Cardinal seeks abortion law change

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The Roman Catholic Church today urged the Government to set up an inquiry into abortion laws, as it claimed there had been a "considerable" change in public opinion over the issue.

The Archbishop of Cardiff, the Rt Rev Peter Smith, said the pictures of foetuses "walking in the womb" published last year had touched people's hearts, and added to pressure for a lowering of the upper time limit on abortions.

"What has happened is that there has been a quite considerable change in public opinion, especially after those wonderful photographs of those scan pictures were published." he said on the BBC Breakfast television programme.

"I think that has touched a lot of people's hearts, quite rightly."

The Archbishop was speaking as Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the leader of Catholics in England and Wales, was today due to meet the Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt.

The Cardinal is expected to call for a lowering of the current 24-week limit on abortion at his meeting with Ms Hewitt.

The call comes amid concerns that medical advances have made it possible for some foetuses born before 24 weeks to survive after birth.

Archbishop Smith said the Catholic Church wanted the Government to set up a select committee in order to foster a "reasoned and reasonable" public debate on the issue.

He said the membership of the committee would be made up of appointments from both Houses of Parliament, and would invite expert witnesses to give evidence.

The move follows a highly publicised campaign by the Rev Joanna Jepson, a Herefordshire curate, who lost a legal battle to secure the prosecution of two doctors who carried out the abortion of a 28-week old foetus with a cleft palate.

The former Tory leader Michael Howard also indicated last year in the run-up to the General Election that he favoured reducing the limit on abortions from the 24th week of pregnancy to the 20th week.

Revolutionary 4-D ultrasound scans have also produced pictures of a 12-week-old foetus appearing to "walk" in the womb.

An Observer poll earlier this year found that the majority of women in Britain want the abortion laws tightened, to make it harder to terminate a pregnancy.

Cutting the time limit was backed by 47% of women, and another 10% were opposed to abortion under any circumstances - with just 2% backing later abortions.

But the Department of Health has said the Government has no plans to change the law on abortion, an issue traditionally left to a free vote by MPs.

A spokeswoman said: "It is accepted Parliamentary practice that proposals for changes in the law on abortion have come from backbench members and that decisions are made on the basis of free votes.

"The Government has no plans to change the law on abortion."

Doctors have also voted against calls for a new 20-week limit to recognise the medical advances which allow very premature babies to survive.

Melissa Dear, of fpa, formerly the Family Planning Association, said the organisation was against a reduction in the time limit.

"Only a small minority of women have abortions after 20 weeks - about 1% - and for these there are good reasons," she said.

"There may be genetic abnormalities or the women may be just before menopause or in their teens, when periods are irregular, and they may not have realised they were pregnant."

A spokesman for the Cardinal said: "He would like to see the Government welcome a Parliamentary inquiry into the 1967 Abortion Act to see how it can be reformed to meet the new concerns and the moral awakening in British society about abortion."

Department of Health statistics show that in 2004, for women resident in England and Wales, the total number of abortions was 185,400, compared with 181,600 in 2003, a rise of 2.1%.

The abortion rate was highest, at 31.9 per 1000, for women in the 18-19 and 20-24 age groups.

A total of 88% of abortions were carried out at under 13 weeks gestation and 60% were at under 10 weeks.