The last thing British politics needs before an election is a debate over abortion

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The Independent Online

There are very many things that the coming general election should be about. It should be about the Prime Minister's judgement. It should be about the war in Iraq. It should be about the economy, about law and order, about the future of public services, about the performance of the constituency MP. But there is one thing it should most decidedly not be about - and that is abortion.

There are very many things that the coming general election should be about. It should be about the Prime Minister's judgement. It should be about the war in Iraq. It should be about the economy, about law and order, about the future of public services, about the performance of the constituency MP. But there is one thing it should most decidedly not be about - and that is abortion.

That this whole vexed question has somehow landed on the fraught pre-election agenda may be largely down to chance. The question was posed to Michael Howard and other party leaders by Cosmopolitan magazine. As Mr Howard quite reasonably said yesterday: "I was asked a straight question and I gave a straight answer." His preference for a reduction in the time limit on abortions, he insisted, was his personal view. So far, so good.

What happened next, however, was rather less good. The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, seized on Mr Howard's stance as "something we can commend on the way to a full abandonment of abortion". He added for good measure that whereas, in the past, Catholics were perceived to have been more at home in the Labour Party, that might not be so true today. He created the clear impression that a good Catholic might now think twice about voting Labour.

The personal had suddenly become political. The dread prospect loomed of an American-style campaign that turned on "values", co-opted the churches and made a candidate's attitude to abortion the measure of everything else he or she represented. It is hard to imagine a more malign development in British electoral campaigning.

Thus far, thank goodness, it is one that Britain, along with most European countries, has managed to avoid. Abortion has been legal in this country since 1967. The passage of the original Bill, and all subsequent updating, was subject to a free vote. Abortion was, and is, rightly considered a matter of conscience. It has never been, and must never become, a hostage of party, or personal, politics.

There may be a case, in the light of recent medical progress, for the present 24-week time limit on abortion to be reviewed. Extremely premature babies can now be helped to survive. Recent photographs of even very young foetuses have also persuaded some people to reconsider their permissive attitude to abortion. Even Lord Steel, who steered the initial legislation, has recently suggested a tightening of the law.

Any reopening of the issue of legal time limits on abortion, however, should await the next parliament. We have seen, with the Prevention of Terrorism Bill, what happens when time is too short and a matter of high principle becomes tied up in pre-election jockeying. It is far better for the law to err on the side of liberalism than to be hastily amended in the opposite direction. If and when there is a new debate, it should be properly informed by all the available medical and other evidence and, of course, subject to a free vote.

In these days of legal abortion and available birth control, it is all too easy to forget the misery many women suffered for want of both. There must be no retreat from the principle of legal abortion in the early weeks of a pregnancy. At the same time, information about birth control should be more widely publicised and the means, including the morning-after pill, should be even more accessible than they already are. Abortion is never the contraceptive method of choice.

For the time being, we draw some consolation from the way politicians have responded to the precipitate return of abortion into public discussion. All three party leaders rushed to stress that they had no intention of making abortion into an election issue. All three insisted that the views they had expressed to Cosmopolitan were personal, not party-political. Abortion, the Prime Minister made clear, was "non-partisan" and "a matter of conscience". Let us hope it stays that way for the rest of the campaign.

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