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Volume 714: debated on Tuesday 15 June 1965

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4.7 p.m.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend the law on abortion.
I seek to introduce a Bill, supported by hon. Members of all parties in the House, that would put into statutory form what is now established case law on abortion, and would provide that a registered medical practitioner might lawfully terminate a pregnancy at the request of a patient or her guardian when it was necessary for preserving the health or life of the woman; when there was serious risk of a defective child being born, and when the pregnancy resulted from a sexual offence.

Reform of this kind has been advocated over many decades by many organisations, including the British Medical Association, the Magistrates' Association, the Townswomen's Guild, the Women's Co-operative Guild, the Family Planning Association, the Abortion Law Reform Association, Rotary clubs, the Federation of University Women and many other progressive and enlightened bodies.

The medical termination of pregnancy is legal on these grounds in very many countries where it is done easily and without risk to the patient in the early stages of pregnancy. New techniques make it possible for it to be accomplished without surgical intervention, and in some of these countries the back street abortionist has either largely or entirely disappeared. Contrary to what many opponents of my Bill claim, there has been no increase in promiscuity there. I have visited hospitals in those countries, where this practice is carried out simply and swiftly. For many years I have observed in this country, as a member of a hospital management committee, the cost in human life, in misery, in unhappiness and in money that the present unsatisfactory and confused legal position causes.

I pay tribute as a woman to those countless devoted campaigners—laymen as well as members of the medical and legal professions, some of whom are in this House today—who, for many decades, have been striving for a reform of the statute law on this subject. The law up to 1803 permitted the medical termination of pregnancy. The law enacted in 1861 has remained unchanged since that time, 104 years ago, and makes it a felony unlawfully to administer drugs or to use instruments to procure an abortion. For a long time the termination of pregnancy for the purpose of saving the life of the mother has been regarded as the exception to this rule by the courts.

In 1939, that case law was extended to include the mother's health as well as her life. This arose from the celebrated Bourne judgment and was later reinforced in 1948 in the case of Rex v. Bergman and Ferguson. However, many cases have occurred which demonstrate the confusion and uncertainty which exists. In 1949, for example, a husband living in distressing conditions with his wife and two children attempted to abort his wife who died as a result. He was sentenced to five years' imprisonment. Mercifully, Lord Justice Goddard, in the Court of Criminal Appeal, discharged the defendant. But in 1961 a doctor whom the trial judge described as clever and not slovenly in the attention he bestowed on those who sought his help was sent to prison for six years.

There are variations in judicial attitudes in ordinary crimes, but these appear to be accentuated in abortion cases, depending on the outlook of the judge. While some lawyers may feel that the present case law based on Rex v. Bourne is quite clear, evidence shows without doubt that the medical profession, those most involved, is by no means equally clear about its members' position. The result is that inevitably different interpretations of case law are made in different hospitals and practices to the severe detriment of women and children. A minority of gynaecologists will terminate in the hospital without subterfuge and in accordance with recognised procedures of the profession, but most doctors are too apprehensive of the legal position to perform the operation at all. There is no doubt that the medical profession requires the clarification which a Bill of the kind I seek to introduce would bring and that the majority would support it.

The Abortion Law Reform Association carried out a most valuable survey at the beginning of this year among doctors in the London area. Of those replying, 53 per cent. said it was difficult or uncertain to know when termination was legal, 89 per cent. said they approved the changes in the law proposed by the Association which I am supporting today, 84 per cent. said it would be quite safe, 57 per cent. thought that to compel a woman to bear a child against her will causes more psychological harm than hospital termination.

These figures show a considerable shift in medical opinion during recent years and should be given considerable weight by hon. and right hon. Members in this House. My hon. Friend the Member for Wandsworth, Central (Dr. David Kerr) drew the attention of the House recently to the rise in illegitimate births from 60,000 in 1962 to 68,000 in 1964. The Department of Education and Science gives the number of illegitimate births to girls under the age of 16 at 220 in 1941 and 1,131 in 1963, a fivefold increase in 20 years. If we accept that this situation is the responsibility of society as a whole, as surely we must, it must also be wrong to expect them alone to bear the penalty of a blighted life.

It has been estimated that there are about 100,000 illegal abortions a year, a terrible pool of human misery and unhappiness. The figure may well be higher, for there is a considerable amount of camouflage on medical certificates. Some of these abortions are brought about by women themselves using terrifying instruments to bring abortion about. Can the House stand a recital of the desperate lengths to which frightened women will go to prevent the continuation of an unwanted pregnancy? I quote from a report published in 1939 by the Government Abortion Committee:
"Things inserted in the womb, often with disastrous consequences, included knitting and darning needles, crochet and button hooks, pencils, scissors and hairpins, disinfectants, washing soda and other irritants, drugs which frequently damage the foetus without killing it, and other violent methods."
Then there are those women who go to back-street abortionists and who have similar terrifying interference carried out in ghastly and dirty conditions. Damage is done to the unborn child, deformed babies often result, and sterility, and very frequently death. Then there are those fortunate women who can have a termination carried out properly in aseptic conditions either because they have found a sympathetic surgeon in hospital, or because they know where to go and have the money for secret, expensive termination in a private clinic or nursing home. After two or three days that woman can return home and resume her normal life.

The results of self-induced or backstreet abortions come to our hospitals for the damage to be put right. It can take two or three weeks and it costs about £33 per patient per bed per week. The House can work out the comparative cost between two or three days and two or three weeks. With the septic cases there is a disproportionate strain on scarce medical and nursing skill. They need more nursing, more drugs, more blood transfusions. In 1962, the London Emergency Bed Service was asked to find beds for 5,734 abortion cases, an increase of 40 per cent. over the past eight years. The consultant gynaecologist at one of our most famous teaching hospitals told me only last week that in 1959 his department cared for 138 abortion cases. By 1963, that figure had risen to 274. It had doubled in four years and 192 of those were probably self-induced or criminal abortions.

Abortion is the second most common cause of maternal death; 61 per cent. are procured by the patient herself, 22 per cent. of deaths from this cause occur among women with four or more children—think what happens to those children—and almost 90 per cent. of women having abortions are married. Since my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health attempted to introduce his own Private Member's Bill in 1961, the thalidomide tragedy has occurred. This adds urgency to the need for reform. It caused a great shift in public opinion.

As recently as last March a National Opinion Poll carried out in depth on abortion law showed that almost three-quarters of the people of this country—just over 72 per cent.—are in favour of reform on the lines I have suggested. Seventy-five per cent. of Church of England people interviewed were in favour, 68 per cent. of Nonconformists, 75 per cent. of Presbyterians and 60 per cent. of Catholics were all in favour. Seventy per cent. of those interviewed thought there should be no punishment at all for doctors who carried out abortions which they believed morally justified.

The religious divisions on this question were equally interesting. Seventy per cent. of Church of England members, 68 per cent. of Nonconformists, 73 per cent. of Presbyterians, and 63 per cent. of Catholics thought there should be no punishment of the doctor. If one believed Catholic writers to the Press, one would get a very different impression of Catholic opinion. I believe that the House, too, must give considerable weight to this shift in public opinion.

I have had very many letters from individuals and from organisations welcoming the reform which I hope to initiate. I have not had one letter of protest, either from an individual or from an organisation. I was greatly heartened by the resolution which was carried recently by the annual conference of the Townswomen's Guild in favour of reform. The conference represented over 200,000 women. It is my belief, therefore, that only a very small minority of people would oppose reform on religious grounds, but that small minority can no longer be permitted to impose its views on the majority. This would be the negation of democracy.

If a foetus can be aborted spontaneously up to the 28th week of pregnancy without the Church or State being concerned, without a birth having to be registered, without a burial service having to be held, if that seven-month foetus can be buried in the back garden or burned in a hospital incinerator, why should there be opposition to the safe termination of pregnancy up to 13 weeks on properly defined grounds? I therefore hope that the House, with its great tradition of humanitarianism and reform, will allow the Bill to be presented and will facilitate its passage.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mrs. Short, Mr. Wingfield Digby, Mr. William Hamilton, Mr. William Hamling, Dr. David Kerr, Mr. Marcus Lipton, Mr. Eric Lubbock, Mr. Laurence Pavitt, and Dame Joan Vickers.

Abortion Bill

Bill to amend the law on abortion, presented accordingly and read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday, 2nd July, and to be printed. [Bill 158.]