Abortion law for our time

PUBLISHED: 08:00 22 June 2006 | UPDATED: 11:04 22 October 2010


Ministers will come under renewed pressure to think again at the 24-week limit on abortion at a private meeting with the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales.

Two weeks ago, I witnessed a miracle. I saw my unborn child on a hospital computer screen - 21 weeks in the womb, waving its arms, kicking its legs, touching its face.

With gentle movements of an ultrasound scanner, I looked into the four chambers of its heart and then could make out fingers and toes.

It seemed a miracle to me - someone who has struggled with faith and theological questions to the point of not knowing what to believe.

But up to that point, I'd always clung with certainty to liberal principles, including a woman's right to choose.

Now nothing seems clear cut.

Of course, the chance to have a routine ultrasound scan was an opportunity my father and the post-war generation never had.

But should changes in technology make us think again about abortion and the law?

David Steel's 1967 private member's bill, which provided the first legal defence against prosecution for abortion, has already been amended once to take account of medical advances.

The Human Embryology and Human Fertilisation Act of 1990 changed the legal limit for abortion from 28 to 24 weeks - albeit terminations are still allowed after 24 weeks if there is "grave risk" to the life or physical or mental well-being of the mother or evidence of severe foetal abnormality.

This is not to suggest that terminations happen often at the legal limit.

Of the 185,000 abortions carried out in the UK in 2004, only 124 were carried out 24 weeks.

Eighty-eight pc were carried out at under 13 weeks gestation and 60 pc at under 10 weeks.

But yesterday Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, was due put renewed pressure on health secretary Patricia Hewitt to review the 24-week limit.

The Archbishop of Cardiff, the Rt Rev Peter Smith said yesterday that pictures of foetuses "walking in the womb" published last year had touched people's hearts, and added to pressure for a lowering of the upper time limit on abortions.

Archbishop Smith said the Catholic Church wanted the government to

set up a select committee in order to foster a "reasoned and reasonable" public debate.

It's an idea with some sympathy at Westminster where 31 backbench MPs have signed a commons motion by Labour's Geraldine Smith calling for a joint committee of parliamentarians to look at the abortion issue.

An Observer poll earlier this year also found that the majority of women in Britain want the abortion laws tightened, to make it harder to terminate a pregnancy.

Cutting the time limit was backed by 47pc of women, and another 10pc were opposed to abortion under any circumstances - with just 2pc supporting the idea of later abortions.

Even Lord Steel has suggested that the law should be reviewed in the light of medical advances.

But so far, Ms Hewitt has resisted pressure to change the law again.

Certainly, a major academic study in the mid-1990s raised questions about the 24 week limit by gathering evidence about the likelihood of foetuses surviving outside the womb at less than 26 weeks of pregnancy.

The Epicure study, which included University of London academics, found that one in five foetuses born at 24 weeks were able to lead a relatively normal infancy.

Only one in 10 survived at 23 weeks.

But the issue is not simply at what point foetuses can survive outside the womb - it is a question of what

society thinks about disability.

Last year the Rev Joanna Jepson, a Herefordshire curate, lost a legal battle to secure the prosecution of

two doctors who carried out the abortion of a 28-week-old foetus with a cleft palate.

Earlier this week, scientists based at Guy's Hospital, London, revealed

that they had developed a

new technique that would help "screen" embryos during fertility treatment for disorders such as Huntington's disease and cystic fibrosis and genetic conditions such as down's syndrome - giving doctors and parents to pursue treatment with "healthy" embryos.

But on that day in the hospital room when I saw my unborn child, I was fortunate not to have to answer

what must be the toughest question that life can throw at a parent-to-be.

All I do know is that the rights and wrongs of the abortion debate are harder for me to weigh up than ever.

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