HL Deb 14 December 1989 vol 513 cc1461-502

7.16 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. In view of the time at which we begin this possibly somewhat lengthy debate, I must keep my own speech strictly within practical limits. I hope however that I may be permitted one personal recollection. It is 37 years since I sponsored the first abortion law reform Bill in the House of Commons. I have lived through it all. On that occasion, although the ill luck of the ballot brought us abysmally low on the list of preference, three Catholic Members of Parliament put down the same Motion to that Bill as the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, has put down to this one. However, we had two minutes—two minutes!—and that was the end of that. It took 15 years of balloting in this absurd Private Member's Bill procedure in the Commons to get further debates on abortion.

There is nothing new in this Bill. It is the same Bill that I introduced last May, soon after the report of the Select Committee of this House on this subject. My Bill then—and my Bill now—was designed to implement the unanimous recommendations of your Lordships' own Select Committee, composed of all parties under the skilful and wise chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman. It was a unanimous report. Fancy, my Lords, an all-party Select Committee of this House reached a unanimous report. Its unanimous recommendations are in this Bill tonight. No more, and no less.

We debated that report on the 25th March last year. A number of noble Lords who are down to speak tonight spoke then. Ten noble Lords on the list to speak tonight also spoke on the 25th March 1988. Therefore, some speeches will probably be predictable, my own included. This always makes for dullness of debate, because we know exactly what people are going to say. But we have to go on saying it, because our absurd rules of procedure often bring debates to a futile conclusion, and we have to begin all over again each time.

It is customary to treat a report of a Select Committee of your Lordships' House with due respect, because it represents the combined wisdom of different viewpoints in the House brought together in the hope of arriving at a consensus.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord—

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

No, my Lord, I shall not give way. This inquiry had taken well over a year to reach conclusions so that well over a year's hard work and debate and taking of evidence lies behind the Bill that the House is discussing tonight. Noble Lords should hesitate before casting it into outer darkness.

What is wrong with it? Is it the content of the Bill or its timing? I think we should examine these matters for a moment. The content of the Bill can be briefly summarised by saying that we recommended that up to the end of the 24th week the existing conditions and criteria in the 1967 Act should continue to apply, while after the 24th week stiffer conditions and sterner tests should be applied. Whatever limits are fixed there have to be exceptions. There are bound to be exceptions and we must try to define what they should be and how they should be applied.

Under this Bill the tests for abortions after the end of the 24th week would be stiffer than they are at the present time. There was a time during the debate on 25th March 1988 when the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, suggested that something like 24 weeks might be the basis for a consensus and that if the Government were to introduce a Bill with provision for a gestational limit of about 24 weeks, it might go through both Houses of Parliament. That is what we have been searching for all these years; to try to get some kind of consenus upon which both Houses could unite to bring forward a law which would be generally accepted throughout the land.

Very recently an important document has come into our hands published in the Lancet of 2nd December. There we get an up-to-date account of the opinion of the gynaecologists who are handling abortion cases all the time. This report is open to us all and I believe that copies have been widely circulated. Incidentally, the result of the survey was that, on the whole, the existing Act was believed to be working satisfactorily. Seventy-six per cent. of the consultants thought that the existing law was working satisfactorily on the whole and only 23 per cent. took a different view.

As regards the time limits, a sample opinion on several questions was taken of about 300 consultants. One of them dealt with 24 weeks and other gestational limits. Behind the 24 weeks, with exceptions, were 75 per cent. of the consultants. Only 3 per cent. were in favour of 18 weeks, which was the gestational limit included in the Alton Bill and which was largely canvassed as a basis upon which the abortion law could be changed. Eighty-seven per cent. of the gynaecologists thought that their royal college was right to oppose the Alton Bill last year.

Limits even higher than 18 weeks were still opposed and are today. Only 13 per cent. favoured changing the legal limit to between 20 and 23 weeks. Only 4 per cent. favoured going below 19 weeks. A period of 24 weeks was strongly supported by 64 per cent. of those who were consulted. Incidentally, when the consultants were asked whether they favoured the women's campaign for the right to choose, there were some quite astonishing results. Seventy-three per cent. of the gynaecologists said that women should be allowed, after consulting their doctor, to choose whether to have an abortion; 21 per cent. said that they should not.

The general public census taken in 1987 showed that, of men, 73 per cent. thought that women should have the right to choose and, of women, 84 per cent. thought that they should have that right. Those who said that they should not have the right to choose were 13 per cent. of the men polled and 8 per cent. of the women.

In the face of the opinion of the consultants who are daily dealing with this grievous problem of abortion, it ill becomes us to set ourselves up as better judges of what is right and proper and to think of gestational limits which are far below what the profession believes are appropriate. The general practitioners have said 24 weeks. The Government have said that they are behind the period of 24 weeks. Perhaps we shall hear from the noble Baroness whether that is still their position, because it was certainly so concerning the Infant Life (Preservation) Bill 1986. I do not see how we can possibly differ from the unanimous conclusions of our own Select Committee on this question.

If it is not a question of content, is the problem the timing? In view of the misrepresentation which is rife in the press, especially the Catholic press, I must make it absolutely plain that this Bill does not intend to block anything, stop anything or interfere with anybody. The Bill has its own merits and it derives directly from the Select Committee's report. It is entitled to a place in the debates in this House quite apart from anything else that may be happening, unless the two issues are likely to clash. Even then, there is nothing in the rules of your Lordships' House to prevent a Private Member's Bill making progress alongside another Bill which may be dealing with a similar question.

I have read some extracts from the press this morning. I read in the Guardian: Mr. Keith Davies, campaign co-ordinator of the Life, the national pro-Life organisation, yesterday described Lord Houghton's bill as the most monstrous proposal that has been put before Parliament since the Abortion Act itself. It was tabled to prevent a pro-Life amendment being added to the Government's embryo bill, he said". That is absolutely shocking. I look at another press cutting; namely, the Scotsman, which states: Labour peer may block abortion bill". I have another which begins: Peer's Bill could torpedo abortion debate", and another: Peer's Bill threatens abortion amendments". This Bill does nothing of the sort. I gave notice to introduce my Bill before the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill appeared in the Queen's Speech. I wrote to the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, the day before the Queen's Speech telling him of my intention to introduce the Bill and then to see how matters went before asking for a Second Reading or progress to be made on the Bill. Neither of us knew at that moment—at least I assume that neither of us knew; I did not—that the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill would be included in the Queen's Speech, though everyone thought so.

I had written to the Leader of the House asking him whether it was likely that the rumours gaining ground in the country were true that the Bill to be dealt with first in the House of Lords would have a Long Title wide enough to provide for amendments to the Abortion Act 1967. I received no reply from him. One cannot say something about these matters until the Queen has spoken, although we know that all kinds of things go on behind the scenes, whether or not the Queen has spoken. No one spoke to me and I can scarcely complain about it.

I suggested to the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, in a kindly and friendly way, that I hoped that he would not lend himself and his reputation to the maneouvre of trying to hijack the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill on behalf of abortion. But he did not reply to that letter either. It is difficult to be reasonable when dealing with some people who have a different viewpoint from one's own. I try to be honest, straight and open, but not when dealing with some people on abortion. One cannot find out anything. There is a blanket of silence.

In my speech on the loyal Address I asked the noble Duke to come out and say what his plans were. I said the same thing at the Second Reading of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. The noble Duke kept his seat and said not a word about what he intended to do. He knew that my Bill was down to have its Second Reading, and so the day before this debate a Motion was tabled to delay the Second Reading for six months.

What are we to gain by setting this Bill aside? We are all enmeshed in the rusty framework of our parliamentary procedures on Private Members' Bills. It has been a disgrace and a scandal for the whole of the 21-year history of abortion. Governments refuse to touch some matters. They say that they are suitable for the initiatives of Private Members. But when Private Members launch initiatives they cannot, because of the facilities for obstructing and delaying Private Members' Bills get the time to see their work completed. Private Members have no Whips and they cannot enforce closure. They are at the mercy of obstruction. Everyone has suffered from it. But it still goes on.

I would quite understand if the noble Duke were saying that this Bill is a small moonbeam in the larger lunacy of our legislative practices and rules. I would agree with him. The Labour Government of 1966 were the first and only government to give time to the subject of abortion in order to allow David Steel's Bill to become law. No government since have done it. The rules are rigid and unvariable. So we have a device—I call it a contrivance—born of connivance to use the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill as a vehicle for getting abortion amendments into a Government Bill. Those amendments will ride on the back of that Bill into the House of Commons and by that subterfuge abortion law may be changed where the Government refuse to adopt any alternative method of achieving it. That is disgraceful.

The Government must care so little for the business of this House and for the harmony of our proceedings that they seem to be willing to facilitate this use of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill for abortion amendments. In those circumstances I can quite understand the noble Duke, The Duke of Norfolk, thinking, "Why bother with Houghton's Bill? He will not get any time in the House of Commons. We shall be backing a loser. It will be stopped at the boundaries. But if we can get inside the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, we shall be well away. That horse will run. It will jump over the boundaries. It will have to have government time, and that is how we can achieve our purpose". But we shall still be here when that Bill comes from the House of Commons after being impregnated possibly with revolutionary changes. I shall not say what we may have to do with it when it comes here, but it is certainly something that we shall have to consider.

I hope that the present Bill can make progress. Your Lordships cannot turn down for purely strategic and procedural advantage—if there is any; I do not believe that there is—the recommendations of your Select Committee. Let this Bill go forward. Let it make progress. If there is anything in it that we do not like, it can be amended. At least we shall then get our debates on abortion in a separate channel and not disrupt and disharmonise all the proceedings on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. I commend the Bill to the House.

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

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

7.36 p.m.

The noble Duke said: My Lords, this Bill amends the Abortion Act 1967 and appears to reduce the time limit for abortion to 24 weeks from the present 28 weeks. That is a total delusion. Clause 1(2A)(a) specifies that if two medical practitioners are of the opinion, formed in good faith, that the termination of the pregnancy is essential to prevent serious damage to the mental or physical health of the pregnant woman, an abortion may be carried out at any time up to the full term of the pregnancy; that is to say, an abortion can take place up to birth. This is reinforced by the provision in Clause 2 that the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 will not apply to abortions under this Bill. It will be recalled that the Act made it a crime to kill a child capable of being born alive; and the continuation of pregnancy for 28 weeks was a prima facie proof that the child was capable of being born alive.

The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, referred to the Brightman Committee. I attended its meetings once or twice in the Moses Room. The committee was not representative of this House. Many of its members were pro-abortion. They are good people and I do not say a word of criticism about them. But the committee did not contain anyone on my side of the argument. That is a fact. For the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, to claim that the Brightman Committee was representative of the considered opinions of the House is rubbish.

We need amendments to the Abortion Act 1967. But this Bill goes in the wrong direction and so is not worth treating as a basis that could itself be amended. The Bill is a calamity. I beg to move.

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

The Deputy Speaker (Lord Gran tchester)

My Lords, the original Question was that this Bill be now read a second time, since when an amendment has been moved, To leave out ("now") and at end to insert ("this day six months"). Therefore the Question I now have to put is that this amendment be agreed to.

7.40 p.m.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, I very much hope that the House will not accept the amendment moved by the noble Duke. We have been discussing the question of abortion and revision of the abortion legislation for a very long time. Moreover, last year with the Alton Bill a great deal of parliamentary time was given to the issue and a great deal of discussion took place on the matter throughout the country.

I can accept that perhaps this Bill as presented by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton is not the absolute, ideal Bill with every word as one would wish. However, the main substance of the Bill is the proposal for a reduction in the period of time permissible before an abortion takes place to 24 weeks. I see that the noble Duke is shaking his head, but I shall return to the matter later.

Speaking as someone who very much supported both the David Steel Bill and the determination expressed last year to defeat the Alton Bill, I must say that of course I do not like abortion any more than the noble Duke. Indeed, in a perfect world there would be no abortion. It is something we would wish to avoid wherever we can. But it has always been plain to me that the alternative of no abortion is totally unacceptable. Any of us who have had experience in such matters—and I suppose many noble Baronesses in this House have had personal contact with people who have been faced with these problems—will know how hideous are the alternatives. We say that we do not wish to go back to the days of knitting needles, and I shall not progress along those lines. However, I want to make the point that we are not defending the idea that abortion is a desirable practice; we are saying that it is the lesser of two evils. I submit that in most moral questions the choice is all too often that of the lesser of two evils. When you are certain which the lesser is, I contend that the moral obligation is to back that decision even though you know that it is very far from the perfect solution.

We have argued this issue for far too long. The evidence now is that it is sensible to reduce the period to 24 weeks. The medical profession tells us quite plainly that it is desirable to recognise the fact that changes in medical practice make 24 weeks far more suitable than 28 weeks. Therefore, those of us who regretfully support the need to have legal abortion back the idea of 24 weeks. It is highly desirable that we should clear up this issue of what is legal in terms of abortion and what is the right period of time to take into consideration.

The noble Duke said that the other provisions in the Bill give permission for abortion over a much longer period. I understand that these are the recommendations of the Brightman Committee. However, as the noble and learned Lord is to speak in the debate I am sure that he will either confirm or qualify that statement. If there are inadequacies in the other clauses, we shall have the chance to amend them in Committee. Moreover, when we have heard today's debate we shall know whether it is necessary to do so.

The central feature of the Bill is the reduction of the period to 24 weeks. Surely the desirable aim now is to obtain this adjustment about which we have been talking for so long. If we do not do so now, the issue will arise again and again; it will not go away. We have a reasonable proposition here, overwhelmingly supported by the best medical evidence that can be produced. I do not think that there is so much difference between us on the moral issue. However, on the physical issue it is clear that 24 weeks is strongly backed. Surely it is a reasonable compromise in the present circumstances. However, it may well be that the situation will change in the future.

Of course it would be desirable to have a government Bill. It would clear up the whole issue. I agree that the situation is unsatisfactory: we have the 1929 Act and the 1967 Act and we must amend both. What we really need is a new piece of legislation. However, we are not going to get it. In the circumstances, therefore, this is the best compromise we can achieve—to reduce the term to 24 weeks.

I shall say very little about the relationship between this Bill and the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. However, the fact of the matter is that we all know that there is a possibility of amendment to that legislation. I beg noble Lords not to be tempted to go along that line. The embryo issue is of the greatest importance. Indeed, we have all read accounts about families who suffer great hardship and who experience great anguish because of children born with congenital illnesses which cannot be cured in the present state of medicine. Surely, again, this is a choice of the lesser of two evils. Is it not better that by means of scientific research we should find ways by which the number of those children so born can be reduced and that hideous suffering extinguished?

Therefore, let us debate the embryo legislation in its own right and on its own merits. Let us not confuse the matter with what will inevitably be an extremely emotional debate on the subject of abortion. There is only the slenderest link between the two subjects. We need to keep them separate. This Bill put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, gives us the opportunity to separate the two issues. I beg your Lordships to reject the amendment.

7.48 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Bradford

My Lords, I think that I am slightly relieved that I do not have to stand to support the introductory speech of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. However, integrity demands that I say that I wish to support the Bill for four reasons. First, it separates the physical and legal issues relating to abortion from those relating to the more complex issues of human fertilisation and embryology. While from certain viewpoints there may be attractions in such a linkage, I can see no overriding justification for it. On the contrary, I support the contention of the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, that it cannot be in the interests of clarity to consider two different kinds of entity in one piece of legislation.

Secondly, I wish to support the Bill because it signals to the community our concern about the present legislation relating to abortion. I share with many others the widespread concern about the current 28-week limit and see the provisions of this Bill as representing an improvement in the existing law. While admitting some exceptions in very exceptional circumstances to the proposed 24-week limit, the Bill closes the gap which enabled so many abortions to be performed legally but on grounds which seemed to many critics, myself included, to be too slight.

There is a widespread desire in the Church for stricter controls on so-called "social" abortions. I believe that there is ground for some hope in this direction within the Bill. However, there is one caveat that I wish to register. It concerns the possible exceptions to the proposed 24-week limit. Of course I know that we are talking about a relatively small proportion of all abortions, but I wish to stress that, when the Bill reaches the Committee stage, the Church will look for some assurance that the wording of the legislation will ensure that there is no general licence to perform abortions after the 24th week. The drafting details are for lawyers, not for bishops, but the point, I am sure, is clear.

Thirdly, the Bill takes into account the advances in neo-natal and post-natal care for which we are all profoundly grateful. The proposed reduction of the limit to 24 weeks is a recognition of the fact that modern advances in this field have meant that many babies of less than 28 weeks' gestation can now be saved and some late abortions would therefore involve the destruction of a fetus which normally might well survive.

It is that consideration which I am sure leads the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists to favour a period of 24 weeks. Because of the continuing advances in neo-natology the legal limits must be kept under constant review. I long for the day when the limit can be further reduced, but in the meantime I see the Bill as a step in the right direction.

Fourthly and finally, the Bill recognises that which we all acknowledge: that we live in a society wrestling with ethical ambiguities. Such recognition is mirrored within the Churches and it comes as no surprise to realise that there is no one explicit Christian view on the subject. The Churches contain people who argue from informed and concerned positions and yet who nonetheless arrive at different conclusions. In such circumstances of complexity and ambiguity the Bill realistically steers a moderate course. That will disappoint or offend a great many people who espouse for one reason or another a more extreme position.

The Church of England, through its Board for Social Responsibility, has been arguing for the 24-week limit for a number of years. Members of your Lordships' House may recall the attempts made a few years ago by the former Bishop of Birmingham, Hugh Montefiore, who sat on the Steps of the Throne a little earlier this evening, to steer through an amendment Bill arguing for just that position.

There is a widespread view that the present law creates an impression that abortion is a slight matter. It is not. Each abortion is a personal tragedy. Despite difference of opinion as to how we should proceed, the Churches are united in their view that abortion represents a major moral dilemma and the prevalence and apparent ease of obtaining abortions in our society suggest a widespread view of the value and distinctiveness of human life that is extremely worrying and distressing. Yet to withhold compassion, particularly in circumstances of extreme distress or need, is also unacceptable. The pain presented by such a dilemma is deeply felt by all caring people.

It is my hope that the Bill will help us to act a little more responsibly in a situation of considerable complexity.

7.54 p.m.

Lord Brightman

My Lords, I approach this debate with the conviction that the Abortion Act 1967 is flawed, out of date and needs reconsideration and amendment. The problem is how that is to be achieved. That the Act is flawed is explained in the report of the Select Committee which I had the honour to chair in 1987 and 1988.

First, the Act is flawed because it does not contain any provision which in terms defines the period of pregnancy within which an abortion can lawfully be carried out. There is merely a conventional 28 weeks based on a cryptic and almost unintelligible reference to the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, which was not an abortion Act and has no application in Scotland. Unless abortion is to be free of time restrictions, an abortion Act ought to specify the period within which abortion can lawfully be carried out.

Secondly, the Act is out of touch with current thinking because, assuming that the 28-week convention is a correct interpretation of the Act, 28 weeks is too late as a maximum gestational period for most abortions. In my opinion, the maximum age should in most cases be 24 weeks. Some of your Lordships may think that it should be even lower. I have no intention of arguing that point now.

Thirdly, the Act is flawed because it was passed without any debate in either House as to the time limit, if any, within which an abortion should be allowed. Surely, whether or not a time limit ought to be imposed, it should at least be discussed.

Fourthly, the Act is flawed because, assuming that the 28-week convention is correct, the Act ought at least to say how such a 28-week period is to be determined. The calculation of gestational age is not an exact science. In the later stages of pregnancy it is impossible to measure the period of pregnancy with a greater degree of accuracy than a spread of about three weeks, even with the benefit of ultrasound scanning.

Fifthly, the Act is flawed because the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, and therefore the convention of a maximum gestational period of 28 weeks, does not apply to Scotland. It is nothing short of ludicrous that a doctor performing an operation south of the Border after the 28th week of pregnancy may be guilty of a crime under the 1929 Act and be sentenced to imprisonment for life while the same doctor, performing the identical operation on the same woman north of the Border, is guilty of no crime at all.

The Bill addresses those five problems and therefore opens the way for debate. However, I understand that the Bill has little chance of reaching the statute book because, being a controversial measure, it is almost certain to run out of time in the other place.

What are the alternatives, given that the 1967 Act cries out for amendment? I should be greatly worried if noble Lords sought to amend the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill in this House by adding in Committee clauses which amend the Abortion Act. The embryology Bill—as I shall refer to it—was described by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor on Second Reading as a Bill which encompasses a complex issue involving a whole spectrum of medical, scientific, ethical and moral issues.

The noble and learned Lord then stated that the Bill had two main purposes: to regulate infertility treatments and to deal with the embryo research question. I cannot feel that it would be wise to add to that complexity by introducing at the Committee stage in this House a totally different issue which has nothing whatever to do with infertility treatments or embryo research—namely, the time limit within which abortions could be allowed. Human fertilisation and embryology have been dealt with by the committee chaired by the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock. She reported in 1984, and her report is the source book for that subject matter. The source book for abortion is the report of the Select Committee on the Infant Life (Preservation) Bill which reported in 1988. That report contains 58 paragraphs of text and tables and 315 pages of evidence.

It does not seem to me sensible to add all that additional material to the burden which will be placed on those of your Lordships who will be dealing with the embryology Bill. I hope therefore that this House can be left to deal with the embryology Bill at the Committee stage, without the intrusion of clauses dealing with abortion.

It may be that when the embryology Bill reaches the other place, Members there will amend it by adding clauses to deal with the law of abortion. That of course is a matter entirely for them. It might have great advantages because abortion could then be debated in Government time. Should such amendments be introduced, it seems to me that it would be helpful and it would save a lot of time—it certainly cannot be unhelpful—if the material available to the other place included a full debate on the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and the form which a well thought out abortion amendment Bill might take. This would be a valuable contribution which we could make to the work of the other place, if Members there decide—as I understand they can do—to amend the embryology Bill by introducing clauses on abortion.

If that were done, then when the embryology Bill comes back to your Lordships' House with most of the work on infertility treatment and embryo research completed, it would not be such a burdensome task to your Lordships to consider in addition at that stage to the law of abortion.

In other words, my suggestion is that we first consider infertility and embryology on their own and send that Bill back to the Commons thoroughly vetted and polished. We then consider abortion on its own, via the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. If the other place thinks fit to add abortion to the embryology Bill, Members will have in front of them for their consideration a thoroughly vetted and polished abortion Bill. By this means the abortion Bill could be settled in this Session with the minimum of inconvenience to all concerned.

I therefore reached the conclusion that I ought to support the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, not because it has a chance of reaching the statute book but because it will enable this House to consider infertility treatments and embryo research on their own, and because of the contribution which that Bill can make to any abortion debate in the other place.

8.5 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I am glad to follow the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, as I can say in public what I said in private to him after another debate. I regret if I said anything acrimonious about him and his chairmanship of the committee. I think I implied that he was taken for a ride by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. I realised that when I called the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, naive, that word should not be applied to such a learned judge.

However, I agree with the noble Duke—although I shall not go into the matter again—that the idea that this committee of the House was representative is farcical. The noble Lord, Lord Houghton, himself moved the rejection of the Bill of the right reverend Prelate the former Bishop of Birmingham, to which the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford paid tribute. He moved its rejection and he and two others who voted against it were the only representatives concerned with abortion to be put on the committee. However, I shall not go into that matter again.

Baroness White

My Lords, will my noble friend allow me to intervene?

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, did not give way to me, but perhaps I am not old enough!

Baroness White

My Lords, the noble Earl intervened in my speech last week so perhaps he will allow me to intervene in his. The Select Committees of your Lordships' House make no pretence of being representative. They are responsible to the House, unlike in the other place where committees are representative. I think that we should keep that quite clear.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I did not take down the words but I should be surprised if the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, did not indicate that it was a representative committee. My recollection is that he must have done so and that is why I introduced that word. However, I shall not concern myself with such tactical or debating points this evening.

I wish to say to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, that I think he knows how much I respect him. Perhaps he is too modest to know how deeply I respect his public spirit, his vigour and eloquence, although I regard those as lesser qualities. I am afraid that he would think that I had gone off my rocker if he found that I agreed with him. If I strayed into the lobby with him tonight he would think that the time had come for me to leave the House, although I am only 84, as compared to senior Members. So I am afraid I shall not be on that side tonight—very definitely not. I must leave the details of the Bill to others. I hope that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Rawlinson, who spoke so well last time, will deal with them.

Up until now one question has not really been explored in the House this evening and that is the question of whether there would be more or fewer late abortions under the Bill. Nobody has come out quite clearly and said that it would be one or the other. Perhaps it is uncertain. It may be that when the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, replies he will say whether he is confident that there will be more or fewer abortions under the Bill. Perhaps he will agree and accept that in future some people will obtain abortions who would not get them without the Bill. To that extent, the Bill promotes abortion. If that is not so then I do not see the point of these clauses in the Bill, but no doubt that will be made clear to us later on. However, again I leave those points to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Rawlinson.

I speak in simple and brief terms, as a Christian and a socialist. I am not a member of the Christian establishment, as is the right reverend Prelate the Bishop, to whom we listened with such pleasure. I am not a member as he is a member or as leaders of my own party are members of the socialist establishment. I am a rank and file Christian—a rank and file socialist. There are a good many texts which could be produced but one in particular brings those forms of inspiration together. The text in my mind could no doubt be translated in different ways but I offer this version to the House: When thou makest a feast, thou shalt call the poor, the maimed, the lame and the blind and thou shalt be blessed". There is no mention of a fetus of course. One would hardly expect it in that quotation. But Christians generally and socialists would agree that above all things they stand for the weak, the helpless and the defenceless. The fetus is the weakest, most defenceless and helpless of any entity, human or otherwise, that one could imagine. I should have thought that any Christian, or indeed any Socialist, would start with the presumption that one should do all in one's power to ensure that there are as few abortions as possible. I am not sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, would disagree with that, as she said how repugnant abortion was. At any rate if we start from that presumption, the question arises whether one can allow abortions at all.

My mind inevitably goes back in time, as does that of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby. His mind goes back to 1952, but mine only goes back to 1967. He was not in the Chamber at that time, but we had legislation before us then. I was Leader of the House at the time and it was my position as Leader of the House to speak against the legislation. I said then and I have said ever since that there are circumstances in which I personally would agree to a divorce, and circumstances in which I would even recommend a divorce in my own family. I do that from my own conviction that there are no universal rules in human affairs. There is no rule to which there is not an exception. We are told, "Thou shalt not kill". That was laid down in the Jewish faith long before Christianity was heard of. However, most Christians and most Jews agree that in some circumstances one has to kill—for example, in defence of one's family or oneself or in defence of one's country, or in defence of a just cause. At any rate that absolute principle is qualified.

We are also told, "Thou shalt not steal". However, that is qualified if one is starving or one's family is starving. In those circumstances few people would fail to steal, if the chance arose. So as regards abortion the question is whether exceptional circumstances exist which should make abortion more readily available, or whether it should be more readily available in any circumstances. I cannot believe personally that we should be told in the course of this debate, or by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, when he concludes the debate, that no one will get an abortion under this Bill in future who would not get it now. In fact the Bill is paving the way to easier abortion in quite a number of cases. For that reason I am entirely opposed to it and I hope that the amendment will be carried.

8.13 p.m.

Lord McColl of Dulwich

My Lords, during the debate on the embryology legislation last week I found myself very much in agreement with my noble friend Lord Caldecote. In particular I agreed with him that the back street abortion era was a great evil. That situation was improved by the Abortion Act 1967. That Act permits the lesser of two evils. I shall never forget seeing the tragic suffering of so many young women as a result of the sordid back street abortion system of the 1950s and 1960s.

I sense a feeling in the House that those who oppose abortion are all members of some strange, inhuman sect. However, I wish to point out that the doctors and nurses who have to carry out abortions find the whole thing repugnant, whether or not they hold any religious views. They find themselves caught in a trap, especially with those women who are more than 18 weeks pregnant. Those are the women in greatest need. They are often terrified, not very bright and socially deprived. What is more, if the pregnancy continues, we know that half of the resulting children will be dead within two years. Many of them will be battered to death. That is the dilemma that faces the caring, thoughtful people who work in the National Health Service.

I suspect that your Lordships may not be aware that in order to eliminate the unpleasant spectacle of the 20-week aborted fetus showing clear signs of life, the fetus is put paid to by injecting the womb with noxious agents. I think noble Lords will understand why nurses and doctors find that repugnant. I suspect that the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, will result in more abortions being carried out at a later stage, making this unpleasant business more frequent.

I draw the attention of noble Lords to the fact that last year only 22 abortions were carried out after 24 weeks. Furthermore, I am sure it has escaped the notice of noble Lords that there are several hospitals not far from here which will not carry out any abortions after 14 weeks. There seems to me no good reason for the unseemly haste to pass the Bill. I hope that the House will accept the amendment of the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk.

8.15 p.m.

Lord Robertson of Oakridge

My Lords, the House is indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, for raising the matter of abortion because the state of the abortion law is so unsatisfactory that it should be kept continually in the public eye. I take part in this debate as an ordinary member of the Church of England. With the greatest respect to the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford, I believe my views are a little more representative of the views of the General Synod than his.

When I spoke to people about the Bill they said that it appeared to be a restrictive Bill, lowering the time limit for abortions from 28 to 24 weeks. However, a detailed study of the Bill shows that, far from reducing the number of late abortions, it would in practice allow many abortions to be carried out up to the full term of 40 weeks. As regards late abortions, I believe that there are two principles which find general support in your Lordships' House. The first is that no child which is capable of being born alive should be aborted except to save the life of the mother. Secondly, the number of late abortions should be kept to a minimum. This Bill goes against both of those principles.

It would do away with the protection afforded by the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, which states that it shall be a felony to destroy the life of a child capable of being born alive except for the sole purpose of preserving the life of the mother. Under the Act evidence that the pregnancy had run for a minimum of 28 weeks is prima facie proof that the child is capable of being born alive.

Let us examine the Bill to see what protection is put in place of the 1929 Act. First, we should look at the second page of the Bill. New Section (2A) states: No pregnancy may lawfully be terminated after the end of its twenty-fourth week". That is of course a step in the right direction, but noble Lords should note that the 24-week limit would apply only to abortions approved under subsection (1)(b), with a substantial rider, and under subsection (1)(c).

We should now look at page 1 and at the grounds for abortion in more detail as they are set out in Clause 1(1) (a) to (d). Under Clause 1(1) (a) the ground is that of: risk to the life of the pregnant woman". Your Lordships will note that the phrase, risk to the life of the pregnant woman", is a much lower threshold than that in the Infant Life (Preservations) Act which was concerned with preserving the life of the mother. The 24-week limit would not apply to abortions under this heading. As all pregnancy and childbirth could be said to involve some risk, this would provide an open door for abortions up to 40 weeks. Clause 1(1) (b) states as a ground the: risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman". The 24-week limit would apply to abortions under that heading but not if two doctors were of the opinion that the termination of the pregnancy was essential to prevent serious damage to the mental or physical health of the pregnant woman. That is also a relatively low threshold, particularly when one has regard to the so-called social clause in subsection (2).

In Clause 1(1 )(c) the ground is: risk of injury to the physical or mental health of any existing children of her family". Here the 24-week limit would apply.

In Clause 1(1) (d) the ground is that there is a: substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped". Here the 24-week limit would not apply. Abortions under that ground would be legal up to full term.

Experience with the 1967 Abortion Act shows that if this Bill became law no woman would have any difficulty in finding a doctor who, albeit in sincerity, would give abortion on request however long the pregnancy had lasted. The protection at present given by the Infant Life (Preservation) Act would therefore be almost entirely swept away and not replaced.

There is one other aspect of the matter on which your Lordships' House is entitled to be informed by the supporters of the Bill, or perhaps the Minister may be able to help us. That is how the very late abortions made possible under the Bill will be carried out. By that I mean which method of abortion would be used.

The phrase "termination of pregnancy" is such a bland one that if we are not careful we shall be lulled into feeling that it is like switching off an electric light. We should, however, remember that recent research has confirmed that the fetus feels pain. The most common method of abortion is D&E, which involves dilation of the cervix and the application of a vacuum to the womb by means of a tube inserted into it. The vacuum dismembers the child, enabling it to pass through the tube. That method, which is beastly enough for an early abortion, is surely quite out of the question for a late abortion. Presumably some way of taking the life of a child in the womb before it is taken out of the mother will be used. It would be interesting to know what that method would be.

I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, to inform the House which method or methods will be used in the case of such very late abortions. If he cannot satisfy the House on that point I believe that that alone would be sufficient reason not to give the Bill a Second Reading today.

In summary, the Bill, far from minimising late abortions, would increase their number, and do so until full term. That would mean the abortion of babies at a time when they were capable of being born alive and when they would suffer even more than it appears they do in early abortions. I believe that it is a measure which no civilised country could contemplate. Therefore I shall certainly be voting in favour of the amendment proposed by the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk.

It has been suggested that we should give the Bill its Second Reading and then amend it in Committee. That would seem to me to be a waste of parliamentary time. Perhaps more important, it would give the wrong message to people outside your Lordships' Chamber as to how we view abortions, and particularly late abortions.

8.24 p.m.

Lord Rawlinson of Ewell

My Lords, I agree totally with one point which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, the presenter of the Bill made in his vigorous and attractive presentation of his argument—as he usually presents any argument which he puts in this House or used to in another place. I wholly agreed with him that everything that anyone would say was utterly predictable. One could look at the list of speakers and know what they would say.

However, I was flabbergasted to hear the noble Lord and those who support him complain about the rules of procedure relating to private Bills, when I think of what happened to the David Alton Bill in another place. A vast majority of elected representatives voted that Bill through, and by a series of manoeuvres using political and procedural powers it was denied the opportunity to come up to this House so that this House could make its decision on the Bill. It is not for supporters of this Bill to complain about the use of parliamentary procedure to try to obtain a decision on this great issue.

Believing what I believe, I can understand very well that those who reject those ideas might resent the imposition upon a great mass of the population of some moral or ethical principle which that mass of the population do not accept. They say that people who believe as I do are not obliged to participate in the practices, which will only be permitted by law. The practices will be purely permissive. Therefore why not have a civil law which does not interfere but leaves those who dislike a particular practice free not to practise it if they so wish? In other words, there should be no mandatory imposition of a practice upon the mass of the population.

I understand that argument in many matters involving moral and ethical principles. However, in some matters society has always retained and still retains in law the right to impose a moral standard which it will not permit any to disobey. The oldest of all has already been quoted today, Thou shalt not kill—not even the very old, not even the very insane, not even the very handicapped, not even those in pain, not even those in total despair.

Our predecessors included among those one may not kill a human being not yet separated from its mother. They, our predecessors, gave protection to an unborn child which is capable of being born alive. In our time we have lived through days when more and more the power to kill has been taken for granted.

I have never accepted the 28-week limit. I would have supported a reduction to 18 weeks, although I have heard with great interest and concern what was said by my noble friend Lord McColl. The reduction to 24 weeks is at least some reduction, but in this Bill—and I am surprised that the right reverend Prelate did not see that that ought to change his mind regarding his support of the Bill—there are exceptions which would permit killing—by what means we know not—of the person of more than 24 weeks, with a needle or drug or whatever it may be.

Never have I accepted the social exceptions. Conception, I believe, ought not to be devalued. I do not believe that registered medical practitioners should be given the power to kill a formed human being who has been six months in the growing based upon their personal assessment—medical opinion is sometimes very right and sometimes very wrong—that the consequences would be serious damage to the health of the mother. How often are they wrong?

All of us have at some time encountered a person who has been born seriously handicapped, perhaps into conditions where material circumstances are not of the highest. Sometimes those handicapped people are people of superior wit, often of superior character and sometimes blessed with an affinity to goodness and spirituality, capable of giving and receiving love far greater than those of us born without such handicap. I believe that our predecessors, with their straightforward stand upon principle that, Thou shall not kill the being capable of being born alive, were wiser in their generation. Nothing that I have read or heard will change my view that this appropriation of power over life and death which the Bill extends is anything but barbaric. I support the amendment.

8.31 p.m.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, I should like to begin by congratulating my noble friend Lord Houghton of Sowerby on introducing the Bill. I certainly respect and admire his vast experience and great gifts as a parliamentarian. I speak in the debate as a Catholic. My noble friend Lord Houghton would not expect me to apologise to him for that. I do not have a medical background, so I do not profess to be an expert on the medical aspects of abortion or embryology.

My background was in local authority and community health care in the 1950s and 1960s in an inner London borough, so my knowledge and experience of the existence of back-street abortions, to which the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, referred, was very real. I knew that girls were thrown out of their homes if they were found to be pregnant. In those days, they had to leave home if they were found to be pregnant. Girls were evicted from lodgings, or digs as they were called in those days, by landladies or landlords, if they were found to be pregnant. They had to get out and had nowhere to go. Housing conditions were not as good at they could have been.

There was still a sad lack of education regarding pregnancy. There was no widespread counselling at all; in fact, as I recall, there was hardly any. There was no general counselling for those girls unless a church was approached to give them some counselling through a priest. In those circumstances of sheer desperation, many of those young kids were forced to go, often on borrowed money, to back street abortionists and suffer the traumatic experience to which the noble Lord, Lord McColl, referred.

Out of that came the demand for and passing of the 1967 Act. I believe that it was the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, who said that the Act was now out of date. It is out of date to the extent that circumstances are now totally different. We are no longer talking about the same situation. There is now a great deal more tolerance. I no longer hear of girls being thrown out of their homes for being pregnant, but, if they are, more help is available through all kinds of agencies to take care of that exigency. By and large there is better housing. We have improved standards, although not enough. We still need more housing.

There have been vast changes in our approach to sex education from primary schools of all denominations upwards. Tremendous strides have been made in the past few years. We have all witnessed the campaigns in the media for safer sex and less promiscuity. Those educational processes go on all the time.

There have been medical advances. Premature babies can now be saved at a much earlier age. They can even live at the age of 20 or 21 weeks by virtue of the wonders of medical science. There have been recent developments which have given rise to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. I was present at the debate in the Chamber and have read the proceedings. When the discussions continue in Committee, they will bring people to a greater understanding about the beginning of life, which is important in all these arguments. We have embarked on those discussions as a result of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. People will understand those of us who say that life begins at conception. There will be a better understanding in the world outside this goldfish bowl of why people hold to that point of view.

So the Bill, as has been outlined by the noble Duke and others, would make matters worse. It goes in the opposite direction. Rather than going back to that understanding and developing something from it, it goes to the other extreme. As a number of speakers have said, it virtually allows abortions up to birth. Surely that cannot be an improvement. That was never envisaged in the 1967 Act. As was said at the time, it was not the aim of the sponsors of the Act: to leave a wide open door to abortion on request". That seems to be one of the aims of the present Bill. It seems to open the door to that. That is why most people who think like me oppose it.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, used what has become a popular argument; namely, that because there is no Infant Life (Preservation) Act in Scotland, there is no abortion there after 28 weeks and they do not need the Bill: the situation is all right, there is nothing wrong with it and they do not have our problems. However, regardless of whether they have the Act, they operate under the same professional bodies and consultancy bodies. They operate the same code of conduct. That is what determines what happens there. There would certainly be trouble if there were abortions after the 28th week in Scotland. While the Scottish situation might be some kind of defence on paper for those people who are in favour of the Bill, the defence does not exist. Under those circumstances, the possibility of abortions up to birth or even up to the 28th week does not exist. I have no figures to prove that it has ever happened.

My noble friend Lord Houghton and other noble Lords mentioned the Select Committee. I do not want to go into the matter too deeply except to say that I was disappointed in the committee's findings. I make no bones about its composition but it dealt with the subject of late abortions from a narrow viewpoint. It did not take into account the possible psychiatric and social effects of legislation.

One point that has concerned me for a long time and which I shall illustrate by example is that applicants in the field of obstetrics, gynaecology and anaesthetics and psychiatry have been turned down because of their approach to abortion. They are asked questions about their attitude to abortion. When I was chairman of an interviewing panel for a teaching hospital, we interviewed many doctors, but we never asked that kind of question. In those days that kind of question would never have been asked of any applicant for a job. It is apparently becoming all too frequent nowadays. I understand that, in another place, the Select Committee on Social Services unanimously agreed that the working of the conscience clause in the Abortion Act should be investigated and it is currently carrying out a review.

There are many other points that concern me but I hope that I have at least said enough to indicate where I stand and why I shall support the amendment.

8.40 p.m.

Viscount Massereene and Ferrard

My Lords, I shall be very brief. Although it is not my subject, I felt that I had to say a few words. Without doubt, if this Bill were to become law—as I hardly imagine it will—there would definitely be far more abortions. Some noble Lords have said that it is an open door and that it would be near murder. I believe that that is rather a strong word to use.

The subject causes great suffering and heartache. It is the women who have to suffer. I therefore consider that any Act which increases abortions cannot be good. It is true that there is the most superb medical care which presumably does away with the majority of pain. However, the mental pain remains. I therefore support the amendment. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Rawlinson said, to destroy young life is extremely unpleasant.

I am not happy about one aspect of the Bill. We have heard much this evening about the 1929 Act which allows babies to be aborted up to 28 weeks. They can be alive then. I thought that the Act stated that if anyone—presumably, but not necessarily, a doctor—performed the operation to abort a child, and if he were not found out he would be all right if the child did not die. However, if the child died I thought under that law the doctor would be committing a felony. It is a point that worries me.

I know nothing about the subject, so I should not be speaking. However, I shall definitely vote for the amendment of my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk.

8.42 p.m.

Viscount Buckmaster

My Lords, I rise to support the amendment. I do so because in certain circumstances, which have been mentioned several times before, this Bill allows abortion up to the age of birth. My view stems from my conviction that abortion, and in particular late abortion, is nothing less than murder. This was brought out most movingly by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Rawlinson, and by the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene.

I am strengthened in my thinking by such presentations of late abortion as I have seen. I refer in particular to the film "The Silent Scream" which some noble Lords may have seen. This showed in graphic detail an abortion operation on a fetus of some 20 to 24 weeks. I do not know the exact period. As the name implies, the central feature of this film was a close up of the mouth of the fetus opened in a silent scream as the forceps closed in on the head. It goes without saying that the later the operation after 24 weeks, the greater the suffering. Indeed, in operations up to the time of birth, say, 36 to 40 weeks, the abortionist has to kill the fetus, generally I understand by crushing the head or injecting a lethal fluid before it emerges from the mother's body. If it were killed after it emerges, the abortionist could be charged with murder. I do not wish to go into further medical details.

Far more moving for me was a talk that I heard in the Royal Albert Hall in 1987 (I think it was) by Mr. David Alton. The climax was the release from the roof of the Albert Hall of 2.5 million tiny paper darts each represrenting a fetus aborted since the Abortion Act 1967. I gather that the present figure of abortions is about 3 million.

Surely one has to consider how many potential scientists, doctors, musicians, painters, even politicians, were in that vast collection. It may of course have had its fair share of criminals too. I accept that there will have been some—they are of course in a minority, but they are there—who would have suffered terribly in their lives from spina bifida or some other serious condition. Nevertheless, I hold the view which was expressed when we discussed the embryology Bill last Thursday that fetuses like embryos are products of a divine creative process which we interfere with at our peril.

I should like to make one further point that has not been dealt with in any detail although the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene, touched upon it. It is the appalling, traumatic effects on so many women who suffer abortions. I have heard of some from my friends, and indeed I have seen one or two personally. I feel that it is a very powerful argument against the late abortions which are made possible by the Bill. I therefore have no hesitation whatever in giving my support to the amendment to be moved by the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk.

8.47 p.m.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, first, I should like to dispose of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. I do not think that that Bill should be used in this House as a vehicle to change the law on abortion. If Members of another place wish to use it as such a vehicle, that is up to them. When the Bill returns to us we shall no doubt give those amendments our serious consideration.

Having said that, the Bill brought before us by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, is in my view an absolute horror. As I understand it, it would allow abortion on demand up to birth and that could mean the first stages of labour right up to the very end. It is true that, according to the way in which the noble Lord has drafted the Bill, the young woman concerned would need two doctors to be prepared to testify in court about the serious mental or physical danger that she was in; or the dangers that the siblings in the family would be in if the birth was allowed to proceed. We all know that one can always find unscrupulous people in any profession. It has even been known for Members of your Lordships' House to be found guilty of various offences and spend time at Her Majesty's pleasure. Therefore, if Members of this House—where we speak and vote on our honour—can be capable of dastardly deeds so can members of any other profession, doctors included.

One need not wait late into pregnancy for doctors to decide whether there are any dangers to the mother, or the rest of the family, or to the fetus in the womb of being disabled. Whether one should—and that is another question—abort a fetus merely because it is disabled can be discovered at an earlier time because medical science is moving forward at an ever increasing rate.

It is interesting to note that records in the neo-natal unit at University College Hospital show that during the period 1979–1984—now some five years out of date—babies of a gestation period of 23 to 24 weeks who were born alive had a 25 per cent, chance of still being alive at one year. By 27 to 28 weeks the chance has risen to 64 per cent. Therefore, there is an increasingly high proportion of babies who will survive normal birth or even an abortion if they are not killed within the womb before they are aborted.

Other noble Lords will probably know better than I the methods of abortion. I hope that the Minister will tell us about them when she replies. I understand that the further into pregnancy one goes it is often necessary for the child to be killed at least 24 hours before the abortion takes place. The reason is that the child begins to decompose and it is easier to cut up inside the mother before being removed piecemeal. That is a horrifying process, particularly bearing in mind that the mother will have felt that child moving inside her from about 16 weeks. Therefore, for the last 24 hours of carrying the child she will have been carrying only a dead lump. I do not know what that will do to her mental condition.

For those and many other reasons that I shall not go into because the hour is late, I must support the I noble Duke's amendment.

Lord Brightman

My Lord, before the noble Lord sits down I should like to correct him on one point. He told your Lordships that if there is serious danger to the health of siblings it will be permissible under the Bill to abort the child at any gestational age. That is not so. Clause 1 (2A)(b) provides that abortion on the grounds of serious danger to the health of siblings is forbidden after week 24.

Lord Swinfen

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for his correction. He is far better versed in the law and the way in which Bills are written than I am.

8.55 p.m.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, I shall not take sides with either the noble Duke on the amendment or the noble Lord on the Bill in respect of the personal ideologies of either. They are both my friends—with the noble Duke it is familial—and I would not wish to cool my friendships by taking sides on issues where they are antagonistic towards each other.

I have had 46 years' experience in this House of which nearly 20 years have been full-time during my retirement. I ask myself what are the interests of the House. I know of the difficulty that the usual channels have in recruiting members of Select Committees, particularly those on private Bills which may go on and on, with a great degree of interference in one's private life. The difficulty in recruitment to Select Committees would be increased if it was known that their findings would be regarded with total indifference by the House that appointed them. Therefore, the only live issue in my mind—and my noble and learned friend Lord Brightman, who was the chairman of the Select Committee must be the keeper of my conscience—is whether the Bill embodies the recommendations of the Select Committee which we have before us. If it does, I believe that it deserves reference to a Committee of the Whole House.

We should not duck that obligation on the ground that it will be a waste of time because of what will happen in the other place. If we did not discuss anything that may be a waste of time we should arrive home much earlier in the evenings and have much longer holidays, but I do not believe that it would be a good principle on which to run the House. I do not speak ideologically but merely as a long established Member of your Lordships' House.

On the ideological side, I should be with the noble Duke, who dislikes abortion, as does the noble and learned Lord, Lord Rawlinson. So do I. I should never be a consenting party to an abortion of any child that I had engendered. I have said that all my life because I believe it to be wrong. However, I must live in a world where I know that abortion will take place either in the backstreet or on the National Health Service. As legislators, we must set aside our private religious beliefs on the basis that a facility is provided for us but we shall not take advantage of it. That is my standpoint and on that I rest my case.

I believe that it is wrong to make Committee points on Second Reading and even worse to make Second Reading speeches in Committee. However, certain matters have been raised and I find myself in line with the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford when he says that he hopes that the period will progressively reduce itself. I also hope for that and I see no reason why it should not. There is always a time lag between the law as it is and the law as it should be. Medical science and technology are marching ahead so fast that we as legislators cannot keep pace with them.

I shall mention briefly two matters to which I should like to attend in Committee. First, the words "capable of life" need cosmetic improvement. They should read "capable of life with or without life support apparatus", or whatever it may be. The best form of life support for a newborn infant is its mother's breast. However, if by chance she is not in good lactational form, there is Cow & Gate to rely on. One of these days we may be able to take babies with solid lungs who cannot breathe and oxygenate their blood through a machine which is used in heart surgery and which may be adaptable. There are many conditions where, if only the baby could be prolonged for a little while, it could live. I hope therefore that the period will be reduced and reduced and reduced.

Over and above that, all I want to say is that I believe that confusing this issue with the embryology Bill which we have before us would lead us into parliamentary schizophrenia. It is absolutely not to be considered for one moment. The two issues are totally separate. Under the embryology Bill we are asking Parliament to express an opinion and finally pass a law as to how long you may play with an embryo, but an abortion Bill deals with how late the life can be extinguished. The two subjects are absolutely incompatible. I referred to schizophrenia, but that is a rather out-of-date term. It refers now to what used to be called dementia praecox. What used to stand for Jekyll and Hyde is now known as hysterical dissociation of the personality. That is what we shall suffer from if we try to discuss these two Bills as if they were one.

9 p.m.

Lord Ashbourne

My Lords, I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, for introducing this Bill and thus giving us an opportunity to discuss the abortion issue quite separately from the embryo Bill to which your Lordships gave a Second Reading last Thursday.

I am not a Roman Catholic. I merely say that as a statement of fact lest it be thought that everyone speaking in favour of the amendment of my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk is a Roman Catholic, which is certainly not the case.

As the noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, expounded so lucidly, this Bill effectively introduces abortion on demand up to 40 weeks or full term. At present we already effectively have abortion on demand up to 28 weeks. Many of us who believe in the sanctity of human life regard that as unacceptable. This Bill effectively removes any time limit on abortion for reasons listed in Clause 1(1)(a) and(b).

It is an appalling fact that we are more vulnerable in the womb that at any other period of our growth cycle. At this point I should say how much I agreed with the noble Earl, Lord Longford, on that point. Thus the one place which was intended by God to be the most secure has, through the advances of science and the deviousness of human nature, become the most vulnerable. Now the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, seeks to make the gestation period in the womb even more vulnerable.

I trust that the House will treat this Bill with the contempt which it deserves. I urge your Lordships to support my noble friend the Duke of Norfolk and vote for his amendment.

9.3 p.m.

Lord Hunter of Newington

My Lords, before this debate I thought I should talk about the argument to keep the embryo Bill and the abortion Bill separate. I shall do that very briefly because so much has been said. I am very surprised that a number of people seem not to have read the report by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman.

Perhaps I may deal with the clinical problem which affects doctors which they conscientiously try to discharge; that is, the only stages at which they have sampling techniques to try to discover how matters are progressing in the womb is quite late in pregnancy. Screening is done by ultrasound at something like 16 to 18 weeks, alpha feto protein at 16 to 18 weeks and choria villus biopsy can be done, if the mother wants it, and the evidence of abnormality obtained at 20 weeks. The decision after that is the patient's. However, those techniques do not provide early evidence of abnormality.

I now turn to the area of early diagnosis. The background to the whole thing is the eternal concern of mothers that they will have abnormal offspring, particularly in families where that has happened before. It is estimated that at some time in their reproductive live about half of the world's women conceive with abnormal chromosomal patterns and most of those pregnancies result in spontaneous abortion. Until recently those infants who were born died. For the majority there was no effective treatment. It may now be possible by detailed evaluation of the fertilised ovum to carry out early diagnosis before the primitive streak has formed. The scientists investigating that matter under the strictest central control believe that they may be able to produce evidence of abnormalities which are present. The decision is whether there should be an early destruction of the conceptus. If that is done, there could be an avoidance of so much of the agony which has been referred to this evening in all kinds of phrases, particularly if a deformed child dies late in pregnancy or at birth.

9.6 p.m.

The Marquess of Lothian

My Lords, I shall be very brief. I should like to say that sometimes I am surprised and saddened that, whereas the House invariably and rightly expresses sympathy with the welfare of the animal kingdom, it seems to me that sometimes when we are discussing abortion there is a tendency to consider the fetus as an inanimate and unfeeling subject.

Therefore, I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to a paper published by the British Medical Journal in 1980 and written by Dr. Valman, a distinguished paediatrician, and Dr. Robinson, a consultant gynaecologist; it is entitled What the Foetus Feels. In that paper certain scientific and detailed descriptions are given with diagrams of how, for example, only nine weeks after conception the fetus is well enough formed to bend its fingers round an object in the palm of the hand.

The article is lengthy and I shall not take up your Lordships' time with it except for one short quotation: The foetus needs to be heavily sedated by sedating the mother before intrauterine transfusions. Otherwise he will move away from the needle". Therefore, I venture to say to your Lordships that when we are considering the thousands of fetuses whose lives have already been ended at this stage and when we are considering others which may well have to undergo the same fate, they should not be dismissed as objects incapable of feeling extreme pain. For this and for many other reasons which have been adduced by noble Lords, I intend to support my noble friend's amendment.

9.8 p.m.

Baroness Ryder of Warsaw

My Lords, in making my case I wish to make it clear that I fully acknowledge the sincerity of those who take a different view from mine and as a mother I understand the depths of their feelings. However, we are dealing with two separate persons, each of whom has rights, sadly rights which are in conflict with each other. On the one side we have the mother to be who has the right to live a life of her own choosing; on the other the unborn child who having been conceived by its mother and father has the right to live.

There is of course a great difference between the circumstances of these two sets of people. The mother is able to marshall her arguments forcefully and with great depth of feeling. The unborn child has no voice that we in this Chamber can hear. As yet it has no power of any kind to plead its rights, let alone defend them. Most sadly, the name of Parliament and its deliberations and decisions seems at times to replace the name of God.

With this Bill advocating abortion up to birth we are abandoning what has been the civilised standard for centuries; namely, that every human being, if he or she is to be treated by a doctor or specialist, is to be treated for his or her own particular benefit and not exploited for the perceived benefit of others.

I as a mother understand the anguish which sadly, today can rarely be relieved by the efforts of childless couples who wish to adopt. Some adoption agencies in different parts of the country closed their lists of approved couples who were waiting to adopt because of the lack of babies.

The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford said that the Churches are undecided. May I respectfully say that I believe the Catholic Church is not. I also know many other Christians and friends of the Jewish faith who share this feeling of repulsion.

This is a crossroads decision. It will determine whether our nation takes the civilised moral road or whether we compromise the principles and question the absolute sanctity of life; namely, that every stage from conception to death is to be treated with the utmost dignity and respect. I have also witnessed abortion, heard the cry of babies and seen their movements before death.

In Paul's letter to the Hebrews it is written: To be alive is no man's gift, it is God's gift; and to end life is no man's right, but God's right". We should deny this Bill a Second Reading.

9.11 p.m.

Lord Sefton of Garston

My Lords, I apologise for not putting down my name to speak. However, I did that quite deliberately, because I do not profess to be an expert in this subject, neither do I claim to have had a revelation which enables me to determine when life begins and when life ends. So I cannot get myself involved in these high-sounding debates about that subject. I leave that to people who have these revelations and put themselves on a level where they can decide truly moral issues.

But listening to the debate—and that is what I intended to do—I noticed that nearly all the opponents of this Bill stressed in all seriousness how important it was that this subject of abortion should be separated from the question of the embryo Bill. I think the whole House said that, and I hope that the mover of the amendment, the noble Duke, will take note of that, because I consider that to be one of the most important things that has been mentioned this evening.

I say that purely as a layman. I have no religion. I am what is described in some places as a humanist. I have been terrified by listening to some of the things that described what happened to the unborn child or the fetus, call it what you will. I am also horrified when I read history and see some of the terrible things that have been done to human beings in the name of the angels. Somebody wrote to me and advised me that in this debate I should be on the side of the angels. I wrote back and said that I did not know there were any angels, but I would certainly be on the side of what I consider to be the moral rights or wrongs. One thing I shall never do when a women, or a doctor, is faced with a certain choice, is try to decide what that decision should be. I shall just thank everybody I possibly can that it is not me who has to take that decision. If a woman faced with that tremendously difficult problem has to take that decision, she will have my support, and I hope my understanding; but she would never have my instruction because I think that that is not moral. That is downright immoral.

Having listened to the debate, I cannot, for the life of me, see any reason why the Second Reading is being opposed, and that it should be given a Second Reading in six months' time. If it is read a second time in six months' time does that imply that the mover of the Motion believes that there is something in the Bill that is worth considering in six months' time, or is it a move just to stop it? Nowhere have I yet heard people opposing the Bill tonight say whether or not they want to abolish all abortions.

We got the nearest to it when my noble friend Lord Stallard said that he believed that life begins at conception. Then we get dangerously near to the subject of whether or not contraception is acceptable to most people. Let us all be honest. I have said this before in this House. If we are talking about religion and about fundamental beliefs, the first thing to do is to be honest and frank. Those who contemplate voting for the amendment should ask themselves the question whether they really think that abortion should be abolished altogether. If the answer is no, then in all honesty they should vote for the noble Lord's Bill.

What does it do? I have listened and been told what happens at 24 weeks; what happens at 28 weeks; and what a difficult situation it is for the doctors who have to carry out these abortions. I have heard all that not only here but elsewhere. Realising that a doctor at perhaps three weeks' pregnancy, or four weeks' pregnancy, can see quite clearly that what is going to happen will be detrimental both for the child and the mother, I cannot believe that anybody in this House would vote against abortion at that limit.

If my guess is right that faced with that decision as a parent people would want an abortion that soon, then let us have a Second Reading. That would then enable us to first to keep this Bill and this issue separate from the embryo Bill. Secondly it would give the opponents of the Bill the opportunity to go into Committee and say when they think that abortion should be stopped, and what the length of pregnancy should be.

If they have any doubt about the subsections which enable doctors to go outside the limit, then an amendment would take care of that by removing them. I cannot for the life of me understand why anybody wants merely to stop discussion on this matter. I must come to the conclusion that it is for an ulterior motive, and that that ulterior motive is so that they can add something to the embryo and research Bill.

9.18 p.m.

Lord McGregor of Durris

My Lords, we must recognise that the debate on this Bill does not centre on issues of right or wrong but is directly an exploration of conflicts of values. Views derived from the beliefs of the Roman Catholic Church are necessarily opposed to abortion, though even in that Church there are differences of opinion. The mainstream of Protestant theology, and the moral tradition to which it has given rise, permits abortion under careful legal regulation, and generally approves the provisions which were embodied in the 1967 Act. But again there are disagreements among those in that tradition.

Some indications suggest that Protestant views are supported by a significant majority of the general population. The most recent survey that I have seen published as the 5th Report of the British Survey of Social Attitudes found that 54 per cent, of men and women held that legal abortion should be permitted on the basis of the woman's choice, and 59 per cent, on the couple's choice. The proportion of people favouring legal abortion on grounds of fetal abnormality, rape and danger to the woman's health was very significantly higher. Ninety-three per cent. of all respondents thought that it should be permitted on that basis.

The second indication of a majority view is that abortion on statutory grounds is available in medical practices under very strict administrative regulation by the Department of Health, in both the public and private sectors. All abortions after the 24th week of pregnancy must be carried out in national health hospitals. Given the number of abortions performed annually, it is clear that a majority of responsible medical people support the Act and treat their patients under its terms.

Inevitably therefore we come to a conflict of values between people of different religious beliefs which cannot be resolved by discussion or argument or by reference to the empirical data concerning the medical or social results of prohibiting abortion in the past or permitting it in recent years. At this point the only acceptable solution is the practice of tolerance, itself an inescapable element in a democratic society.

In my view no more compelling words will be spoken than those of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, in last week's debate in this House on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. He said: I have to speak as a Christian believer and I owe an absolute obedience to God, but I would challenge my right if I were to assert it—and I do not—to impose my theological views upon the conscience—the responsible conscience, responsibly exercised—of others".—[Official Report, 7/12/89; col. 1022.] The 1987 report of the Select Committee of your Lordships' House on the Infant Life (Preservation) Bill addressed the flaws in the 1967 Act so cogently analysed in the speech tonight of its chairman, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman. In my view it also demonstrated beyond dispute that the medical profession in these islands has responsibly carried out its duties in respect of abortion. I think that the evidence cited by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, supports the conclusion that the recommendations of the Select Committee have secured the wide approval reflected in the dignified and informed speech of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bradford.

Now we face a situation in which the opinion of a minority is sought to be imposed upon those who do not accept it. That minority is determined to impose its theological views upon the conscience—the responsible conscience, responsibly exercised under our law—of the majority. Further, this minority, which I am bound to describe as authoritarian in its attitude, is not in the position of having to struggle to disseminate its opinions or to safeguard its members against coercion by the majority. All of its members are free to follow the discipline of their Church and they do not run any risk of having imposed on them the treatments or advice which may be available to their fellow citizens under the Abortion Act as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Rawlinson of Ewell, sought to meet that point by saying that societies have always imposed by law the moral injunction, "Thou shalt not kill". He then turned his own belief that abortion is murder into a universal truth and naturally to be condemned by everyone on the ground that abortion is murder. The noble and learned Lord's argument is not compelling for those of us on the other side of the argument who do not identify abortions lawfully conducted as murder, and he fails to resolve the difficulty which concerns me.

Those who support the noble Duke often assume that they alone represent the claims of conscience in these matters. Many of the rest of us—

The Duke of Norfolk

My Lords, I have not intervened before although I have felt tempted to do so. We live in a pluralist society. In no way do I, as a Catholic, a papist or whatever one likes to call it, want to impose Catholic views on the noble Lord or on any other noble Lord. We live in a pluralist society and we do not believe in doing that.

Lord McGregor of Durris

My Lords, I am glad to know that. But I am now exceedingly puzzled to know what is the purpose of the noble Duke's amendment. Before I sit down I shall seek to attempt to demonstrate to the noble Duke exactly why I think that he and his co-religionists are attempting to impose their views upon those of us who do not accept them.

Many of the rest of us now have no alternative but to insist that the moral exhortations of our consciences are just as worthy of respect in relation to public policy on abortion as our opponents claim for theirs. I also wish to insist that some of the language used in public discussion on this issue is an unacceptable means of communication among citizens in a democracy. I do not take kindly to reading descriptions of abortion clinics—the lawful existence of which I support in circumstances in which they are staffed by responsible members of the medical profession—as death camps, even though I flatter myself to be as sensitive as anybody else to the emotional distress and family and personal tragedies which may lead to abortions or afflict those who undergo them.

I am outraged to read of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service—a body which has provided necessary information and compassionate counselling to women who may be considering abortion—described as, the largest mass-murdering organisation in this country". I read with extreme distaste that the administrator of Life said that a father gaoled for kicking his unborn baby to death, very rightly received a stiff sentence but gynaecologists who did the same thing by different means receive big fat fees for it". Finally, I am alarmed by what I have read in persistent newspaper reports which have appeared in recent weeks about one section of the movement against abortion which has brought hooligans, describing themselves as the "Green Berets" of the anti-abortion movement, from the United States to this country so that they may use their extensive domestic experience to persecute and harry vulnerable women.

The Guardian recently dedicated a whole page to a description of riots outside clinics organised by the so-called "Operation Rescue". The correspondent wrote: I watched women driven to hysteria … outside a Lancashire clinic … (where the) operating theatre was invaded by Rescue … Those arrested included a Catholic priest and several of the 22 North Americans who came to Britain earlier this year as full-time organisers for 'Operation Rescue Outreach'". Of course, this nastiness is an extreme example. Many movements attract a violent, sometimes psychopathic fringe. Moreover, many honourable democrats are opposed to abortion and, I am sure, to such methods of promoting their beliefs. However, I hope that many more of them will publicly repudiate the violence of behaviour and language which undermines democratic procedures and reduces reasoned argument to the hurling of abuse at their opponents.

I support the Bill put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Houghton. I especially support the warning given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, about the tragic consequences for medical research, and for the future of many children yet to be born, if we permit the issue of abortion to be tangled up with our discussions on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. I conclude by commending to the House the words of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, on this point—

Lord McColl of Dulwich

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down could he kindly explain, preferably not in violent language, how it is that perfectly ordinary NHS hospitals refuse to carry out abortions after 13 weeks? Is he suggesting that such a hospital is a religious organisation?

Lord McGregor of Durris

No, my Lords; I am not suggesting any such thing. I based what I said in respect of the conduct of abortions on the very extensive evidence which is printed in the report of the Select Committee. The committee received a great deal of evidence from gynaecologists and obstetricians.

Baroness Elles

My Lords, perhaps I may reassure the noble Lord that many Members of your Lordships' House who do not agree with the view taken by the noble Lord would, nevertheless, totally repudiate the kind of actions which he described in his speech.

Lord McGregor of Durris

My Lords, I greatly welcome the assurance given by the noble Baroness, Lady Elles. However, it never entered my head that such language or, I hope, such thoughts would have been present in the mind of any noble Lord who has contributed or listened to the debate. But assuredly such thoughts, such violence, such lack of charity and such contempt for opponents are widely present in the discussions which take place on this issue outside your Lordships' House. They are stimulated by those who share some of the beliefs about which we have heard from noble Lords tonight.

9.35 p.m.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, all too often when one winds up a debate one realises that the notes that one had prepared before the debate started were quite inappropriate to use at the termination of the debate. While I agree with a number of the points made by the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, I take the view that those who take a point of view different from me—in whatever party they may be, mine or others—do so with a sincerity no less than mine. I expect that they will treat me in precisely that way. I may think that they are wrong, and they may think that I am wrong; but we take part in a debate as civilised human beings.

Over many years, I have been interested in the subject of abortion, as have many of your Lordships. I was one of those people who thought himself privileged to support David Steel's Bill when it came before another place in 1967.1 did as much as I could to help David Steel present his Bill because I was conscious of the appalling situation which existed before we created legislation that established the issue on a proper legalistic basis. The things that were going on in back steets, the hardship and cruelty that women—sometimes young and ignorant, sometimes suffering from a situation which they did not understand—were deplorable.

There have been moments during the debate when I wondered whether we were rehashing the 1967 Second Reading of that Bill when people were saying how monstrous it was that we should have any legislation that dealt with abortion. I am deeply grateful that the Bill was passed. As Secretary of State, I sought in those years (and previously as a Minister in the department) to find ways in which it could be administered fairly and in which people could be properly counselled. It was always my hope that we would have a Bill brought before us which, bit by bit, would shorten the period during which it would be possible and legal, except under very special circumstances, for an abortion to be carried out.

My noble friend's Bill, which I support, recognises that modern medicine enables us to tighten up the legislation without creating new problems. I do not accept that the consequences of my noble friend's Bill, if it were to be passed, even as it is worded now, would be more abortions than at present. I do not believe that, and I should like to hear what evidence anyone has for such a suggestion. Late abortions should be kept to a minimum, and the Bill will keep them to a minimum because there will be a change from 28 weeks to 24 weeks.

My noble friend would not have presented the Bill at this moment—good though it is—had it not been for the Long Title of the embryology Bill and the threat that our serious and sensible debate on the recommendations of the noble Baroness, Lady Warnock, would be damaged and confused by the introduction of amendments on abortion in the middle of that Bill. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, was absolutely right when he said: I share the view expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Ennah".—[Official Report, 7/12/89; col. 1023.] To start any sentence with that phrase is remarkable in itself. Very rarely has he agreed with anything that I have said in your Lordships' House. However, he did on this matter. He said that: The question of the abortion time-limit is quite different from that which we are now discussing". So it is important that we should have a means of separating out two quite different issues. This has been said across the Floor of the House. It was said by the noble Lord, Lord Swinfen, the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, and the noble Baroness, Lady Seear. Many Members have recognised that it would be very damaging, whichever way we go on embryo research, to find that we are debating the two issues at the same time. So my noble friend chose a good time at which to introduce the Bill.

All right, the Bill has good content. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, clearly said, it carries out to the letter the recommendations of the Select Committee's report. I have not previously heard that other people were criticising the report of the noble and learned Lord. I did not hear, when the matter was debated in this House, that people thought that the report was unrepresentative. I thought that the research work which went into the report was very valuable indeed. I thank and congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, on it.

My noble friend Lord Houghton has introduced a Bill based on the report which provides the evidence and research on which we shall debate the Bill. What does that mean? We can amend the Bill as we wish. If there are those here who say that 24 weeks is too long a period, then they may move amendments that it should be 22, 20 or 18 weeks, or whatever. When we give a Second Reading to a Bill we are not saying that we agree with every little bit of it. We are saying that it provides a basis for a reasonable debate.

When we examine those parts of the Bill which define the special circumstances in which there could be a late pregnancy, and we refer to the risk to the life of the pregnant mother, and the risk of injury to the physical or mental health and so on, we are expressing suggestions in the Bill. Every one of the clauses could be amended, tightened up or loosened or whatever. We are doing that, reflecting the experience of doctors and nurses who over the years have been working in the field.

We know perfectly well that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Midwives, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the British Medical Association, the British Paediatric Assocation, the Clinical Genetics Society—I could go on into the nursing profession—all say, "We wish to see the gestational age limit of viability in the Infant Life (Preservation) Act changed from 28 to 24 weeks". They support the Bill. I have sought other medical evidence. I shall not give it because time is late, but it was of the circumstances that are described in Clause 1(1) paragraphs (a), (b), (c) and (d) of my noble friend's Bill.

When we come to Second Reading, we can deal in detail with the problems of congenital abnormalities. The last time we debated them, we were not in the position of understanding the AIDS situation. For example, the wife of a former drug addict might have a blood test to discover whether she is HIV positive. The test proves negative, the couple go ahead with the plan to start a family. The woman falls pregnant, she has another test at eight weeks which again proves negative. But at five months she has a further test which proves positive. The woman carrying the virus has approximately a 50 per cent, chance of bearing an infected baby, while her own risk of developing AIDS is increased by the pregnancy.

If anyone says that that is not a situation in which, with medical advice as suggested in the Bill, there is a case for abortion, then I do not know what a good case is. However, if Members of your Lordships' House do not believe that, they can tighten up this Bill. What this Bill does is create an opportunity for your Lordships' House to send to another place two clean pieces of paper. One is your Lordships' reflections on the human embryology legislation, and the other is a Bill which deals with abortion. What they do in another place is for them to decide. We have a certain sense of honour and a certain sense of responsibility as a revising Chamber in trying to get the situation clear. I do not believe that we can send to another place a Bill which confuses abortion and embryology. I think therefore that we have to have two debates.

We have one Bill before us tonight. It is a Bill which can be easily amended in one way or another. We are a democratic society and a democratic House and the will of the House will prevail. This is not the law of the Medes and the Persians, or even the law of Douglas Houghton, it is a Bill which springs from the report of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman. The Bill gives us the opportunity of establishing a clear situation.

If I did not say at the beginning of my speech that I was speaking for myself and not for all my honourable friends, let me do so right now. I made that point last week and I think everyone understands that. I do not seek to speak for others. As I have already said, I hold the deepest respect for the integrity of those who hold an absolutely different view to my own. I hope that at the end of this debate tonight we shall have a Bill which can go into Committee for amendment, if we think that is right. We shall then be able to deal in a proper and responsible way with the Bill that had its Second Reading last Thursday. I therefore support, in that spirit, the Bill which was so ably moved by my noble friend.

9.47 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Hooper)

My Lords, the subject which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, brings before us today is one on which as we all realise, Members of both Houses, and many people elsewhere, hold, with equal sincerity, very strong and widely differing views.

As I made clear to your Lordships last Thursday when the House was debating the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, this Government, like their predecessors of both main political parties, are neutral on the ethical issue of abortion. Like individual Members of both Houses, Ministers themselves hold strong and widely divergent views on this issue of conscience. The Government can therefore have no collective view on the merits of the proposals which the noble Lord has set before the House.

Today's debate is about abortion, and in particular late abortion. Therefore, my role as spokesman for the Government is to provide an impartial assessment of the practical effects of the Bill, and, from the advice available to me, to provide whatever information may help the House to reach a decision.

First, I should comment on the legal position. This has been touched on by a number of your Lordships, not least by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, himself, but I think it bears repetition in what I may perhaps venture to call a consolidating way.

In 1967 Parliament was given the opportunity in a Private Member's Bill to build on an existing framework of criminal law which prevented abortions except in a very restrictive set of circumstances. Parliament agreed to do so on a free vote.

We have already heard that the interaction of the Abortion Act 1967 with the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929, which latter Act makes it an offence to destroy any child capable of being born alive, in practice, creates an upper limit in England and Wales at which abortions are performed. At present, this limit is 28 weeks because the Infant Life (Preservation) Act contains a rebuttable presumption that a fetus of 28 weeks' gestation or more is capable of being born alive. This means that in the event of a prosecution under the Act, in respect of the death of a child of 28 weeks' or more gestation, the onus would be on the defence to prove that the fetus was not capable of being born alive. In the case of the death of a child before the end of 28 weeks, it would be for the prosecution to prove that the fetus was capable of being born alive. The question of whether a child is capable of being born alive is for the court to decide in any particular case on the basis of the evidence before it.

Whereas the 1967 Act applies to England, Wales and Scotland, the upper limit created by the Infant Life (Preservation) Act does not apply to Scotland. In Northern Ireland neither the Abortion Act nor the Infant Life (Preservation) Act applies.

The Infant Life (Preservation) Bill, which the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, introduced in 1987, sought to reduce this presumption of viability from 28 to 24 weeks. As he explained, that Bill was referred to a Select Committee in your Lordships' House. Early in 1988 that committee recommended that the Bill should not proceed because it felt that an amendment to the 1929 Act was a wholly unsuitable method of legislating for a time limit on abortions. The Select Committee went on to recommend changes to the Abortion Act.

As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, said, the Select Committee's principal recommendation was that a doctor who carried out an abortion in good faith in accordance with the statutory provisions should not be liable to prosecution for the crime of child destruction. The committee therefore recommended that Section 5(1) of the Abortion Act should be repealed to disengage that Act from the 1929 Act. The Government acknowledged that there was some merit in that proposal.

The Bill now before your Lordships' House attempts to implement the Select Committee's recommendations and in one respect would go further. The effect of the Bill would be to allow abortion up to the end of the 24th week of gestation on the same grounds as exist in the 1967 Act, and to allow abortion after the end of the 24th week of gestation in three circumstances. Those circumstances are that the continuation of the pregnancy would involve risk to the life of the pregnant woman; that two doctors are of the opinion that abortion is essential to prevent serious damage to the mental or physical health of the pregnant woman; or that the continuation of the pregnancy would involve substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical and mental abnormalities that it would be seriously handicapped.

The Bill does not amend the 1929 Act in all its applications but provides that no offence is committed by a registered medical practitioner who terminates a pregnancy in accordance with the 1967 Act (as amended by the Bill).

A further provision in the Bill, and one which was not included in the Select Committee's recommendations, is that, if two registered medical practitioners are of the opinion that the pregnancy has not exceeded its 24th week, that opinion shall be conclusive.

The introduction of a specified time limit in the Abortion Act itself, even with the exceptions proposed in the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, would bring about a major change in the 1967 Act.

It may be helpful to the House in its consideration of the likely impact of this measure if I first remind noble Lords of some basic figures. Of the 183,798 abortions carried out on resident and non-resident women in England and Wales in 1988, 154, 784 or 84 per cent, were performed at less than 13 weeks. The number carried out after the 20th week was 3,113, or under 2 per cent, of the total. The number of terminations carried out after 24 weeks is small and has been falling for some years. In 1981, 142 terminations in this age range were carried out in England and Wales; by 1988 that figure had fallen to 22. In saying that. I recognise that my noble friend Lord McColl quoted a figure of 29. However, 22 is the figure that I have for England and Wales and I believe that there was also one such case in Scotland.

In the private sector, the department initially reached a voluntary agreement with the proprietors of the few nursing homes approved to carry out abortions after 20 weeks that they would not perform abortions after 24 weeks. In February 1986 that voluntary agreement was made a condition of approval.

Whatever view we may take about the ethical and moral aspects of abortion, I am sure we should all agree that any abortion that is to be performed should be carried out as early in pregnancy as possible. Our concern about the problem of late abortions in general led to a request by the Department of Health and Social Security that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists should undertake a review of late abortion practice. In its 1984 report, which the department funded, it drew particular attention to the incidence of late abortion among young people, and delays caused by inefficiencies in the administration of the abortion services. The department discussed the report with health authorities and encouraged the development of improved administrative systems—for example, the introduction of better referral and appointment procedures.

The scale of abortions must be a matter for regret, whatever stance one takes on the moral question. Because of our concern about the number of abortions and particularly late abortions, the Department of of Health decided to finance from central funds, family planning and counselling projects for young people in three separate health districts. Those three-year projects, in City and Hackney, South Sefton and Milton Keynes district health authorities, ended in March 1989 and are now being independently evaluated. The projects aim to reduce the risk of unwanted pregnancy among young people and encourage them to seek advice early if they suspect that they are pregnant. We hope that the projects will illuminate the issues and be helpful.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the studies to which she referred include the new cases of AIDS, which obviously make a difference to the situation? I imagine that they would do so.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I also imagine that they would do so. Perhaps I can confirm otherwise, if that should be necessary.

The House will also be aware that a working party of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, which included representatives of other medical bodies and the Royal College of Midwives, produced a report in 1985 on fetal viability and clinical practice. That report recommended that the age at which a fetus is considered viable should be reduced from 28 to 24 weeks. A copy of the report was sent to each fellow and member of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in this country and they should take account of it in their clinical practice. In 1987 that recommendation was confirmed by the same group of organisations when they looked again at the 1985 report.

Perhaps I may conclude my observations by reminding your Lordships that the operation of the 1967 Act is monitored closely by the health departments and their chief medical and nursing officers, through their control of the private abortion sector and through the investigation of specific complaints, which I am glad to say are very rare. In addition, as the noble Lord, Lord McGregor, reminded us, all notifications of abortions made to the chief medical officers of the health departments in England, Wales and Scotland are scrutinised by staff authorised by them to ensure that they do not indicate any contravention of the abortion law. That machinery is not revealing any abuses of the current Act.

The current 28-week presumption of viability has been with us for 60 years. A change to 24 weeks at this stage at which a fetus is presumed to be viable would be in accord with current medical advice and practice. The Government have previously indicated that in their view that proposition would be in line with the latest evidence on viability, and that remains our view. As I said earlier, abortion is an issue on which people sincerely hold differing views. This evening's debate has demonstrated once again the strength of the arguments on both sides of an issue on which the Government's position must be one of neutrality. I know that your Lordships' views and future debate on this important subject will be of great interest to many people.

9.59 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I shall be brief, as the hour is now late. The noble Baroness is to be congratulated on this comprehensive survey of the situation. Her reply has covered many of the points which I should wish to raise, or which should be raised, in the Committee stage of the Bill. However, I must say to some noble Lords that they cannot stand up and say that they will support the amendment to cast out the Bill and then ask for a Committee stage on the Floor of the House to follow.

The noble Lord, Lord Robertson of Oakridge, asked many questions that I am prepared to answer. However I hope that those who have taken part in the debate have read the report of the Select Committee, the evidence attached to the report and also the Bill. Whatever we decide about times and conditions has to be expressed in legislation in words. Unless we use words responsibly and understand what they mean, then we cannot put any suitable construction upon them.

Some noble Lords obviously did not listen to me when I said that up to the end of the 24th week we had not disturbed the conditions of the 1967 Act. What we have done in the Bill is to sort out the jumble of the 1967 Act and arrange the conditions in readable and meaningful order. However they are the same. The Bill therefore is not increasing the facility of abortion any way.

However, where we are stiffening up the after-24 week cases, I ask the House to consider these words from page 2 of the Bill: that the termination of the pregnancy is essential". "Essential" is the word. Surely "essential" means "must". What other word can we find? We have to have words or there has to be a bar. One must have words if one is to have exceptions. The provision continues, "to prevent serious damage". "Serious" is grave. One can toss words about to find which will give the most impact. But that is what the provision means: "essential to prevent serious damage".

Abortion on social grounds is excluded absolutely from the criteria for lawful abortion in over-24 week cases. Noble Lords will find that provision in subsection (2)(b). To that extent it is a tightening up of the provision on late abortions. That is mainly what the Bill provides for.

However, the point of the whole debate has been made by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury. He finds it impossible to accept that when a Select Committee of your Lordships' House has reached a unanimous conclusion, and the unanimous conclusion is embodied in a Bill, your Lordships' House should deny that Bill the opportunity of going into Committee. That is what the House is asked to do. I deplore that move. It will destroy, I believe, the willingness of many of us to serve on Select Committees if we are going to be treated in this way. It does not matter what Members' views are; they should give the Bill a run so that we can at least deal with it in Committee. Moreover, has not the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, indicated that the work that we can do separately on this Bill will be invaluable for whoever has later to study the question?

I come to this conclusion. If the amendment is carried, the House is banning further debate on abortion until after the embryology Bill has left the House and gone to the House of Commons. We shall never have the mix of abortion and embryological research on that Bill. We are determined that we shall not have it. They must be separated. In those circumstances noble Lords may as well settle for an avenue of approach on the matter that will yield fruitful results.

Perhaps I may ask the noble Duke this question. He has not so far explained the position. Where does he expect to go if his amendment is carried? What will he do? I hear—I believe on good authority—that it is not his intention to try to intrude abortion into the embryological research Bill. Is that true or not? What has he in mind to do? We are entitled to know and not to shuffle around any longer. I believe that he should now rise to his feet and be perfectly frank with the House, and then we shall all know where we are.

Lord Robertson of Oakridge

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down will he answer my question about the methods which will be used for the late abortions which will become possible under the Bill?

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, no. If your Lordships give the Bill a Committee stage we will tell you.

The Lord Bishop of St. Albans

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down will he agree that when he and I served on the Select Committee, during which we had many a tussle, perhaps the final agreement of the committee was contributed to in some part by the fact that I withdrew from its membership?

The Duke of Norfolk

My Lords, I should like to make three brief points. First, as the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, assured the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, Scotland adheres to the equivalent of the Infant Life (Preservation) Act because the Scottish gynaecologists and the Scottish Office have given that order to the Scottish doctors.

Secondly, I was saddened by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord McGregor. It was full of thoughts that he appears to have about me and my Catholic friends. I speak entirely for myself in the debate. I happen to be a Catholic. We do not agree with many things that we are told to believe. It is a pluralistic society and in no way should I like to see some of our ideas forced upon this country. I hope that the noble Lord understands that. He looks as though the Inqusition is still in existence. Thank God, it was wound up three centuries ago. Its behaviour was appalling. I believe that any religious domination is appalling and I say so openly. I do not agree with everything that the Catholics say, but I believe that on the whole the Catholic religion has the best ideas. It is what I call the old faith and it is the faith that I try to practice. However, the idea that we are trying to force it on this House is polywash.

Lord McGregor of Durris

My Lords, I should like to intervene briefly. I was attempting to say to the noble Duke simply that in respect of this issue there is a conflict of values and that he as a member of the minority wished to deny facilities to me and to a majority of people in this country who wish to have them. On the other hand, for our part we do not wish to impose anything that is repugnant to the conscience of the noble Duke or his co-religionists. That is precisely the point that I was making.

The Duke of Norfolk

My Lords, I only hope that some noble Lords can see that I am not trying to impose anything in this free, democratic country of ours. The idea that a minority of people—be they Catholic or Yorkshiremen, as I am—can impose their wishes on other people is totally wrong. I believe in the democracy of this country and in the majority vote.

I tabled the amendment for a simple reason. I do not believe that the right reverend Prelate, the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, and the noble Lords, Lord Sefton and Lord Ennals, understand what the Bill is about. I do not believe that even the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, understands the Bill. It does not reduce the period for abortion from 28 to 24 weeks. I should like that and I said so in our debates before the Brightman Committee sat. I believe that it would be wonderful to reduce the period from 28 to 24 weeks. But the Bill opens up the period to 40 weeks—

Noble Lords

No, no.

The Duke of Norfolk

My Lords, I set that out at the beginning of my speech and it will appear in Hansard tomorrow. If your Lordships wish me to repeat it, the Bill states at subsection (2)(2A): No pregnancy may lawfully be terminated after the end of its twenty-fourth week … unless two registered medical practitioners are of the opinion, formed in good faith, that the termination of the pregnancy is essential to prevent serious damage to the mental or physical health of the pregnant woman". Therefore, if the two medical practitioners say that there would be damage to the pregnant woman, the abortion could take place up to 40 weeks. That is what the Bill says. That is why I moved the amendment. I should like to see another abortion Bill brought in, but not this one because it does not say what your Lordships think it says.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, the noble Duke has got it all wrong. I have emphasised that we have stiffened the conditions of lawful abortions after the end of the 24th week. That is what the clause says. I have gone over the wording and if the noble Duke wants to find better words to stiffen it up and reflect the meaning of what we think we have conveyed here, then let us give the Bill a Committee stage and let us examine it. That issue cannot be decided on Second Reading.

The Duke of Norfolk

My Lords, I agree that the noble Lord has stiffened the conditions up to 24 weeks but he has then opened the door from 28 to 40 weeks. That is what I am worried about. I would welcome a Bill in this House on abortion but not this one. The Bill is so full of matters which do not tally that I wish to test the opinion of the House on my amendment.

10.12 p.m.

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

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 48; Not-Contents, 61.

Ashbourne, L. [Teller.] Hemphill, L.
Blatch, B. Holderness, L.
Buckmaster, V. Hylton, L.
Caldecote, V. Jakobovits, L.
Coggan, L. Lauderdale, E.
Coleraine, L. Leicester, Bp.
Deedes, L. Liverpool, E.
Elles, B. Longford, E.
Fitt, L. Lothian, M.
Gainsborough, E. Lyell, L.
Grantchester, L. Lytton, E.
Harvington, L. McColl of Dulwich, L.
Massereene and Ferrard, V. Rawlinson of Ewell, L.
Milverton, L. Reading, M.
Monckton of Brenchley, V. Rees-Mogg, L.
Morris, L. Robertson of Oakridge, L.
Murton of Lindisfarne, L. Ryder of Warsaw, B.
Norfolk, D. [Teller.] St. Albans, Bp.
Northbourne, L. St. John of Fawsley, L.
Oxford and Asquith, E. Sidmouth, V.
Parmoor, L. Simon of Glaisdale, L.
Perth, E. Stallard, L.
Pitt of Hampstead, L. Swinfen, L.
Rankeillour, L. Vaux of Harrowden, L.
Ampthill, L. Jeger, B.
Ardwick, L. Jenkins of Putney, L.
Belstead, L. Lawrence, L.
Blyth, L. Llewelyn-Davies of Hastoe, B. [Teller.]
Boardman, L.
Bradford, Bp. Long, V.
Brightman, L. McGregor of Durris, L.
Butterworth, L. McIntosh of Haringey, L.
Carmichael of Kelvingrove,L. Monson, L.
Mountevans, L.
Camegy of Lour, B. Nicol, B.
Carnock, L. Ponsonby of Shulbrede, L.
Carter, L. Prys-Daviies, L.
Craigavon, V. Rea, L.
Darcy (de Knayth), B. Russell, E.
David, B. Saltoun of Abernethy, Ly.
Denham, L. Seear, B.
Elliot of Harwood, B. Seebohm, L.
Ennals, L. Sefton of Garston, L.
Ewart-Biggs, B. Serota, B.
Faithfull, B. Shaughnessy, L.
Flowers, L. Sherfield, L.
Glenarthur, L. Stedman, B.
Haden-Guest, L. Teviot, L.
Halsbury, E. [Teller.] Thurlow, L.
Harris of Greenwich, L. Turner of Camden, B.
Hatch of Lusby, L. Ullswater. V.
Henderson of Brompton, L. Walpole, L.
Houghton of Sowerby, L. Wamock, B.
Howie of Troon, L. White, B.
Hunter of Newington, L. Williams of Elvel, L.
Hylton-Foster, B.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

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