Campaigners bid to preserve abortion limit

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Indy Politics

MPs on both sides of the abortion divide are embarking on a frantic final day of lobbying as the Commons prepares for crucial votes tonight that could cut the time limit on terminations for the first time in 18 years.

Campaigners working to preserve the current 24-week limit on abortions are embarking on a round of meetings with doctors and scientists in the hope of fending off attempts to cut the time limit to anything as low as 12 weeks during debate on the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill later today.

MPs backing a tightening of the law have tabled a string of amendments that could cut the limit on late abortions to 12, 14, 16, 18, or 20 weeks from the current limit, amid claims that medical advances have increased the possibility of premature babies surviving at such early stages of pregnancy.

But their opponents are branding advocates of reform as against abortion in principle and insisting there is no medical evidence for changing current thinking about the point at which an embryo becomes viable.

MPs were also wrangling over which amendments are likely to be called for a vote during the Bill's committee stage today. Yesterday MPs said the votes were too close to call, with MPs of all parties granted free votes on the highly contentious issue tonight.

Gordon Brown has said he will support the current 24-week limit, although several of his ministers are likely to vote for a lower limit.

David Cameron, the Tory leader, said he would back a lowering of the maximum time limit on abortion, although senior Tory backbenchers are among the leading campaigners on both sides of the argument.

Yesterday campaigners opposed to a change in the maximum time limit published a parliamentary motion backed by 86 MPs insisting that the current limit is "ethically and scientifically justified". Dr Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat MP, said reducing the abortion limit from 24 weeks would break the long-standing link between abortion laws and the point at which embryos can survive outside the womb.

"We are determined to make the point that if you want to keep the link with viability you can only vote for 24 weeks because that is what the medical profession consider is viable," he said.

Pro-life campaigners accused their opponents of tabling amendments to make abortion easier. John Smeaton, national director of the Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child, said amendments would allow a lone doctor to approve abortions. "If MPs vote for such amendments they will show they care as little for health and welfare of women as they do for unborn children," he said.

The key figures

Tonight's vote is the culmination of 18 months of campaigning. With MPs offered a free vote, rare alliances have formed. MPs demanding a reduction in the time limit are led by Nadine Dorries, the Tory MP whose "20 reasons for 20 weeks" campaign has the support of David Cameron. Other prominent figures include the Tories Edward Leigh and Ann Widdecombe, and the Labour MP Jim Dobbin. Many will look at how the Catholic cabinet ministers Ruth Kelly, Des Browne and Paul Murphy vote. The effort to maintain the status quo has united the Liberal Democrat, former GP Dr Evan Harris, who stresses the importance of science in decision making, the former Health Secretary Frank Dobson, and former Tory frontbencher John Bercow. They are backed by the academic biologist Dr Ian Gibson.