Blair's protests fail to quell abortion debate

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Debate on whether the abortion laws should be changed is set to intensify as the Crown Prosecution Service decides on legal action against doctors who aborted a foetus for cleft-palate.

Debate on whether the abortion laws should be changed is set to intensify as the Crown Prosecution Service decides on legal action against doctors who aborted a foetus for cleft-palate.

The CPS is expected to announce its decision today on whether to prosecute two doctors in Hereford who were accused by a vicar of committing an offence by aborting a baby at 28 weeks for a minor ailment.

The outcome of the case is certain to renew demands for the law to be clarified and fuel the row over abortion, which continued to dominate the pre-election campaign yesterday.

Tony Blair's official spokesman called for a moratorium on the abortion issue after Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the leader of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain, backed Michael Howard, the Tory leader, in calling for the legal upper time limit to be reduced from 24 to 20 weeks.

Mr Blair's spokesman said: "The Prime Minister believes this is a matter for a free vote and conscience on both sides of the House. He believes it should be debated in a calm and rational non-partisan way. In his opinion it would be a pity if this did become a party political issue, or indeed a general election issue, when that comes."

The Rev Joanna Jepson, the vicar at the centre of the cleft palate case, described Mr Blair's refusal to change the law as "pathetic". She told The Independent she thought there was a "real lack of integrity'' by the Prime Minister on the issue and she welcomed Mr Howard's contribution to the debate. "I think it is good that politicians are taking notice of this issue," she said. "I support Michael Howard saying he would do something about abortion on demand. Tony Blair I think has been quite pathetic. He says he doesn't agree with abortion but he is not prepared to do anything about it. That to me shows he is not taking people's lives very seriously, both the unborn children and women."

Ms Jepson, 28, curate of St Michael's Church, Chester, suffered from a cleft palate at birth. She discovered from statistical returns that a child with a cleft palate had been aborted at 28 weeks - four weeks beyond the legal limit - because it was said to be suffering "serious handicap". West Mercia Police found no evidence that an offence had been committed by the doctors, but reopened the case after Ms Jepson sought a judicial review. The police report was submitted to the CPS in September, 2004.

The case has become a cause célèbre among "pro-life" groups who claim doctors are wrongly interpreting the law to allow abortion beyond 24 weeks.

Asked whether it was an issue that had changed her vote, Ms Jepson said: "It has changed my view about Tony Blair? If you are admitting there is a problem, and that you are against abortion but you are not prepared to do anything about it. There is a real lack of integrity there."

Jim Dobbin, the Labour chairman of the cross-party pro-life group of MPs, said there would be an attempt to change the law after the general election by introducing a private member's Bill. But he saidthe issue should not become a campaign issue.

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