Jeremy Hunt, the new Health Secretary, supports halving the legal abortion limit from 24 weeks to 12 weeks after conception, it emerged last night.
Although he stressed the Government had no plans to alter the current cut-off, his surprise intervention will reopen the controversy over when abortions should be carried out.
His comments provoked immediate criticism last night from medical groups.
Mr Hunt said in an interview with The Times: "There's an incredibly difficult question about the moment we should deem life to start... I'm not someone who thinks that abortion should be made illegal.
"Everyone looks at the evidence and comes to a view about when that moment is and my own view is that 12 weeks is the right point for it."
He said he had previously voted in favour of a 12-week limit and had not changed his view.
Although he is a Christian, he said he had not reached his view because of his faith, adding: "There are some issues that cut across health and morality, a bit like capital punishment does for crime."
The limit was reduced from 28 to 24 weeks in 1990 to reflect medical advances. MPs voted to retain it in 2008, rejecting calls to reduce it to 22 or 20 weeks.
Maria Miller, the new Women's minister, this week said it should be lowered to 20 weeks because of the rapid advances in caring for extremely premature babies.
More than 90 per cent of abortions take place before 12 weeks, but critics said imposing that limit would effectively prevent testing for conditions such as Down's Syndrome.
The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists denounced the Health Secretary's comments as "insulting to women".
Kate Guthrie, a spokeswoman for the college of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, said: "If everybody had to have abortions by 12 weeks, my worry would be that women would be rushed into making decisions: 'I have to have an abortion now or I can't have one.'
"That's an absolute shocker. You will absolutely create mental health problems if you start dragooning women into making decisions before they have to."
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