The 40th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act will be marked this week with a fresh battle over the issue.
On Wednesday, Dawn Primarolo, the Public Health minister, will tell a Commons committee investigating whether the law needs to be changed that she has had no scientific evidence to support a lowering of the upper time limit for abortion from 24 weeks.
"We know that people hold incredibly strong views on either side of the argument, but Dawn will tell the MPs that she has seen no evidence for a change in the law," said one official, ahead of the Human Tissues and Embryos Bill's long passage through Parliament.
"We have been briefed by the experts ...and there is nothing that leads us to the conclusion based on the science that the time is right for the upper time limit to be reduced."
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams weighed in yesterday by warning that the spirit of the Act introduced by David Steel, the former Liberal leader, was in danger of being lost. He said the spiralling number of abortions to nearly 200,000 a year in England and Wales suggested there had been a shift from using abortion as a last resort. "When we hear that one-third of pregnancies in Europe end in abortion, we may well ask what has happened."
There are claims by Pro-Life campaigners who oppose the Act that it is being used as a form of contraception and that the original requirement that abortion should only be permitted on medical grounds had slipped into abortion on demand. There is also unease about the development of drugs to allow abortions to be self-induced in the home.
The legal upper time-limit for abortion was last reduced by a vote in Parliament from 28 weeks to 24 weeks. Images in 3-D showing the foetus apparently crying or smiling at only 12 weeks have increased the pressure on MPs to think again about whether abortion should be barred after 20 or 22 weeks gestation.
The MPs on the Science and Technology Committee who will quiz Ms Primarolo on Wednesday heard last week in evidence from a raft of medical experts that a major study will show that there has been no improvement in the survival rate of babies born before the legal abortion limit of 24 weeks.
But they were told that as many as 42 per cent of children born just 23 weeks survived at some top specialist centres.
The British Association of Perinatal Medicine, which represents specialists working with newborn children, warned that recent evidence did not support moves to reduce the current legal limit for abortion.
They said that the forthcoming Epicure 2 study of all very premature Babies born in England in 2006 would show "very similar" results to earlier research carried out in 1995.
Dr Bryan Gill, the association's secretary, said that "early indications are that for infants below 24 weeks of gestation, the survival to discharge home was very similar between the cohort of 1995 and 2006. Headline figures of approximately 10 to 15 per cent were found.
"This is important for those working in perinatal care, who ...do not believe that survival for babies born below 24 weeks of gestation had improved to such an extent that they would see any value in redefining the lower limit of viability."
But John Wyatt, professor of neonatal medicine at University College London, insisted the evidence showed significant numbers of children born before 24 weeks survived if they were treated at top specialist centres.Reuse content