Page last updated at 11:01 GMT, Wednesday, 21 May 2008 12:01 UK

MPs reject cut in abortion limit

MPs give emotive and graphic opinions on the abortion limit

The upper time limit for abortions will remain at 24 weeks after MPs voted against proposals to reduce it.

They rejected options ranging from 12 to 22 weeks in a series of votes.

Tory MP Nadine Dorries, a former nurse who proposed a 20-week limit, said a baby's rights should be considered at the point it had the "chance of life".

But pro-choice campaigners said there was no evidence of improved survival rates. The closest vote, on a 22-week limit, was defeated by 304 to 233.

Ms Dorries' proposal for a 20 week limit was defeated by 332 votes to 190.

Free vote

In the first major challenge to Britain's abortion laws since 1990, when the legal limit was lowered from 28 to 24 weeks, MPs voted on a series of alternative limits of 12,16, 20 and 22 weeks - all of which were rejected.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown and most of the cabinet voted to keep the existing 24 limit, as did Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg.

But Catholic cabinet ministers Ruth Kelly, Des Browne and Paul Murphy voted for the lowest option - 12 weeks.

In modern Britain the most dangerous place to be is in your mother's womb. It should be a place of sanctity
Edward Leigh
Conservative MP

Conservative leader David Cameron voted for a 20 week limit and then for a cut to a 22 week limit - which was backed by most of the shadow cabinet.

Mr Brown had offered Labour MPs a free vote on the issue as a matter of conscience.

But Ms Dorries, who led the campaign to reduce the limit, earlier told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "Last night the Labour MPs were on a three-line whip to attend the chamber.

"When they arrived in the chamber, because normally only a third of them even vote on this issue, they were dragooned off into the 24-week lobby."

She said the government was "out of touch" with the public on the issue and Labour MPs had been "piling in" to "shore up" Mr Brown.

But Labour MP Kevin Barron, chairman of the Commons health committee, said there was no evidence of improvement in the survival rates of very premature babies.

He told the BBC: "If medical science was telling us that we ought to reduce the limit of weeks that we have, then maybe that's something that we should do, but it should be driven by science and not driven by some of the debate that we heard last night."

Under 9 weeks: 54.9%
9-12 weeks: 34.3%
13-19 weeks: 9.2%
20-24 weeks: 1.5%
ONS figures from 2006

The votes followed two impassioned debates on the controversial Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill - the biggest shake-up of fertility law for nearly 20 years.

Earlier the government saw off another challenge to the bill when MPs rejected a cross-party move for doctors to consider the need for a "father and a mother" before allowing IVF treatment.

Health Minister Dawn Primarolo insisted there was no evidence requiring the abortion laws to be changed and said changing it would force the small number of women seeking late abortions to go elsewhere.

"Wouldn't it be appalling if we drove women back to where they were before the 1967 (Abortion) Act?" she said.

Right to choose

She said the limit had always been linked to the "potential viability of the foetus outside of the womb".

"That was the case in 1967. It was the case in 1990 and certainly the case now."

Campaigners for and against lowering the abortion limit
The vote followed months of lobbying by both sides

During the debate Ms Dorries said she believed the right of a woman to choose had its limits.

"I believe a baby has rights. Those rights kick in if that baby were born it would have a chance of life and if it feels pain as part of the abortion," she said.

But Julie Bentley, chief executive of the Family Planning Association, welcomed the votes.


"FPA are delight that Parliament has resisted cynical attempts by anti-abortion campaigners to reduce access to safe, legal abortion," she said.

"Cutting the time limit, even by a few weeks, would have directly contradicted medical and scientific evidence about foetal viability and would only have exacerbated the desperation of the small percentage of women needing later abortion," she said.

But the All-Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group said Parliament had defied overwhelming public opinion and pledged to fight for later abortions to be banned.

Coordinator Ian Lucas said: "We are disappointed MPs have not seen fit to recognise the wishes of three quarters of the population by lowering the time limit.

"We will continue to fight to reflect the wishes of the public and support the rights of the unborn child."

A bid to cut the limit to 12 weeks was opposed by 393 votes to 71. A further attempt to get the limit down to 16 weeks was defeated by 387 votes to 84.

Bar chart showing dates at which abortions in England and Wales have been carried out from1971 to 2006

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific