The Spectator

Fit for debate

There is an unanswerable case for having a debate on the important question question of abortion

When Michael Howard was asked about abortion by Cosmopolitan magazine he gave an entirely reasonable answer: that he himself supported the case for abortion, and was reconciled to the practice — a broad statement of principle that one might expect from the leader of a progressive party with hopes of forming a government. It was a right won for women in the 1960s about which there is now, rightly or wrongly, an overwhelming national consensus. But he went on to say what many have long believed, that the legal time limit for abortion should be reduced. It seems incredible that it is still legal to terminate a foetus at 24 weeks — six months — when medical advances mean that 39 per cent of babies born at that age survive.

There is an unanswerable case for having a debate, and for allowing parliamentary discussion of this important question — whether scientific progress should mean a change in the law. That is all that Mr Howard was suggesting. He was not saying that it would be Tory policy to propose a change in the law. He was saying that he would like a free vote on the matter, as indeed would many MPs on all sides of the House.

It is a bit much that the Prime Minister should make time for a Bill on hunting — also a matter of conscience — on the grounds that it would be politically advantageous, but fight shy of a subject that concerns the lives of human beings rather than of foxes. The original proponent of the 1967 Abortion Bill, Lord Steel of Aikwood, believes that the limit should now be reduced, and the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Charles Kennedy, says he is unsure on the matter.

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