The Liberal Democrats in Harrogate: Pro-abortion vote is final blow for Alton

THE FERVENT anti-abortion campaigner David Alton declared yesterday that he would be unable to contest the next election as a Liberal Democrat after the party voted for the right of all women to have access to a legal abortion on the NHS within 14 days of asking.

The conference vote was a disappointment for Mr Alton's fellow MPs who had hoped to keep him on board by preserving the status quo under which abortion was seen as an issue for personal conscience, not party policy.

However Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, observed that Mr Alton had played no part in building the new party - a comment which stung Mr Alton and prompted suggestions at Harrogate that he might resign the party whip in the Commons.

Women Liberal Democrats argued that the motion demanding equal access to NHS terminations was not about changing the law but ensuring its fair implementation. But for Mr Alton, whose passionate advocacy of the anti-abortion case has led to an uneasy relationship with the rest of his party, it was the final blow.

'It is a Rubicon which I cannot cross. For me it is a life and death issue. Obviously in the circumstances I will not be able to stand again as a Liberal Democrat,' the MP said. He has held his Liverpool Mossley Hill seat since 1979 and said he would continue to serve in this Parliament.

Mr Alton's parliamentary colleagues expressed polite regrets at his decision but little remorse. Mr Ashdown said: 'It is sad that he feels he cannot stand again, but he has played no part in either the building of the party or campaigning for it for four years now.

'His departure, though sad, will not in any way alter the effectiveness of our party or our capacity to put our message across.'

Supporting the motion, Sara Tustin, chair of the Young Liberal Democrats of England, said: 'This is not a matter for political evangelism.' But for Mr Alton, a devout Catholic, abortion has been just that. In 1987 he resigned as the party's chief whip in order to bring in a Bill to lower the time limit for abortions from 24 weeks to 18. The measure was 'talked out', and since then Mr Alton has refused to take a portfolio.

The motion's supporters said the abortion law was interpreted leniently in some areas and strictly in others. Hilary Campbell, chair of the Women's Liberal Democrats, asked: 'Are we a party that says that legal medical procedures depend on the ability to pay?'

Approved by a large majority, the motion acknowledged abortion was an issue of individual conscience, but said the law should be applied consistently across the country. It said NHS employees must have the right to refuse to participate in abortions but must refer the patient to a colleague who is willing to do so.

Fuelling the controversy, an amendment was carried stating that NHS provision should ensure access to a legal termination within 14 days of one being sought. Lorna Spenceley of Harlow said this amounted to 'abortion on demand within a fortnight'.

Mr Alton's decision was supported by John Hemmingway, president of the Mossley Hill Liberal Democrats, and Lil Boughton, their acting chair. Mrs Boughton told the conference: 'I have always passionately believed that all life is precious and that it is simply not possible to achieve justice for women by injustices against their unborn children.'

Mr Alton, who did not speak in the hour-long debate, told a fringe meeting last night that the vote had not only created policy where previously none existed but would force doctors and nurses to refer patients for an abortion even if they were morally and ethically opposed to abortions.

Referring to a document on animal rights before the conference, he said: 'Rights will even be extended to goldfish in plastic bags on sale at fairgrounds. Isn't it a twisted irony that the same rights and concern for conscience is not extended to our own species?'

Sir David Steel, sponsor of the 1967 Abortion Act, regretted the conference vote and Mr Alton's decision. 'We have always got along on the basis of respected differing views. It is a pity that the party as a whole could not have let the matter rest there.'

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist / Physio / Osteopath

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for o...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager / Sales Executive - Contract Hire

£35000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This industry leader provides c...

Recruitment Genius: Project Coordinator

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Project Coordinator is requir...

Recruitment Genius: Area Sales Manager - Midlands

£20000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

John Palmer: 'Goldfinger' of British crime was murdered, say police

Murder of the Brink’s-MAT mastermind

'Goldfinger' of British crime's life ended in a blaze of bullets, say police
Forget little green men - aliens will look like humans, says Cambridge University evolution expert

Forget little green men

Leading evolutionary biologist says aliens will look like humans
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

An Algerian scientist struggles to adjust to her new life working in a Scottish kebab shop
Bodyworlds museum: Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy

Dying dream of Doctor Death

Dr Gunther von Hagens has battled legal threats, Parkinson's disease, and the threat of bankruptcy
UK heatwave: Temperature reaches 39.8 degrees on Central Line - the sweatiest place in London

39.8 degrees recorded on Tube

There's hot (London) and too damn hot (the Underground). Simon Usborne braved the Central line to discover what its passengers suffer
Kitchens go hi-tech: From robot chefs to recipe-shopping apps, computerised cooking is coming

Computerised cooking is coming

From apps that automatically make shopping lists from your recipe books to smart ovens and robot chefs, Kevin Maney rounds up innovations to make your mouth water
Jessie Cave interview: The Harry Potter star has published a feminist collection of cartoons

Jessie Cave's feminist cartoons

The Harry Potter star tells Alice Jones how a one-night stand changed her life
Football Beyond Borders: Even the most distruptive pupils score at homework club

Education: Football Beyond Borders

Add football to an after-school homework club, and even the naughtiest boys can score
10 best barbecue books

Fire up the barbie: 10 best barbecue books

We've got Bibles to get you grilling and smoking like a true south American pro
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Junk balls and chop and slice are only way 5ft 1in Kurumi Nara can live with Petra Kvitova’s power
Ron Dennis exclusive: ‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

‘This is one of the best McLaren teams ever – we are going to do it’

Ron Dennis shrugs off a poor start to the season in an exclusive interview, and says the glory days will come back
Seifeddine Rezgui: What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?

Making of a killer

What motivated a shy student to kill 38 holidaymakers in Tunisia?
UK Heatwave: Temperatures on the tube are going to exceed the legal limit for transporting cattle

Just when you thought your commute couldn't get any worse...

Heatwave will see temperatures on the Tube exceed legal limit for transporting cattle
Exclusive - The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Swapping Bucharest for London

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Meet the man who swapped Romania for the UK in a bid to provide for his family, only to discover that the home he left behind wasn't quite what it seemed
Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Cheaper energy on the way, but it's not all sunshine and rainbows

Solar power will help bring down electricity prices over the next five years, according to a new report. But it’s cheap imports of ‘dirty power’ that will lower them the most