The Government has called off a consultation on the way counselling is offered to women who are thinking of having an abortion, Health Minister Anna Soubry said today.
During a debate in Westminster Hall earlier, Ms Soubry said she had decided to call off the consultation because the Government had no intention of changing the law, adding that if ministers were to plough on regardless it would be an “otiose exercise”.
The minister added: “There is other work we should be doing on counselling. I take the view that this is not the primary function we should be addressing and that is why I have taken the decision that I have.”
Abortions are allowed in the UK under certain circumstances until an unborn baby has reached 24 weeks.
Ms Dorries said today that the legal limit should be reduced to 20 weeks as it was possible to save a premature baby born at 22 or 23 weeks. It could not be right that doctors tried to save some babies while at the same time ending the lives of others, she said.
She added that many voters wanted to see a change in the law and it could end up costing some MPs in marginal seats at the next general election if they continue to block reforms to the way abortions are carried out.
Ms Dorries added: “It is clear to me that we cannot allow the present situation that currently exists in our hospitals to continue. In one room in a hospital there will be a premature, poorly baby born at 22 or 23 weeks, and the NHS will throw everything that it has in helping that baby to survive.
“But in another room in the same hospital, a healthy baby will be aborted at 24 weeks. On the one hand we throw considerable money and resources to try and save a baby's life but on the other we sanction its destruction.
“The medical profession cannot make two arguments. Doctors cannot have it both ways. There is an anomaly and it has to end.”
But not every MP, speaking during what was a sometimes heated debate, was in favour of cutting the time limit.
Labour MP Seema Malhotra (Feltham and Heston) said: “The major professional bodies in the UK support the 24-week abortion time limit. There has been no significant change in survival rates. There are no statistics that make the case for reducing the limit.
“The majority of abortions in the UK take place at the early stage of pregnancy, 91% are carried out before 12 weeks gestation, only 1% take place after 20 weeks and this number has continued to fall year on year.”
A spokeswoman for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which would have had to send women seeking an abortion to a separate counsellor had the plans become law, welcomed today's announcement.
She said: “Current abortion counselling arrangements serve women well, and so BPAS is pleased to see the Government has dropped its plans to unnecessarily overhaul services.
“Calls to do so had been driven by a handful of MPs with an anti-abortion agenda who wished to create barriers in women's access to care.
“BPAS hopes that Government policy can now focus on efforts to support women trying to prevent pregnancy, and ensure the highest quality care for those who do need abortion services.”
In a statement released after the debate by the Department of Health, Ms Soubry added: “We have held a number of cross-party talks to look at improving abortion counselling and are extremely grateful to everyone who contributed to them.
“Following those discussions, we have decided that we are not going to have a separate consultation on counselling but set out our plans for improving counselling in our sexual health policy document which we are aiming to publish before the end of the year.
“The most important thing is that women get the help they need during a difficult time in their lives. We consider that this important issue can be most effectively addressed by considering counselling alongside all aspects of unplanned pregnancy rather than separately.”