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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 October 2006, 17:46 GMT
Abortion time limit cut rejected
Foetus
More than 186,000 abortions were carried out last year
MPs have voted against a bill calling for the legal time limit for abortions to be cut from 24 weeks to 21 weeks.

Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, who introduced the bill, had argued that a foetus may feel pain from 21 weeks.

Ms Dorries also wanted a ten day "cooling-off" period between a request for an abortion and it being performed, for the woman to receive counselling.

But Labour MP Chris McCafferty called it "an attack on women's reproductive rights". MPs voted 187 to 108 against.

All the main parties consider the issue of abortion, of which there were 186,400 in England and Wales last year, to be one on which individual MPs should have a free vote, rather than following a party line.

Such a cooling-off period is necessary, because the decision to terminate a pregnancy or not is one with which the woman concerned will have to live for the rest of her life
Nadine Dorries MP

Department of Health statistics show that 89% of abortions in 2005 were carried out before the woman was 13 weeks pregnant, with 67% performed at under 10 weeks.

Ms Dorries said the usual argument for reducing the time limit centred on viability - the likelihood of the foetus surviving outside of the womb - which is considered to be 23 weeks.

"However, my argument for reduction rests not on viability, but on the issue of foetal sentience - how foetuses respond to pain, sound etc.

"The latest scientific research puts the case of sentience at around 21 weeks."

She said late abortions involved foeticide, requiring a lethal injection in the foetus' heart while it is still in the uterus, before inducing labour.

"Doctors don't like foeticide. Doctors don't like late abortions," Ms Dorries told the Commons.

Australian example

During the "cooling off", a woman should be given access to information and counselling about the medical risk of termination as well as of carrying a pregnancy to term "as a condition of informed consent", Ms Dorries said.

Providing such information and counselling was based on experience in Western Australia, where abortions have dropped since it was introduced in 1998. However, there is no waiting period in Western Australia.

In the UK, if the woman still wanted to proceed after the 10 days, her waiting time should be consequently be reduced by 10 days, Ms Dorries said in her bill.

"Such a cooling-off period is necessary, because the decision to terminate a pregnancy or not is one with which the woman concerned will have to live for the rest of her life," she added.

"It is imperative that this decision is fully considered, and that all the necessary help and advice is available for her to make an informed decision."

'Vulnerable'

Ms McCafferty said the bill was "ill-informed" as there was only a very small proportion of late abortions performed each year.

She described the bill as cynical, cruel and inhumane.

Forcing a woman to have counselling went against the whole principle of counselling, while the 10-day delay could prompt women to travel abroad for abortions "when they are in a vulnerable state" or resort to illegal abortions.

The best way to cut the number of abortions was to improve access to contraception and information about sexual health for both men and women, Ms McCafferty said.

Abortion provider BPAS said women who requested a late abortion needed support, "not condemnation".

BPAS chief executive Ann Furedi said such women were often already facing "desperate situations" which would be exacerbated by further delay.

Very young girls

Patients included very young girls who were frightened to tell their parents, and women with medical conditions which had masked the pregnancy earlier on.

"Some women request termination at a late stage because of a catastrophic family event during a previously wanted pregnancy," Ms Furedi said.

"This usually involves domestic violence, the critical illness of an existing child who will then need the woman┐s dedicated long-term care, or the sudden desertion of the pregnant woman by their husband or partner."

Ms Dorries introduced the issue as a Ten Minute Rule Bill on Tuesday - allowing her to talk in the House of Commons for ten minutes, before Ms McCafferty argued the counter case.

Even if MPs had backed it, the government only rarely allows a Ten Minute Rule Bill to progress far enough to become law so MPs tend to use this procedure simply as a way of gaining publicity for a particular issue, and for testing the mood of their fellow MPs.


SEE ALSO
Q&A: Abortion law
21 Jun 06 |  UK
Call for late abortion services
25 Nov 04 |  Health

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