Speech on Abortion

Ann Widdecombe/1987

Category: Abortion

l support the Bill. I am motivated by the fact that it endeavours to do what the 1967 Act lamentably failed to achieve. It tries to define where life starts, and the rights of one individual over the life of another.

We all accept that if someone is born perfectly healthy and then, through illness or a major accident, becomes grossly handicapped, that person still has the right to live and is classified as a separate human being with full civil rights. We all accept that if a child is damaged because something goes wrong at birth, such as oxygen failure, that child is a human being with fully established civil rights, and has the right to live, no matter how handicapped.

We do not allow a woman to choose whether to continue a pregnancy when she is more than 28 weeks pregnant. We already say that there must be some restriction of one individual's right of determination over another's right to live. I support the Bill because it asks whether we have got it right (the current restrictions) and if not why not and what should be the correct limit.

The Bill has been described by various hon. Members who oppose it as muddled. I maintain strongly that the 1967 Act was a muddle. The 1967 Act said that what is in the womb is not life because a woman has a right of abortion under certain loose circumstances. It also said that perhaps it is life, and perhaps we should protect it, so we shall define the circumstances in which a woman can have an abortion, be they ever so loose. It fudged the issue. We must decide when life is life and must be fully and absolutely respected, as hon. Members would respect each other's lives. It has been widely accepted that babies survive at 24 weeks, although it would be conceded by my hon. Friends, that it is a massive struggle and only a minority survive, but they survive.

I find it deeply objectionable - l will not use a pejorative word such as obscene - that we have a law that permits two babies to leave their mother's womb at 24 weeks; one is cherished while its life is fought over, and all the medical resources in the country are poured into saving it and its parents desperately want it to live, while the other is wilfully destroyed, being - taken from its mother's womb unnaturally at the same age. I find that impossible to accept as a mark of a civilised society.

I find it unacceptable that we should have those two completely separate attitudes towards a child of the same age. It is even reflected in our language. I have never heard a woman who lost a baby prematurely say that she lost her foetus; she says she has lost her baby. Yet when we decide that we will wilfully destroy a 24-week-old baby, we call it a foetus. That is a dual standard. I am concerned that the Abortion Act 1967 legislated for that standard, and l want to see a revision.

Where do we draw the line? Is it at the presently recorded lowest survival rate of 24 weeks for permanent survival and 23 weeks for temporary survival, or at the point where we think medical science will move in the foreseeable future, or do we recognise as life the time when a child is fully formed, is sentient and can feel pain and react to stimuli? We have all reached different decisions of conscience. The Bill is a valid attempt to set down a line, and l support the line that the Bill has set down.

I recognise fully that other hon. Members have different opinions. For the sake of the 92 per cent of healthy children who are aborted over the age of 18 weeks l would not stick doctrinally to a position where the exceptions were so narrow that the Bill would be lost through that. I would rather compromise, even if it goes against what l personally believe, in order to save that 92 per cent. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East (Mr. MacKay) is not here to hear me say this, because his major concern was that he did not trust the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) to put together a Committee that would be capable of absorbing that compromise. As an anti-abortionist, l will face that compromise if by doing so l can save unborn life and many of my hon. Friends would take that view. 1.

The same goes for the line we draw. To be perfectly honest, I would draw the line below the one that the hon. Member for Mossley Hill has drawn, but if in order to save a certain proportion of unborn life l must accept a slightly higher line, l will, with reluctance, accept that line. All that l ask is that this important Bill which fills a gap that the 1967 Act left unaddressed and attempts to define the rights of individuals who cannot speak for themselves, should have a chance to be fully examined and to return to the House for final approval or disapproval. l would say to my hon. Friend the Member for Berkshire, East: let us not shut the door this morning This matter is too important. We must keep the door open because what finally emerges will be a wise, humane and civilised Bill; and the present legislation fulfils non of those criteria.

Footnote:There was a strong body of opinion arguing that handicapped children should be exempted from the proposed 18 week limit. Figures showed that only 8% of those aborted after the eighteenth week were handicapped. Pro Lifers were divided over whether to resist any exemptions to the eighteenth week limit and thereby risk losing the Bill or as AnnWiddecombe was indicating here to build in an exemption for serious handicap.