A week is a long time in politics as the saying goes and certainly this has been the case with all the political discussion on abortion limits since I last wrote about it of Friday. I had no idea when I discussed Maria Miller’s comments on reducing the limit that it would blow up in such a big way over the weekend with Jeremy Hunt restating his wish for a 12 week abortion limit. Home Secretary, Theresa May also came out supporting a reduction to 20 weeks and even David Cameron waded in saying he was in favour of a “modest reduction”.
Of course not all MPs have this view and Diane Abbott was quick to give her opinion on why the abortion limit should be left as it. Unfortunately in this case her main gripe was against the “Tory Christian right in parliament”. She says that, “Those Tory right wingers like the idea of lowering time limits, because they believe it will bring down the number of abortions.” This comment begs the question of whether we do actually want to reduce the number of abortions in this country, which stood at over 196,000 in England and Wales in 2011.
Although some may label pro-choice/pro-life as a political left/right or feminist issue, it’s far from that simple. Nelson Jones in the New Statesman on Saturday wrote an excellent piece that debunks some of the commonly held assumptions about those who support the current 24-week limit. He writes:
A YouGov poll in January found that of the 37% of Britons who favoured a lowering of the 24 week limit (34% supported the status quo) the majority were women. In total, twice as many women as men (49% as opposed to 24%) wanted to see a lower limit. There was also an interesting age difference: among the younger age group (18-24) support for a lower limit stood at 43%, whereas in the two older age groups it was 35%. Strikingly, support for a reduction to 20 weeks or below was highest among people who expressed a preference for Labour rather than the two other main parties – which again fits ill with the concept of a “Tory war on women”.
Even though less than 2% of abortions are carried out after 20 weeks, there are plenty of arguments for a reduction set out by many commentators. Some are faith based, but most are not. Certainly my beliefs lead me to the conclusion that abortion is very rarely a good thing and we as a society should be proactive in trying to reduce the number of abortions carried out. But to me this is the most relevant reason why the abortion limit should be reduced:
Back in 1967 when the Abortion Act was introduced, the upper limit was set at 28 weeks in line with the Infant Life Preservation Act 1929 which stated that abortions could not be carried out if the child was “capable of being born alive”. Legislation has moved on since then, but the notion of ‘viability’ is still seen by many as the most obvious place to draw the line with abortions. With many babies born at 24 weeks now surviving it only seems right that the limit should continue to be addressed in Parliament.
David Cameron has said that the Government has no plans to put forward legislation to reduce the time limit for abortion but MPs could bring about a vote in the Commons. “Parliament does vote from time to time about these issues,” he said. “It does tend to vote once a Parliament or so. We now have, under this government, the ability for Parliament to decide what it wants to vote on.”
Nadine Dorries announced on Friday via Twitter that she will re-introduce her 2008 amendment to reduce to 20 weeks during this parliamentary session. When MPs voted back in 2008 on Ms Dorries amendment, the 20 week proposal was defeated by 332 votes to 190. A move to bring in a 22-week limit was opposed by 304 votes to 233. Despite the it being a free vote on the grounds of conscience, there was a marked difference between the way the parties voted. This is the breakdown:
20 Weeks or less: CON 120 votes (72%), LAB 45 votes (15%), LIB DEM 14 votes (25%), OTHER 16 votes (67%)
22 Weeks or less: CON 140 votes (84%), LAB 62 votes (21%), LIB DEM 24 votes (43%), OTHER 16 votes (67%)
24 Weeks (no change): CON 27 votes (16%), LAB 238 votes (79%), LIB DEM 32 votes (57%), OTHER 8 votes (33%)
(You can get a full break down of the names of all the MPs who voted for the different limits here)
Clearly there was a huge difference, in particular between Conservative and Labour MPs. Even allowing for the change in MP numbers between the parties since the last election, if the voting patterns were similar in another vote during this parliamentary session, the likely outcome is that the motion would be defeated, unless the position of Labour MPs shifts noticeably.
I’m not generally inclined to make party political comment, but in this case I find it hard to understand why on a free vote Labour MPs were so significantly different in their voting patterns to everyone else. Either Labour MPs are overwhelmingly different in their outlook on abortion, or they wanted the bill defeated because it was proposed by a Conservative MP, or because they were persuaded by the party hierarchy not to vote for it. The rumours that came out after the vote is that many Labour MPs had pressure put on them by Harriet Harman to vote for no change. Irrespective of whether this was the case or not (and if it was, it’s shameful), due to their numbers in the House of Commons Labour hold the key to any change going through.
Labour appear to be out of touch on this issue, even with those who vote for them. If a new abortion limit amendment bill does go ahead, they will have to give some extremely good reasons if they continue en-mass to be so unwilling to consider any change to the law. To describe the approach of many Labour MPs to this as disappointing is an understatement to say the least.