Abortion row rumbles on after report to House of Commons

By staff writers
November 1, 2007

The heated row over abortion continued last night after an official report by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (S&TC), released yesterday, said there was no scientific justification for calls to lower the 24-week limit for terminations.

But beyond the immediate fierce arguments of the most firm protagonists there are some signs of shifting attitudes on all sides, it appears.

In addition to its time limit recommendation, the S&TC said that the requirement for two doctors to sign forms before an abortion should be changed to one. They argued that this was in line with effective current practice and would reduce the number of later terminations.

Pro-choice campaigners, who believe that pregnant women and not the state or medical professionals should make the decision about whether or not to go ahead with an abortion, welcomed the report as "pragmatic".

But anti-abortion groups, including CARE, said that the process and remit of the Committee was flawed, because it had declared from the outset that it would "not be looking at the ethical or moral issues associated with abortion time limits."

Two Conservatives submitted a dissenting minority report claiming that the MPs had not been presented with all the required evidence, especially on late foetal viability and foetal pain. Phil Willis, the 11-member Science and Technology Committee chair, a Liberal Democrat, denied that this was the case and said the scientific evidence was clear.

Meanwhile, insults were traded by both sides. MP Dr Evan Harris, a Committee member, dismissed the minority report as an "amusing mish mash of paranoid conspiracy theories, pseudo-scientific clap-trap and anti-abortion zealotry." He in turn was dubbed "Dr Death" by the Daily Mail and condemned as "a zealot who backs embryo experiments, euthanasia and freer abortions" by a Catholic Communications Network news summary.

There has also been a row over the submission of evidence. Six medical experts who submitted scientific evidence to the influential MPs inquiry did not reveal links to anti-abortion groups, it has been claimed.

One consultant gave evidence on the supposed link between breast cancer and abortion - a link that has been widely disputed scientifically - although this is not within his area of expertise as a paediatrician.

But the Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF), the main pro-life group cited by Guardian newspaper allegations of a "cover-up", said its members had followed procedure and asked in return "why has there been no comparable coverage of the 'pro-choice' affiliations of those (the significant majority) giving oral evidence?"

However, despite an apparent hardening of attitudes on all sides, there have also been signs of movement in the broader debate, an examination of briefings and comment shows.

Phil Willis MP, who backs the 1967 Abortion Act and defended the Science and Technology Committee's decision as its chair, also urged the government to take action to bring down the number of unwanted pregnancies.

He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme: "I think the staggering figures that have come out during this inquiry will stagger not only your listeners but people on all sides of the divide."

Mr Willis went on: "Two hundred thousand abortions a year really is saying to the government and saying to the UK that current policies in terms of sex education, in terms of contraception, in terms of sexual health, are not working."

He added: "The real challenge for government is not to argue around 24 or 23 weeks, but how, in fact, do we get down this monstrous total to a level which is acceptable to society?"

Meanwhile, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, who has been a clear critic of abortion, wrote a much-debated article for The Observer last weekend, to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1967 Act, in which he acknowledged that none of the contentions provided a "knockdown argument for tightening the law or lowering the time threshold for abortions".

He added that "the model of competing rights or liberties (the mother’s and the unborn child’s) is not the most useful vehicle for a coherent moral grasp of the question" and noted that "[t]here is no escaping the tough decisions where no answer will feel completely right and no option is without cost."

The Catholic Church has maintained its traditionally tough stance, based on a belief that the life is sacred from the moment of conception, but it also shifted focus away from a policy of criminalizing all abortion to the "more pragmatic" aim of a lowering of the time limit - the proposal eventually rejected by the Science and Technology Committee.

Meanwhile the Methodist Church, the United Reformed Church and the Baptist Union of Great Britain, who produced a joint briefing paper for churchgoers, did not express a common view on controls - and an informal Church Times survey found 30 per cent of respondents content with the 24-week limit.

The original time limit of 28 weeks was reduced by four weeks in 1990, with medical advances increasing the survival prospects of a child born earlier. According to official statistics, the total number of abortions in Britain in 2006 was 206,781, an increase of more than 7,000 in a year.

Alison Jackson from the Methodist Church said: “For many people, abortion is not a black and white issue, and there are many Christians who do not sit comfortably on either side of the argument. What most Christians want to see is greater moderation and understanding of the issues."

Simon Loveitt, Church and Society Convenor for the United Reformed Church, added: “Abortion is an important ethical and moral issue, but we need to remember that for some people, it is also a painful, personal issue”.

And Graham Sparkes from the Baptist Union of Great Britain said: “It is right that there should be public debate of this issue - and that we should be involved in it. The arguments are complex and sensitive."

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