Monday, August 23, 2004

Womb Pictures Prompt Abortion Reassessment

23/08/04 - News and city section
Womb pictures lead to abortion review
By Isabel Oakeshott, Evening Standard Political Correspondent

A major new challenge to abortion law is being made by MPs.

At least 100 MPs are pressing for a review of the legislation amid mounting concern over late terminations.

It comes after the Evening Standard published extraordinary pictures of young foetuses apparently "walking" in the womb.

The ultrasound images made a dramatic impact at Westminster - prompting many MPs to reconsider their own position on the issue.

Today they vowed to push for a major review - questioning whether women should be allowed to have abortions as late into pregnancy as current rules allow. Several MPs will compete to table Private Member's Bills on the issue.

But the debate will trigger bitter divisions at Westminster and expose MPs to frenzied lobbying by campaigners on both sides.

The scale of support for a review of the law emerged after the Standard canvassed opinion among backbench MPs. It emerged today that a total of 47 MPs from across the political spectrum have signed Early Day Motions welcoming the "amazing" images and calling for a review.

A straw poll by the Evening Standard today also reveals further support for change, with about 50 more MPs placing their views on record. The vast majority want a review.

Labour Left-winger and Father of the House Tam Dalyell said: "I voted for the abortion laws. But we need to look at the legislation again in the light of the latest medical evidence."

Labour backbencher Andy Burnham, regarded as one of the party's rising stars, said: "It has been off the agenda for about 20 years and it is time to look at it again. The law allows abortions when pregnancies are well advanced, and I do feel it is too long. I would not rule out putting up a Private Member's Bill."

Under current legislation, women can undergo terminations up to the 24th week of pregnancy - now significantly later than babies can survive outside the womb.

Among the political heavyweights known to favour a review of the law are Health Secretary John Reid and Liberal Democrat Sir David Steel - architect of the current legislation.

However, both Dr Reid and Tony Blair have made it clear they believe any new legislation should be tabled by a backbencher in a Private Member's Bill. All parties would give members a free vote.

The greatest consensus on the issue is within the Conservative party - with 13 out of 14 of those who responded to our straw poll saying they believed it was time for a review. Most Liberal Democrats also appear to be in favour of a review.

Labour backbenchers are most divided, with an equal number supporting and rejecting calls for a review and others undecided.

Because of Labour's huge majority, the view of its backbenchers - particularly female MPs - will be crucial to any vote. Some favour a review but are deeply wary of the emotions it is likely to inflame. Others believe the law is adequate.

Vera Baird, who is also a QC, said: "I would be in favour of reviewing the position in the light of the latest medical evidence. However the topic is a minefield of bigotry."

Another backbencher, London MP Julia Drown, said: "I don't want to go down that road because it would create such a furore. It will take up so much parliamentary time."