Fiona Bruce is MP for Congleton.
Hanging on the coat-tails of the momentum created by the Irish referendum, a group of MPs are campaigning to remove abortion from the criminal law.
‘Decriminalisation’, they call it – because we apparently need a ‘modern’ abortion law. At first glance, this might seem reasonable. Compassionate, even – until you realise the shocking extremism of their demands. It is easy to be confused here, because the Sunday shows were full of talk of extending abortion to Northern Ireland.
Let’s end the confusion. This campaign is not just about Northern Ireland. Itis about liberalising abortion law in the whole of the UK. As Stella Creasy tweeted yesterday: “Please ask your MP to stand with us repealing OAPA so that the whole of the U.K. can have modern abortion laws including Northern Ireland.”
The OAPA is the Offences Against the Person Act, 1861. This is the core statute governing abortion in England and Wales. It provides that abortion (procuring miscarriage) is a grave offence. The Abortion Act, 1967, sets out exceptions to these offences, which are interpreted very broadly. Indeed, despite what some of campaigners suggest, we have one of the most liberal abortion laws in the world.
Our 24 week abortion limit is twice the EU average. Most other countries impose a 12 week limit. This isn’t entirely arbitrary – 12 weeks is the time of the first ultrasound scan, where, for anyone who has been through it – as I have – it is impossible to see the child in utero as anything other than a baby (which, by the way, is universally the term that midwives will use at this point). Ireland’s proposed (and entirely “modern”) law will also be 12 weeks. Our 24 week limit is already much, much too long, extending beyond the point at which premature babies have been known to survive outside the womb. And we don’t even have a limit for abortion for ‘serious handicap’ (also the legal term), in which case abortion is permissible to birth. Yes, we have up-to-birth abortion for disability in this country.
So if these campaigners really wanted a ‘modern law’ they would back a reduction in the upper-time limit. But that is not what they want. They want to repeal sections 58 and possibly 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act (OAPA). If they’re really wanting to remove abortion from the criminal law, they will also seek to repeal the Infant Life Preservation Act, 1929 (ILPA) which still stands on the statue book and criminalises ‘child destruction’.
Without the OAPA, the exceptions outlined in the Abortion Act, 1967 become redundant. There is no longer any offence to need a defence. Even if they were to leave the ILPA and Abortion Act in place (which, would be a funny kind of ‘decriminalisation’), they seem to have overlooked that these two Acts of Parliament bear no relation to each other any more – they were decoupled in the early 1990s. So the Abortion Act (as amended) would have no use whatsoever. It would itself need to be repealed.
What would be the effect of such a change?
The upper time limit would be completely abolished. Stripping this of the jargon, this means abortion throughout pregnancy. Campaigners respond that medical regulation would be enough to govern the practice of abortion in the U.K. What they are not telling you is that there would be nothing in primary legislation to prevent a doctor (who was willing) from stopping the beating heart of a child one day before birth.
Time-limits are only half of the story. According to our current law, those seeking abortion have to persuade a doctor that continuing the pregnancy would be bad for their mental health. Pro-choice campaigners don’t like this. They often argue that those seeking abortion should not have to offer any reason. This is what is called abortion-on-demand, and it is what Stella Creasy’s team would like to see in the U.K. But, this, too, is obfuscation. As every GP knows, the law has been interpreted so liberally, that the effect has been to provide for abortion on demand up to 24 weeks. Even Ann Furedi, whose tax-funded organisation, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, is leading the ‘decriminalisation’ campaign admitted as much. She said: “Nevertheless the law, which appears highly restrictive on paper, can be interpreted liberally by doctors… And, because the law has been interpreted in this way, it has met the needs of many women…”
Let’s go back to basics. No-one with knowledge of developments in embryological/ foetal science over the past 25 years will argue that a pregnancy is not a human being. The pro-life position is simply that denying smaller human beings rights is illogical and inconsistent. This is not a religious argument. When Christopher Hitchens, no fan of religion, was asked “do you consider yourself pro-life”, he replied:
“If the concept ‘child’ means anything, the concept ‘unborn child’ can be said to mean something. And all the discoveries of embryology, which have been very considerable in the last generation or so, and of viability, appear to confirm that opinion, which I think should be innate of everyone. It’s innate in the Hippocratic Oath. It’s instinct in anyone who’s ever watched a sonogram, and so forth. So ‘yes’ is my answer.”
Creasy will reportedly attempt to secure an urgent question on the issue today, and is hoping for an urgent debate (and possibly a vote). MPs should be not be duped. Bringing our law into line with other ‘more modern’ ones would mean passing more restrictive legislation. The truth is that this is bald opportunism – using Northern Ireland as leverage to attempt to introduce an extreme law that would see abortion on demand throughout pregnancy, with the convenient side effect that it will also weaken our Government’s position. We should resist it.