Leading article: Abortion and religion in a secular society

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The Independent Online

The head of the Catholic Church in England and Wales has met the Health Secretary, Patricia Hewitt, to argue for a change in the abortion law. Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor wants the 24-week limit to be lowered to keep pace with medical advances. A foetus now can be viable at 24 weeks; a reduction in the limit to 21, or even 18, weeks has been mooted.

We do not criticise the Cardinal's intervention. It is appropriate for the leader of the country's Catholics to speak on any issue about which he, or his congregation, has qualms. We would also note that it is a measure of how realistic the Catholic Church in this country has become that its leader is lobbying for a relatively small change in the law on legal abortion, rather than agitating for a return to an outright ban. The Vatican position on abortion, as on euthanasia, is that it violates the sanctity of life.

The way that Cardinal Murphy O'Connor has gone about representing his views also shows a proper respect for the institutions of power. By meeting the Health Secretary, he is acknowledging that law-making is a matter for the Government and for MPs. The Catholic Church may have its say, but legislation is not the province of the church. Even though we still have, in the Church of England, an established church, Britain is to all intents and purposes a secular state. In the modern age of global communications and cross-border mobility, this is a strength and not a weakness.

At present, we see little evidence that the abortion law needs alteration. After raising the question at their annual conference last year for the first time since 1989, doctors voted against asking for a change. Their reason, and ours, is that medical practice is already ahead of what any new law would require. Of all the abortions carried out in this country in 2004, only a tiny fraction were of foetuses older than 20 weeks. Almost 90 per cent took place before the foetus had reached 12 weeks. Late abortions are now so rare that they would probably be permitted as exceptions even if the law were changed.

Of course, not everyone agrees. Abortion made a fleeting appearance in last year's election campaign, when the then Conservative Party leader, Michael Howard, suggested that the legal limit might be reduced. Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor was quick to take up Mr Howard's musing, implying that good Catholics might hesitate to vote back a Labour government that seemed less open to changing the law than the Conservatives. We said then that, while there might be a case for reviewing the law, such a sensitive and essentially personal issue as abortion should be kept out of the election and held over to the new Parliament.

Thanks to the good sense of the politicians and the public, the issue of abortion, and the simplistic debate that so often accompanies it on the other side of the Atlantic, did not become part of the campaign. The failure of US anti-abortion campaigners to gain a significant following here or on the Continent, despite some high-profile and expensive efforts, reflects a profound difference between the new world and the old in the way religion interacts with society. Over here, abortion can be a medical issue and a psychological issue; it can be an issue of social ethics. For the woman - or couple - concerned, it is always an issue of conscience. But it should never be party-political.

The Government and Parliament should do the Cardinal the courtesy of listening to what he has to say; as they should with the leader of any significant church or pressure group. Listening, however, is not at all the same thing as legislating. If the abortion law is to be revisited, it must be done in a cool and calm atmosphere and after the widest possible consultation.