What upper limit on abortion is sensible?
by Chris Whitehouse
Perhaps Britain could return to the test, which prevailed prior to 1990, when abortion was prohibited for any child that was 'capable of being born alive' – argues public affairs campaigner
Mainstream media in the United Kingdom have spent the last few days debating the implications of comments by a series of high profile government ministers about abortion law reform. The new British Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt MP restated his personal support for an upper time limit for abortions of 12 weeks, going further even than the new Minister for Women Maria Miller MP - who a few days earlier called for an upper limit of 20 weeks. They were joined in the debate by the Home Secretary Theresa May, who also backed a reduction to 20 weeks from the current general limit of 24 weeks - with exceptions permitted up until birth for handicapped babies.
Pro-abortion organisations have heaped vitriol on the three of them and the Prime Minister David Cameron has come out in their defence making it quite clear that he supports the right of ministers to express their personal views on these matters. But Cameron also made it quite clear that the government itself has no intention of changing the law and reiterated that any vote on abortion law would be a matter of individual conscience.
The statements of the three ministers were nothing new. They are all on record as having held those views for many years. But no other area of UK law is quite so controversial as that on abortion; a subject on which deeply held views on both sides of the debate transcend party politics. The particularly interesting development in the current furore, however, is that these are three very successful career politicians.
There is no suggestion that they are driven by religious conviction. Indeed, they have made it clear that such is not their motivation. Nor is there any suggestion that any of these ministers would argue that they, parliament or the people of Britain were ready for repeal of the Abortion Act of 1967 - which permits abortion in the country. Rather, their remarks are based it seems on the simple observation that advances in medical science mean that increasingly premature babies are able to survive and that research increasingly shows that they have capacity at an early gestation to feel pain.
But any coming debate on these issues will be heated, confrontational and hard fought. But with some of the most liberal abortion laws in the world, it does look as though the British Parliament might be set to revisit the issue. If it does so, rather than pick any arbitrary upper time limit for abortion - perhaps it could return to the test, which prevailed prior to 1990 when abortion was prohibited for any child that was "capable of being born alive". Such a test would probably generally reflect the views of the majority in the country who do not oppose all abortion but are uneasy about the ease with which it is currently obtained.
Chris Whitehouse is managing director of Whitehouse Consulting and a trustee of The Right to Life Charitable Trust, in the United Kingdom
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