UK: Tory leader one ups Blair with anti-abortion stand
The Scotsman -- Edinburgh -- Wednesday March 16 2005
The Tory leader has won the Catholic Church's unsolicited backing.
WHERE would we be without Cosmo? Until now, the election had been all about
taxation, immigration and shoulder operations. But the latest edition of
Cosmopolitan magazine has plonked the incendiary issue of abortion into the
middle of the campaign.
Tony Blair, Michael Howard and Charles Kennedy each relaxed on the Cosmo
couch, pouring their hearts out to the womenâ€™s vote. Blair was equivocal,
Kennedy admitted to being clueless and Howard wanted the abortion rules
Then, out of nowhere, the Roman Catholic Church declared that Mr Howard had
answered best. All of a sudden, the Conservative leader has found himself on
the right side of a growing argument.
The shellshock in Labour is palpable. First, Mr Blair was hijacked by Tory
council-tax cuts, then by its stunt about Margaret Dixonâ€™s cancelled
shoulder operation, and now the Tories seem to be winning the Catholic vote.
Isnâ€™t he, Blair, the one who attends mass every Sunday with his family?
Isnâ€™t he, by common consent, the most religious occupant of 10 Downing
Street since the devout Gladstone was whipping himself in its study?
Could a Prime Minister who takes the Bible with him every time he travels
abroad, and has as his Chancellor a son of the manse, be outflanked on
Christian morality by a Conservative Party - where three of the top four men
Famously, this doesnâ€™t matter in politics. The pro-life groups donâ€™t
care much about whether the candidate shares their faith. Catholics deserted
John F Kerry in the American presidential election, angry about his
equivocal position on abortion.
What matters is what people stand for - and the Conservative leader has
cleverly (and probably quite by accident) given a wink to the religious
groups who feel very much embattled.
Abortion is the great taboo of British politics, yet the issue has been
transformed since Sir David Steel delivered his groundbreaking private
memberâ€™s bill in 1967 allowing abortion for the first time.
His law was intended to make life easier for desperate women who otherwise
sought backstreet abortions - he did not intend the NHS to be used as a
lifestyle tool for so-called "social abortions". Sir David now wants the
laws to be tightened because he never expected the boom in abortion that has
In 1970, three years after legalisation, there were 5,200 abortions in
Scotland. Ten years later, it had jumped to 7,890 a year, and in 1990 it was
10,200 a year. Today, it is at a level so high that the statistics seem
concocted. In Scotland, one in every five pregnancies now ends in abortion.
Itâ€™s a staggering figure, but itâ€™s there in black and white: in the year
to March 2003, according to the NHS, doctors delivered 50,200 babies and
carried out 12,200 abortions.
Those studying Scotlandâ€™s falling population often point to the "low
fertility rate". Scottish women, it is argued, have the lowest fertility in
Britain - a crude rate of 10.1 per 1,000 people as against 12 in Denmark and
15 in Ireland. But this birth rate has little to do with fertility, and much
more to do with the fact that the NHS is carrying out an abortion every 40
minutes in Scotland. Little wonder the population is thinning.
So, carrying on from Cosmoâ€™s question, is this rate excessive? Itâ€™s
actually higher in England, where one in four of London pregnancies ends in
abortion, and the UK termination count is just under 200,000 a year.
Is this figure cause for concern? Many campaigners argue that it is not:
itâ€™s all about the basic, inalienable right of personal choice. And
weâ€™re mostly talking about foetuses terminated after less than ten weeks.
But this is an argument that MPs have reacted to with blind panic. Moral
issues have a habit of boomeranging back on the party. Abortion, in
particular, is seen as a no-win situation.
Go against abortion, and face the fury of various womenâ€™s rights
organisations - and the label of being a religious fundamentalist. Talk
about a womanâ€™s "right over her own body" and lose votes from the growing
No wonder Tony Blair was anxious when Cosmo popped the question. Itâ€™s a
"difficult issue", he told the magazine. "I dislike the idea of abortion,
but you should not criminalise a woman who, in very difficult circumstances,
makes that choice." So does the Labour leader propose changing the law? We
have no idea.
Charles Kennedy was, at least, upfront in his dodging the question. "I
donâ€™t know what I would do now," said the Liberal Democrat leader. But Mr
Howard declared, quite simply, that he would make abortions illegal after 20
weeks, down from todayâ€™s limit of 24 weeks. And he went further: "I think
what we have is tantamount to abortion on demand." The law, he said, must
IT WAS, as far as it went, a masterstroke. The Conservative Party has no
policy on abortion, save to give time to a debate on tightening rules. Yet
Mr Howard has won over the Roman Catholic Church with this paltry offering.
And this brings up the bizarre assumption that Catholics vote Labour. This
is mainly a relic from a bygone era when Labour was the party of Irish
immigrants who feared discrimination. Itâ€™s hardly true now.
Most of Britainâ€™s registered Catholics donâ€™t attend church regularly,
and, of those who do, the majority will not take their voting orders from
the pulpit. But abortion is not the preserve of Catholics. British Muslims
are every bit as interested in life issues: it is the consensus of the
fuqaha, the body of Islamic scholars, that abortion is outlawed by the
Koran. Many Christian groups are just as angry about it.
Sir Davidâ€™s drive to halve the time limit for an abortion to12 weeks is
not driven by religious zeal. Indeed, no-one in the abortion debate thinks
it is anything other than a tragedy: the question is where to draw the line.
Itâ€™s a political question that can only be decided in the House of Commons
- which is why itâ€™s entirely appropriate to be included in a general
Mr Blairâ€™s alarm over the question is fascinating. Through his official
spokesman, the Prime Minister said that "the debate should be calm, rational
and non-partisan" and it would be a "pity" for it to become an issue in the
general election campaign.
It is a brave (or worried) man who tells the British public what to think at
election time. Itâ€™s difficult to close issues like this down with the
age-old refrain: no "life" issues, please - weâ€™re British.
So, is Mr Howard clever enough to capitalise on this? He has won the
unsolicited backing of the Catholic Church thanks to off-the-cuff comments
in a Cosmo interview. Could he continue to ride this wave?
Itâ€™s unlikely. The Conservative Party is full of people whose religion is
the freedom of the individual: they believe the right to choice is
paramount. And they will be concerned; those against tightening abortion
rules will know there is a storm brewing.
Momentum behind the issue is so great that an abortion debate is bound to be
held soon - with the issue being decided by MPs who are now begging for our
Mr Blair is worried for a simple reason: there is no better time to let the
new batttle over abortion begin.