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Last Updated: Sunday, 21 October 2007, 16:43 GMT 17:43 UK
Archbishop urges abortion review
Archbishop of Canterbury
Dr Rowan Williams says abortion is no longer seen as a last resort
The Archbishop of Canterbury has intervened in the debate over whether to reduce the time limit for abortions.

Dr Rowan Williams says a review is needed because the existing law does not take account of medical advances since the 1967 Abortion Act.

He also sharply criticised the growing "normalisation" of the procedure.

The Archbishop's comments, in a strongly-worded article for the Observer, come ahead of the 40th anniversary of the Act this week.

Dr Williams, who represents 70 million Anglicans around the world, warns that the spirit of the legislation is in danger of being lost.

The rapidly spiralling statistics - nearly 200,000 abortions a year in England and Wales - tell their own story
Dr Rowan Williams

Most of those who voted for the 1967 Act did so for compassionate reasons, he argues.

They believed it made provision for "extreme and tragic situations" - such as conception through rape or medical complications endangering a mother's life.

But abortion is increasingly regarded as normal rather than as a procedure of last resort, the Church of England leader says.

Moral focus

Dr Williams writes: "Many supporters of the 1967 Act started from a strong sense of taking for granted the wrongness of ending an unborn life.

"What people might now call their 'default position' was still that abortion was a profoundly undesirable thing and that a universal presumption of care for the foetus from the moment of conception was the norm.

"But the rapidly spiralling statistics - nearly 200,000 abortions a year in England and Wales - tell their own story."

Dr Williams takes issue with "the growing belief that abortion is essentially a matter of individual decision and not the kind of major moral choice that should involve a sharing of perspective and judgement.

"The pregnant woman who smokes or drinks heavily is widely regarded as guilty of infringing the rights of her unborn child," he argues.

"Yet at the same time, with no apparent sense of incongruity, there is discussion of the possibility of the liberty of the pregnant woman herself to perform the actions that will terminate a pregnancy."

He was referring to recent debate about allowing women to take drugs at home to cause an early medical abortion. At present they can only be administered in hospital or at some clinics.

Medical advances

Dr Williams says the anti-abortion movement has grown more vocal in recent decades, leading to a "real tension with this growing normalisation of abortion" and society must consider how it can hold a "steady moral focus" amid such polarised debate.

And he adds: "The changes made in 1990 to the legal upper time limit for abortion (from 28 to 24 weeks) reflect the need to keep the matter under regular review."

MPs are currently investigating whether the time limit for abortions should be reduced.

The Commons science and technology select committee is hearing evidence on whether medical advances have increased the survival chances of babies under 24 weeks.

Dr Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat member of the committee, said: "For most women facing the dilemma of an unwanted pregnancy the decision about abortion is not 'normalised' or 'routine' as the archbishop claims in his remarks about so-called 'home' abortions early in pregnancy.

"For many women it is a difficult choice and the Church should offer support rather than trying to make abortions as difficult and inconvenient as possible."

The ProLife Alliance wants the upper limit cut to 20 weeks.

But the British Medical Association says the number surviving at 24 weeks is still "extremely small".

The issue has also been reopened by proposed legislation on embryo research which is expected in the Queen's Speech next month.

MPs launch abortion law inquiry
15 Oct 07 |  UK Politics
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