HL Deb 06 December 1982 vol 437 cc55-106

6.2 p.m.

Lord Robertson of Oakridge

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time. What a happy coincidence it is that this is the day of St. Nicholas, or Santa Claus, the patron saint of children, for this is a Bill about children. In this connection. I should like straight away to clear up a misconception. It is claimed by some that the only issue at stake is the right of freedom of choice of women to control their own fertility. This claim is based on a serious error. Nothing in the 1967 Act or anywhere else in the law gives a woman such a right, and therefore the Bill cannot diminish the right which does not exist. I cannot emphasise too strongly that the issue at stake is this: under what circumstances should it be lawful to deprive an unborn baby of life?

Now I should like to go into the background. First, let me cover the legal background. There are three Acts which are relevant to the present situation: the Offences Against the Person Act 1861; the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929; the Abortion Act 1967. The present Act which makes abortion prima facieillegal is that of 1861. The 1929 Act made it an offence—the offence of child destruction—to kill a child capable of being born alive, and gave as prima facie proof of the capacity for live birth 28 weeks. The Abortion Act 1967 does not alter these two statutes. What it does do is to exempt a doctor from culpability under the 1861 Act if two doctors hold the opinion in good faith that the balance of risk favours an abortion.

To quote the 1976 Act, they must agree: that the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman, or of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated". There is also the provision in respect of a risk of a handicapped child, with which my Bill is not concerned. It is fair to say that when Parliament passed the 1967 Act it intended to legalise abortions on medical grounds, physical or psychological, but not to provide, in the words of the sponsor of the law in this House, Lord Silkin, "a general licence to a medical practitioner to carry out an abortion on anybody who desires it". That comes from the Official Report of 19th July 1967 at column 163. If Parliament had intended to legalise abortion on request, the Act would have said so.

Unfortunately, from the outset the abortion law proved to be open to widely and grossly different interpretations. It cannot be disputed that considerable numbers of doctors used the Act as a basis for granting abortion on demand, and no action is being taken to stop them. Doctors promoting such a policy justify their actions by the so-called statistical argument which claims that the statistics show that the risk to the life of the pregnant woman is smaller if the pregnancy is terminated in the early months than if it is allowed to continue. Incidentally, this argument is probably fallacious, as it fails to compare like with like. My Bill in any case would make the argument irrelevant.

In terms of numbers, the result has been a holocaust. For example, in 1981 in England and Wales the total number of abortions, including non-residents, was 162,454. Indeed, on present trends, the number of abortions in the United Kingdom since the Act came into force in 1968 will pass the two million mark by next March. Put another way, the number of abortions in England and Wales is at the rate of one baby aborted every three minutes, day and night, seven days a week. This state of affairs has caused persistent concern—not least in Parliament. Following two attempts in the other place to tighten the law, the Lane Committee was set up and reported in 1974. From evidence that it received, it admitted that abortion on demand was being practised, but stated that this could be curbed by departmental action. It has not been curbed. Three further major attempts in the other place to tighten the law on abortion were agreed in principle at Second Reading by substantial majorities but failed because of the lack of time and the difficulties of getting a Private Member's Bill through Parliament.

Now to the Bill itself. It proposes that the risk of continuing the pregnancy to the mother or existing children must be a "serious" one, and that it must be "substantially" greater than the risk of having an abortion. This would of course not disallow abortion on genuine medical grounds of substance, but it would rule out abortion for trivial reasons or abortion on request.

It has been claimed that the words "serious" and "substantial" are difficult to define. Legal advice that I have been given is that, although it may be difficult to frame a definition for general application, it would be a simple matter for courts to apply the words in particular cases. It is relevant to note what the Solicitor-General said in the other place on 4th December 1979, in Standing Committee C at columns 350 to 352 of the Official Report, when Mr. John Corrie's Bill was being considered. This Bill contained the words "serious" and "substantially".

The Solicitor-General drew attention to a certain flexibility in the words, but said that this was not necessarily a disadvantage. A court would assume that Parliament intended a test more stringent than 1967, but less so than 1929. He further said that without the word "substantial" the test of "greater risk of continuing the pregnancy than terminating it" amounted to a very slight test. The introduction of the word "substantially" would make the test more stringent and more than a merely statistical evaluation. In passing, I would say, my Lords, that you will surely have noted that the words "serious" and "substantial" already appear in the 1967 Act in Section 1(1)(b), which deals with the risk of a handicapped child being born. If they perform a useful function there, why should they not be inserted here?

I turn to the effect of the Bill on those concerned; first, doctors and nurses. It will no doubt be pointed out to me that the BMA and other representative bodies of the medical profession do not at present appear to share the concerns that have been expressed about the workings of the 1967 Act. However, in their current handbook on medical ethics, published in 1980, the BMA describes as a "problem" the fact that the Abortion Act can be interpreted as allowing abortion on request. Well might it have been considered a problem when interpretations of the law by doctors are so widely different as to amount to virtual anarchy. Is it not the case that because of the vague wording of the 1967 Act, doctors find themselves under great pressure to make decisions which are primarily, and sometimes exclusively, decisions based on social factors? Doctors now find themselves having, in their words, to "play God" in many cases. More than one doctor has told me that it would be a great relief to him if the law were amended as proposed in the Bill.

I would also mention those doctors and nurses who, on religious or ethical grounds, are reluctant to become involved in abortions without serious medical justification. Despite the let-out in Section 4 of the 1967 Act, such people have either to condition themselves to do that which their conscience opposes or to get out of gynaecology altogether.

Next, I deal with the pressures on women. Those who oppose the Bill will, no doubt, lay much stress on the danger that women refused abortions will resort to back-street or criminal abortions. That is, of course, a factor to be taken seriously, but it must not be exaggerated or even accepted without question. Records show that deaths to women resulting from abortions have indeed gone down since 1967, but this is only part of a trend which started long before then and largely results from advances in medical science and antibiotics. There is no direct evidence that a reduction in legal abortions would be accompanied by an increase in maternal deaths because of abortion. Indeed, in certain Iron Curtain countries—Bulgaria, Poland and Hungary—where abortion laws were tightened in 1973–74 after a period of abortion on demand, such deaths are now the lowest in their history.

But there are other kinds of pressures on women, as letters I have received have shown to me. It must surely be obvious that women today are treated by men in a more cavalier way than ever before. It is more difficult for a woman to say "No" to the sexual act than it used to be, not least because abortion is held up as an extension of contraceptive measures. When the so-called worst happens, and a pregnancy occurs, it is only too easy for the man concerned to wash his hands of the whole business and put the woman under pressure to have an abortion, regardless of the dangers to her health or of her own convictions. Such pressures come also from employers and, sadly, also sometimes from the woman's parents, who may be embarrassed if the child will be illegitimate.

One story illustrates those pressures. I have received a letter from a girl aged 15½ who a year ago was in a children's home when she discovered she was expecting a baby. She was examined by a lady doctor who said she was 16 weeks pregnant and that she would not give her an abortion. However, the head of the home was determined that the girl should have an abortion. She took her back to the hospital to see another doctor, who said he would do the abortion and gave her a week to make up her mind. Then, to quote from the letter: That week was hell for me. The staff were all trying to talk me into aborting my baby. They even tried bribing me. They told me that if I had an abortion, they would take me out and buy me a lot of nice clothes. One of the staff told me that my baby would probably be dead anyway. The head of the home told me that if I went through with the pregnancy and had the baby, I would never love it and it would never love me. When finally I had to go back to the hospital, the children's home packed all my stuff in a bag and handed it to me … my social worker, my sister, even my mother, were all telling me to have the abortion". I am glad to say that the girl resisted those pressures and her baby is now a beautiful girl of eight months.

The right to life of that baby is what the controversy is all about. For that baby, life started in some form at the moment of conception. The early weeks of her existence in the womb saw the physical development of her body happen almost incredibly quickly. By 30 days her main organs were already in recognisable form and she had a heart pumping blood she had made herself. In other babies, electric brainwaves have been recorded as early as 40 days, and this must indicate that the mind has started to develop. In this connection, Professor Sir William Liley, generally regarded as the father of foetological medicine, has stated: We know the baby is responsive in utero to touch, to light, to sound and to stimuli which at least you and I would consider painful". The evidence of the Bible is that Jesus was fully man from the moment he was conceived by the Holy Ghost, later to be born of the Virgin Mary. We also read that John the Baptist, who was, filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother's womb", reacted to the presence of the baby Jesus when they were still both in the womb. As a Christian, therefore, I must consider the unborn child as part of God's creation, made in His image, and I must therefore try to offer him or her the same love, care and protection in law as any other child. My Bill is a step in that direction.

In the Old Testament Scriptures, which Christians, Jews and Moslems all regard as authoritative, the killing of children is linked with the worship of idols. Even if not all of us would equate abortion with the killing of children, it is plain to see that society has set up idols of selfishness, convenience, expediency and irresponsibility. It is so much easier and less costly to abort a woman's pregnancy than genuinely to help her and her child, or even to help men face up to their responsibilities towards them.

That is by no means to say that I do not have strong feeling and sympathy for the doctor or social worker who has to decide the proper course of action for a woman in hard and depressing circumstances who finds herself pregnant. I wish to make it perfectly clear in this connection that the Bill would not prevent a doctor from authorising an abortion in cases of genuine trauma or depression.

But ought we not to ask ourselves what is wrong with our society that so many women find themselves in this position today? As long ago as 1972, Sir John Peel told a national conference of nurses that available evidence indicated that the Abortion Act had engendered a social atmosphere which encouraged irresponsible sexual behaviour. Current statistics show the truth of what he said. Today, the rate of illegitimacy, despite the number of abortions, is the highest since records were kept.

Of course, it is not only the 1967 Act which has fostered an irresponsible attitude to sex. Apart from some sections of the media, especially some teenage magazines, there are also highly irresponsible books recommended for schools study by the Health Education Council itself, some of which apear to me to say that in sexual matters anything goes provided you enjoy it, and abortion is always there as a long-stop.

My other reason for sympathy with doctors and social workers in these cases is the lack of facilities on offer to support those women who decide to go ahead with pregnancy. Apart from the social services and adoption agencies, such organisations as Well-Care, LIFE, Let-Live and Lifeline, of which I am a patron, make a valuable contribution in this field, but their resources are limited. Therefore, I can well understand that the doctor may feel that there is no course open to him other than either to authorise a termination or to condemn the woman to battle on unsupported in distressing circumstances.

But there is another course. Let me illustrate it by quoting a case that is right up to date. There is a girl aged 17, who recently found herself pregnant. Her family were hostile, and the boy friend was uninterested. A social worker put her onto Well-Care, whose representative got in touch with LIFE. Her immediate needs were somewhere to live and general support. She was offered temporary accommodation in the home of a family. Before the birth she will go to a mother and baby home until six weeks after the birth. She should then be able to find her own accommodation through the council, but she will continue to be given the kind of support that she would normally expect from her family.

That story seems to me to illustrate society at its most callous and society at its most caring. How we deal with this kind of case and therefore with the unborn child who is at the heart of it will sooner or later be reflected in other fields; in other words, in our treatment of the chronically ill, the handicapped, and the aged. God forbid that it should ever be acceptable in this country for any person to be killed off solely because he or she is inconvenient, or is a burden on someone else. Unfortunately that is exctly what has happened as an unintended effect of the 1967 Act, and, what is more, the same tendency is discernible in the other fields that I have mentioned. Therefore, I would call upon the Government at the very least, first to do what they can to encourage responsible attitudes to sexual and family matters, and in particular responsibility in sex education; and, secondly, to encourage and enhance the provision of services to support and care for those for whom abortion is not the answer.

Your Lordships have been very patient, and in conclusion I would say this: an eminent teacher of obstetrics has pointed out to me that before the 1967 Act the doctor considering an abortion had to weigh up the life and health of the woman against the life of the unborn baby. Since 1967 it has been a different equation. Because of the framing of the law, he has had to forecast what will happen to the woman if she continues with the pregnancy and what will happen to the woman if she terminates it. Therefore, even with the best will in the world, the fate of the baby is not a question in the forefront of the doctor's mind. The baby has therefore effectively been written out of the law. My Bill is an attempt to write it back in again. If therefore your Lordships agree that the unborn child is a member of the human community worthy of our love, care, and protection, I hope that you will support the Bill, if necessary in the Lobbies. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Robertson of Oakridge.)

6.24 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now read a second time, to leave out ("now") and at the end insert ("this day six months").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I am going to submit to your Lordships that this is not a Bill that should be given further and extended consideration in this House at this time. The amendment decides no questions of principle either way. It simply defers further consideration to some future and more appropriate time and, if I may say so, to an occasion more appropriate than this one. The antecedents of the Bill have been referred to by the noble Lord in moving the Second Reading. They comprise seven attempts made in another place to amend the Abortion Act in the same, or a similar, way.

I regret to say that opponents of the 1967 Act have kept up their persistent attacks upon it right from the beginning. Scarcely four years of operation of the 1967 Act had passed before Sir Keith Joseph, then the Minister concerned, appointed a committee of investigation, to which the noble Lord referred, and it made a number of recommendations, in particular recommendations regarding administration and guidance, which were adopted. It also confirmed in some respects the provisions of the 1967 Act and in particular the criteria which were adopted in Section 1.

I am bound to say that I think that opponents of abortion in principle, whether on doctrinal, religious, or any other grounds, want to change the Act for the worse from the point of view of the women of this country, and they wish to do that by restricting the opportunities for getting abortions. When I look at the guerrilla war that has gone on in another place against the Act, I see that the first attempt was made within 18 months of the Act being put into operation. Another attempt was made in 1970, another in 1975, another in 1977, another in 1978, another in 1979, and the most recent one was in 1980.

I think that after the gruelling experiences they went through on all those Bills Members of another place have concluded that no Bill to change the 1967 Act will pass through this Parliament. I believe that in another place a truce has now been declared, since two Members there who are strong opponents of abortion and whose names came out high in the ballot for Private Member's Bills have this time left the subject alone.

I suggest that by putting the Bill at arm's length we can over time to come consider the working of the Act by giving it closer attention. On the face of it, this is a single clause Bill, deceptively short, alluring in its simplicity, proposing only two additional words to be inserted before two existing words. But, apart from what in my opinion are the demerits of the Bill itself, to go on with it would open up a veritable hornets' nest. The noble Lord did not draw the attention of your Lordships to the fact that, under the Long Title of his Bill, the whole of Section 1 of the Act is open to amendment. That opens up a prospect of formidable proportions. In connection with one Bill in another place, 80 amendments to Section 1 were proposed.

I think that I ought to mention that the Labour Party has on abortion a policy diametrically opposed to the doctrine of the noble Lord who is proposing the Bill, and if the Bill goes into Committee, one must expect concerted action by my noble friends on this side of the House, as ever, to implement party policy—

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord? I was given to understand that this would be a free vote. This idea of concerted policy is new to me and rather unattractive.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I am not in a position to say whether my noble friend can have a free vote, or what he should have. All I am doing is reporting to the House the policy that was adopted by the conference of the Labour Party as recently as last October. Whether that becomes a matter of discipline upon members of the party is another matter. I am merely saying that there will be opportunities to open up the whole of Section 1 if this Bill goes into Committee, and I think that prospect is not one—

Lord Somers

My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord for a moment? I hardly think that such a Bill as this is a party matter, or even that party politics should be referred to.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I will try to get on because I have a few remarks to make.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, I must interrupt the noble Lord, if he will allow me to do so. May I say from these Benches that whichever way we vote it will not be on the basis of any matter of party policy. It will be a question of our individual consciences.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I am not in a position to confirm or deny that at all. I am merely reporting what is a matter of public knowledge and what is in the hands of all noble Lords on both sides of the House, and that is the declaration of policy made at the Labour Party Conference last October—and there can be no doubt at all that it runs firmly counter to the proposal which has been made by the noble Lord who has moved the Second Reading of this Bill. I will not read it out, but it is there on the record as to what the policy document said and what the Labour Party Conference approved.

I merely submit to your Lordships that there are parliamentary considerations about this Bill which I think cannot be ignored. I know that there is no constitutional question involved, but I think that if we are to go through a gruelling period on this Bill we want to be satisfied that it will do some good. I would submit to your Lordships that although it might be an academic parliamentary exercise, this Bill really has not got the value that it should have from a legislative point of view to justify the work and strain that would be involved.

Now I come to the Bill itself. The noble Lord referred to the British Medical Association, which he consulted, quite rightly—and so did I. But the British Medical Association have drawn my attention, at any rate, to the resolution passed by their representative body in 1978, which said: This meeting deplores the persistent attacks on the 1967 Abortion Act and reaffirms its belief that it is a practical and humane piece of legislation". They also say, in a letter to me dated 1st December: If this Bill is passed it will put the clock back and do untold physical and emotional harm to many poor women who will again seek help from back-street abortionists". That is the opinion of this most responsible and notable representative body of the medical profession, and I think that that prospect must deter us from proceeding along the lines which are proposed.

The noble Lord made some play with the suggestion that abortion is obtainable on demand, and a great deal of loose talk is very often heard about abortion on demand. My Lords, there is no such thing as abortion on demand. Those who have to carry out this unhappy task are not under any command by their patients. They may have a request, but they are not bound to accede to it. The doctors have their own responsibility, and they have to exercise their own judgment. They have to be accountable to themselves, to their profession, to the department and to their patients.

In this connection I would say that very little evidence is available, from investigations that have been made, that abortions are obtainable on demand. Sometimes the variations in the numbers of abortions in particular areas are used as prima facie evidence of variations in standard; and it is sometimes suggested that where abortions appear to be more freely available than in other areas, that is due to the greater liberality of the professional consultants in that particular area. There is, of course, evidence on the other side. There is evidence of great difficulty in obtaining abortions in particular areas due to the outlook and policy of the gynaecologist consultants and other members of the profession who have the responsibility. So before we accept general statements about the availability of abortion on demand we should seek much closer investigation of what actually happens in the field.

There are variations—considerable variations in some areas—but when one looks at what they are, where they are and who is where they are, one sees that there is frequently a pretty good explanation of why some people find it a great deal more difficult to get abortions in some areas than in others; and the number of abortions on the National Health Service varies considerably from area to area. What I am saying is that it would be a mistake to proceed with this Bill and to go through the mill of further stages without the additional evidence which I think should be available before any major review of the 1967 Act is undertaken.

I want to say in conclusion that this is not a purely marginal measure. What the noble Lord is proposing would make a very big difference indeed, or could make a very big difference, to the number of abortions and to the availability of abortion in different areas. The Minister, Dr. Gerard Vaughan, told the Members of another place on 13th July 1979 that about 85 per cent. of all abortions certified for women resident in the United Kingdom were on the basis of the criteria that this Bill proposes to amend. He therefore advised the House that it would affect potentially a large proportion of the women who now obtain abortions; and he warned that we must not delude ourselves in thinking that it would be altering the situation for a small number of women. It could alter the situation for a large number of women; and he warned that we have to go very carefully before we change the criteria. So this is not a small measure, or even a moderate one, and we have to consider what the full impact of it would be.

The British Medical Association tell me quite definitely that they believe the underlying motive of this Bill is to frighten the doctors and to make them more reluctant to certify abortion; possibly to remove one doubt and substitute another; and generally to feel less certain of their ground, less certain that they have the legal power to exercise their discretion and their clinical judgment in particular cases. They would have to have at their side definitions of what "greater risk" meant, of what "serious risk" meant or of what "substantially greater" meant.

Incidentally, and in this connection, in the other place the Minister recommended that the word "serious" should not appear in this subsection, although the word "substantially" should. In the end, no compromise was possible and, as the noble Lord has said, the Bill ran out of time. But this Bill proposes to reopen the compromise which was reached in October 1967 in this House. I would say this very seriously: no change in the abortion law in future will be possible without some large measure of compromise. We cannot go on fighting the abortion issue indefinitely; we must get some basis on which there is a consensus and a general acceptance of what should be done. The compromise reached in October 1967 in this Chamber succeeded in enabling that Bill in 1967 to go back to another place for approval—and it did so approve. The compromise passed in this House without a Division and it passed in the other place without a Division. Now the noble Lord is proposing that we should reopen all that and start all over again.

My Lords, we do not proceed in this House by controversy so much as by compromise and there will be no compromise on the Bill that is before the House today. That is a clear statement of my attitude towards it. We should have to work in the further stages of the Bill to change it or to defeat it or to replace it by something else. There was an attempt made in another place on one occasion to redraft the whole of Section 1. That might be the only way, indeed, by which we could reach any accommodation in this House in future. This is hornets' nest. What is a moderate proposal, superficially, goes deep down into the whole issue of abortion with its principles, its doctrines, its convictions and its emotions—all of which are involved; and we have heard a great deal about that already.

What I am submitting to your Lordships is that, without committing ourselves one way or the other on what the noble Lord has said or upon the principles involved in what he has said, we feel that this is not the time to embark upon a major review of the 1967 Act because that is what will confront us if this Bill goes forward. This section, Section 1, which is open to amendment under the Bill, is 90 per cent. of the controversial part of the Act of 1967.I submit to your Lordships with great respect that no good purpose would be served by embarking upon this course and that, moreover, we should be unwise to do so without a great deal more evidence based on more recent investigations, hearing what is actually happening and listening to recommendations as to what should be done in the future. I beg to move the amendment standing in my name.

Moved, as an amendment to the Motion that the Bill be now read a second time, to leave out ("now") and at the end insert ("this day six months").—(Lord Houghton of Sowerby.)

6.44 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health and Social Security (Lord Trefgarne)

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has described the various parliamentary exercises that have been conducted on this matter in recent years. It is, nonetheless, nigh on 15 years since your Lordships yourselves considered this matter in any detail. We should be grateful therefore to the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, for bringing forward this Bill today. This subject is one on which widely differing views are profoundly and respectably held. There will, I am certain, be no unanimity among your Lordships tonight. The proposal on which your Lordships have to make up your minds is not the very principle upon which the 1967 Act is founded but, rather, the more limited suggestion that the criteria laid down in the Act be amended by the addition of certain words, thus making it more difficult to obtain an abortion.

Let me say at the outset that the Government have no views as to whether or not this is desirable. Successive Administrations have regarded it as something on which noble Lords and Members of another place must be free to vote according to the dictates of their consciences. There will be no departure from this practice today. What I say is not, therefore, intended to influence the consciences of your Lordships; what I shall try to do is assist your Lordships by drawing attention to salient facts and figures.

In 1969, the first full year in which the Abortion Act was in operation, around 50,000 women resident in England and Wales and nearly 4,000 in Scotland had their pregnancies terminated. After a rapid increase in the early 1970s the number levelled out at around 110,000 per year, plus a further 7,000 a year in Scotland. However, the trend over the past two or three years has again been upwards, with provisional figures for 1981 indicating nearly 139,000 abortions to women resident in England, Wales and Scotland. By contrast, the number of terminations carried out on non-residents—most, no doubt, coming here for the purpose—has declined over the same period and now stands at around 30,000 per annum. The great majority of abortions (about 99 per cent.), are carried out under Section 1(1)(a) of the Act; and it is this provision which the Bill before us today seeks to amend.

The Secretaries of State for Social Services, for Scotland and for Wales all have a responsibility for the operation of the Abortion Act. All terminations carried out under the Act have to be notified to the chief medical officers for England, Scotland and Wales respectively, and these notifications are the basis of the statistics to which I have referred. Through their involvement in the operation of the Act, the health departments take all possible steps to ensure that the law is being upheld. I think it is widely recognised that the actions successive Ministers have taken to regulate the operation of the Act in the private sector have played a major part in controlling the abuses which undoubtedly occurred in the early days of the Act. The operation of the Act continues to be closely monitored, and we have no evidence of a recurrence of these abuses, that women are being exploited or that their health is being put at risk.

The criteria in the Act set out the circumstances in which abortions may be allowed and represent a careful balance arrived at after prolonged and detailed debate during the passage of the legislation.

What then is the case for amendment now? In April 1974, after six years' operation of the Act, the report of the Committee on the Abortion Act under Mrs. Justice Lane recommended that the criteria be left unamended. In the 1974–75 parliamentary Session, the Select Committee on Abortion again made no recommendation for change, although there were those among its witnesses and, no doubt, among its members, too, who pressed the case for some amendment. Several attempts have been made in another place to introduce amendments to the criteria, but none has succeeded. Indeed, I have to tell your Lordships that members of the medical profession most closely involved have set their faces against any amendment of the Act. The British Medical Association have affirmed this and I should like to quote to your Lordships that affirmation—and this is a different observation from the one quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby: It is the British Medical Association's view that the 1967 Act is a good and sensible piece of legislation that is capable of being operated satisfactorily. It should not be modified or amended. Termination of pregnancy is always less desirable than effective family planning". Should your Lordships seek additional assurance from a professional quarter there could perhaps be no more distinguished body of opinion than the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists. With your Lordships' permission, I shall again quote direct from the statement of views that today they have made available to me: The College considers that the grounds for abortion in the 1967 Act have provided a reasonable working basis allowing doctors and their patients a framework for differing views. We consider that the duty to distinguish degrees of risk more strictly as required by this Bill, would greatly increase the difficulties faced by doctors in recommending and carrying out abortion". I am, however, aware of the criticisms often made of the Abortion Act from other quarters. For example, it has been claimed that it has resulted in abortion for the flimsiest of reasons unrelated to health and thus, in practice, goes far beyond Parliament's original intentions.

That claim is based on two misunderstandings. The first is that, as Section 1(2) of the Act allows the pregnant woman's actual or foreseeable environment to be taken into account in assessing her need for an abortion, social factors alone can provide the necessary grounds. The second misunderstanding is that, since statistics show that, in this country, there is less risk to the woman's life from an abortion than from childbirth, any pregnant woman may automatically obtain an abortion under the main criteria in the Act. But the fact of the matter is that although the Act does allow for social factors to be taken into account it does not allow for abortion on these grounds alone. So far as the statistics are concerned, the law requires medical practitioners to weigh the risks in respect of each individual woman and not for women generally.

As I understand it, Lord Robertson of Oakridge's aims are to reassert what, in his view, were the original intentions of Parliament and to ensure that abortion cannot be obtained for trivial reasons unrelated to the woman's present or future physical or mental health. It is not clear that the Bill, as drafted, will have the effect the noble Lord intends. However, if, after listening to this debate, noble Lords are in favour of the principle on which the Bill is based, close attention can no doubt be given to the precise wording at any later stage.

I hope your Lordships will have found these observations helpful in your consideration of this very important issue. For the reasons I have stated, the Government regard it as a matter on which individual noble Lords must vote in accordance with their personal views. Having said that, I have to tell your Lordships that the Government will not be able to find time for consideration of this Bill in another place. Although my own views can in no sense be held to reflect those of my ministerial colleagues, I can say that, for my part, I shall vote in favour of the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and hence against the Bill.

6.53 p.m.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, I should like to start by saying that of course it is perfectly within the right of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, to bring his anxieties about the abortion legislation before your Lordships. I think we should all accept and welcome the fact that he has found it possible to bring his anxieties before the House tonight.

I welcome this debate and I should like to make it absolutely clear that on this side of the House we have a free vote; but in case there is any difficulty—and this was referred to earlier—I must remind your Lordships, and especially my noble friends, that the Labour Party is on record as seeking to defend the 1967 Abortion Act from restrictive amendment. That was passed by a Labour Conference and I think that must stay with us as Labour Party policy; but in every case we accept the right of our friends to have their own conscientious objections thereto.

Going back to the 1967 Act, which many of us thought was going to be the end of this long road, I must say that when the Act was passed I hoped that was going to be a finality. I am very sorry that we are having to go back again over this Act, which has brought so much relaxation of tension and anxiety to so many women and to so many doctors. It is, in my view, a great pity that we are having to look at the subject again today.

I want to keep myself very narrowly to the Bill before us and I do not think it would be right for us to raise the religious, ethical and philosophical grounds about termination of pregnancy tonight. The noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, has very rightly put down very narrow amendments. He wants in the first place to insert before the word "risk" in the 1967 Act the word "serious". I think this is too important an issue to be reduced to semantics; but because today's Bill is about words, we must examine the words. The 1967 Act allows termination, and I quote: where the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk". I looked up the Shorter Oxford Dictionary, and it defines "risk" as follows: Hazard; danger; exposure to mischance or peril. I suggest to your Lordships that this definition is clear. It does not lend itself to quantifying. If the hazard, danger or exposure to mischance or peril is there, surely that is enough, and the word "serious" does nothing to help the situation. All risks, I submit, are serious to the patient concerned and her family.

I have to ask the noble Lord: is he maintaining that it would be right for doctors to inflict a slight risk on an anxious woman? What is a slight risk? Doctors might decide that the chances of some disaster are a hundred to one. Is that slight or is it serious? If the doctors decide that a risk of one in a hundred is not serious, then I must say to your Lordships that that one woman in a hundred is to herself and to her family one hundred per cent. in trouble. You cannot work this legislation by numbers. I recall a surgeon telling me how he had been trying to persuade a patient to sign a consent form to an operation. He told the patient that of course there was an element of danger in all operations but no more than crossing Tottenham Court Road. The patient said: "But do you mean crossing Tottenham Court Road on a wet, dark, foggy night in the rush hour or on a sunny Sunday morning?" The surgeon never tried that analogy again.

That exchange illustrates the difficulty of quantifying risk. What might be a slight risk for one woman might be a serious risk for another, and who is to say among your Lordships that slight damage does not matter? This is especially so as nobody can look into the future and know what aftermath there might be in the case of a woman whose situation might not seem to be a serious risk but who later might develop consequential problems arising from a wrong decision which had been made earlier.

The problem was very clearly stated in 1967 in your Lordships' House by the then Chief Justice, Lord Justice Parker. He advised the House—and Lord Justice Parker was not parti pris on this issue—that words like "serious" or "substantial" would cause difficulties of definition in the courts. I am sure it was right that on that occasion your Lordships felt that the advice of the Lord Chief Justice should be taken. I refer your Lordships in this connection to the Official Report of 23rd October, 1967.

So far as I can gather, since the 1967 Act there have been no prosecutions under that legislation. There may have been a few prosecutions under the regulations, but I understand that no doctor has been prosecuted under the 1967 Act. That is, indeed, a change from earlier legislation, when I saw doctor after doctor being sent to prison for doing what they thought was in the interests of their patients. Therefore, the fact that there have been no prosecutions under the 1967 Act must indicate to your Lordships that this Act is working well, that doctors are assuming their responsibilities within the restrictions of the Act and that there has been no defiance of the law.

I know that there are noble Lords who would wish to widen the possibilities of legal termination under the 1967 Act. I know that other noble Lords would wish for restriction. Surely, in the traditional understanding of your Lordships' House, the answer must be a temperate consensus which would leave the 1967 Act as it is. I ask your Lordships tonight to let the statutes rest in peace. Meanwhile, through legislation, through the regulations and through the notifications procedure, there is ample scope to deal with difficulties. But the 1967 law should itself remain as it is on the statute book, because it is a law which combines common sense with compassion, and these are qualities which are not always to be found in combination in legislation in your Lordships' House.

I would only remind your Lordships that since 1967 10 attempts to amend the Act have been brought in, though not in your Lordships' House. This is the eleventh attempt and the first time in your Lordships' House since 1967. I would also remind your Lordships that the Lane Committee, under that very distinguished woman lawyer Lord Justice Lane in 1974, wanted the Act to remain as it was; that the Commons Select Committee, which was set up in 1975, urged that the Act of 1967 should be left alone; that the doctors are against any change, and that it is usual, when we are discussing legislation, to look to the people who have to enact it and ask them what they think about it. We now have incontrovertible evidence from the British Medical Association, from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and from countless doctors up and down the country that they want the 1967 Act left alone, and it is incumbent upon your Lordships to pay attention to the views of the people who are having to deal with this Bill.

I will end by saying that we are indebted to the noble Lord for bringing this difficult subject to our attention, but we have to look at the underlying problems. I appreciate that he is concerned about the differences in the regional effects of the law—differences between one area and another. But I would say to him that the biggest difference in this area is not always between one region and another, but between whether a woman is rich or whether she is poor.

In all my years in another place and here, we have never had a debate on the subject of abortion which has questioned the right of rich women to get abortions when and where they want them. It was only under the National Health Service that working-class women, poor women, came to us and said, "We, too, must have our right to decide these things." I submit to your Lordships that if we pass this Bill tonight we shall be putting the clock back as regards the right of poor women to get a termination of pregnancy when two doctors think they should have it, and encouraging rich women with no medical qualifications or needs to go somewhere and give enough money to get what they want. So the Labour Party must oppose any restriction of the 1967 Act, because the Bill will mean a restriction against poorer working class women.

I want to finish by saying to your Lordships that abortion is nothing which anybody wants. I resent being called, as I sometimes am, pro-abortionist, because I am not in favour of abortions. They are something of which no woman can be in favour. What I am in favour of is an extended programme of family planning facilities, and I hope that none of those facilities will be reduced by any Government rearrangement of National Health Service priorities. I want to see more counselling and more child care facilities, so that a young woman faced with having a baby is not forced to have an abortion because there is nobody to look after the baby, which, perhaps, she wants. These are the social factors which are absolutely fundamental.

I also want to see a great deal more sex education. When I say that, I do not mean just the sort of mechanical instruction that can come from biology lessons in schools, but education both at home and at school, which would help young people to understand the richness and, may I say, the sweetness of responsible, loving, human relationships, as distinct from the cruelty and the disasters of casual unloving encounters. These are the thoughts which I must commend to your Lordships and, for all the reasons which I have tried to put before you, I very much hope that your Lordships will support the amendment of my noble friend Lord Houghton and reject the Second Reading of the Bill, because, with all respect to the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, I hope that it will be defeated.

7.9 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of London

My Lords, I, too, wish to thank the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, for introducing this Bill. I am also particularly grateful to him for setting the context in which this debate is taking place. He did so in simple, clear and direct terms when he reminded us that in this country, by next March, we can anticipate that abortions will take place at the rate of one baby every three minutes. That is the context in which we debate the issue today. Casualties through other reasons attract great attention. People are deeply concerned about them. They protest and ask, can they not be reduced? The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, referred to it as being an academic party exercise to debate this issue in your Lordships' House. I find that very difficult to understand. How can it be an academic party exercise to debate—

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, if the right reverend Prelate will permit me to intervene, I did not use in this connection the word "party". I said "academic exercise" but not "party''.

The Lord Bishop of London

My Lords, I accept the noble Lord's explanation. When I made a note at that point, I must have written down a word he did not say. However, I could not regard it even as an academic exercise for this House to debate whether the Bill could reduce that appalling figure. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has called for an end to what he described as "this guerrilla warfare" against the 1967 Act. I could well understand his attitude if the Act had operated as was intended, but if an Act does not operate as intended there is every reason why those who are concerned about the issues with which it deals should seek to produce amendments designed to secure that the original intention of the Act is observed as far as possible. On 22nd July 1967 Mr. David Steel in another place said that it was not the intention of the promoters of the Bill to leave a wide open door to abortion on request. That statement was repeated many times in the debate. At paragraph 603, the Lane Committee admitted that abortion on request has been one of the results of the Act. Other points have already been made this evening. It was stated very confidently at that time that the rate of illegitimacy would decline. That has not happened.

I maintain that sufficient problems have arisen from the implementation of the Act for there to be ample justification for those who have sought to amend it in some way or another and for our debate this evening. A point was made about the variations in the operation of the Act. I am not a lawyer. Therefore I hope that noble and learned Lords will later be able to help us. However, I should have thought that to sharpen the criterion might have the effect of securing a greater uniformity of practice. If one leaves something wide open and largely to the decision of one or two people, I maintain that one is asking for the kind of variation of policy to which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, drew attention.

Before I turn to the main points which I wish to make, may I say a word by way of reply to the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger? I agree that it is difficult to quantify risk, but it has to be done in many other aspects of the law. Again, perhaps we may have guidance on that point later in the debate. It is a question of what issues are at stake. We may disagree on this point, but I would suggest to your Lordships (I do not isolate the woman; I wish to emphasise that this issue is of as much concern to men as it is to women and that it is not good enough simply to say that the answer is for the woman to say no; it is equally necessary for the man not to seek to put her in the position where she has to say no) that it may be more serious to give the impression that we take a lighthearted view of procreation by simply allowing it to be thought that the results of sexual intercourse can be pushed to one side easily and without problems.

I have touched upon some of the reasons why I believe there is a case for looking again at the working of the Act. There are one or two other reasons which I should like to suggest to your Lordships. They spring from my own pastoral experience. I believe it is right for those who seek to speak on this issue to ask themselves what counsel they would devise for these kinds of situations. Over the years since the implementation of the Act women have come to me seeking pastoral counsel. Having had an abortion, they can no longer have children. What do I say to them? Women come to me for pastoral counsel who are now suffering mentally and spiritually from the effects of abortion. I have had to counsel a fair number of medical practitioners and nurses who are facing great strains of conscience as a result of being expected to operate the Act as it stands at the moment, and I have also had to counsel those who are under pressure to adopt the minimal view of what justifies abortion. I have had couples come to see me who are under great pressure—social pressure, pressure from social workers, pressure from parents, as the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, indicated in the letter which he read—to have their child aborted. Some of these couples are in great agony of mind. That such pressure is exerted I do not believe can be denied. I do not for a moment believe that my experiences have been unique and are not to be found elsewhere throughout the country.

I am pleading tonight that we should look at the Bill clearly and directly, as people who are deeply concerned not only with individuals but also with the principles which underlie our society. I believe it is a great mistake to suppose that principle and pastoral care or compassion are contrary to one another and can never be brought together. On the contrary, I believe that it is from our principles that we are enabled most effectively to exercise pastoral care and that only if we have no principles are we in no position to offer pastoral care, since we have no guidelines to direct us.

With regard to the sanctity of life, I believe that we have to deal with an attitude of society. I do not believe that the way to solve social problems is by the extinction of life. I use that phrase deliberately because, whatever else people say about the state of the foetus, they cannot deny that it is alive. Secondly, I believe we have to concern ourselves with human responsibility. Something which worries me deeply about our society today is that it reflects the words of T. S. Eliot in one of the choruses of The Rock when he speaks of how we are seeking to escape from the darkness outside and within by dreaming of a system so perfect that no one will need to be good. If we are dreaming of a system so perfect that no one will need to be good then we are, I believe, gravely undermining human dignity and human freedom.

Society is, of course, illogical about life. On the one hand we abort babies at the rate of which we have heard and, on the other, when a baby is born we do all we can, at great expense, to try to keep it alive. As a Christian, I am committed to the sanctity of human life. By the incarnation and by the fact that God took our human nature upon him, human life was given an eternal blessing. I believe that when a child is conceived—and this is a fact, of course—a new individual with a unique genetical make-up comes into being. It is unable to protect itself, and it is the duty of society to protect it. It must not be regarded as being disposable.

I will not develop the theological points I would like to make, partly because the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, mentioned them and partly because I wish to speak specifically about the purposes of this Bill. I want to make clear that I speak from a deeply-felt Christian conviction, which is not merely concern for an abstract piece of doctrine but because I happen to believe that the Christian truth represents the truth about human beings and society and what they are for and how they should live.

One aspect of human life is that a human being is a responsible person. I would say that the greatest gift which God gives to us is our freedom. That is why I regard it as so inimical to society if we start behaving as if people can be manipulated and be made to do what we think is right for them—as if they were wholly determined by their environment, upbringing or genetic make-up. I believe that every human person, in whatever conditions they find themselves, has that point of freedom and it is for us to foster and develop it.

I believe that this freedom is uniquely reflected in the Christian gospels. It is a fact that God chose to redeem us on the Cross in a way which leaves every one of us still free to choose; the Cross does not compel but only recognises our freedom—but if we respond, it then liberates us even further. I believe that when we come to an issue such as this, we have to consider society as a whole—because society can help or hinder the freedom which individuals possess. We have to think of the responsibility we have for exercising our own judgments; anything which undermines that and which appears to minimise the consequences of our actions, although at one moment it may appear somewhat harsh, is in fact the most compassionate position to adopt.

I would now like to speak particularly about the issue before us. I believe that the foetus has a right to live and to develop as a member of the human family. Therefore I see abortion and the termination of that life by the act of man as a great moral evil. It has sometimes been said that there is a great diversity of opinion within the Church of England; but I would like to say that, in using those words, I was in fact quoting from a Church of England document published in 1980. I do not believe that the right to life, as a right pertaining to persons, admits of no exceptions whatever. I never have been an absolutist in this matter, but I do believe that the right of the innocent to life admits of very few exceptions indeed. I will not seek to elaborate those exceptions, but I will say that in abortion we are faced with a choice between two evils, and we have to decide which is the lesser evil.

The Bill before us helps us to make that responsible but very difficult judgment. In a society such as ours, with advanced facilities for prenatal diagnosis and care, such stituations ought to be much more exceptional than they are. The fact is that people today turn to abortion or are encouraged to seek abortion for quite other reasons. I say "people" again because I believe that we are making a great mistake if we isolate women as if it were simply their problem. I know that they are most immediately concerned, but we men cannot escape our responsibilities for this great problem. People turn to abortion for reasons which frequently point to seriously unsatisfactory personal or family circumstances, but which cannot on that account morally justify the extreme step of abortion.

With regard to the role of the law, I fully accept that before 1967, when the present Abortion Act became law, there was much uncertainty about what the law allowed. There were great inequalities in the opportunities open to women facing a dangerous or unwelcome pregnancy. There was a desire to remedy a situation where the wealthy could purchase a safe abortion. I will endorse all that the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, said just now; but if I may say so with respect, I do not honestly believe that it affects the issue before us today.

Baroness Jeger

Of course it does, my Lords.

The Lord Bishop of London

The criteria we are seeking to adopt are the right criteria for deciding. I agree that the criterion of rich or poor should not be one of those criteria, but it is perfectly possible to have a different criterion from that which is operating now in the National Health Service. I do not believe that we should be led astray in the way that the noble Baroness indicated just now. What we are concerned about is the criterion we can operate within the National Health Service, although I would entirely endorse the words of the noble Baroness about the rich and the poor.

A desire to remedy a situation where the wealthy could purchase a safe abortion while the less well-off endangered their lives seeking back-street abortions was undoubtedly a motive—a very proper and right motive—in the campaign for a statutory basis for abortion. As I have said, matters have turned out rather differently, and I believe that the working of the Act has gone far beyond a clarification of the law. In its wake have come new injustices as well as the widespread belief that in the last resort, if a woman or those around her want an abortion, she will get one. Fifteen years' experience of working the Act have not ended the controversy surrounding it. As the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, has indicated, they have if anything sharpened it; but that is no reason for simply trying to shut our eyes to the situation.

My following remark may surprise your Lordships, but the fact that I regard abortion as an evil—and in my judgment it is an evil—is not in itself a ground for prohibiting it in law. Only if it were to be regarded as invariably wrong to terminate a pregnancy for any reason would prohibition be justifiable, and I do not believe that abortion in all circumstances must be rejected. Because of the evil which abortion entails, however, and because of the serious threat to the high valuation of human life which unrestricted recourse to abortion represents in the long term, it is of great importance that it be made clear that, in law, induced abortion is allowable only when the life or health of the pregnant woman can without disingenuousness be diagnosed as being seriously threatened by the continuation of the pregnancy, and no less drastic remedy than its termination is available. The responsibility for carrying out the intention of the law lies, in the main, with the medical profession. The presumption that clinical judgments are made in good faith and therefore not called in question subsequently is of great value; it is something which is of great value within our society. Nevertheless, I would suggest that the enormous increase in legal abortions as a result of the 1967 Act suggests a certain slackening of the tradition of concern for the life of the unborn child, and a loss of confidence within the profession in its responsibility to distinguish between the client's wishes and her needs.

What I am now going to say may be a little strong but I believe it is justified. If respect for the medical profession in its task of caring for persons is to continue in the community, there must be evidence that the profession will keep in good repair the distinction between an authentic expression of what that task requires and a purely formal and external observance of the law. This means that the terms of the law—the present law or any modified law—must be accompanied by action within the profession to ensure that evasion of its intentions is not enabled to prosper by appeal to the principle of not questioning a practitioner's clinical judgment.

A proper concern for the law should not blind us to the fact that it has at best only a limited and indirect role in protecting the true interests of persons and of the community. The request for abortion is frequently a pointer to underlying personal or social problems, which cannot be dealt with by a law on abortion, however framed. It cannot solve the problems of the girl who needs to prove herself by becoming pregnant, nor those of the tired mother facing an addition to an already over-large family in poor housing. Nor can it help a society which is in turmoil in its attitude to human sexuality, free of earlier fears, but unable or unwilling to accept the commitment and creativity which sexualty essentially points to, enables and requires. We as Christians are well aware that it is quite inadequate to limit ourselves to expressions of moral disapproval, in this case of the individual woman who seeks and obtains abortion on what often we may feel are quite inadequate grounds. Our moral concern must be for the protection of human life, and it will only have and be seen to have integrity if it also finds expression in an equal concern for whatever enhances human life and equally for whatever undermines it. In other words, while we must be deeply concerned for this particular problem, we must see it within a concern for society as a whole, within which the individual must be free to develop as a person. We believe that the Church has a major task in helping our contemporaries to reach a fuller understanding of our nature as sexual beings. The Church must also stand in opposition to the restricted life-chances, poverty, inadequate housing, and so on, which continue to limit and to stunt many people's lives.

Abortion on the scale and in the context we see today calls in question the transcendent value of human life to which the Christian is committed and to which our society still in principle subscribes. We need to be concerned with it, not as an isolated example of individuals' responsibilities deserving of moral censure, but as an encroachment upon the conditions for a proper human life in our society. I believe that the situation over abortion in this country today reflects very ill on its conditions. I believe that this House has a responsibility for considering what can and should be done to remedy it. That is why I ask your Lordships to vote against the amendment, in order that you have the opportunity for considering this issue which is put before us by the Bill which is before this House.

7.35 p.m.

Lord Denning

My Lords, I have been much concerned in abortion from the legal point of view. As a trial judge, I have tried cases of illegal abortion. I have sentenced men to some years, and one woman backstairs abortionist to nine months when the mother concerned had either died or been rendered very ill. I took part in the discussions in 1965, when the late Lord Silkin introduced the first Abortion Bill. I followed the Bill through this House then, and since that Act I have been engaged in, I think, the only case which has come before the courts on the interpretation of the statute.

Before I say more, I should like to say that I will support the Second Reading of the Bill and be against the amendment which seeks to postpone it, for these reasons. Really it is not only the Christian doctrine but it is the doctrine of our law and our common law that the unborn child has a life of its own and a right of its own which is recognised by the law at least from the time of quickening, and the common law has always recognised that. Our great jurist, Sir William Blackstone, put it in this way: Life is the immediate gift of God, a right inherent by nature in every individual, and it begins in contemplation at law as soon as the infant is able to stir in its mother's womb. Such a child was protected by the law almost to the same extent as a new-born baby. If anyone terminated the pregnancy and thus destroyed the life of the child he or she was guilty of a felony punishable by life imprisonment.

In 1939 in Bourne's case that was modified to this extent by the common law. It was a defence if the termination was necessary to save the life of the mother. If the probable consequence of not terminating was to make the mother a physical or mental wreck then it was justifiable, but that was the only circumstance in which in the common law it was justifiable to terminate the pregnancy. So the common law laid great stress on the existence in the unborn child of a life of its own and a right of its own.

Now for the 1967 Act. As I read it, it does not alter that fundamental principle, but what it does do is to define the circumstances in which pregnancy can be terminated. I would like to follow what my noble friend Lord Robertson of Oakridge said. It is not for the doctors alone to consider the balance of danger to the mother's health; it is for the law itself, following the old doctrine, to consider that there is yet another person concerned and that is the unborn child.

In the first four or five years after that Act was passed—and we have had cases about it—there had to be surgery after three months to terminate the pregnancy. Termination by the knife. Naturally, grave consideration was given to the risks involved. Since about 1972 the medical profession has had a new system: the method of induction. As we understood it from a case, what happens is that the doctor inserts a catheter or whatever it may be, and then goes off and leaves the nurse to then insert the new chemical fluid which makes the space so that the mother's muscles act differently—at all events to induce labour prematurely without the knife at all. That was the case which came before the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords in which, in the Court of Appeal, we said that that really was not termination by a registered medical practitioner. He had just given the first word. It was termination by the nurse. Many nurses, including the Royal College of Nursing, objected to it. We took that point of view, but the House of Lords said otherwise. But there it is, I am just telling your Lordships how abortion has become much more facile and easy at the hands of the medical profession.

I am sure that the whole design of the act was to put a great social responsibility on the medical profession in regard to the termination of pregnancy. It is a great social responsibility. I do not believe that it can be effectively enforced by the law. If the doctor gives his opinion honestly and in good faith, no jury will challenge it, no law will challenge it. That is why there have been no prosecutions under the Act. The responsibility is firmly placed by the law on the medical profession. It is the profession's responsibility. But here comes the crux: weighing the balance and telling of the risk. That word "risk" covers a multitude of chances, from the slightest to the greatest. We all know that there is a risk in continuing with pregnancy. There is a risk in terminating it. What is advocated in the Bill is intended to help the doctors, by saying that there must be a "serious" risk when weighing the balance. What is the balance between the health of the mother in terminating the pregnancy on the one hand and letting her continue the pregnancy on the other? Everyone knows that in practice there is a risk to the mental health of the mother when she has the baby. Equally, everyone knows, as the right reverend Prelate said, that an abortion often leads to much mental disturbance. The doctors have to weigh that nice balance. Surely they ought to be given some guidance to show that the "greater" balance has to be to save injury to the mother. In other words, the Act as it stands with just the word "risk" and only the word "greater" does not give enough guidance to the profession. More guidance is necessary. That is why, in practice, abortions have slipped through. I said "judicially" in the one case that we had—the Royal College of Nursing case. This has been interpreted by some medical practitioners so loosely that abortion has become virtually obtainable on demand. Whenever a woman has an unwanted pregnancy there are doctors who will say that a risk is involved to her mental health. That is what I said in my judicial capacity and which I readily reassert now. It is because there is not enough guidance given to the medical profession.

How much more valuable would be the guidance to the poor girl in the greatest decision of her life on whether to have an abortion? Surely it is much better for the doctor to be able to tell her whether there is a "serious risk" or that the balance is the "greater" one way or the other. In other words, it gives an answering argument, or a good argument of reason, for the doctor when he is speaking to the poor bewildered girl who does not know which way to turn in her predicament. She may be influenced if she is told, "If you continue the pregnancy it will involve serious risk to your life". If she is told that, she will go by it. But supposing she is told that it will involve some risk or a slight risk to her life, will that influence her? In other words, for the sake of the girl herself, or the woman, is it not right that doctors should be able to say, "I have to go by the statute. The statute tells me to consider whether it is a serious risk and whether the injury would be substantially greater"? If he can tell that woman that, he would be better guiding himself and he would be better guiding the girl in the most difficult decision that she has to make.

I agree that there have been no prosecutions. There are not likely to be. This is a matter always for the doctors to determine. If the Act is amended as suggested there will be no prosecutions because the jury and the judge will always go by the good faith of the doctor concerned.

The only thing that troubles me is the opinions of the great medical bodies such as the British Medical Association. I confess that I hesitate, but I am not sure that the answer was not given by my noble friend Lord Robertson of Oakridge when he cited the specialist who said, "It looks as if I am just considering the balance as far as the woman is concerned and the unborn child is left out of the equation." Surely the Bill will bring the unborn child into the scales so that its interests are given a proper place in the vital decision that has to be made on its life. Therefore, I support the Second Reading and am against the amendment.

Lord Davies of Leek

My Lords, may I ask the noble and learned Lord a question? I have listened to the important speech he has just made but, with all seriousness, how would he make a judgment where a nubile girl of 13 or 14 is concerned who knows nothing about these problems but who is nevertheless pregnant?

Lord Denning

My Lords, I would say on that difficult problem of a child of 13 or 14, that she should go by her father and mother, but if she is old enough to become pregnant she is old enough to have her own views on the matter and they ought to be given the fullest weight. As I say, let her be advised by the medical men in accordance with the proposed amendment to the Act.

7.49 p.m.

Lord McGregor of Durris

My Lords, abortion touches people's notions about life and its origins, their religious faith, their beliefs about marital and sexual relationships, their emotional experiences and their views on morality and law. In short, few subjects define so sharply the nature of a person's outlook. Accordingly, present attitudes to abortion are passionately held as matters always of conscience and often of faith. As is so often the case in the sexual area, when it comes to deriving rules or guidelines for practical behaviour different consciences reach different and frequently contradictory conclusions.

In the case of views reflecting Christian beliefs, for example, the Church of Rome and the Methodist Church each issue different practical advice to their congregations. This is true of other communions and sometimes even within the same communion. Some denounce abortion and others permit it under certain conditions. The views of each communion may convince those who adhere to that particular set of beliefs, but they are not likely to be compelling for other Christians or to those who are not. It is one thing to respect the sanctity of life, but quite another to tell people how to respect it in daily life.

On what basis, then, can the legislator act? In a plural society which attaches high importance to religious toleration and to the toleration of different social views, he cannot accept on theological or philosophical grounds alone the practical consequences of one set of beliefs. The trouble is that people equally learned, equally pious and equally well-equipped to interpret the will of God, and equally careful of the public weal, reach contradictory conclusions—that abortion on present grounds cannot be permitted, ought not to be permitted and that it can be permitted.

Thus, having weighed the views of the Churches, the legislator must look for criteria in what is most likely to promote the social good. This was examined in the debates surrounding the Act of 1967 and it has been tested by the 15 years' experience of the operation of that Act. The result has been that the major representative and professional medical bodies are strongly opposed to the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson. Secondly, the most recent of many public opinion polls has shown that between three-quarters and four-fifths of the population support present arrangements, and that the support is at the same level across members of all political parties. It seems, too, that more than two-thirds of lay Roman Catholics also approve the present arrangements.

I do not suggest for a moment that a majority view is to be respected merely because it is the view of the majority, but it is evidence of the attitude of those whose lives are directly affected by the legislation, of those to whom the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, so movingly referred. But this, taken together with the overwhelming opinion of the doctors who actually care for patients, including two-thirds of the professors of obstetrics and gynaecology in Britain, adds up to an impressive support for the present legislation.

I suggest that it would require much stronger evidence than the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, has produced, to support a change in the criteria. This evidence would have to include an analysis of all the relevant statistical data, which noble Lords have not discussed—for example, the incidence of illegal abortion before 1967, without which what followed cannot be accurately assessed. It would have to include the decline in annual deaths during the last 14 years from criminal abortion. They, in fact, declined from 22 to none, and the deaths from all abortions in the same period declined from 50 to four. We would have to analyse why this experience suggests changing the criteria.

However, my main point is that there is a big majority in Britain in favour of the present consensus; a minority dislikes and wishes to change it. But in a democracy which contains groups of conflicting and conscientiously held views, there is no escape from the practice of tolerating views with which one disagrees and which may even be strongly repugnant.

The noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, asked for what she called the retention of the temperate compromise. In similar vein I should like the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, to withdraw his attempt to use legislation to compel a majority of his fellow citizens and a majority of the medical profession to accept a practice of abortion which they do not want. The majority do not wish, and will not attempt, to coerce the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, and those who share his views, to conform with what the majority approve.

A domocratic society cannot function safely without the exercise of tolerance. It is easy to be tolerant of beliefs and practices of which one is indifferent. The virtue of tolerance arises only when consciences are engaged. The consciences of the majority concerning the settlement of 1967 are as much engaged as are the consciences of the minority. I respect the views of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson. I hope that he will respect mine and will not seek to compel me by legislation to accept his. I ask the House to support the amendment.

7.56 p.m.

Lady Saltoun

My Lords, I wholeheartedly support the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, whose Bill this is, and I cannot agree with the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. This Bill does not seek to alter the existing law; it merely seeks to reword it so that its spirit is obeyed, instead of being disregarded because it is too loosely phrased.

The group of women who have the greatest number of abortions are those who have never been pregnant before and are unmarried, and mostly they have abortions for purely social reasons. Medical evidence shows that abortions, even done under the best conditions, often cause damage which can make the mother sterile or cause her to miscarry or to suffer a variety of complications in future pregnancies. I do not consider that this House is the place to go into the details of what a friend of mine calls "Women's plumbing". But the evidence is available for those who are interested. The medical conclusions are that unless there are serious contra-indications for the mother, it is safer, particularly for healthy, young women, to bear a child than to have an abortion.

There is also the matter of the psychological ill-effects, as the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London mentioned. A study carried out in 1975–76 of young people who, in a part of London, had attempted suicide by taking an overdose of drugs, showed that 29 per cent. of the attempted suicides had had an abortion, as against 13 per cent. of the control group—over twice as many. The number of attempted suicides among teenage girls who have had abortions is nine times as high as in the population at large.

An article in an American medical journal in 1978 on the psychological consequences of abortion, reports significant psychiatric illness often as a direct result of the emotional effects, and that psychological ill effects on other members of the women's family are not rare. The authors concluded that it was the emotional effects of the abortion which were to blame and not environmental factors. In a paper called Abortion Hazards to Bear in Mind a consultant obstetrician at a large hospital in the London area said in 1979 that risks included: emotional trauma, regret and severe remorse, guilt and grief". That is something which is apt to happen to people who have done something which deep down inside they felt to be wrong.

So what of the children who will be born, should this Bill succeed and the present situation (which was not, I think, the intention of the 1967 Act) be rectified? As things are, many childless couples are unable to find children to adopt and are turning, faute de mieux, to AID, surrogate motherhood, et cetera, with the often distasteful social, legal and other problems as yet unresolved, which these alternatives involve. There are plenty of homes available for unwanted babies, but few babies for the homes.

I would not, myself, be prepared to advise or encourage a girl to have an abortion for social reasons. Rather, I should encourage her to have the baby and have it adopted, both for its sake and for her own. For these reasons alone, I hope that your Lordships will give this Bill a Second Reading tonight.

8.1 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, the case for the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, has been put so well by the noble Lord himself, by the right reverend Prelate, by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, and by the noble Lady that it may be wondered whether it is very necessary for me to add anything. But I am one of the relatively few in the House tonight who played a prominent part in the debates of 1967 which are now spoken of as though they are ancient history; in fact, I was Leader of the House of Lords at that time and I left my seat to speak against that Bill. My dear friend Lady Jeger and my esteemed friend Lord Houghton, were otherwise occupied, so they did not know what was going on here.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, we read about it.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, yes, but they were not here. Therefore, I must be allowed to speak on that one point with a little more authority than they can command. I must just explain that to them. There is no doubt at all in my mind, because everything that was said at that time in various discussions was not necessarily said on the Floor of the House. So, if I may say so respectfully, it is no good my noble friend Lady Jeger saying that she knows everything that was said.

At any event, we have the Bill. There is no doubt whatever that the Bill has been interpreted much more widely and in a sense much more favourably towards abortion than was officially expected at that time. There were some prophets of doom, like myself, who forecast that that would probably happen, but it was said again and again that there would be a much more restrictive interpretation than, in fact, has been the case.

About a year after that Bill was passed, after I had resigned from the Government, I, together with others, started a centre in Soho for young people with problems and at the beginning I ran it day by day with the help of a secretary. Therefore, I know the sort of problems that people were raising at that time. Certainly quite a few asked us how they could obtain an abortion, and we took the line that if they were interested in that, they must go to their doctor. Therefore, we did not give any other advice. However, I am well aware that it was assumed by young women at that time that abortion was there on demand—that was the widespread assumption—and they had a good deal of justification, as the years have proved.

I wonder what some of our pro-abortion friends—I must not call them abortionists' friends—would say about this case. A woman rang me up and said that she wanted an abortion and asked me to help her because I was running this little centre. I asked her why she wanted it and she said that she wanted to go to Austria for winter sports. She was rather desperate about it because there was only about a fortnight before the season got started. We gave her the stock answer that she must talk to her doctor. We know of a famous case outside this country; the great Billie-Jean King had an abortion in order to play at Wimbledon. Those are actual cases. Those who favour a more liberal policy on abortion must ask themselves—and they never answer questions of this sort—whether abortions in cases of this sort are justified.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, if the noble Earl will allow me, he said that we must ask whether, in the cases that he has mentioned, abortion is justified. Because he has asked the question I must be allowed to say "no", and I hope that when he cites cases of this sort he will also bear in mind the situation of desperate, middle-aged, poor women living in slum conditions with five children in one room. Those are the sort of women about whom we care. It is very frivolous of him to put these examples before your Lordships tonight. I am sorry to interrupt in this way, but I feel very strongly that my noble friend, for whom I have great respect, is being very frivolous tonight.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I am sorry if my noble friend feels that way. She became very emotional when she was speaking and I realise that her emotions are deeply involved here. But she must allow me to say that I have done as much social work as she has among people as distressed as any she knows about. So, I will not be lectured by her as though she were someone who just knew about sufferers and outcasts and as though I were not aware of cases of that kind. I refuse to be lectured by her or, indeed, by anybody on that particular topic.

To return to the subject in a more harmonious spirit, not long after that, in trying to investigate the working of the Act, I went to a clinic. I asked what sort of criteria were being employed and in what circumstances they allowed abortions in this clinic. The gentleman in charge who happened to be a Persian—I have nothing against Persians; I just mention the fact that he was a Persian—said, "But you do not understand. This is an operating hotel". That is how the abortions were being dished out in the early days. The rules may or may not have been tightened up, but that was the immediate effect of the Act. You could set up a large clinic—one of the best known in London—and women were simply treated in what was an operating hotel.

I am afraid that I must refer noble Lords to the point raised by my noble friend Lord Houghton at the beginning of the debate when he attached a very profound value to that Act of 1967.I am talking now of the 1967 Act and, like the noble Viscount, Lord Barrington, I played a part in those debates and other noble Lords did not play a part because they were not here to play a part. The Act as it has been interpreted is not the Act as it was passed into law. When we ask for something, we are asking for something that in theory, on paper, the noble Lord himself is demanding—the proper administration and interpretation of that Act.

I shall not go on for more than another minute. I should like to reply to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, who is not in his place. He made a powerful speech.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, he does not want to listen to this rubbish.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I wonder whether that will go into Hansard. If so, I can only say that it is not worthy of the Leader of our Party, or even the temporary Leader. At the moment the noble Baroness seems to be in charge of the handling of this debate. At any rate, it is not usual for those on the Front Bench to say: I shall not listen to this rubbish". It is not usual at all. The noble Baroness dishes it out but she must be ready to take a little sauce in return. I am sorry, but she must. She ought to be experienced enough to understand. I return to the point that I was about to make to the noble Lord, Lord McGregor.

Baroness Jeger

My Lords, he is the one who is not listening.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, the noble Lord made a great point of the fact that there seem to be a majority of people in favour of the Bill as it stands. He made a great point of the fact that only the minority are against it. I pay my tribute to my noble friend Lord Houghton and to those with him who worked for many years to turn a minority into a majority in favour of this Bill. For a long time the Abortion Law Society was a tiny body which worked away and gradually converted opinion. Therefore, it would not come at all well—it was not the argument used by my noble friend Lord Houghton—from anybody who had seen opinion diverted once in favour of abortion to argue that the minority, as they are called at the moment, have no right to try to get it altered.

I am sorry if I said anything at all offensive to the noble Baroness. She cares a great deal, but other people care deeply too. I believe in the sanctity of life, which the noble Baroness did not dwell on. I agree with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London that the unborn child is a person, and that taking the life of the unborn child is killing.

There may, as the right reverend Prelate said, be a few cases—I said it years ago, and I say it again—where it is justified; where, just as in war, I am afraid, killing is justified by probably the majority of people in this country or in this House. But initially there must be a presumption that taking human life, killing the so-called foetus, is a denial of the sanctity of human existence. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, has brought this Bill forward and I shall of course support it.

Lord Monson

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down I wonder whether he can answer one question? If the unborn child is equal in status to a child who is born, why are miscarriages not followed by funerals?

The Earl of Longford

Is that said seriously?

Lord Monson


The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I will leave it. Well, if the noble Lord is anxious to get an answer, I think it is because it would be too painful altogether. I do not see any reason for not having a funeral, but it would be too painful an affair.

8.12 p.m.

Lord Vernon

My Lords, this is an emotive subject. It always has been and I suppose it always will be. We were subjected particularly to some cases quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, when he introduced this debate this afternoon of people who had perhaps received abortions in wrong circumstances and in unfortunate circumstances. I would not for a moment dispute this. All I would say to him is that it is possible to quote cases on the other side. It is very possible to quote cases where people have been refused abortions, perhaps on grounds of conscience by a doctor, perhaps on other grounds, where very unfortunate consequences ensued, and perhaps tragic consequences. However, I do not want to pursue that because it is not profitable to go into the emotive side.

The way I look at the problem is that doctors already have a huge and, in my view, unenviable task in deciding when and whether to carry out abortions. It really is ridiculous to talk about abortion on demand when not only a doctor but a consultant also has to agree to it. The objective of this Bill is to restrict the operation of the 1967 Act by introducing an element of increased uncertainty as to whether or not a doctor is justified in carrying out an abortion. We have heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, and others how difficult it would be to decide whether there is a "serious" or a "substantial" risk. We have the authority of Lord Parker in 1967 saying that in his view it would be very difficult to decide this, and it was on his advice that the Act was framed in the way that it is now framed.

I appreciate that the view of Lord Parker does not appear to be shared by the view of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, who also suggested to us that he did not think that there would be any increase in the number of prosecutions of doctors or consultants if Lord Robertson's Bill became law. If there are no increased prosecutions then it will only be because the doctors and consultants are too frightened to do what they deem to be their duty. While the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, was speaking I could not help reflecting on the prosecution brought in 1981 against the unfortunate doctor Leonard Arthur for murder. Dr. Arthur was not prosecuted for illegal abortion, he was prosecuted for murder under different circumstances, but all I would say is that the moral considerations in the case of Dr. Arthur were very similar to the moral considerations we are discussing this evening. I am happy to say that in the end Dr. Arthur was properly acquitted of murder, but not before he himself and his family had endured many months of anguish and distress. We do not want to place the medical profession in the position where all the time they are looking over their shoulder to see whether they are going to end up in the criminal dock.

We have heard this evening that distinguished medical authorities, and in particular the British Medical Association, are against any change in the law. It is not only the British Medical Association. Perhaps I may read out some of the other bodies who are also against it: the Royal College of Physicians are against the change; the Royal College of Surgeons are against the change; the Royal College of General Practitioners are against the change; the Royal College of Gynaecologists and Obstetricians are against the change; the Joint Consultants Committee are against the change, and the British Paediatric Association. That is a formidable body of medical opinion; and who are we as laymen, who do not have to carry out the effects of such changes in the law, who do not have the practical experience that they do, to say that they are wrong?

I regard this as a retrograde Bill. What it seeks to do flies in the face of the overwhelming majority of medical opinion. From the administration of justice point of view, there is at least a division of opinion as to whether or not the introduction of these words would be practical to interpret in the courts. Judging by the opinion polls quoted by my noble friend Lord McGregor this Bill is unlikely to be supported by the vast majority of public opinion in this country. I therefore hope that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, will withdraw his Bill; but if he does not do so then I shall certainly vote for the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby.

Lord Robertson of Oakridge

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I ask him whether he is aware that Professor Peter Huntingford—who refused to fill in the new notification forms certifying that there were medical grounds, when no action was taken against him by the DPP—stated on mid-morning Radio Medway that he was pleased by the statement of the Attorney General that he was not to be proceeded against because: I think that the Attorney General's statement does mean what I have been saying publicly since 1970, that the Abortion Act does allow abortion on demand, on request, up to 14 weeks without any medical indication. They are his actual words.

Lord Vernon

My Lords, the noble Lord has quoted one individual doctor. I was not quoting one individual doctor; I was quoting the different bodies responsible for medical opinion.

8.20 p.m.

Lord Coleraine

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, for introducing this important yet simple Bill. The virtue and importance of the measure seem to lie in the effort it makes to restore Parliament's intention to Section 1(1)(a) of the Abortion Act 1967.The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, in introducing his amendment, said we must not re-open the compromise reached on the Floor of this House, without a Division, on 23rd October 1967. He also said that we could not go on fighting the abortion issue indefinitely. I was not there, but I have read Hansard of the debate on the amendments to Section 1(1)(a), and I find it surprising that the Act has survived intact all these years in view of the quality of the debate that seems to have gone on on the Floor of the House, irrespective of what may have gone on elsewhere. As to fighting today, the question is, who is doing the fighting? The fight seems to go on in the mind of the noble Lord with the 80 amendments which he envisages in Committee if the Bill has a Second Reading.

This measure should be viewed not with praise as an exercise to reverse by a few feet the advancing tide—or possibly the high tide—of permissiveness. Nor do I think it right for those who oppose the Bill to take the contrary view. My reason for speaking very briefly this evening is that I should like to explain to the House, and particularly to those speakers who have followed the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, in narrow and specific terms why I think his amendment is inappropriate and should not be agreed to.

I think it fair to summarise the intention of Parliament in 1967 as being an intention that the laws, which at that time prohibited unlawful abortion, should be relaxed sufficiently to make lawful the termination of pregnancies in cases where continued pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the mother or injury to the mother or to the other children of her family. That is Section 1(1)(a) of the Act, at least, and I am using the word "risk" in this exposé in the sense of "real risk", which is how I think most Members of the House, and of the other place, would have wished to regard the word "risk" at that time—before the amendment of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Parker of Waddington, was accepted on Report, in the hope that it would give that desired meaning to the subsection. The amendment, however, in my view, does not seem to have worked.

It has become apparent since the passing of the 1967 Act that abortion on demand has been readily available from the right medical practitioners prepared to form only too easily the opinion referred to in Section 1 of the Act and to go through the notification procedures of Section 2 and the regulations thereunder. What is more—and, really, what is worse—is that there now seems to be widespread acceptance of the view that the 1967 Act permits that.

I understand there are medical practitioners who would see no difficulty over the termination of the first or an early pregnancy of a healthy young woman at her request, however her request was given or procured, under Section 1(1)(a) of the Act. I understand that if those practitioners touch their caps to the rule of law, they do so by the misuse of statistics. I believe that to be wrong on the point of law, and I note that Governments of both complexions have made regulations designed to make life difficult for such doctors, if such doctors there be. Whether those doctors are right or wrong about the meaning of the words of the Act, I understand there has been no challenge to them in the courts. There may be good reason for that, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, has referred to one of them; namely, that the courts will always be very reluctant to impugn the good taste of doctors, and that is certainly some answer to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Vernon, when he painted a picture of the terrible decisions doctors would have to take whether or not to give their certificates and the fear they would have of going to prison.

I think the time is now ripe for the consideration of fresh legislation in your Lordships' House to restore the law to what it was thought to be after the 1967 Act. It seems to me that the Bill provides the clarification of the law which is now needed, or, if it does not, it certainly merits serious consideration in Committee. I would only say about the amendment, that it unreasonably seeks to end discussion on a matter of genuine concern and importance. I hope the noble Lord will withdraw it and that the Bill will have a safe Second Reading this evening.

8.26 p.m.

Baroness Denington

My Lords, as has been said by more than one speaker, we are discussing a deep moral issue. We are, therefore, as individuals, bound to react to it differently according to our natures, maybe according to our upbringing, our background and experience of life and our religion. My noble friend Lord Robertson wants to narrow the Bill, for the reasons he and others have given. Frankly, I lean in the other direction. There are many reasons for that, but I have no intention of wearying your Lordships by speaking for long. The BMA has pointed out in a letter to my noble friend Lord Houghton, of which a number of us have had copies, the almost inevitable consequences—if we accept the Bill—resulting from backstreet abortions.

Let us pause and think what backstreet abortions really mean; the misery and torment, the physical agony and ill-health, that result almost invariably for the woman, followed often by her early death caused by troubles arising from the nature of the backstreet abortionist. I consider it abominable and intolerable that in a civilised society we should think of going back—because that is what we should be doing—to the bad ways of the old days. It would be regrettable and very sad indeed if we were now to make it more difficult for a woman to get an abortion.

I was a teacher, as your Lordship may know. As a teacher in school, you see some children in class who are miserable, grey, depressed and spiritless. You wonder what on earth is wrong with them; you never see the mother of that kind of child in school. So you make it an occasion to go to the home to see the mother, to make contact, to see if you can find out what is wrong with the child, to see if there is something physically wrong. Almost invariably you find that it was an unwanted child; the mother passionately did not want the child and still does not want it, and the child knows it is not wanted. If the child does not react in that way—if it is not one of those grey, spiritless children—it takes the opposite attitude; and how often one hears the question, "Why do so many people nowadays bash and smash things?" If it is not the depressed type of child, it reacts the other way, against society and everybody, and just wants to smash things to demonstrate its misery. What I am talking about is the misery of children. I am not talking of those cases which hit the headlines, cases of children who are physically abused, injured and who even die.

My philosophy is to see every child born a wanted child, born in love, looked forward to and cherished by its parents. That is what we need; not to have women forced—to their own damage and to the damage of their children—to give birth to children they do not want. Every child should be a wanted child.

One Member of the House is leading us in one direction. I would want to lead your Lordships in another direction. But as somebody has said, it is one of the strengths that we have left in this country that we know how to compromise, we know how to be reasonable, to bend to meet one another; and so I hope that we shall this evening leave things as they are.

8.30 p.m.

Viscount Barrington

My Lords, time is getting on, and I agree with the noble Earl, Lord Longford, whose speech I heard with great interest, that it is a pity to go on on a subject so emotive as this in too emotional a way and at too great length. So I shall try to confine what I say to only three things. One is that, like the noble Earl, I was here at the time that the 1967 Bill was passed. I sympathise with, and admire, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, for introducing exactly the same measure as I introduced, but with much less vigour and of course no success, which I had not expected, to have the Bill altered before it came through. That did not happen, but I was familiar with the way in which a great many of the controversial words, such as "substantial" and "serious" were eliminated at the last minute, indeed constitutionally perhaps improperly after we came back. It was a very near thing, and afterwards a great many noble Lords said that had they known that the Bill would go as far as it did go—and I think I can say that it has now gone 20 times farther—in the way of abortion on demand—and I would produce evidence for that for all to hear if the present Bill goes to the Committee stage—many of them would have thought differently.

I want to get back to the principle which has been admirably put at some length by the right reverend Prelate, and absolutely clearly, as one would expect, by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, whom I do not think can be described as a man who knows nothing about the legal expressions involved in these matters. Speaking as a layman, I would say that although I could not possibly give a legal definition of "substantial" and "serious", there are occasions when I would know the difference. For instance, I should say that perhaps two years ago there was a risk of one being blown up by an Argentine Exocet while cruising in the Mediterranean, but it would not have been a very serious risk. But I think that the risk of being blown up by an Exocet this summer in the South Atlantic was very serious indeed. If anyone suggests that there is no difference between those two examples, I suggest he should tell that to the Marines—such Marines as survived; or, failing that, tell it to Welsh Guards. Of course where the distinction comes is well worth asking in Committee if, as I very much hope, the Bill gets a chance to go to Committee.

There are only two other points I should like to touch on. We hear a great deal about a woman's right to do what she likes with her own body, and we had a demonstration—quite a nice, pleasant one—when several ladies with their own bodies threw down many pieces of paper. They did not throw down anything more offensive. The only maxim of that kind that is, I think, a more pernicious one would be that a man has a right to do what he likes with his own body. Of course he has not. In my opinion he has not the right to rape a young girl; he has not the right to "mug" an old lady; he has not the right to assault a referee on a football field. Of course people do those things, but they have no right to do them, the reason being that other people's bodies are concerned as well.

Many people believe that in abortion another body is not concerned, and at this stage we cannot go into the question that has been admirably put by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, of whether the unborn child is a body, because if it was not a body, it could not be aborted. There is a question of whether it is a living body. If it were not it would not need aborting. It is a living human body, in the sense that it is not the body of an animal; if it were, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, would go to an extreme in its defence, and I would admire him enormously for that, even if he were in a minority of one. He would show the same concern for it as he would show against clubbing seals, or hunting foxes, or other living creatures.

My own view is that, as noble Lords have said, we want a revision of the attitude to the unborn child. Some of your Lordships may remember the late Alan Herbert when he was promoting a divorce Bill. What particularly he was attacking was the idea that a woman was not legally married if she had been married after three o'clock. He produced a song, the only two lines of which I can remember: Nor widow, maid, nor wife am I; Nor ever hope to be; For I was wed, as the bishop said, considerably after three". If a foetus could sing—and I have no doubt that it can, because it can kick long before its kicking can be felt—I think that it would adapt that song—on the lines "Am I animal, vegetable, or mineral?"—as follows: Nor human, beast nor plant am I. I have no rights on earth; For I was dead, The surgeon said, Considerably prior to birth". It is up to the surgeon to say when he kills the thing.

With the greatest respect to the medical profession as a whole, I do not accept all the statistics—which could crop up in Committee—of the apparently universal opinion of the medical profession that unborn children should be killed on demand. All I can say is what the Bill is about, and here I would differ from what the noble Lord, Lord McGregor of Durris, said about the Bill forcing anyone to do anything. What the Bill actually says is not that it is wrong in all circumstances to take innocent human life, but that it is wrong to take it indiscriminately—because an abortion must be indiscriminate; one does not know whether it is a male or a female. As I understand the Bill, what is opposed is the idea of "unnecessarily" and indiscriminately taking the life of an innocent human being of either sex. (We must remember that more than half of the children who are aborted are female.)

Then, if we are talking about minorities—and I know that the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, defends minorities as much as I do—I would say that this is the only minority which is in fact historically a majority, and not only a majority, but a majority of 100 per cent. I say that because whereas not every foetus will become a Member of your Lordships' House, every Member of your Lordships' House was at one time a foetus. On those grounds, quite apart from religious views, I would strongly defend the noble Lord, Lord Robertson's Bill, and with the greatest respect for the gusto of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, I would ferociously oppose his amendment.

8.39 p.m.

Viscount Ingleby

My Lords, I would only remind the House, if I may, of the total number of abortions undergone by women residents of the United Kingdom since 1967; it now stands at 1,372,023. That is nearly double the total number of United Kingdom deaths in World War I, and nearly four times the total number of United Kingdom casualties in World War II. I ask myself: Can this be what was intended by Parliament in 1967? Would not this House agree that in many cases adoption is preferable to abortion, and should not the Government be giving some help—I understand that they are not giving any help at the moment—to those societies whose aim is to preserve life, such as Lifeline, and the various other societies mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, in his opening speech? I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

8.40 p.m.

Lord Rea

My Lords, it has not surprised me, at least, that this has been one of the more exciting debates that we have had in this House for some time. I think it must be the first time in living memory that there has been a snow shower inside the Chamber. The amount of emotion, indeed, is not surprising because we are talking about decisions concerning potential human beings. I am not a member of any organised body of opinion about abortion, but I think I can speak rationally from a basis of personal professional experience in which I frequently use the provisions of the Act.

It may seem remarkable that two words have attracted so much attention, yet these two words, if introduced into the Act, will, as I think many speakers have said or implied, make it more difficult for doctors to carry out terminations of pregnancy which both they and their patients feel are necessary. I am very pleased to have the assurance from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, that even if this Bill becomes an Act and doctors carry out terminations under it, they will not be prosecuted if they act in good faith.

However, I think it is clear that the aim of the Bill is to restrict the number of abortions, and in my view the Act (as it will be then) will become a less useful piece of legislation and the result will be hardship and danger for many women. When I speak of danger I am not using the word in a merely rhetorical sense. In the three years before the Act came into force—other speakers have given this type of statistic, Lord McGregor particularly—there were 133 maternal deaths due to abortion in England and Wales. From 1966 to 1979, which was a longer period, there were only 17. The rate is even lower now.

I have been a general practitioner in the National Health Service for more than 20 years, so I have experience of the situation both before and after the Act became law. Both before and after the Act I have been approached regularly, on average about twice a month, by women in great distress who, through bad luck, miscalculation or plain ignorance have become pregnant against their better judgment. The bad luck may be a failure of contraception which they have conscientiously practised. We all know that girls get themselves into scrapes, and, as a man, I will admit that in more than half the cases it is in fact the man's fault, but women, literally, bear the consequences.

At this point I think I should like to diverge a little from my own experiences and generalise slightly. It is perhaps hardly necessary for me to point out that the human race is very fertile and very sexually active, the British as much as any nation despite the title of a long-running West End play. This was vitally necessary to ensure our survival in an earlier era of high mortality, and this may be the basis of deeply-held beliefs that termination of pregnancy is wrong. Now, however, the converse is the case. Our survival and future progress and prosperity depend on limiting this reproductive potential. This can be done in three ways: by reducing sexual activity, by better contraception or by termination of pregnancy. I submit that, in this present age, to try to reduce sexual activity is unrealistic, and would be like King Canute trying to turn back the waters. To make contraception more effective and widely understood is the ideal for all of us working in this field, but for many years, and perhaps always since contraception is never perfect, there will be a demand and a need for termination of pregnancy.

Having said that, I should like to return to my original theme, which is based on my own experiences of the working of the Act. First of all, I should like to describe what happened before 1968. Requests for termination were always problematic then to doctors; perhaps not quite so much if the patient or her partner could raise the equivalent of approximately £500 at today's prices. They could then obtain a relatively safe termination by a qualified doctor who was prepared, for this high fee, to risk prosecution. But for those without means—the great majority—the outlook was fairly grim.

It was sometimes possible to obtain a National Health Service termination by getting doctors to state that the patient would become more seriously ill than was really likely; and there were a few gynaecologists of high repute who were prepared to do this. They felt that social and economic grounds were often a very real indication, and were prepared to risk their professional careers for this. The case of Alec Bourne, before the war, has already been cited. They had a disproportionate number of referrals. This was very depressing for them, because most doctors—and this has been said once, but let me stress it again—find it extremely depressing, very unpleasant and even abhorrent to undertake a termination of pregnancy, even when they feel that the grounds for the termination are extremely strong.

Because of the limited facilities before the Act came into force, many women had to have late abortions. They had to scout round all over the country before they could find one, and then have one after 13 weeks, which is when abortions are more risky. It is only after 13 weeks, I might say in answer to some speakers, that future pregnancies are imperilled. Before that, there is no evidence of this at all.

At this point I should like to mention—and I think it is a good argument for putting off the consideration of any changes in the Act at the moment—there is now a very large study being carried out by the Royal College of General Practitioners in which 6,000 women who have had terminations are being compared to 9,000 women who have gone on to have full-term pregnancies. We are looking very carefully at the results from the point of view of the physical and the psychological consequences of both abortions and full-term pregnancies.

Those who, before the Act, could not find a qualified doctor to carry out a termination felt impelled, as many speakers have said, to resort to illegal, so-called backstreet abortionists, who used such methods as the instillation of soapy water into the uterus, and other rather less pleasant procedures. Many women tried to procure their own abortions, using such things as knitting needles or other pointed implements—quill pens or meat skewers. In fact, a very important point which nobody has yet raised fully, I think, is that the total number of abortions before the Act was probably no less than it is today. As there were no figures we cannot be certain about this, but an estimate of the Birkett Committee before the war was that there were 60,000. In 1949 Dr. Eustace Chesters made an estimate of 250,000.

As a result of this, before the Act all general practitioners were faced with frequent cases of very ill women with septic abortions and/or severe uterine haemorrhage. I was one of those doctors. And every gynaecological ward and fever hospital had substantial numbers of beds occupied by these women. But for skilled care the death rate from the complications of abortion would have been very much greater. I think this is perhaps the main reason why all the royal colleges—the colleges of obstetricians and gynaecologists, general practitioners, psychiatrists and midwives—and the British Medical Association, all oppose changes in the Act.

After the 1968 Act came into force everything changed very quickly, though there were some areas where National Health Service terminations of pregnancy were difficult to obtain, and have remained difficult to obtain, owing to the beliefs of the gynaecologists in the area and the consequent lack of facilities. Illegal abortion and attempts at self-induced abortion have very largely disappeared, however, and I very seldom see a case of complicated "miscarriage", which was so often in reality the result of interference. This is reflected in the vastly improved national mortality statistics which have already been given to your Lordships.

I very much fear that to introduce the two words "serious" and "substantial" into Section 1 of the Act will make some doctors unable to recommend termination of pregnancy, even when a woman is determined to have one (and unless you have actually been confronted by a woman who is determined to have a termination, you will not really know what I mean; she will stop at nothing) and there are strong social and psychological grounds present. There will then be a high chance that some of the old evils will return.

Apart from the real danger of increasing deaths and serious illnesses, there are perhaps other, wider reasons for leaving the Act alone. Many women feel that the present Act is too restrictive and does not allow them sufficient freedom of choice in a crucial decision affecting their lives. We had a demonstration of that this evening. A few feel that, when used with sympathy, however, the present Act will allow an opportunity for reflection and counselling so that the pregnant woman and her doctors can make a wise choice together. It so happens that the first patient I saw this morning was a single girl of 23 with an unplanned pregnancy. Her boyfriend was unemployed and he was against her having a baby. She was uncertain what to do. I did not make up her mind for her. I referred her to a National Health Service clinic where she can have termination if the other doctor there agrees, but where she will see a social worker and have full counselling so that her decision will be a wise one.

To end, my Lords, I should like to quote no less an authority than the Prime Minister. Here, admittedly, she was talking about choice in another area; but her words are equally fitting for our subject today: Free choice is ultimately what life is about, what ethics are about. The whole of the case for freedom is a moral case because it involves choice. Do away with choice and you do away with human dignity".

8.52 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord who has just finished speaking for that quotation—"Do away with choice and do away with human dignity"—we are dealing with choices which are so complex and which so affect the life of an unborn child and so affect the whole area of the sanctity of human life that we risk endangering human dignity by letting this admittedly desperately difficult social problem go further than it has gone already. Even the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, himself, said in his opening speech for the amendment that had we reached a compromise all those years ago in 1967, but the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, did say that the Act as it stands does now give enough guidance. It is because of the need to redress the clearly observable facts stemming from the Act that those who have a real social conscience, a real concern for wives, for mothers, for the unborn baby, are not willing to be pilloried as unconcerned about women who are having babies for supporting this particular very modest Bill.

Let me quote. The noble Lord, lord Trefgarne, told us that in 1969, or soon after the Bill came in in 1967, there were only 50,000 terminated pregnancies. Within ten years, he reminded us, the average figure was at 110,000. Use that as you will as argument for or against. But it seems to me that the argument is a strong one for saying that the original purpose, with (to use Lord Houghton's words) "compromise", to provide a careful provision for the termination of pregnancies under very careful safeguards, has moved forward to the phrase which keeps cropping up throughout your Lordships' debate this evening, "abortion on demand". In those early debates, it was constantly and hotly said that this Bill, when it was only a Bill, had nothing to do with abortion on demand. It was a very carefully balanced Bill to provide alleviation under very clearly described circumstances in special cases.

As I see it, all that the present Bill seeks to so by putting in the words "serious" and "substantially"—and these are two words, important words but not enormous; they are certainly nothing like a wrecking amendment to the original Act—is to return to the original purpose of what was a compromise, though a number of us did not like areas of that parti- cular Act. At least it will mean if the noble Lord, Lord Robertson's modest Bill is passed that abortion on demand in its simplicity will be undeniably illegal. I believe that it will be for the strength of our nation and even for the comfort of those in distress to know that this was the main, first purpose of our original Bill.

Secondly, if Lord Robertson's Bill is given a Second Reading tonight (as I hope it will be), it will mean that conscientious doctors—and as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, reminded us, with the new developments concerning abortion in medical practice today, nurses and midwives are brought in now in a way they were not brought in 15 years ago—will at least have their consciences cared for and their hands strengthened when they are in the position of being moved along by what is supposedly public opinion; because I recognise that the statements made by the learned societies and by the professional societies are very strong. If I were a doctor, a nurse or a midwife myself, I think I should feel myself very theratened by the statements made by the noble Lord, Lord Rea, about the learned societies who have spoken in this way. At least, Lord Robertson's Bill will have a modest care for minorities—in this case conscientious doctors, nurses and midwives.

Thirdly, his Bill will give support for pregnant women. We have had stories already tonight about the fact that it is quite difficult. There was the story that Lord Robertson gave of the young girl who was being almost pressurised into having an abortion. That will be taken care of by the firming up of the original Act by this Bill. I noted the phrase of Lord Houghton: a "guerrilla war" against the Act. Well, the emotive words there may be! But he also told us that this was the eleventh time in 15 years that responsible people—admittedly a minority—had shown unhappiness about the way the Act had worked out since it was passed and concern that we should do something. I honour the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, for bringing in this Bill. We know he speaks against those who are opposed in different ways to his Bill.

I finish with only one story, on balance, because I believe we are dealing with a matter of balance by seeking to bring the word "serious" and the word "substantial" into an area of deep human need and problems. Yesterday, I confirmed a little girl who, I discovered afterwards, was 13 years old, in an extreme state of muscular wastage. I thought to myself, coming down today, of the problems for that tiny child when she was first born and of the little girl who is now seriously ill with muscular wastage. I will not harrow the House with the details, yet, as I confirmed her yesterday morning, I felt that here was encapsulated the business of care for human life and respect for God-given life. The family surrounding her with loving care and the photograph of the whole family, all three generations, afterwards made me thank God that there were those who stood against this easy tide of sweeping away unwanted pregnancies into areas of limbo and who stood against the easy way out, which is what I believe this Act is now becoming. I believe, therefore, that, though it calls for a great deal of moral courage, it is right for us to set aside the dilatory amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and strongly support the Second Reading Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Robertson.

9 p.m.

Baroness Vickers

My Lords, I dislike having to disagree with the right reverend Prelate but I should like, if I may, to read from a letter received from Doctors for a Woman's Choice on Abortion. I think it is rather helpful. It says: The introduction of such vague terms as 'serious' and 'substantially' will make the interpretation of the law more difficult and will undoubtedly result in doctors being less able to recommend an abortion in many cases. This would be most regrettable and would cause much suffering to women. I have had a great deal of experience, though not medical experience, in the past of working in the East End of London and of seeing a great number of young women having abortions, many of them self-induced. In the Far East I have seen women also inducing their own abortions. It really is a horrifying sight and therefore I was so pleased to support the 1967 Act; and it has done a tremendous amount of good.

What has not been mentioned so far is the number of unwanted children—there are 35,000 children unwanted. You cannot get them adopted because people want either a white child or a perfect child, and so you have these children who are homeless. They have no parents and no love given to them in the way that normal children have. I think it is most unfortunate that a woman should have a child if she really does not want one or if she perhaps feels that she cannot cope with another child, having already had several. It will be on our consciences, I think, that there are all these children whom nobody wants. I was slightly astonished when the right reverened Prelate the Bishop of London said that women should have freedom. I know that he has left his place but I feel I must draw attention to this point because he was saying that people want freedom, but we are not giving the women freedom. It is their own lives and I think we should remember that.

I worked in the East End of London, in Poplar, Hackney and also in Lambeth, where I was the LCC member for many years, and I did what I could for the women and children. I used to have "surgeries", when women came along to see me and asked for my help. I did not really feel capable of giving them personal help so I always made sure they could be given both sides of the question before making their decision.

It seems to me that if we go along with this tonight we are putting the rights of the foetus above the rights of the mother, and I think we have to consider that very carefully. The mother has her rights and the foetus has its rights. To which should we give preference? There are so many ways in which people can help. I was not going to mention it, but the Bible has been mentioned now twice or three times tonight. There is no immaculate conception in this world, and so it takes two to make a foetus. I feel very strongly that it is up to the male sex, if they or their wives do not wish to have another child, to take action. There is nothing to stop them. Really, we seem to be thinking entirely in terms of the woman. It is the woman who has been mentioned all the time. I want both sexes to be involved in this, and I think there should be far better education in schools and far better special education given to young boys and young women, especially in this day and age when things are rather more promiscuous than they were when I was young.

I should like also to say that I do hope we shall not accept this amendment tonight. I have mentioned the unwanted children—but what about the battered babies? Every day they are mentioned in the press. We have to think of these things. If we do keep all these children alive, are there enough social workers, to look after them?—because their parents are not going to do it. The "semi-orphan" child, in other words a child who does not have parents, is a very sad child indeed.

Finally, I should like to say I am grateful indeed to Dame Josephine Barnes, who is one of the most remarkable women of her age, and of course a gynaecologist. She has sent a letter from Doctors in Defence of the 1967 Abortion Act. She says, and I support her in this: We are dismayed at the prospect of a change That comes from a woman who is now head of her profession and who had been doing work of this kind all her life. I should like to suggest that we should think of her words tonight and think also of the freedom of the woman as well as the freedom of the man.

9.6 p.m.

Lord Melchett

My Lords, I very strongly agree with everything that the noble Baroness opposite has just said. At this late stage in the debate there is very little left to add. It seems to me that the debate has developed into an argument between those who are fundamentally opposed to abortion—those who support this Bill—and a rather broader church; indeed, a rather broader church than has been apparent from the Bishops' Bench—those who support the 1967 Act and the way it has been interpreted by the medical profession along with those, among whom I certainly number myself, who would like to go a great deal further than the existing legislation.

It seems to me that those who are in favour of the Bill tonight represent an extremely narrow view, a view which is clearly acknowledged by them, I am glad to say, even at this late stage in the debate, as being a view of a minority which they wish to impose on an overwhelming majority of the population of this country. It is, as has been frequently pointed out during the debate, a view which they want to impose on the overwhelming majority of the medical profession who have to implement the law. No one, it seems to me, who has spoken in favour of the Bill and against the amendment has even attempted to explain why there should be such an extraordinarily overwhelming majority of medical opinion in favour of leaving the legislation as it is. Nobody who has spoken in favour of the Bill has even attempted to explain that fact—or to go beyond that—to explain why we should ignore it.

There is one point that I should like to make about public opinion. I know that it has been referred to earlier, but I do not think that the actual question has been referred to. In fact, the 80 per cent. of people this year who agreed with the question about abortion, agreed with the question that said that the choice as to whether or not to continue a pregnancy should not be left to the woman in consultation with her doctor. As I say, 80 per cent. agreed with that, which was a 4 per cent. increase since 1979. That is a question which goes a great deal further than the existing law and, indeed, would support my view that there would be a considerable majority not in favour of this retrograde step in the Bill before us, but in favour of amending the law in the other direction.

The other point on which I want to comment, so far as the debate itself is concerned, is that there seem to have been a number of quite appalling and insulting remarks made against women who have had abortions, and those who have carried out abortions. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London said that the results of procreation are "pushed aside easily". The noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, suggested that abortions had become "facile". That seems to me to be extremely insulting. I regret that neither the right reverend Prelate nor the noble and learned Lord to whom I have referred are actually in the Chamber, but that is not my fault. Those remarks illustrate an extraordinary attitude, both to the women who have had to undergo what all of us agree is an unpleasant and distressing experience, and to those who, in all conscience and with professional integrity, carry out those operations. To suggest that this is facile or easily pushed aside seems to me to be extraordinary.

That had got me annoyed enough, but then the noble Viscount, Lord Barrington, who, I also regret to say, appears not to be in the Chamber at the moment—I am not having very much luck tonight—issued a quite incredible insult against women when he suggested that a woman who decides, in consultation with her medical advisers, to have an abortion is doing exactly the same thing as a man who rapes women. That seems to me to be a quite extraordinary remark to make and I very much regret that those who are supporting this Bill have sunk to such depths, as I see it, of insults against people who have had the unfortunate and distressing experience of an abortion, and those of the medical profession who conscientiously do their jobs.

It seems to me that the real evil in these attempts—and the number of them was referred to by my noble friend Lord Houghton and others—to restrict the availability of abortions, and to go back on the Act that we have, is that they deflect the debates about what happens to women during pregnancy, during childbirth and afterwards from the real evils of poverty, unemployment, bad housing and continual cutbacks in social and health services, which themselves cause a large number of deaths to men, women and children; from the scandalous way in which women are often still treated in hospitals when the go to have their children; and from the scandal, to which a number of noble Lords have referred, of unwanted children and the problems which they face. Those are the issues which your Lordships' House should have been debating tonight, not this mean Bill, which I hope will not get a Second Reading.

9.12 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I think it is common ground that the issues raised in the Bill which we are debating this evening are not new. They lay at the heart of the argument that took place during the passage of the 1967 Abortion Act, and they were subsequently raised in the seven unsuccessful attempts in another place to amend that Act. All these attempts have failed, and I believe that they failed for one obvious reason—because it was on every occasion recognised that the sort of language proposed by those who sponsor these Bills, and today by the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, would create a wholly unacceptable degree of uncertainty in the law.

The noble Lord's proposal is that there would have to be serious risk to the life of a pregnant woman, or substantial injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman, before a pregnancy could be terminated. It is, I believe given that type of language, hardly surprising that the noble Lord's proposal has met with such fierce opposition from a very nearly wholly united medical profession. That was, if I may say so, tellingly confirmed by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, who spoke for the Government, when he referred in detail to the view of the Royal College of Obstetricians.

For what, precisely, is meant by the language used in the noble Lord's Bill? What, in fact, is a serious risk? What is the definition of a substantial injury? I waited for some help from the noble Lord. I am afraid that I did not get it, nor did the House. I do not believe that the noble Lord—and I do not, in any way, doubt his goodwill or his sincerity—has made a serious attempt to meet the the grave anxieties expressed about the Bill by the medical profession. Today he, bluntly, just brushed them aside. He gave us the view of one anonymous doctor. That, with great respect, is no answer to the anxieties which have been expressed by the Royal Colleges.

As I have said, I have no doubt about the noble Lord's sincerity, but I did believe that he was a root and branch opponent of the 1967 Act. Therefore I was, if he will forgive my saying so, mildly surprised to hear that that was not so. There is no doubt about the view of some of his supporters. I have received, as did a number of my noble friends on both sides of the House, a letter from Miss Bradley enclosing a pamphlet. Miss Bradley asked me to vote for this Bill. There is no question, as the noble Lord suggested in his speech, that this amending Bill is a half-way house between the 1967 Act and the law as it existed before 1967. We have had no such suggestion from those who are canvassing support for the Bill. Let me read one sentence, not in any sense taken out of context, from the pamphlet, headed Abortionists' Favourites: We oppose abortion because we want every child". As the House will recall, that is not the view of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London. He made no such suggestion. In my view, that is what in reality we are discussing today.

I do not believe that this in any sense is a half-way house Bill. It is basically root and branch opposition to the 1967 Act. That would be its effect. I believe that what the noble Lord is proposing in the Bill is wrong. He is urging the House to pass legislation which suggests that abortion is lawful under certain prescribed conditions, but he then defines those conditions so unsatisfactorily that no doctor would have any clear idea as to whether his judgment would be supported by the criminal courts. And it is the criminal courts which we are talking about.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, reminded us, during the passage of the 1967 Act the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Parker of Waddington, specifically warned the House of the dangers of using imprecise language, yet today's Bill seems almost consciously designed to create the maximum degree of uncertainty. The House should recognise that what would be involved if this legislation went onto the statute book would be one of two consequences. Either doctors who now authorise abortions would be so concerned at the lack of clarity of the new law that, notwithstanding their clinical judgment that an abortion was urgently necessary to save the life of a pregnant woman, they would decline to perform the operation, or they would take the risk and carry it out, in the knowledge that they might render themselves liable to lengthy police investigation, proceedings in the criminal courts and the possible destruction of their professional career.

I have great admiration for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, but I regret to say that I found his speech, if he will forgive me saying so, not so persuasive as I normally find his speeches to be. He suggested, first, that the Bill is designed to help the medical profession. If that indeed is the object of the operation, I am bound to say that it has been spectacularly unsuccessful. Secondly, the noble and learned Lord said—and of course we listen with the utmost respect to the views of the noble and learned Lord on this question—that he was extremely doubtful whether there would be a successful prosecution, even if the law were amended in the way that the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, has suggested.

I repeat that I do not wish to cross swords on this matter. Indeed, I should not have the nerve to do so. However, I would say this to the noble and learned Lord. I am surprised that he has so much certainty about the views of a jury in a case of this kind. As the House will know, the noble and learned Lord and I were involved not so long ago in a debate in which it was said that sometimes it is extremely difficult to understand why a jury has reached a decision in a certain case. There would, I believe, be a perceived risk in the minds of many doctors that they would find themselves in precisely such a situation. Whether or not a prosecution would be successful is a matter of speculation but, as my noble friend Lord Vernon pointed out, the consequences of an unsuccessful prosecution can be devastating to the professional man and to his family who are involved in the circumstances of such a case.

Apart from anything else, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that if the law were amended and a chief constable received a complaint from perhaps a nurse, who might have deep conscientious and honourable objections in principle to abortion, that a specific consultant had performed one, two or even three operations which were outside the terms of the Act, the chief constable concerned would, in my view, be obliged to ask his criminal investigation department to carry out an investigation into whether there had been a breach of the criminal law. Papers might go to the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Are we really going to place responsibilities of this kind, after the experience of the past 15 years, on our overstretched and overtaxed police force? I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, has made any attempt to talk to the Home Office—although he may have done so for all I know—or to the Association of Chief Police Officers. I have no doubt that there are many police officers who agree with the general principle of what has been said by the noble Lord, just as there will be many who will oppose it. But I am very doubtful whether, at a time like the present, the police are enthusiastic about getting sucked into issues of this kind where, I believe (and, I think, they themselves believe) they do not have any particular skills or expertise.

As I have already made clear, I find the consequences of the passage of a Bill of this kind unacceptable to the extent that a new Abortion Act deterred doctors from authorising abortions which now take place. If we did this, we would quite consciously and quite deliberately be encouraging the re-emergence of the back street abortionist who did so much damage to the lives and health of so many poor women in this country. We would also be creating a situation—again, quite deliberately—where members of the medical profession, believing that the abortions they were authorising were indeed permitted under the terms of the noble Lord's legislation, could be at constant risk of prosecution in the criminal courts. I do not believe that such a situation would be acceptable and, accordingly, I hope that this Bill will be rejected.

The Lord Bishop of Norwich

My Lords, I wonder whether I may ask the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, one question for elucidation? The noble Lord posited the situation of a woman in grave danger of death who was pregnant. If I heard him right, he then posited the fact that the doctor, if this Bill were passed, would feel it was a dangerous matter for him to act. Surely the argument, if taken forward logically by the noble Lord, is that if the words "serious risks" were built into the Bill, the doctor would have no problems about dealing with the woman who, in pregnancy, was in danger of dying.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I am grateful to the right reverend Prelate, and let me just put the matter to him. With great respect, I wish it were as simple as that; but I believe that the passage of this Bill would give rise to a climate of uncertainty within the medical profession. It is not quite so easy as the right reverend Prelate imagines to give a reassuring answer of the kind for which he obviously hopes.

9.23 p.m.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, we are all grateful to those who have opposed this Bill and those who are in favour of it for the moderation of their language. We have had a quiet and, on the whole, inoffensive debate today—although there were one or two little exchanges about which I will not particularise. In the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, we can still hear the authentic voice of the Home Office ringing through his dulcet tones. The most important point he made was that concerning the danger of imprecise language. The two adjectives we are talking about are already in the Bill.

Of all the speeches against the Bill, I have to confess that the one that moved me most was that made by my noble friend Lady Vickers, who spoke of 35,000 unwanted children, the battered babies and, by implication, the need for their proper care. Frankly, I was less moved when the noble Lord, Lord Melchett, with all his debating skill, told us that a minority was trying to impose its will on an overwhelming majority. This matter has not, of course, been put to an electoral test. What did strike me above all—and I think it must have rung in your Lordships' ears—was the simple statistic, which is terrifying, of one baby lost every 40 minutes. Then it was suggested that in spite of that statistic, which so far as I know is unchallenged, it was thought improper for this House to reopen a compromise formula agreed by the collective wisdom of this House 15 years ago.

Lord Melchett

My Lords, if the noble Earl would allow me to intervene briefly, if he wishes to maintain the moderate spirit of the debate which he has so praised, would it not be more moderate to refer to that statistic as being that particular number of foetuses lost, because a number of us do not accept that when an abortion is carried out a baby is aborted. It is the foetus which is aborted.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, I entirely agree with that point; there are those in this House who do not consider the living foetus is a living thing whereas others consider it is a personality. This is a chop down the middle of the House; it is not from side to side but it is through the thinking of the House. I am much obliged to the noble Lord for his intervention on that point. But it is suggested that this matter should not be reopened after 15 years, or indeed even nine years after the Lane Committee or even seven years after the Select Committee in another place. If I may say so with respect and moderation—of course, I must say the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, did not consent to this—it was suggested here and there that the matter should not be reopened. Well, this House and the parliamentary system is indeed for reopening the unmentionable and undiscussable, since these matters cannot be discussed outside patiently and quietly.

The first question is surely this. Is there or is there not in effect abortion on demand? Something we are quite certain about is that it was not the intention of the promoters of the 1967 Act that that should be permitted or encouraged. But there is abundant evidence to the contrary. The BMA and the gynaecologists told the Lane Committee that it was so; the Lane Committee themselves said it was so; and, in a very interesting poll in 1978, 73 per cent. of gynaecologists said it was so. Also, we have the word today of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, whose authority carries very great weight indeed.

In the matter of medical opinion, clearly there are varying versions. We have had almost every version of it here tonight. But the fact is that both the BMA and the RCOG did tell the Lane Committee in 1974 that change was desired. Sir John Peel, President of the BMA and the RCOG, and the Queen's gynaecologist, told the Select Committee on Abortion the same thing in 1976. So there is clearly a dichotomy as to what medical opinion will say. There was a very interesting Gallup Poll in 1978 which showed that 81 per cent. of gynaecologists were against abortion on demand and 73 per cent. said it took place. It was suggested—and I was interested to hear this from the noble Lord, Lord Vernon—that somehow laymen should not challenge medical opinion. Even assuming medical opinion were unanimous, his suggestion, if I have it right—and I will give way if I have it wrong—is that we should not presume to challenge medical opinion. Well, what is Parliament for?

Lord Vernon

My Lords, if I may intervene, as the noble Earl suggested I might, I never said that medical opinion should not be challenged; all I said was that very great weight should be given to it when they were unanimous on the issue.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, I am so glad that we have had a chance of correcting that because I do not want to misrepresent anybody, and being old and gaga I sometimes tend to get the point a little wrong. But what is Parliament for but to challenge technical opinion and bring a broad—what we may call "political"—decision to bear on the matter? At any rate, the Select Committee in another place urged Parliament to discuss and vote on the criteria. I think that we must remember the point made so effectively by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, in a powerful speech—so powerful that some people did not agree with it—but something that will be well remembered and framed; that the child is left out of the equation. That was his point. Those of us who are promoting the Bill are speaking for the utterly defenceless, for those who have no voice themselves. We are doing so in a world where compassion is often cited as a kind of slogan.

I believe that the most important points were made, very sympathetically, by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. It is always in season for old men to learn—that is Agamemnon in Aeschylus—and since we are both elderly, it is time for both of us to learn. I was very impressed—and I say this sincerely—when he opened his case by saying that we need more evidence. He said that the whole matter deserves close attention in time to come, and that a basis for consensus is needed. I wonder whether we cannot build on that, in a co-operative, sympathetic and, may I say, friendly sense.

Taking compassion as the theme and, above all, those who are defenceless, I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, who is the promoter of the Bill, this. Will he consider, if the Bill gets a Second Reading—and it could not be done without that—discussing through the usual channels a Motion to have this issue referred to a Select Commitee instead of having the nightlong badinage on the Floor of this House about adjectives? That is the alternative that was forecast by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby.

I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, that he should consider whether that would be a useful and worthy way forward for the House. Will he be prepared to discuss and explore through the usual channels the possibility of the Bill going to a Select Committee? Of course, that possibility, which I hope is welcome to everybody, will not arise if there is no Second Reading. Therefore, I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Robertson, that if he considers that approach worthy of the occasion, worthy of the subject and of this place, then he suggests to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, that he should withdraw his amendment and allow the Bill to have its Second Reading, which I support whether or not there is a Division.

9.34 p.m.

Lord Robertson of Oakridge

My Lords, I sincerely thank all those of your Lordships who have taken part in this debate for their excellent contributions throughout the evening. I hope that, as the hour is late, your Lordships will not think me discourteous if I do not answer all the points that were made.

First, I take up the suggestion of the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, about a Select Committee. That proposal certainly seems to have some attraction. I am not at all encouraged by the prospect that we were given by the noble Lord, Lord Hougton of Sowerby, of guerrilla warfare if the Bill goes to a Committee of the Whole House. I would be willing to put forward his suggestion through the usual channels if the Bill is given a Second Reading.

Much was made of the weight of representative medical opinion against the Bill. This is clearly a factor that your Lordships will want to take very seriously. I submit that it is not all persuasive. As we heard from the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, medical opinion is perhaps not quite so unanimous as might be assumed from its representatives. There is the Gallup Poll that showed that 81 per cent. of gynaecologists in 1978 were against abortion on demand. Indeed, abortion on demand does come into the issue. The noble Lord, Lord Rea, made a valuable contribution to our debate and gave us his experience and the example of a case—not the one he mentioned he had seen today—where he was under very great pressure from a woman for an abortion. That is really abortion on demand.

However, it is not only medical opinion that needs to be listened to. I am sure that the House will be very grateful to the right referend Prelate the Bishop of London, and to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, for their clear statements on the Christian position and on the legal position.

The noble Baroness, Lady Denington, and the noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, mentioned the phrase "unwanted children". The noble Baroness, Lady Vickers, gave statistics about children in care. I mention that the Abortion Act 1967 has by no means reduced the number of children in care. The number of children in care is very much greater that it was back in 1967, although obviously the Act is by no means the only factor to be considered. Every child should be a wanted child, and in a way it would be very nice if that were the case. However, if we think about it, what are we saying? We are saying unwanted children should be disposed of. Surely that raises some pretty abhorrent sequels. How are we to treat the chronicaly ill, the handicapped and the aged? Are we to say that unwanted chronically ill persons and unwanted handicapped children are to be disposable also? I do not think so, and I do not think that that is the intention of those who say that every child should be a wanted child. They should reflect on the implications of what they are saying.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, summed the Bill up: it is to write the baby back into the equation; not to give it priority over the mother but to put it back into the balance. If we acknowledge that we have a duty to show love, care and protection in law to the unborn child, I hope that your Lordships will support me in the Lobbies on this Bill.

9.38 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, first let me deal with the Select Committee. I regret that I am not prepared to accept the suggestion that I should withdraw my amendment in return for the noble Lord's indication a moment ago that he would be willing to consider referring the Bill to a Select Committee. I will certainly accept the idea of a Select Committee unprejudiced by this Bill, but not as the basis of considering a Bill which I regard as fundamentally wrong and against which there will be widespread revulsion if it gets a Second Reading in your Lordships' House tonight. The fair offer is an unprejudiced, open Select Committee with suitable terms of reference. That is how to investigate this matter in the way that I think it will have to be done.

Secondly, I point out to the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, that he is in error in saying that the poll of the gynaecologist consultants in 1977 showed that 73 per cent. of them said that abortions on demand were given. They were not asked that question. The Gallup Poll was requisitioned from a firm of public opinion pollsters by the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child. The consultants were asked: Do you believe that there is abortion on demand? No evidence was asked from them in support of a belief. Moreover, the consultants were asked to judge other people's conduct and not their own. They were asked to express a belief about the conduct of certifying medical officers: they were not asked to say anything about their own behaviour. I think that that particular Gallup Poll cannot be relied upon.

The only other point I wish to make is this. From listening to the whole debate, it seemed that the voice of practical, professional experience is against this Bill. The voice of those who have particular experience among the poor, and the social problems of the poor, were against this Bill. I would hate to say that the difference of opinion in the House is a class division, but it is getting very near to it.

Several noble Lords


Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I think we must beware that Members of this House do not forsake entirely some semblance of representative capacity. I should hate to join issue with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, but in my type of layman's way I have held the view that if you use the law to give guidance, you make it the law, and in making it the law, you intend to make it enforceable. If you intend to give guidance, guidelines or a code of conduct, that is a different mechanism for trying to achieve the same purpose. But if you put it in the law and make it the law, and say that the law shall be enforced then, as the noble and learned Lord said, you will not get a successful prosecution against any doctor who says "In good faith I was using my best clinical judgment, and applied that to the guidance in the law". In those circumstances, he is asking us to put, and the Bill is asking us to put, in the 1967 Act words which, if they give guidance, will frighten doctors. If they do not give guidance, they will not be enforceable in the courts.

I think that the situation can be very confusing; but certainly an attempt to extend the definitions in the 1967 Act is, I think, bound to lead to uncertainty and a great deal of difficulty, and it will not do the country or the women of the country any good. To that extent, I am bound to say that one of the outcomes of this debate is that one pedestal—namely, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning—has fallen from grace. I have enjoyed his theme that you put justice before the letter of the law. But with the greatest and profoundest respect, I did expect his legal guidance to the House this evening to be clear and a little more logical than the advice that he gave. I am grateful to him for not joining issue with me and prolonging the proceedings.

I urge noble Lords to support my amendment. This does not ask for any judgment on principles or practice. It says that this is not the moment, that this is not the hour and that this is not the stage in this Parliament to carry this matter to a conclusion. Therefore, let us put it at arm's length until wiser and better informed counsels prevail. Let us then have the Select Committee, but not on this Bill.

9.45 p.m.

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

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 57; Not Contents, 42.

Avebury, L. Listowel, E.
Balogh, L. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B.
Birk, B. Lockwood, B.
Boothby, L. McGregor of Durris, L.
Boston of Faversham, L. Melchett, L.—[Teller.]
Brockway, L. Milford, L.
Brooks of Tremorfa, L. Monson, L.
Brougham and Vaux, L. Morris of Kenwood, L.
Cledwyn of Penrhos, L. Northfield, L.
Craigavon, V. Oram, L.
Darwen, L. Oxford, Bp.
David, B. Pitt of Hampstead, L.
Davies of Leek, L. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Denington, B. Porritt, L.
Elliot of Harwood, B. Rea, L.
Elwyn-Jones, L. Roberthall, L.
Ewart-Biggs, B. Seear, B.
Fisher of Rednal, B. Stedman, B.
Flowers, L. Stewart of Alvechurch, B.
Gardiner, L. Stewart of Fulham, L.
Hanworth, V. Stone, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Trefgarne, L.
Hooson, L. Tweeddale, M.
Houghton of Sowerby, L.—[Teller.] Vaizey, L.
Howie of Troon, L. Vernon, L.
Jeger, B. Vickers, B.
Jenkins of Putney, L. Wilson of Langside, L.
Kagan, L. Young of Darlington, L.
Kilmarnock, L.
Airey of Abingdon, B. Lawrence, L.
Avon, E. Lindsey and Abingdon, E.
Barrington, V. London, Bp.
Beswick, L. Long, V.
Braye, L. Longford, E.
Buckmaster, V. Loudoun, C.
Caldecote, V. Lyell, L.
Campbell of Alloway, L. Massereene and Ferrard, V.
Chichester, Bp. Mishcon, L.
Clifford of Chudleigh, L. Mowbray and Stourton, L.
Coleraine, L. Norwich, Bp.
Craigmyle, L. Oxford and Asquith, E.
Denning, L. Portsmouth, Bp.
Gainford, L. Reading, M.
Grantchester, L. Robertson of Oakridge, L.—[Teller.]
Halsbury, E.—[Teller.] Saltoun, Ly.
Hampton, L. Sidmouth, V.
Hylton, L. Stradbroke, E.
Ingleby, V. Swinton, E.
Kinloss, Ly. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Lauderdale, E. Wakefield, Bp.

Resolved in the affirmative, and amendment agreed to accordingly.

House adjourned at six minutes before ten o'clock.