I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to reduce the time limit for legal termination of pregnancy from 24 to 21 weeks; to introduce a cooling off period after the first point of contact with a medical practitioner about a termination; to require the provision of counselling about the medical risk of, and about matters relating to, termination and carrying a pregnancy to term as a condition of informed consent to termination; to enable the time period from the end of the cooling off period to the date of termination to be reduced; and for connected purposes.
The aim and objective of the Bill are to reduce the number of abortions that take place each year in Britain. That figure has reached 180,000, or 600 a day, and rising. There is now far greater knowledge and awareness, and much less stigma, surrounding the issues of pregnancy. The morning after pill can now be bought over the counter and there are pregnancy home-testing kits that can be used in the very early stages of pregnancy. The aim of my Bill is to reduce the number of abortions performed, and I wish to concentrate on social abortions that take place between the 21st and 24th weeks of pregnancy.
In 1990, when the House set the abortion limit at 24 weeks, viability—the date at which a foetus could survive outside the womb—was the principal consideration. Science has moved on, and so should the debate. Advanced medical scanners are now used by people such as Professor Campbell, one of the UK’s most highly respected neonatologists, and I am grateful to him for his help and insight. The images produced by ground-breaking foetal monitoring techniques show the layperson how a foetus looks and behaves in the mother’s womb. The images are moving, and there is no doubt that they have informed public opinion. However, they simply reaffirm information that the medical profession has known about for some years, which is why the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists states that for late abortions foeticide must take place first.
To put it simply, the professionals insist that a foetus must be put to death in the womb before it is aborted. The majority of abortions over 20 weeks take place using foeticide. Guidelines were drawn up recently because doctors simply do not want to perform abortions on babies they think may have a chance of survival or who may be aborted alive. In accordance with Royal College guidelines, a late abortion takes place over two days. On day one, a lethal injection is inserted into the foetal heart—I will spare hon. Members the details of the way in which that procedure is executed. When the doctor is convinced that the foetal heart has completely stopped, labour is induced and the foetus is delivered using forceps on day two.
Many doctors think that a foetus is sentient—that is to say, conscious—from 18 weeks. Many of us have seen scanned pictures in the newspapers showing the smiles, the thumb-sucking and the kicking, and it is hard to disagree. Doctor John Peebles, a leading foetal development consultant from University College hospital said only last week:
“For social terminations we have to say that 24 weeks is not justifiable because you have to induce labour, but first go through the process of foeticide. Therefore doctors in my position would support a lowering to 21 weeks.”
Doctors do not like foeticide and they do not like late abortions. They have to perform 3,000 abortions a year on babies of over 20 weeks’ gestation for social reasons. There is evidence that what we are debating from 20 weeks could be a sentient being.
Some doctors argue that babies are sentient from 18 weeks—at that point, the foetus is no longer a collection of cells and embryonic fluid. If we accept that, and I believe that the evidence is compelling, we are morally obliged to reconsider the legality of late abortions. Some Members may question the science of viability and claim that perhaps only a few babies would survive. Some Members may take issue with the point of sentience, waiting for yet more concrete scientific proof. There may even be Members who think that foeticide is an acceptable practice. It is a prescribed practice by the Royal College, but anyone who supports the upper limit of 24 weeks endorses foeticide.
If we put the three together—viability, sentience and foeticide—the evidence is overwhelming and compelling. The time has now come to reduce the limit to 21 weeks. It is 2006—not 1967 and not 1990. Time and medical technology have moved on, and so has the mood of the nation. Polling this year showed that the overwhelming majority of British people support moves to end late abortion for social reasons. We now know beyond doubt—thanks to the comprehensive, respected Ferguson study undertaken over 25 years—that women who have abortions subsequently have twice as many mental health problems and three times the risk of major depressive illness as women who have not had an abortion or who have carried a pregnancy to term.
Last Friday, The Times published a letter from 12 leading UK professors, consultant psychiatrists, obstetricians and doctors calling for a revision of the Royal College guidelines, stating that we now have a duty to inform women of the risks associated with having an abortion. My Bill calls for a 10-day cooling-off period that would give the mother breathing space, allowing her time to think, to be counselled and advised of the risks of abortion and to be guided through the options, which should include the possibility of carrying the pregnancy to term. I call that a woman’s right to know and to choose, because without information, what choices does a woman have? A period of informed consent is about empowerment—it is about whether or not the decision to abort is fully thought through. It is about making an informed decision.
Many pro-choice campaigners describe abortion as a relief to most women. I am sure that it is a relief from the panic-ridden, helpless situation in which many women find themselves, but as well as relief they experience an overwhelming sense of grief and trauma. Whereas relief is a temporary emotion, the grief and loss may last for many years. In fact, they may not even set in for many years.
With the introduction of a cooling-off period, whenever a woman says to herself “If only”, she would in future be able to reassure herself that she was helped, that she had thought long and hard and that she was given all the knowledge and advice that she needed. She will take comfort from the fact that a decision was not rushed or panicked, but well thought through. That does not happen now. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service website advertises that from the point of seeing a doctor, abortion will be performed in five days. That is abortion on demand.
In the countries where informed consent has been introduced, the number of requested abortions has dropped dramatically. With a period of informed consent in this country, together with a reduction in the number of late abortions, the Bill will achieve its aims and objectives—to reduce the number of abortions performed each day and to assist women in making calm and well-thought-through decisions.
The third part of my Bill is designed to ensure that after the 10-day cooling-off period, when the woman decides to proceed with the termination, those 10 days are not added to the waiting period. Time has moved on, science has moved on, and so has public opinion. Respected medical opinion—the country’s leading neonatologists and foetal development consultants—thinks that it is time to reduce to 21 weeks. Even the public agreed in a recent study that late abortion was cruel and believe overwhelmingly—85 per cent.—that it should be abolished. I believe that it is time for Members to respond. After all, we passed the Act a long time ago.
I do not have all the answers. As with any Bill, the detail would need debate and amendments, and there are hon. Members with far greater wisdom and knowledge than me who would like to contribute. The Bill at least brings the debate into the open. It is wrong that it has been suppressed for 16 years. As I have said, it is not about a woman’s right to choose, but about a woman’s right to know.
I rise to speak against the Bill with a feeling of great responsibility—in particular, responsibility to the silent majority, the one in four women in this country who have had a termination of pregnancy in the past, but who do not talk about it. After all, this is the last great taboo. Those women will listen to the debate with concern—not, perhaps, for themselves, but for their daughters and grand-daughters and their right and ability to make similar choices, if necessary, in the future.
Abortion has recently been made a matter of debate by those who want a reduction in the upper time limit or even the complete abolition of abortion in this country and abroad. It is a campaign that is fuelled and funded by religious conservatives from Washington to Rome—[Interruption.]
The campaign has then been extended to these shores, where it has no place. The Abortion Act 1967, which made abortion legal in this country, was a great gift of choice from that Parliament to the women of Britain. Parliamentarians like David—now Lord—Steel and my own predecessor in Calder Valley, the late Lord Houghton, who developed and enacted that legislation, showed great courage and are owed a huge debt of gratitude by any woman who has ever found herself with unplanned and unwanted pregnancy. By a single legislative Act, they consigned the harrowing spectre of back-street abortion and back-street butchery to the history books.
In 21st century Britain, there is no place for a law that discriminates against individual and entire groups of women, that encourages confusion about entitlement and that allows some individuals the right to impose their will and their morality on others, risking the physical and mental health of thousands of women. All those who believe in rights and taking responsibility, freedom of choice and personal autonomy will oppose this ill-informed Bill. It aims to reduce the abortion time limit from 24 to 21 weeks, introduce a 10-day cooling-off period after a woman has already decided that she wants a termination, and insist that the woman undergoes counselling during that 10-day period, whether she requests it or not, yet it perversely proposes that an abortion should be accelerated if a woman confirms that she wishes to end the pregnancy.
I am gravely concerned about the Bill’s impact on women generally. No new scientific evidence exists to suggest that foetal viability is now 21 weeks. The British Medical Association, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists and the Royal College of Nursing do not believe that there has been sufficient technological improvement to merit a reduction in the current limit. The Nuffield Council on Bioethics has no documented evidence of survival below 24 weeks.
A very small proportion of women need late terminations. Those who do have compelling reasons and often face extremely difficult or unusual circumstances, perhaps the catastrophic long-term illness of another, older child. No one involved takes decisions about late terminations lightly. Contrary to tabloid disinformation, no scientific breakthroughs have occurred to cause a reduction in the current limit. Restrictions on legal rights would leave some women in a desperate predicament.
Reducing the time limit of 24 weeks would have an adverse impact on the small number of girls or women who seek late abortions. Some women would be forced to give birth to unwanted children, some would travel abroad at great expense at a time when they were vulnerable, and some would inevitably resort to illegal abortions and risk their lives. In 1967, the UK Parliament rightly decided that those alternatives were no longer acceptable.
Late-term abortions are rare. In 2005, less than 1.5 per cent. of all abortions took place after 20 weeks. Of those, less than 0.6 per cent.—a tiny fraction—were carried out at 22 weeks or later. Those that take place do so for specific and often heart-breaking reasons. This ill-informed measure does not even take into consideration the plight of women who have a wanted pregnancy but discover a foetal abnormality at a later stage. The first opportunity of detecting an abnormality is often by scan at approximately 18 to 20 weeks. The current 24-week limit allows a woman and her partner time to consider a very difficult decision. Reducing the limit could mean that they would be rushed into making a decision or were unable to decide in enough time to allow the abortion to go ahead, if that is what they wanted.
A cooling-off period would simply prolong the anguish of a woman who has already decided that she cannot continue with her pregnancy. It would effectively reduce the time limit further and might prevent a woman from getting the termination that she desperately needs, even if she presents before 12 weeks because, in many parts of the country, access to post-12-week abortions is restricted. The earlier the abortion takes place, the less invasive it will be, and the possibility of complications is also reduced.
Of course, counselling should be available to those who want it, but it should be non-directed and non-compulsory. Making it a requirement to accessing an abortion goes against the rationale of counselling. Unless it is properly regulated, it could be distressing and misleading. There should be no delays for a woman who seeks an abortion. The stop-start approach in the Bill will unfortunately lead to even longer delays than those that currently occur.
I heard the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mrs. Dorries) on the radio this morning, saying that the Bill’s objective is to reduce abortion rates per se. Ultimately, we all want to reduce abortions. [Interruption.] Of course we do. Nobody likes abortions. We also want to reduce the gestation period following which abortions take place. However, restricting access to services is not the solution, and reducing the time limit is certainly not the solution.
As I have said many times in the House, the best way of reducing the number of unintended pregnancies is to improve women’s access to contraception, as well as educating women and men about sexual health. This cruel Bill—for it is a cruel Bill—is an attack on women’s reproductive rights. It would force a very small number of very vulnerable women to continue pregnancies against their will and would deny every woman seeking an abortion the ability to make her own choice within the time scale that is appropriate to her.
I say to hon. Members: “By all means vote for the Bill if you really believe that a woman should be required to continue a late-diagnosed pregnancy, even if her health is at risk or the foetus is abnormal. Vote for the Bill if you do not believe that such difficult decisions should, wherever possible, be made within families.” But I also say to hon. Members: “Vote against the Bill if you are pro-life, if you are pro-quality of life, if you are pro a woman’s life. Vote against the Bill if you are pro-women’s rights, because women’s rights are human rights. Vote against the Bill if you are pro-reproductive rights, because reproductive rights are also human rights. Vote against the Bill if you are pro-humanity, because it is cynical, cruel, ill-informed and, above all, inhumane.”
Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 23 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business):—