Women demand tougher laws to curb abortions: Ultrasound images 'of a 23-week-old foetus smiling and grimacing, have made people change their views'London Observer
Jan. 29, 2006
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· Poll reveals growing concern over late terminations
· Blair under pressure to agree review as MPs urge change
A majority of women in Britain want the abortion laws to be tightened to make it harder, or impossible, for them to terminate a pregnancy.
Evidence of a widespread public demand for the government to further restrict women's right to have an abortion is revealed in a remarkable Observer opinion poll. The findings have reignited the highly-charged debate on abortion, and increased the pressure on Tony Blair to review the current time limits.
The survey by MORI shows that 47 per cent of women believe the legal limit for an abortion should be cut from its present 24 weeks, and another 10 per cent want the practice outlawed altogether. Among the population overall, reducing the upper limit was the preferred option backed by the largest proportion of respondents, 42 per cent, made up of a 36-47 per cent split among men and women.
Only one person in three agreed that 'the current time limit is about right', with slightly fewer women (31 per cent) than men (35 per cent) saying that. Just 2 per cent of women and 5 per cent of men think the last possible date after which a woman can end a pregnancy should be increased from 24 weeks.
The leader of the 4.1 million Catholics in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, called on politicians last night to heed the evidence of a growing demand for a rethink on abortion policy, to include The Observer's findings. 'There has been a moral awakening over the last few years about abortion; the British public have been undergoing a reality check,' said his spokesman, Dr Austen Ivereigh. 'The Cardinal sees in this moral awakening a growing unease with, and erosion of, the idea of abortion as simply a woman's right.'
Increased awareness of the realities of abortion, and the impact of ultrasound images of a 23-week-old foetus smiling and grimacing, have made people change their views, said Ivereigh. The latter 'very dramatically showed that what had been depersonalised in many people's minds as a foetus was clearly seen to be a baby, a human being in formation, and that has come as a shock to many people', he added.
Abortion became a key issue in last year's general election campaign when Michael Howard, then the Conservative leader, said he wanted to see the maximum time limit cut to 20 weeks.
Former Liberal leader David Steel, the architect of the pioneering 1967 Abortion Act which made abortions legal for the first time in Britain, wants the upper limit reduced to 22 weeks.
The limit was originally set in 1967 at 28 weeks, because that was then taken to be the age at which a foetus would not be 'viable', but it was reduced to 24 weeks in 1990. Around 200,000 women a year undergo an abortion in Britain, although between 85 and 90 per cent occur within 12 weeks and only about 1.5 per cent after 20 weeks. Abortion is still illegal in Northern Ireland.
David Cameron, Howard's successor, backs a new limit of between 20 and 22 weeks. 'He thinks because of the advances in medical science there's now a case for it being lowered, although not dramatically. He would support it being reduced. That is his personal view,' said his spokesman.
Moves to reduce the time limit are now beginning to win the support of liberal-minded MPs who support the right to abortion. Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP and a former GP, called for an in-depth parliamentary inquiry to examine the scientific evidence about the survival rates of babies born at under 24 weeks, and then recommend any necessary changes to the law. 'The question has been raised about whether we are going to base the limit on viability - that was the basis under the existing law - and if it's on viability then viability is subject to change based on medical advances,' he said.
'The longer we don't debate this, the less confidence the public will have that Parliament is doing its job which is reviewing and keeping in mind how scientific advances impact on public policy.'
Abortion law has always been altered through private members' bills tabled by backbenchers rather than by government in the past, with MPs voting according to their conscience. However the tacit support of the government is vital to get private members' bills through, making the views of the Prime Minister and Health Secretary crucial.
Amid the debate last year, prompted by the images of unborn babies in the womb, Blair indicated that the government could be prepared to review the limits on abortion law. The then Health Secretary, John Reid, personally supports a lower time limit.
However, Patricia Hewitt, the current Health Secretary, seemed yesterday to rule out any reduction: 'I think it is very difficult for a woman contemplating a late termination and they need to be given very clear advice and support.'
Toni Belfield of the Family Planning Association, which opposes any reduction, said: 'The argument about medical advances misses the point. There needs to be access to late abortion after 20 weeks because a woman may not find out she is pregnant until 18 or 19 weeks, or be in a non-consensual relationship, or be told about a foetal abnormality.'
Julia Millington, of the Pro-Life Alliance of anti-abortion groups, said the findings were 'very encouraging'.
Ipsos MORI interviewed 1,790 people aged 16 to 64 by online questionnaire between 6 and 10 January.