Abortions will remain legal for up to 24 weeks into pregnancy after MPs rejected a series of attempts to cut the limit after an impassioned debate in the House of Commons.
In the first test of parliamentary opinion on abortion for 18 years, supporters of a reduction called votes on reducing the limit to 12, 16, 20 and 22 weeks.
But they were thrown out by decreasing majorities, with calls for the 22-week maximum defeated by 304 to 233 votes, a margin of 71. Cheers erupted in the Commons chamber as the final result was announced late last night. David Cameron, the Tory leader, supported 20- and 22-week limits. But Gordon Brown and much of his Cabinet favoured retaining the current 24-week maximum.
Campaigners for a lower limit argued that foetuses were becoming viable at earlier stages of pregnancy and protested that most other European countries banned abortions at such a late stage. Opponents of the move insisted that only a tiny minority of terminations took place after 20 weeks and then mainly on medical grounds. They also maintained that attempts to reduce the limit were the "cynical" opening shots of an attack against abortion in general.
The party leaders granted free votes on a succession of amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, which modernises legislation on stem cell research and reproductive medicine.
Emotions ran high – and traditional party loyalties became blurred – during the three-hour debate on abortion. Edward Leigh, a former Conservative minister, who proposed a 12-week limit, said public opinion had shifted in favour of a reduction and argued that abortion laws were "out of step" with many other countries.
He told MPs: "We believe an unborn child of 12 weeks has undeniable human characteristics – her organs, her muscles, her nerves have begun to function. She has fingernails and toenails She needs nothing more than a few months to stay in the safety of her mother's womb for her to become a child."
The Tory MP Nadine Dorries, who argued for a 20-week limit, said there had to be limits to a woman's right to choose. She said she had reached this view after witnessing the "botched" abortion of a male foetus in her former career as a gynaecological nurse.
She said: "I believe a baby has rights. Those rights kick in when if that baby were born it would have a chance of life and if it feels pain as part of the abortion."
Abortion was legalised in 1967 and the upper limit for terminations reduced from 28 to 24 weeks in 1990, the last time the issue was put to MPs.
Dawn Primarolo, the Health minister, said there was no scientific evidence to warrant a further reduction in the limit.
She said: "It has always been linked to the potential viability of the foetus outside of the womb. That was the case in 1967. It was the case in 1990 and certainly the case now."
Four lower limits were put to MPs in a series of votes. They first threw out a call to bring in a 12-week maximum by 393 votes to 71, a majority of 322.
Supporters of this limit included three Roman Catholic cabinet ministers – Des Browne, the Defence Secretary, Ruth Kelly, the Transport Secretary, and Paul Murphy, the Welsh Secretary.
A move to reduce the limit to 16 weeks was defeated by 387 votes to 84, a margin of 303.
A 20-week maximum, was rejected by 332 votes to 190, a majority of 142. The closest vote was the last, when a 22-week limit was defeated by 304 votes to 233, a majority of 71 and a wider margin than some MPs had expected.
That defeat meant that the current 24-week limit automatically stays in place and the scale of the votes means a fresh attempt to cut the limit is unlikely for several years.
A series of contentious issues were aired during two days of debate in the committee stage of the Bill.
On Monday MPs approved the creation of human-animal hybrid embryos for research and of genetically matched "saviour siblings" to help seriously ill older brothers or sisters. They also removed the requirement for clinics to consider a child's "need for a father" before single mothers and lesbian couples are given fertility treatment.
But the abortion debate proved the most heated. The Labour MP Julie Morgan said that many of those seeking to cut the time limit were "anti-abortion". She said: "Any attempt to reduce the abortion limit of 24 weeks, even to 22 weeks, is an attack on abortion generally."
Ann Widdecombe, a former Tory minister, warned of "moral anarchy" over the treatment of babies.
She said: "We have in this country at the moment a situation in which you can have two children, of exactly the same age and gestation – exactly the same – and one is in a cot with all the resources of medical science being poured into saving it and the other is quite deliberately being taken from the womb and destroyed."
After the votes, the Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris, one of the most vocal supporters of the existing limit, accused anti-abortion MPs of using "made-up statistics".
But the Labour MP Ian Lucas said: "We are disappointed MPs have not seen fit to recognise the wishes of three quarters of the population by lowering the time limit. We will continue the fight to reflect the wishes of the public, and support the rights of the unborn child."
The law and medical evidence
The 1967 Abortion Act, which resulted from a private member's bill brought by David Steel MP, is still the law governing abortions in England, Scotland and Wales. The legal time limit for abortions was 28 weeks.
The Act does not apply in Northern Ireland, where abortion is permitted only in cases where the mother's life is at risk, or her pregnancy endangers her mental or physical health.
The Human Embryology and Human Fertilisation Act 1990 brought the limit down to 24 weeks. It permitted abortion after 24 weeks if the woman's life was at grave risk, if she was at grave risk of physical or mental injury, and if there was evidence of severe foetal abnormality. In 2006, 193,000 abortions were performed. Of those, 89 per cent took place before 13 weeks and 1.5 per cent were after 20 weeks. Of those after 20 weeks, 90 per cent were performed between 22 and 24 weeks.
A study last month in the British Medical Journal compared severely premature births in England in 2006 with those in 1995. At 24 weeks, 47 per cent survived compared with 35 per cent in 1995. At 25 weeks, 67 per cent lived compared with 54 per cent in 1995. Survival rates among those born at 23 weeks rose from 19 per cent to 26 per cent, but the results were not thought statistically significant.Reuse content