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Volume 467: debated on Tuesday 13 November 2007

It is accepted parliamentary practice that proposals for changes in the law on abortion come from Back Benchers and that decisions are made on the basis of a free vote. The Government’s view is that the Abortion Act works as Parliament intended.

Bearing in mind the recent majority Select Committee report on the draft human tissue and embryos Bill recommending changes to the current law for abortion on demand, with the signature of only one doctor merely relating to the length of gestation, as well as allowing nurses to undertake the procedure, how will the Government ensure that the health of women is protected from subsequent well-documented and researched psychological damage, including higher suicide rates? Will all post-abortion sequelae be taken fully into account?

The requirement for two doctors signatures was believed necessary when the Abortion Act 1967 was passed, to ensure that its provisions were observed and that they safeguarded women. I note the Science and Technology Committee’s report that the British Medical Association and Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists believe that there is no need for two doctors’ signatures in the first trimester, and I am sure that Members of Parliament will want to take that into account when and if they vote on the issue in the House.

My Bridgend constituency had a significantly higher-than-average number of abortions in 2005 among 18 to 25-year-olds. That was dealt with through improving the availability of local pregnancy advisory services and contraception and sexual health clinics to young people. Is not the need to improve the availability of advice and contraceptive services to young people rather than to amend the law?

I agree with my hon. Friend on the two important points that she makes. First, where access to abortion is required, it is important that that is undertaken as speedily as possible within the requirements of the Act. Some 89 per cent. of abortions are conducted under 13 weeks. She is also right that, alongside ensuring that the provisions in the Act are working as Parliament intended, it is also necessary to ensure that advice on sexual health is made available to young people and to others to ensure that they have every opportunity to control the point at which they become pregnant.

I put it to the Minister that reducing the 24-week upper limit and insisting on directional counselling—in other words, trying to tell women what to do, lest they otherwise would not do it—would be a thoroughly retrograde step for this House to take and that a far better reform of the abortion law would be to ensure much more equitable access to first-trimester abortion across the country and a proper and prudent extension of the range of professionals who can undertake that necessary procedure.

I understand that feelings on this issue are held strongly by Members of Parliament, and that they have differing views. But the point that the hon. Gentleman makes is right—where access to abortion is required, it is vital that it is as speedy as possible to ensure the health of the woman. Under the present arrangements, proper counselling and advice is given to women, and any attempt to delay access to abortion further increases the pressure on the woman and her health. If the matter is debated in the House, I am sure that those matters will be given careful consideration and the Committee’s report will be looked at carefully by all Members.

Does my hon. Friend agree that, as less than 1 per cent. of abortions take place at more than 20 weeks and that those cases are usually women in difficult and vulnerable positions, lowering the limit would not be the right way forward and would not help to reduce the number of abortions? Does she also agree—

The studies that have been conducted on the operation of the Abortion Act, as amended in 1990, focusing specifically on the question of survival have demonstrated clearly that at 21 weeks none survive, at 22 weeks 1 per cent. survive and that at 23 weeks 11 per cent. survive. When abortion is allowed under the circumstances provided in the 1967 Act, as amended in 1990, the issue is how to ensure that the process is conducted speedily and in a way that safeguards the woman and the decisions that she has taken. I am sure that the House will give that careful consideration if and when it debates the issue.

Would the Minister accept that the best way to reduce the number of abortions in this country would be to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies by improving access to contraception and sex education, rather than seeking to deny access to a very small number of extremely vulnerable women who present late for abortion within the current law?

I agree entirely. What is crucial is that information on sexual health and sex education are provided in a comprehensive fashion to ensure that every person understands the responsibilities that they will undertake in parenthood. There is also a requirement to ensure that the services that the Government provide on contraception are appropriate and widely available.