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Last Updated: Tuesday, 15 March, 2005, 11:13 GMT
Will abortion become poll issue?
By Nick Assinder
Political Correspondent, BBC News website

Recent remarks by politicians and churchmen have raised the prospect that abortion may, for the first time, become a big issue in a British general election.

Michael Howard
Howard backs abortion change
The highly-emotive subject has long been seen as virtually out of bounds for the parties during the cut and thrust of campaigning.

But now, thanks to statements from the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, and Tory leader Michael Howard, it has been thrown onto the front pages.

The question is - will this lead to the looming election campaign in Britain resembling the sort of battles witnessed during US presidential battles - where abortion can play a major role?

It was raised as a possible election issue here after the three party leaders gave their views to Cosmopolitan magazine.

Mr Howard said he would back reducing the limit for abortion from 24 to 20 weeks, Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said medical advances meant he was unsure how he would vote now.

The prime minister has said he has no intention of offering a vote to change current laws but that the situation had to be kept under review.

Major factor

But it is probably the declaration by the Archbishop that has done most to raise the profile of the issue.

He backed Mr Howard's view and stated that, on a range of issues, Labour may no longer be the natural party to support for the UK's six million Catholics.

Abortion has never been a party political issue, with MPs always offered a free vote whenever it has been debated in the Commons.
That is likely to have worried Mr Blair both politically and personally - he regularly attends Catholic services and his wife Cherie is a Catholic.

And it suggests that Mr Howard, while not going so far as to make any pledges, may chime with the views of many people in Britain who do believe it is time to re-open the abortion debate.

But there are reasons to believe this is still an issue that will not run as a major factor in the election.

For a start, there has been the long-standing, albeit unspoken agreement that such a sensitive issue is not best debated in the heat of a general election campaign. It requires cool, careful and rational debate.

Similarly it has never been a party political issue, with MPs always offered a free vote whenever it has been debated in the Commons.

Dog whistle

And there are pro and anti factions in all the main political parties, ensuring there can be no "party line" on the issue.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor
Cardinal raised profile of abortion issue
That does not mean that individual politicians and leaders will not be quizzed about their views on abortion during the campaign.

But it does make it difficult for it to become as high-profile and partisan as, say, the NHS or even immigration.

It is also far from clear that the political leaders want to put it anywhere near the top of the election agenda.

The prime minister's official spokesman has declared it would be a pity if it became a party political or general election issue.

Debate on abortion should always be "calm, rational and non-partisan".

Mr Howard may well believe he can send out a low key message that will be taken on board by those willing to hear it and encourage them to vote Tory.

But there is no suggestion he wants to campaign on the issue. And the same appears true of the other two big leaders.

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