for so long, and generally so wisely, been exercised by the medical profession should not be unduly curbed by this Bill. As he indicated that he was opposed to the Bill, I naturally find that argument of special value to me. Of course, it cuts completely across the general arguments against the Bill that were put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Brock, who was anxious that doctors should not be called upon to exercise a discretion in any way going outside purely medical consideration. It also goes against the argument of my noble and learned friend Lord Dilhorne, that the words "seriously handicapped" and "substantial risk", when applied to the case of the birth of children who may be handicapped, are unduly vague.

It is no use producing figures, as they were produced by certain speakers to-day, about the uncertain proportions of the children who will be born handicapped and who will be born perfectly healthy. Those figures deal only with the percentage, and they do not take into account the fact that under this Bill the wise and experienced discretion of the physicians and surgeons will be availble for deciding in which cases an abortion is necessary.

There has been widespread agreement, even among those who are not prepared to vote for the Second Reading of the Bill, that the Bill is wise, proper and enlightened, in so far as it concerns the life, health and happiness of the mother. Need we draw the line at the mother? Should we not take into account the same sort of considerations when considering whether an unborn child should be born? Is it not right that, subject to all necessary safeguards, a life should be prevented from coming into existence if it is going to be handicapped and unhappy?

This debate has shown your Lordships' highest sense of responsibility in dealing with this Bill, and important criticisms have been made against the Bill, on the grounds, first, of principle, secondly, of administration, and thirdly, of detail. These are matters which can, and should, and will be dealt with at the Committee stage, but they can be dealt with only if your Lordships are prepared to give this Bill a Second Reading. Your Lordships gave a lead to another place when you passed a Bill in favour of the principle of amending the law on abortion. For the third time it is the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, who is a pioneer in this matter in your Lordships' House. I hope that, as your Lordships have been prepared to support these measures on previous occasions, you will be prepared to go as far as supporting a Second Reading tonight.

7.41 p.m.


My Lords, somewhat to my surprise, I find myself winding up this debate on behalf of those Members of your Lordships' House who, I hope, will follow the noble Viscount, Lord Barrington, in his Amendment this evening. I think it is right to say at once that I am a Catholic, and as such, of course, I have a profound respect, which I know is shared by all your Lordships, for the sanctity of human life. I do not intend tonight to go into my own position on this matter. It has been stated very ably by the noble Earl the Leader of the House, Lord Longford, and by my noble friend Lord Vaux of Harrowden in his most interesting speech earlier this afternoon. I must say at once that I entirely respect the opinions, the sincerely held opinions, of other noble Lords with whom I and some of my friends may not always agree.

I think it is right to declare one's interest in this way, because, to my mind, one of the disquieting aspects of the Bill, and the controversy surrounding it, has been that Catholics have sometimes been accused of holding an absolutist and extremist point of view. It is, I think, sometimes overlooked that the Abortion Law Reform Association has itself close contacts with the British Humanist Association, an organisation which, as many of your Lordships know, is not all that well disposed to Christian laws. But I do not believe that one should try in any way to impose one's own religious views on anyone else, and I should like to speak mainly tonight as a layman in this matter; as one who has been connected from time to time with medical matters, and as one who has been very much impressed by the amount of professional opinion, not only medical but legal and ecclesiastical, which regards this Bill as unsatisfactory in one way or another. Indeed, what I have found most interesting is that to-day I have not heard a single speech which was not in one way or another critical of the Bill before your Lordships, even though the speakers may have agreed with the principle of it.

I have been particularly impressed by the views of three eminent medical men, and I know they will not mind my quoting their names: Professor Donald, Professor McLaren, and Professor Scott. They are all gynæcologists of very great repute, pioneers in research, and, perhaps most important of all, heads of the maternity units of three great British cities: Glasgow, Birmingham and Leeds. If I base some of my remarks on what they have said, I feel that your Lordships will not wish to underestimate their views.

I have come to the conclusion, like all your Lordships, of course, that this Bill will need many Amendments, and many drafting Amendments, if it should—I hope it may not—receive a Second Reading. I think we should remind our-. selves, to start with, that the Bill has always claimed, and always persuaded the public, that it has three main aims: the prevention of back-street abortions, elimination of racketeering in abortion, and, if possible, to interpret the law more clearly for an already overworked and overstrained medical and nursing profession. No one would quarrel with any of these aims, but, as has been said, a Bill must be judged not by its intentions but by its likely effects. For many, like myself, I think, when they first saw the Bill it appeared to be a very fair attempt to achieve these aims. But I do not think this really bears close investigation. I should like, therefore, very briefly, to consider these three aspects of the Bill. First of all, back-street abortion. I think it cannot be denied—indeed, I have heard it said this afternoon—that the general relaxing of the climate of opinion against abortion which this Bill must inevitably bring about will result not in any decrease of back-street abortion, but in an increase of it. There has been an example, I think, in Sweden, where, it has been pointed out to me, there is now very deep concern among doctors at the increase in depravity among young people following something like two decades of social abortion. I think this is a matter which your Lordships should consider before voting to-night.

The second problem I want to mention is that of racketeering. I think that many doctors and gynæcologists oppose the Bill as it stands because of the provision that two doctors can form the opinion in good faith that an abortion is necessary. I believe it is true that their feeling is that this may well tend to extend the present very prolific racket, which has been pointed out, whereby unscrupulous practitioners in collusion may find their consciences very much influenced by the size of their fees. The third point I want to make at the moment is the effect of the Bill on the people who would actually have to carry it out. I am thinking particularly here of the midwives, nurses and gynæcologists. Sometimes one feels that their views are given second place, but to my mind they matter enormously. It is they who have to do the job. One should, of course, remember (though I do not think anyone has yet mentioned this fact) that every extra abortion that will be done as a result of this Bill is going to mean someone else forgoing a bed in a hospital and possibly urgent treatment or surgery. Because there are certainly no extra surgeons available to do this work, and no extra beds in the hospitals. I think that this is something we ought to take into consideration.

I was going to talk about the "conscience clause", but the noble Lord, Lord Brock, dealt with this. I would say personally that it is a well-meaning attempt to satisfy the point of view, not only of Catholics, but of others, doctors and nurses, who find their consciences troubled. I am very troubled myself about the position of the nurses in regard to this "conscience clause", because I do not see how under the Bill any nurse, particularly if a Catholic, can follow her conscience about abortions. She is going to be faced with this rather overwhelming paraphernalia of tribunals, magistrates, and the like. I think this is one of the reasons why almost all of the midwives of Mr. David Steel's own constituency protested most emphatically to him that this Bill places an intolerable burden upon them. I happen to know that this is a fact, because I am myself one of Mr. Steel's own constituents.

Have we considered sufficiently what we are asking surgeons to do under this Bill, on both social and medical grounds? I should like, at the risk of taking up your Lordships' time for just a few minutes more, to quote a little from what Professor Scott has told me about this, because I think it is right that your Lordships should know what the gynæcologists feel, as well as what the British Medical Association and other professional bodies feel. He reminds us that in his own hospital region, which is Leeds, there are 29 consultant gynæcologists, and 28 expressed their opposition to the proposed abortion law reform, and expressed their unwillingness to alter their practice if the Bill became law. In another poll of gynæcologists, conducted at Birmingham, much the same sort of result was produced.

I think the reasons for this opposition are worth considering and I should like to quote a brief extract from what Professor Scott said on this particular point. He said: The most important fact the gynæcologists know, and the one most understandably suppressed, is that, performing an abortion at the time they are usually called upon to do so involves destruction of a clearly recognisable human being. Gynæcologists who have been prepared to perform abortions because of a risk to the mother's life have suppressed this sort of evidence from patients and relatives for the good reason that it could produce nothing but anguish and distress. Professor Scott then justified this with frightening proof that an unborn baby can feel pain if subjected to it. He said, referring to a blood transfusion to an unborn child: Another pioneer, Hey, visited Britain recently and, in describing his technique, mentioned how the baby reacted to the stimulus of having a needle inserted, just as a newborn baby would if subjected to a similar pain stimulus. This is something which is very frightening, and if those are the reactions of a hard-headed Scotsman, what must be the reaction of other people, such as the nurses and midwives who have to assist at abortions? These are unpleasant facts, but nevertheless they are the hard facts of the case, and we should face up to them and not just dismiss them as being emotive, thus leaving ourselves open to the challenge that we do not care about these things. Therefore I think it is important that the House should be quite clear what it is that it is asking the medical profession to undertake.

I do not wish to take up much of your Lordships' time. However, there are one or two points I should like to mention. We have heard that, by and large, the main opposition to this Bill from surgeons in regard to performing social abortions under the two controversial subsections of Clause 1, is that this is something outside their normal medical functions and, secondly, that these provisions are ill-defined and open to abuse. I think the noble Viscount, Lord Dilhorne, placed his finger on these points, with his usual accuracy, and as he has already told us that he has put down an Amendment I sincerely hope that when it comes to the Committee stage he will press that Amendment.

So far as racketeering is concerned, it has been suggested that there is a good case for making it illegal to perform abortions for a fee. I am not quite sure about this. It might be too drastic, but the view has been expressed to me quite strongly that at any rate it should be illegal for the decision to be made by the doctors for a fee. This is perhaps something which the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and the noble Lord, Lord Molson, might consider. In that connection, I was grateful to hear the noble Lord, Lord Molson, say that any point we put forward would be carefully considered if this Bill should go on to the next stage.

There is only one other point I wish to make. I think it was the noble Earl, Lord Iddesleigh, who suggested that perhaps a Royal Commission should have been appointed to consider this Bill. As it is a Bill of such importance, I have always thought it was a pity that it did not have the kind of inquiry that was given to my noble friend Lord Arran's Bill. There was no Wolfenden Committee in connection with this Bill. I am not saying this because I was a member of the Wolfenden Committee, but I was in fact most impressed by the amount of hard, detailed investigation that went into the preparation of the Report of that Committee. In my view it is a pity that the same process did not go on in the case of this Bill.

We have heard that another place passed this Bill by a comparatively large majority last week. This is true, but I think we should remember that 250 out of 600 or so Members of another place is not completely representative. I sometimes think that all the polls that have been taken are possibly to some extent unrepresentative, and I think it is a pity that all the people who are concerned in this Bill, and particularly doctors, midwives and nurses, were not consulted before the Bill came before Parliament.

I hope that this Bill will not receive a Second Reading. If it does, I feel sure that your Lordships will look at its provisions very closely indeed, and will try to ensure that any Amendments to the Bill are put forward in the spirit in which we hope they will be accepted. In other words, I hope they will be put forward in a constructive spirit, on the lines that I know so many people who are interested in this Bill wish to see it improved, because we must ensure that if this Bill becomes law it is made to work properly for those who have to operate it. I think we should also remember that those of us who believe that an unborn child has rights as well as its mother should be considered in this respect.

I am afraid I have taken up too much of your Lordships' time, but I should like to add a personal note. I myself, I suppose because of my Christian upbringing, have a profound respect for human life—that was one of the reasons why I voted for the abolition of the death penalty—and to my mind the killing of an unborn baby, particularly in the circumstances which have been described to me by doctors and surgeons, is a very dreadful

and a very wrong thing. To a person who believes in complete social freedom without any moral safeguards this may be an unimportant consideration, but personally I think that the Christian view is the more realistic one, because I have always been convinced that in the long run it is the public and the country who pay the penalty for measures which penalise the ethical and favour the unethical point of view. This is really why, on the grounds of both practice and principle, I am opposed to this Bill, because it seems to be another encroachment on, and an erosion of, Christian values. Therefore, my Lords, I hope you will support the noble Viscount, Lord Barrington, in his Amendment to-night.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Marquess one question before he sits down? In view of the fact that most of his speech was concerned with quoting the opposition to this Bill, is he not aware that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynæcologists and the British Medical Association support the Bill?


My Lords, I am quite aware that there is support for the Bill from the British Medical Association and from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynæcologists. What I was trying to point out was that there is also opposition to the Bill.

8.0 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Amendment shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents 21; Not-Contents 127.

Alport, L. Exeter, L. Bp. Longford, E. (Lord Privy Seal.)
Audley, Bs. Falmouth, V. Lothian, M. [Teller.]
Barrington, V. [Teller.] Ferrers, E. Lytton, E.
Carnock, L. Furness, V. Norfolk, D. (E. Marshal.)
Carron, L. Haddington, E. Perth, E.
Clifford of Chudleigh, L. Howard of Glossop, L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Craigmyle, L. Iddesleigh, E. Ypres, E.
Aberdare, L. Arran, E. Bridgeman, V.
Addison, V. [Teller.] Asquith of Yarnbury, Bs. Brockway, L.
Ailwyn, L. Balerno, L. Brooke of Cumnor, L.
Airedale, L. Beswick, L. Brooke of Ystradfellte, Bs.
Albemarle, E. Birdwood, L. Burden, L.
Amulree, L. Blyton, L. Burton of Coventry, Bs.
Annan, L. Boothby, L. Byers, L.
Archibald, L. Brecon, L. Chalfont, L.
Champion, L. Hughes, L. Rockley, L.
Chester, L. Bp. Huntingdon, E. Rowley, L.
Chichester, L. Bp. Hylton-Foster, Bs. Royle, L.
Cole, L. Jellicoe, E. St. Just, L. [Teller.]
Collison L. Kahn, L. Sandford, L.
Colville of Culross, V. Kennet, L. Segal, L.
Cooper of Stockton Heath, L. Killearn, L. Sempill, Ly.
Cork and Orrery, E. Kinnoull, E. Serota, Bs.
Craigavon, V. Kirkwood, L. Shackleton, L.
Cranbrook, E. Lambert, V. Shepherd, L.
Darwen, L. Leatherland, L. Sherfield, L.
Daventry, V. Lindgren, L. Silkin, L.
Denham, L. Lloyd of Hampstead, L. Snow, L.
Dilhorne, V. Luke, L. Sorensen, L.
Drumalbyn, L. McCorquodale of Newton, L. Stamp, L.
Durham, L. Bp. Maelor, L. Stocks, Bs.
Effingham, E. Milverton, L. Stonham, L.
Flliot of Harwood, Bs. Mitchison, L. Stow Hill, L.
Falkland, V. Molson, L. Strabolgi, L.
Faringdon, L. Monson, L. Strang, L.
Ferrier, L. Morrison, L. Strange, L.
Francis-Williams, L. Mountevans, L. Strange of Knokin, Bs.
Fraser of North Cape, L. Moyne, L. Strathcarron, L.
Gage, V. Moynihan, L. Summerskill, Bs.
Gaitskell, Bs. Noel-Buxton, L. Swanborough, Bs.
Gladwyn, L. Norwich, V. Terrington, L.
Grantchester, L. Oakshott, L. Vernon, L.
Greenway, L. Peddie, L. Vivian, L.
Grenfell, L. Platt, L. Wade, L.
Gridley, L. Plummer, Bs. Walston, L.
Harvey of Tasburgh, L. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L. Waverley, V.
Hawke, L. Popplewell, L. Wellington, D.
Henderson, L. Rhodes, L. Winterbottom, L.
Henley, L. Ritchie-Calder, L. Wolverton, L.
Hilton of Upton, L.

Resolved in the negative, and Amendment disagreed to accordingly.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.