Page last updated at 14:09 GMT, Wednesday, 21 May 2008 15:09 UK

'Fight continues' on abortions

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

Pro-life campaigners have vowed to continue their fight to cut the abortion limit after the next election.

MPs voted to keep the current 24-week cut-off following an impassioned Commons debate and a series of attempts to lower it to 12, 16 or 22 weeks.

There was a free vote but Labour MPs mostly backed the status quo - leaving anti-abortion campaigners pinning their hopes on a change of government.

Pro-choice groups attacked "cynical" attempts to cut the limit.

The closest vote, on a 22-week limit, was thrown out by 304 votes to 233. Tory MP Nadine Dorries' proposal for a 20 week limit was defeated by 332 votes to 190.

Most Conservative MPs voted for a 22 week limit, while Lib Dem MPs split into two camps - with most senior figures voting for the status quo.

It is only a matter of time before, once again, this issue does come back to the Commons
Mark Hunter
Liberal Democrat MP

Attempts to lower the cut-off to 12 and 16 weeks were overturned by even bigger margins.

Ian Lucas, coordinator of the all-party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, said: "We will continue the fight to reflect the wishes of the public and support the rights of the unborn child."

And Lib Dem Mark Hunter told BBC Radio 4's World at One programme: "I am absolutely confident that the debate in the country will continue and it is only a matter of time before once again this issue does come back to the Commons."

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

Issue of conscience?

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

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, 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."

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

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.

However, Labour's Louise Elman insisted there was "no pressure" on her or her colleagues to vote a certain way.

"On these particular points of specific controversy there was no pressure, there was no whip - people voted as their consciences led them to."

The votes followed two highly-charged 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.

'Viability'

HAVE YOUR SAY
Only in very exceptional circumstances should a termination be carried out later than 22 weeks
Sue, Oxford, UK

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.

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."

And 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.

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





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