UK: Tory leader echoes pro-lifers on 'too easy' abortions
Sunday March 13 2005
Howard urges limits on 'too easy' abortions Tory leader sparks right-to-choose row
Gaby Hinsliff, political editor
Michael Howard is to make an explosive foray into the politics of personal
morality by declaring that abortions are too easy to obtain in Britain and
should be curbed.
In an interview to be published tomorrow, the Tory leader says that women
are effectively now able to get terminations 'on demand' - the rallying cry
of pro-lifers, who argue that legal safeguards designed to prevent abortions
for frivolous reasons are being ignored.
And he pledged to vote to cut the legal time limit for late abortions from
24 weeks - where it currently stands except in cases of serious handicap or
risk to the mother's life - to 20 weeks.
His intervention follows a vigorous debate over whether, now that premature
babies are routinely able to survive at an earlier age, the law should be
'I think that what we have now is tantamount to abortion on demand,' Howard
told Cosmopolitan magazine. 'I believe abortion should be available to
everyone, but the law should be changed. In the past I voted for a
restriction to 22 weeks, and I would be prepared to go down to 20.'
Pro-life MPs are determined to try to change the law in the next parliament,
but - since abortion is traditionally an issue for a private member's bill -
their chances of success rest on whether the next government would allow it
Asked the same question by Cosmopolitan, Tony Blair admitted abortion was a
'difficult issue', but added: 'However much I might dislike the idea of
abortion, you should not criminalise a woman who, in very difficult
circumstances, makes that choice. Obviously there is a time beyond which you
can't have an abortion, and we have no plans to change that, although the
debate will continue.'
Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, said he had voted for a time
limit of 22 weeks in the past, but added that advances in medicine mean that
'I don't know what I would do now'.
Pro-choice groups warned that restricting the time limit for abortions would
mean many women - particularly teenagers, who traditionally present late for
treatment, and mothers who only discover late on in a much-wanted pregnancy
that their child has a serious abnormality - would pay a heavy price.
'Young women make up a high percentage of late abortions: they often just
don't come forward,' said Anne Weyman, chief executive of the Family
Planning Association. 'They hope it's not true, or might have irregular
periods if they are young, so they may not be sure they are pregnant. There
are also issues around older women who are peri-menopausal and may think
there's no chance they are going to be pregnant.'
She said the effect of restricting the time limit would be to force women to
bear children they did not want: 'The interesting issue is why we should
wish to force any woman to continue with a pregnancy she doesn't want, by
saying we should make it harder for women.
'What is the benefit to women, or the potential child, of forcing a woman to
have a baby? What is the benefit to society - and what sort of life is that
child going to have? People will talk about adoption, but really what are
women supposed to be? Incubators?'
Only 0.6 per cent of abortions are carried out between 22 and 24 weeks, she
added. More than 50,000 women had terminations in the last quarter for which
figures are available, an all-time high.
Howard stressed his was a personal view, with all three parties supporting a
free vote on the issue. But Eleanor Laing, the Tory spokesman on women's
issues, said that while as a student she had marched for the right to
choose, she now supported the lowering of the limit.
'I have always thought that abortion has to be legal and controlled, because
there are tragic circumstances in which abortion has to take place,' she
said. 'But the real question is what is the time limit?'
In the last US election, abortion was a key dividing line between George
Bush and John Kerry, with religious voters indicating their willingness to
cast their vote depending on where the candidates stood.
It has been assumed that no similar 'morality vote' exists in more secular
Britain, but with the main parties relatively close on major issues, some
pollsters believe single issues are gaining importance.