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Abortion

Volume 580: debated on Tuesday 13 May 2014

2. What steps he is taking to ensure that cases of non-compliance with the law on abortion by practitioners and providers are prosecuted. (904019)

The Crown Prosecution Service will review any cases referred to it by the police, in accordance with the two-stage test set out in the code for Crown prosecutors. Following observations by the former Director of Public Prosecutions, the Department of Health is developing further guidance for practitioners on the procedures to be followed when a woman requests an abortion, and that will be taken into account when future decisions are made about prosecutions.

My right hon. and learned Friend will have seen reports arising from recent freedom of information releases about 67 doctors who pre-signed abortion certificates effectively authorising abortions without ever having seen or had any knowledge of the women involved. He will also be aware that the General Medical Council failed to report those cases to the police. Will he assure the House that they will now be dealt with by means of a thorough investigation and on a case-by-case basis? No one should be above the law, particularly in such cases.

I fully understand my hon. Friend’s concerns. She will appreciate that, in the first instance, this is a matter for investigation by the Metropolitan police, not the CPS, which, obviously, has no investigative capacity. Should the matter come to the CPS, it will indeed be considered on a case-by-case basis. She will be aware that when this matter has been before the House in the past, it has been pointed out that the essential ingredient is that a doctor has to act in good faith in the advice and opinion they give. If there is evidence that a doctor has not acted in good faith, that will clearly be one of the important evidential components taken into account when deciding whether any prosecution should be brought.

Accounts of abortion on the grounds of gender are of increasing concern to many in this House. Will the Attorney-General confirm that the strongest sanction possible will be brought against individuals, whoever they may be, who are implementing abortion on the grounds of gender?

I fully understand the hon. Gentleman’s concerns. I want to make it clear—as, indeed, I have made clear in the past—that, on abortion on the grounds of gender, we have to look at the question of the good faith involved in allowing such a thing to take place. The tests have been well explained by the previous DPP and any case in England and Wales would be viewed according to them. To make the position clear: abortion on demand, as it is sometimes described, is not provided for by the Abortion Act 1967.

My hon. Friend takes me gently by surprise. I think it depends on the nature of the offence under the Abortion Act, but my recollection is that the procurement of an abortion illegally is a very serious offence. I will write to him as to the exact penalty.

I think the House would benefit from having a copy of the letter in the Library. We are grateful to the Attorney-General.

The Department of Health seems to advise that it would be okay if neither of the two signing doctors had actually seen the woman referred for an abortion. Does the Attorney-General believe that that is some distance from a strict reading of the 1967 Act?

As I understand the matter, the form exists so that two doctors may make an independent evaluation of whether the abortion is necessary for the health and well-being of the woman concerned. It seems to me, as a matter of logic, that that requires a conscious act of assessment. I leave it to the hon. Gentleman to work out whether a conscious act of assessment is going to take place on the pre-signed form.