The Government is facing a defeat over demands by senior Labour backbenchers for the most radical liberalisation of the abortion laws since the Abortion Act was introduced 40 years ago.
Labour MPs are threatening to overturn the Government's advice to hold to the status quo by supporting amendments to the Abortion Act to make it easier to obtain an abortion more quickly.
Dawn Primarolo, the Health minister who is flying back from South Africa today, is said by colleagues to be sympathetic to the calls for liberalisation, but will tell MPs on Monday that the Abortion Act is working and should not be tampered with.
Frank Dobson, the former health secretary, Evan Harris, a Liberal Democrat doctor and the Tory John Bercow are leading a cross-party campaign for abortion to be made easier with amendments to the Government's Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. MPs will be given free votes on the amendments on Monday.
The reformers want to lower the requirement for two doctors to sign their approval to one doctor. They want to allow abortions using drugs to be started in GPs' surgeries, rather than hospitals and to allow trained nurses and midwives to carry out the procedures. They also want women to have the right to administer the second stage of the drugs at home.
Mr Dobson said: "I think we will win. I hope and expect that everybody who voted to protect the upper time limit at 24 weeks will vote for these amendments. These amendments would make it easier for not very well informed women to have an abortion."
But there was a war of words with opponents of abortion. Nadine Dorries, the Tory MP for Mid-Bedfordshire and a former nurse, accused Mr Harris of an "evangelical pursuit of gynaecological blood sports".
Supporters of the liberalisation of abortion laws are confident there is a majority in favour of reform, particularly among Labour women MPs. They beat an attempt by Mrs Dorries and other opponents to tighten the abortion rules in May, when MPs voted to reject amendments to reduce the upper time limit for abortion from 24 weeks.
The amendments closely follow the recommendations of a cross-party committee on science and technology for liberalisation of the abortion laws to try to reduce the number of late abortions. The advice to reject the reforms is almost certain to lead to heated arguments over the issue of abortion.
Dr Howard Stoate, a Labour MP and chairman of the parliamentary primary care group, said he would support reducing the number of doctors required to approve an abortion and allowing nurses to carry out abortions, but he had reservations about allowing them to be conducted in GPs' surgeries.
MPs who want tighter abortion laws are also gearing up for Monday's showdown in the House of Commons.
Mrs Dorries has tabled an amendment to the Bill to prevent terminations after 20 weeks into the pregnancy – a four-week cut on the current limit.Reuse content