HL Deb 07 March 1990 vol 516 cc1244-53

7.57 p.m.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

The Bill had received an unimpeded progress through your Lordships' House so far. This is a unique occasion because 23 years ago this autumn your Lordships' House passed the principal Abortion Act 1967. That Act has never been amended. No amending Bill has come from the House of Commons during those 23 years and we generated only one of our own, to which we refused a Second Reading. Never, in all that time, has any Bill on abortion reached this advanced stage in your Lordships' House. So this is something of an occasion.

The history of abortion is a very troubled one. We must bear in mind that the Abortion Act 1967 was the first amendment to the Offences against the Person Act 1861. This Bill has received far less criticism in your Lordships' House than it has received outside. It has had a pretty rough time in the hands of critics outside the House. I beg leave to place a few matters on the record for the benefit of all concerned in order to remove some of the misapprehension and misunderstandings about the Bill.

The Bill was never intended to be a stalking horse or a diversion. It was a piece of business of its own, based on serious business carried out by a Select Committee of this House. The House appeared to think by common consent that it was better that abortion should be kept away from the Embryology Bill and that, if it were to make progress, it could do so under a separate Bill. That is really what has happened. However, that means that we have forgone the opportunity which we believed we had, and still have, of putting abortion proposals in the Embryology Bill on Report. However, by common consent the House has decided, rightly in my view, to do it this way.

It is as yet uncertain where this Bill is going. It is certainly not going to the House of Commons as part of the Embryology Bill. However, I hope that it will stand on the threshold of the House of Commons when the Chamber tries to find its own solution to the recent years of frustration that have arisen in consideration of the subject of abortion.

There are only two principal matters in this Bill and one of them is to remove from the ambit of the abortion law the Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929. When the principal Act was passed in 1967 it was almost an afterthought that there existed an Act passed in 1929 which dealt with child destruction. It seemed to be suitable that the provisions of that Act should remain in force and be part of the general conspectus of the change in the abortion law. That turned out to be a serious mistake because it meant that a doctor carrying out a perfectly lawful abortion under the Abortion Act could be exposed to prosecution under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act. That fear has been something of a bugbear to the medical profession for years past.

When this Bill came before your Lordships' House two noble Lords, the noble Duke, the Duke of Norfolk, and the noble Lord, Lord McColl of Dulwich, both expressed the view that by taking the Infant Life (Preservation) Act out of the ambit of the abortion law we were opening the way to a wider flow of late abortions because there was no checkpoint at 28 weeks. They believed that we had swept away the barrier that stood in the way of late abortions and that we were giving free progress to more late abortions. That was a serious misunderstanding. We all deplore the absence from our debates on this matter of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, on account of illness. The noble and learned Lord felt that it was important to put on the record, for the benefit of critical noble Lords, the real position. However, we had such a short Committee stage and a formal Report stage that opportunities have not occurred before of putting on the record the true position as regards the effect of Clause 5 of the Bill which concerns the disengagement from abortion of the provisions of the Infant Life (Preservation) Act.

I have for the sake of better accuracy obtained a copy of the legal opinion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman. I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I stick to my brief for a minute or two. On the question of late abortions, save in three exceptional circumstances, my Bill reduces the maximum time limit from 28 weeks to 24 weeks. In the case of Group 2 abortions—that is where there is a risk to the pregnant woman's health—which accounted for 163,000 out of 183,000 abortions in England and Wales in 1988, the maximum gestational age comes down from 28 weeks to 24 weeks. That is referred to in Clause 1(2A)(a).

In the case of Group 3 abortions, that is where there is a risk to siblings, which accounted for 18,000 abortions in 1988, the maximum gestational age is reduced to 24 weeks. That is referred to in Clause 1(1A)(b).

There are only three exceptional cases in which, if my Bill becomes law, a pregnant woman faces no restrictions as regards gestational limit. The three cases are, first, where an abortion is necessary to save the pregnant woman's life. That is the case under the existing law. The second is where the termination is essential to prevent serious damage, and not mere risk, to the pregnant woman's health. That is the exception referred to in Clause 1(2A)(a) of the Bill. The third case is where serious abnormality of the fetus is involved. In those three exceptional cases the Bill proposes no time limit on abortion. We think that a time limit would be an injustice to the women concerned. In short an abortion that is necessary to save the life of the mother has no gestational limit under any Act of Parliament. There is no gestational limit in that case under the Infant Life (Preservation) Act, the Offences against the Person Act or the Abortion Act. There is no gestational time limit in this Bill where abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother. Abortion is for the benefit of women. The interest of the life of the mother comes first.

As regards serious fetal abnormality, that is brought into the no-limit case in the case of a child being so seriously abnormal, if it went to full term, as to be severely handicapped. As regards criminal liability, the Infant Life (Preservation) Act is disapplied by my Bill only in the case of doctors who terminate a pregnancy in strict accordance with the law. If a doctor carried out an abortion after week 24, save in one of the three exceptional circumstances mentioned above, he would unquestionably be liable to prosecution and a custodial sentence under the terms of the Offences against the Person Act 1861 and/or the Infant Life (Preservation) Act. That is the considered opinion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, on the effect of this Bill. Therefore there should be no anxieties about the Bill widening the avenue of later abortions. We are imposing at 24 weeks much stricter discipline for lawful abortions.

There remains the question of the 24-week period of gestation which is the lynch-pin of the new proposals. Is that period low enough? The answer to that is, yes it is. To make it lower would incur serious problems of injustice, distress and, I think, social and personal harm.

It is suggested in some quarters that the 24 weeks should be 18 weeks. If it were 18 weeks there is not the slightest doubt that some thousands of cases which would qualify for abortion now and under this Bill would not qualify under that much more stringent condition. That would harm many marginal cases of acute distress.

The opinion of gynaecologists has been tested in this matter. Some 75 per cent. of gynaecologists are against a limit of less than 24 weeks. Only 3 per cent. were in favour of a lower limit. All representative opinion—professional, social and, I understand, the Government themselves—is of the view that the end of the 24th week is the right point at which to fix the transfer from the milder to the more severe discipline for qualification for an abortion.

What difference will that make? Those who have criticised the Bill say that it will make so little difference that it is hardly worth while. They say that the numbers who will have abortions under this Bill are likely to be very small because they are already small. There were only 29 abortions after the 24th week in the whole of 1988. The figure for 1989 is likely to be smaller still.

A combination of administration and co-ordination of medical policy and the control of the Government over the licensing conditions of the private clinics have all combined to anticipate the Bill to a very large extent. The Bill is not intended to worsen the conditions for abortion and does not set out to reduce the number. It is an attempt to put abortion into a sounder statutory framework so that people know better where they stand and the conditions for obtaining an abortion are well understood in the law itself.

The Royal College of Physicians has stressed the harm that would be done if the gestational limit were reduced from 24 weeks to a lower limit where the pre-natal diagnoses are difficult to complete before the 22nd or 23rd week. The college makes it clear in a report published last September that it is unlikely that it will ever be possible to complete all the pre-natal diagnoses which are necessary in many cases of prospective abortion before the end of the 20th week or thereabouts. Therefore we cannot look for any substantial reduction in the gestational limit if we are to talk sensibly about the future of abortion.

Noble Lords should bear in mind that 90 per cent. of all abortions take place before the 19th week. There is no intention to challenge the principles of the 1967 Act or to slash the figures for the sake of giving the impression that the number of abortions can be dramatically reduced.

The noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, in Committee only the other day said how horrible it was that Britain was the abortion capital of Europe. There are no grounds for saying that. It used to be said by critics years ago that this was the abortion capital of the world. The number of foreign women coming to this country for abortions a few years ago exceeded 55,000. The number is now down to 15,500. A third of those come from Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and the other two-thirds from France and Spain. That is the limit of the number of women coming to this country for abortions at present.

We should also bear in mind that while we have been experimenting with the Abortion Act 1967 and priding ourselves that we were offering a model to other countries, other countries have been undertaking abortion reforms themselves. A new publication has just been issued which any critic of our abortion laws should read. It was published in February 1990 under the auspices of the Department of Health and compiled by Dr. Jennifer Gunning. It deals with embryology research and abortion in a large number of other countries and includes figures up to 1984.

The astonishing fact revealed by the report is that in Italy—where it was necessary to fight the Vatican, governments were divided on the matter, Ministers resigned, and referenda and elections were held—eventually after a long struggle a fairly liberal law was introduced. With what result? Italy now has the highest ratio of abortions in Europe. In terms of the number of abortions per 1,000 women of child-bearing age, Italy has a ratio of 19 per 1,000; Denmark, 18.4; Norway, 15.9; Sweden, 17.7; the United States—before the Supreme Court made rather a mess of abortion law in that country—27 per 1,000. The total number of abortions in Italy was 227,000 in 1988. In the number of abortions, we fall below Australia, Denmark, France, Italy, Norway, Sweden and the United States. Below us are the Federal Republic of Germany and the Netherlands.

Therefore it is a cruel libel to say that we are the abortion capital of Europe. I hope that those points can be placed on the record and fully appreciated elsewhere.

What of the future? If we were to follow what is happening in Europe, then in this country we should provide abortion on demand up to 12 weeks without question except on consultation with a medical practitioner. That is the pattern in Europe today. We find it in Austria, Denmark, France, the Federal Republic of Germany, Greece, Italy, Norway and Sweden. All have the right of abortion on demand up to 12 weeks. On that basis it is possible to apply much greater pressure in the case of later abortions. If we are to have a change in our system I believe that it will have to go that way. The right-to-choose movement, which is a strong and growing movement in Britain, would try to move in that direction. I hope that in another place, where they will be considering this matter, they will realise that anything other than harmony with the rest of Europe is likely to find little support among our European partners.

That is the end of my story and I am grateful to noble Lords for staying to listen to it. In moving the Third Reading I can only hope that there is something in the Bill and the various matters to which I referred in connection with it that will find acceptance in another place and perhaps eventually be the choice of the other place for the solution for the time being of the controversy over abortion in our country. I commend the Bill to your Lordships.

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

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, since I took quite a part in the Bill in Committee, perhaps noble Lords will allow me to make a few points. First, reverting to my speech on the Queen's Speech, I emphasised that Britain was the largest contributor to late abortions. If one takes late abortions and not total abortions, the remarks of the noble Viscount, Lord Buckmaster, would be justified. I said then, and I reiterate now, that I believe that the Continental system is basically more honest—abortion on demand up to an early period in pregnancy and then stringent control for abortion thereafter under exceptional conditions only.

I do not myself condone abortion, but, as a legislator, I must help to regulate it. In helping to regulate it and in improving our law, I do not in the least lend myself to the belief that abortion is an acceptable practice for social reasons.

Finally, I was misquoted in Hansard by noting that "any honourable Member in another place may", etc. The word "not" crept in as a misprint after "may". I noticed it too late to have it corrected at the printers, but I am assured that the bound copy will contain the correction. However, if not, for the record, I should like to confess myself at fault in that matter.

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, I should like to say a few brief words if only as a comment on the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, about late abortions in this country. I entirely agree with him that late abortions are extremely undesirable. No one wishes to have them at all. One of the reasons for the numbers of late abortions in this country, low as they are, is that we perform the late abortions that are supposed to be clinically necessary for those who cannot find them in other parts of Europe and come here instead. That may be the reason and is not an unrespectable reason at all.

At the same time I should like to tell the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, that I valued his attempt in Committee to provide a compromise for the future—something which might make the Houghton-Brightman package more acceptable to both Houses of Parliament. However, I fully understood why the Government declined to undertake the onerous task which the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, proposed to place on successive Home Secretaries. I much admired his effort, as I believe did other noble Lords.

I should like to say a few words about the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, and commend his amazing clarity of mind and courage in bringing forward this issue so importantly as he has done both for this House and for another place.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Henderson of Brompton

My Lords, secondly, I should like to say a few words about the Brightman Committee and associate myself with what the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, said about the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman, and say how sorry we are that he is seriously ill. He would otherwise be here and be playing an important part in today's proceedings.

The Brightman Report will be seen by posterity as a great parliamentary paper—indeed, in the great class of social papers which we now associate with the name of the Earl of Shaftesbury in the last century. It was an amazingly painstaking effort in scrupulously considering all the relevant legislation and expert medical and social evidence. The committee then produced immaculate recommendations.

I should also like to say—it is appropriate to do sr on the Third Reading of the Bill—how much I admire the efforts of the Leader of the House and of the Chief Whip who responded, as one would have expected, to the widespread wishes of the House, expressed from all quarters of the House, that the subject of the Bill and the subject of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill should be kept entirely separate. I do not dare to enter into the mysteries concerning the arts of leadership and subtle whipping by which that end was achieved, but it has been achieved to the great benefit of the consideration of both subjects in this House. The business managers of the House deserve the highest congratulations for having achieved that. One can only hope that another place will be able to follow the example of this House, but one must not begin to speculate on what may take place there.

I should like to cast my mind back to the proceedings in 1967. The Bill that was then passed—the important Abortion Bill—happens to be known as the Steel Bill because it was sponsored by a Private Member of that name in another place. However, the Steel Bill had been considered in two previous Sessions in the House of Lords, so when it eventually came to this House, the House was considering abortion for the thrid time. The Steel Bill effectively took up the Abortion Bill as it left this House in the preceding Session, so Sir David Steel, as he now is, had the benefit of having a Bill which has been hammered out in at least two Sessions in this House. It was therefore ready-made for him to introduce when he was successful in the ballot. In that respect the House took the lead and was the legislative pioneer in the abortion proceedings in Parliament.

I maintain that it is right that, in 1990, this House should also be the pioneer in revising that legislation. We owe it to the meticulous consideration and careful recommendations of the Brightman Committee and to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, for having translated the Brightman Committee's recommendations into legislative form—neither more nor less, I believe I am right in saying. The Bill therefore has the powerful backing of that great state paper which will be known to posterity as the Brightman Committee Report.

I can only say that I very much hope that the House of Commons will follow in 1990 the example set by this House, as it did in 1967. We gave a clear lead then; we give a clear lead now. The Houghton Bill is the equivalent of the Silkin Bill which was taken up by Sir David Steel in the Session which ended in 1967. It is up to another place, one way or another—we cannot dictate its proceedings—to do what it did in 1967, and we shall welcome it if it produces as good a result in our terms in 1990 as it produced in 1967. With that, I wish the best of good fortune to the Bill in another place.

8.30 p.m.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, I too should like to say a few words to congratulate my noble friend on his achievement in piloting the Bill through the House. He is not only a doughty fighter for his convictions, he is a tactician par excellence. He has lost none of his shrewdness—sometimes perhaps even his guile—which was the hallmark of his political career in another place, and is so here. I hope that it is not Houghton's last Bill, although I am not calling for another Houghton Bill on the same subject because I want this one to stand. I suspect that he has a long way to go yet, and as long as he sticks to his guns he will certainly have my support.

His Bill to amend the Infant Life Preservation Bill is designed to lower the gestational limit of viability from 28 weeks to 24 weeks. If carried into the law of the land, it will, as he said, be the first legislative change in this field since 1967. Many others have attempted it, but they have all failed.

It would be absurd if those in another place who want to lower the time from 28 weeks do not support this Bill, and if they want to go lower than 24 weeks to use this Bill as an instrument on which to secure further concessions. I would certainly not accept any further concessions, but this is the Bill on which the issue should be debated.

As has been said, my noble friend has made proposals in this Bill which are entirely in accordance with the recommendations of the committee chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brightman. Like other noble Lords, I want to say how sad I am that the noble and learned Lord is not here and to know that he is seriously ill.

In this House we have reason to be grateful to my noble friend because his Bill was the basis on which it was decided to keep separate the arguments about abortion and the arguments about embryological research. It seemed to me greatly to improve the quality of the debate in your Lordships' House which we have heard over several weeks and days. It has been of a very high standard and we owe it to my noble friend because his Bill was the basis of agreement. I hope that his lead will be followed in another place.

If opponents of abortion here have accepted the wisdom of separation, why should not the opponents of abortion in another place as well? Let me repeat my thanks to my noble friend and endorse his plea to another place to give this Bill a Second Reading and thus maintain the separation of these issues. I support a Third Reading for this Bill and hope that when it goes to another place it will receive due consideration.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I rise very briefly to wish this Bill a fair wind, and to congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, on the distinction with which he has played the part of William Webb Ellis. I should also like to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, on the distinction with which she has combined discharging her personal conscience and her official duties. It cannot have been an easy task. It has been an outstanding example of the ability to distinguish between the person and the office.

This Bill seems to me to be a fit successor to bring the 1967 Bill of my right honourable friend Sir David Steel up to date with the progress of medical research. It has stirred a great deal of passion, as I am sure we all know from our postbags. It raises the question of the functions of the law in a divided society. In a divided society the law cannot possibly prohibit everything that somebody thinks is wrong or it will prohibit everything under the sun.

The noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, saying, "I do not condone abortion but as a legislator I must help to regulate it", was taking a good liberal position because, where there is a sharp division of opinion such as this, the law cannot please everybody. It must also take account of the principle, "Never give an order which is not going to be obeyed". If the law sets out to prohibit some things which a great many people think are perfectly right, the law will get into trouble and in the end will be led into disrepute. The real advantage of the liberal position is that it does not force anybody to do it who thinks it is wrong and it allows to do it those who think it is right.

So the law, perfectly correctly, is able to remain neutral as it should do. That is the best way to allow everybody in the country to follow their conscience. I hope that another place will look on this Bill with favour. I agree with all that has been said about the distinction of the debate on it. I wish the Bill well.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, perhaps I may repeat what I said during Second Reading. The Government's role in proceedings on the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, is to provide an impartial assessment of the practical effects of the Bill and to provide advice and whatever information may help the House to reach a decision. As I also said at Second Reading, like their predecessors this Government are neutral on the ethical issues of abortion.

During the Committee stage my noble friend Lord Henley reminded noble Lords that proposals for changes in the law on abortion have traditionally been matters for private Members to introduce for decision on a free vote. It must be right that in such a very sensitive area individual Members of both Houses, including Ministers who have their own personal views on the matter, should be able to exercise their own independent judgments, reaching decisions and voting as their conscience dictates. This is an issue on which the Government's position must be one of neutrality.

I believe that in his remarks the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, may have given the impression that the Government nevertheless have a view on the subject. I should like to explain the position.

When it became clear in 1985 that the consensus view of the relevant professional bodies about the point at which a fetus could be said to be viable had changed in the light of medical and scientific developments to 24 weeks' gestation, the Department of Health—or DHSS as it then was—made it a condition of approval for the few private sector clinics licensed to carry out abortions over 20 weeks that no abortions were carried out over 24 weeks' gestation. In addition, it took steps to ensure that the latest professional view on this matter was drawn to the attention of clinicians working in both the private sector and in the National Health Service. We have seen a very significant reduction in recent years in the number of very late abortions over 24 weeks. Only 22 were carried out in England and Wales in 1988, the last year for which figures are available and none after the 27th week.

It was in the light of that expert view, which the same professional bodies reaffirmed in 1987, that the Government gave their support to the proposition that the gestational age at which a fetus is presumed to be viable should be reduced from 28 weeks to 24 weeks under the Infant Life Preservation Act. That remains the Government's position. Such a change would be in line with current medical advice and clinical practice.

There can be no advantage in my repeating the background to this issue and the legal arguments which I advanced at Second Reading. I believe that it remains only for me to thank the noble Earl, Lord Russell, for his kind personal remarks and to thank the noble Lord, Lord Henderson of Brompton, for his remarks about my noble friends the Leader of the House and the Chief Whip.

The strong feelings and views which have been so well expressed in your Lordships' House during consideration of this Bill will add much to future discussion on this important issue of conscience. Your Lordships' views and conclusions have made a valuable and positive contribution to that future debate.

On Question, Bill read a third time, and passed, and sent to the Commons.

House adjourned at twenty-two minutes before nine o'clock.