David Steel: There is no case for changing the Abortion Act

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When, as a relatively new MP four decades ago, I was lucky enough to draw number three in Mr Speaker's Ballot for Private Members' Bills, I decided that abortion law reform was a definitely worthwhile reform and long overdue. The figures spoke for themselves. The number of deaths of women from criminal abortion showed up in the Home Office statistics each year as somewhere between 30 and 50, and that was only the tip of the iceberg. The public wards of every hospital had cases of either self-induced or botched abortion sufferers. It seemed to me a genuine social problem.

We did not create abortion on request, we created a state of law where there is a balance between the right of the foetus to develop to full life and the right of the women to have what I would call in the biblical phrase "abundant life". And that is a balance which only the medical profession can make.

It is interesting that since the 1967 Abortion Bill was finally enacted 40 years ago this week, so many of our neighbouring European countries have gone more down the route of the woman's right to choose, and have created a law where, in the early weeks of pregnancy, if a woman wants an abortion she can have one. Ours remains in the 1967 mode, that it is up to two doctors – not the woman – to decide on that balance.

So just as there is an active campaign to reverse the Abortion Act while the Embryo Bill goes through Parliament this summer, those who regard it as too restrictive are equally entitled to campaign for a more liberal law.

The debates in 1967 – and later in 1990 – were some of the best that we have had in the House of Commons. There was no party line or whips, people spoke very strongly in both directions and they were very highly charged debates indeed. People had strong feelings on the subject, and frankly, with an issue like abortion, they are not going to be changed by any amount of debate or argument. But I think everyone recognised that and there was little bitterness left afterwards.

I have always objected to people who say, "Oh, this is a Christian viewpoint," meaning this is the viewpoint of the Roman Catholic Church and some of the evangelicals in the Protestant churches. That is what they mean, but they attach themselves to the adjective "Christian".

But what helped me at the time was the report that the Church of England had produced in 1965 called Abortion: An Ethical Discussion, which I still maintain to this day is the best argued document from a Christian standpoint in favour of having a positive law on abortion. And it counteracted better than I could the arguments of the Roman Catholic Church. I had no difficulty reconciling my Christianity with abortion law reform. That remains true today.

People sometimes say that there are too many abortions. But the response is not to make the abortion law more restrictive, it is to have much better sex and relationships education, and much better provision of birth control services. One of the ironies is that most of the people who oppose a woman's right to get an abortion also oppose improved sex education and better access to contraception.

The effects of the Act have been wholly beneficial. In the first place the problem of the backstreet abortion and the criminal abortion has disappeared. Women don't attempt to abort themselves nowadays, they know that they can go to get help. When Dr John Marks retired as chair of council at the British Medical Association, he made some very interesting remarks about how he reckoned the Abortion Act was one of the biggest advances of social medicine in his career. I have no doubts about that.

Abortion is a subject that never goes away. You would think that passing the legislation would be it, but not at all. The problem is we are now looking at a generation of politicians and clergy who have no idea what the situation was before 1968. They just look at abortion and say, "Oh dear, you know, why do we have so many abortions, we must tighten up the law," without thinking what would be the effect of repealing or restricting the 1967 Act. We would be back to where we were before. That is not something to be desired.

The one thing we did change since 1967 was that we agreed in 1990 that the presumption of viability at 28 weeks was out of date and should come down to 24 weeks. The BMA, the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology and the national body representing neonatal paediatric specialists have now, on the basis of powerful recent research, concluded – and they are backed up by a House of Commons Science and Technology Committee report – that there has been no reduction in the threshold of viability to below 24 weeks. The expert medical professional bodies are of the view that there should be no further reduction in the upper time limit and I believe that politicians should be guided by them.

Lord Steel is former leader of the Liberal Party

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