Commons abortion debate: Chris McCafferty makes impressive contribution

". . . any reduction of the upper limit would be cynical, cruel, ill-informed and inhumane"

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Here part of the transcript of yesterday evening's debate, where Hebden Bridge MP Chris McCafferty urges members not to make any changes to the abortion law fending off, among others, Ann Widdecombe

Chris McCafferty (Calder Valley, Labour)

Because the hon. Member for The Wrekin (Mark Pritchard) made some political points, may I say at the outset how sad I am that the former hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich, the late Gwyneth Dunwoody, cannot be here to speak in this debate? Gwyneth was a great champion of women's rights. I think that she would have been disappointed, as I am, that this debate is, with some very honourable exceptions, dividing on party political lines. [Hon. Members: "Oh."] It is true.

It is clear from the last three speeches that abortion is an emotional topic. It provokes strong reactions in almost all societies and is clearly doing so in the House this evening. There seems to be an unspoken agreement that women should be patronised when they become pregnant and steered towards the expected outcome of carrying that pregnancy to term. People who are not directly involved with unwanted pregnancies dominate the public debate. Not surprisingly, they operate on wrong assumptions about how a pregnant woman should be treated and cared for.

The first gross misconception is the assumption that restricting abortion or making it illegal would in some way be pro-life. The error in that argument is that the exclusive focus is on the foetus. The woman is totally ignored, as if she does not count. A clear example of the low value put on women's health by the anti-choice lobby is the recent Polish court case in which a woman was forced to become nearly blind as a direct result of being denied an abortion. That woman's sight had less value than upholding her pregnancy. I hope that hon. Members will not go down that route tonight, because that position implies that one can protect life by restricting access to abortion or making it illegal. However, there is no evidence at all that restricting abortion reduces the numbers.

Michael Jabez Foster (Hastings & Rye, Labour)

Is my hon. Friend not pursuing a false premise? No one is suggesting that the life or the health of the mother should be compromised. We are talking about healthy mothers and healthy babies.

Perhaps my hon. Friend is not aware of the recent National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence guidelines on scans, which are quite clear. The recent guidelines, in "Antenatal care: Routine care for the healthy pregnant woman", from March 2008—

Will the hon. Lady give way?

No, I will not give way. [Hon. Members: "Ah."] I will not give way - it is important to make this point. Those guidelines say:

"Pregnant women should be offered an ultrasound scan to screen for structural anomalies, ideally between 18 and 20 weeks' gestation",

which is medical speak for 21 weeks, with the emphasis on "ideally". We all routinely campaign for NICE guidelines to be implemented, do we not? I therefore have to assume that hon. Members also believe in those guidelines, or perhaps they are the exception.

What has been proven to reduce abortions is comprehensive sex education and unrestricted access to effective contraception and early safe abortion services. Opposition Members might not like it, but it is an established fact that Dutch women have the lowest abortion rates in the world, and that is because they have that access. Far from reducing the frequency of unwanted pregnancies and abortions, restricting abortion forces women to resort to illegal and mostly unsafe abortions, which endangers their health and their life. That is why virtually all developed countries legalised abortions in the previous century—because they could no longer accept the tragic suffering and loss of their female population.

If women have no access to legal abortion, they resort to illegal means. Women will go to any lengths and will take any risk to end an unwanted pregnancy—and "any" means exactly that.

Will my hon. Friend give way?

No; I want to make some progress.

Illegal abortion is extremely risky. It is usually performed late and is frequently performed by an untrained person. Besides the medical risks, abortions performed under illegal conditions are socially unjust, because women with means can and will pay for safe abortions, leaving poor women at the mercy of illegal settings and the high risk that they bring.

Another fundamental misconception in the abortion debate is that society needs to intervene to ensure that pregnant women make the right decision. All restrictions in reproductive health imply that pregnant women must be protected from themselves, so that they do not make a hasty decision against having a child—we have heard about that this evening. Total strangers declare themselves advocates of a pregnant woman's foetus. Such a position not only violates the fundamental rights of women but is an incredible insult to women, being based on an arrogant and unthinking assumption that women in general are inferior to men.

Will the hon. Lady give way?

No, I am not giving way.

The pregnant woman is the only person who can make a responsible decision in the best interests of herself, her family and her foetus. Abortion should be a private decision, between the patient and her doctor, just like any other medical treatment. Why is it so difficult for societies, even those such as ours, to give the power to decide to those who carry the consequences? That is another basic misconception—that women with an unwanted pregnancy should enter into the decision-making process only after counselling with someone they do not know. Apparently, a total stranger is in a better position to judge what is in the best interests of the woman. How ridiculous.

Would my hon. Friend say that a child of 12 is a woman who knows her own mind and is capable of making a decision of that kind?

No, we cannot say that a child of 12 is a woman.

But she can be pregnant.

She could be pregnant; but I would like to think that she would not be. If we had compulsory sexual health and relationship education in all our schools, there might be a better chance of that child not being pregnant. However, I accept that that does not preclude rape, incest or the unfortunate situations in which young girls can find themselves. I would hope that such a young person would be advised carefully by her family, not a stranger. That is my point entirely. Such decisions are always best taken within the framework of the family, not with strangers.

Will the hon. Lady give way?

No, I am not giving way again.

Restrictions may be well intended. I understand about the religious views of many hon. Members speaking in this debate and I know that they are well intentioned, but obviously I take a different view. The problem with restrictions, however well intended, is that they do not lead to a reduced frequency of unwanted pregnancies or abortions.

Mark Durkan (Foyle, Social Democratic and Labour Party)

Will the hon. Lady give way?

No, I am not giving way.

Restrictions do not even lead to an improvement in the quality of care, and they certainly do not lead to an increase in the birth of wanted children. What restrictions do is delay gestational age at abortion, increase the risks to the physical and psychological health of the woman and increase the costs, but without any obvious benefits.

I am most grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. The logic of her argument about restrictions being inappropriate is that women should be able to have abortion on demand right up to birth. Do I take it that she would not approve of that?

I do not recall having said that. What I am saying is that putting restrictions in the way of women who have already made a difficult and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mrs. Curtis-Thomas) said, traumatic decision—she used that word about three times—is just prolonging the agony. Doing so is cruel and unnecessary. There are increased costs to society, but no benefits.

Mr. Gale— [ Interruption. ] Sorry, Mr. Deputy Speaker —[Hon. Members: "Sir Michael!"]—I mean Sir Michael; I am not sure how to address you in this debate. Society has shown impressive creativity in the past, in introducing all sorts of ingenious restrictions on access to abortion, none of which have shown any evidence-based benefit to the people involved. In most countries, and indeed here, the legal framework and the requirements for an abortion do not reflect the needs of women with an unwanted pregnancy; rather, they reflect the personal morality and the misconceptions of people who are both professionally inexperienced and personally not involved. Why is it so difficult to do the most obvious thing—give the power to decide to those who are most directly involved? Women carry a completely disproportionate share of the burden in reproduction, but where are their rights? And tonight we are talking about taking them away.

I say to the male Members of this House—they are in the considerable majority - that I recognise that they cannot get pregnant, let alone have an abortion themselves. I suspect that most of them are profoundly relieved that that is the case. Most women would believe that we would not be here having this debate if men could do that, but it is in men's own interests to maintain the reproductive health of women, because most are directly affected by and dependent on it. They should, therefore, be arguing not to restrict women's rights to choose, but for conditions that permit women to end an unwanted pregnancy, if necessary, in the best way possible for them and without unnecessary suffering. As we heard earlier, termination of a wanted pregnancy must be one of the very hardest decisions that women and couples have to make. As my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby said, it is traumatic.

The NICE guidelines, which I mentioned earlier, are very clear. Those new guidelines say that pregnant women should ideally—I stress that word—be offered an ultrasound scan at between 18 weeks and 20 weeks and six days' gestation, which is 21 weeks. As I said, Members in all parts of the House always campaign for NICE guidelines, and I have to assume that that one is not an exception. I also say to Members that unless they do not accept the NICE guidance in this particular case, it would be wholly inconsistent for them to vote to lower the upper limit to 22 weeks or even less, because they would clearly be removing any element of choice from the process. Any reduction below the current 24-week limit would leave little or no room for women and couples to make a responsible, considered choice when a potentially serious abnormality is detected.

Of course, I agree that legislation should always adapt to take account of scientific and technical progress, but all the recent independent peer-reviewed research has shown very clearly that survival at below 24 weeks' gestation has not improved, despite advances in other aspects of antenatal care and the care of premature babies. When the 24-week limit was approved by Parliament in 1990, a key argument was that that was the stage at which the foetus was considered viable. It is the considered view of the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Nursing and the British Association of Perinatal Medicine that there is no evidence of a significant improvement in the survival of extremely premature babies below 24 weeks' gestation in the UK within the last 18 years. The recent EPICure and Trent studies that were referred to earlier also say the same thing. There is no significant statistical improvement in survival under 24 weeks.

I have said many times in this Chamber—I will keep on saying it until Members start to listen—that the best way of reducing the number of unintended pregnancies and abortions is to improve women's access to contraception, as well as educating women and men about sexual health, and to make sexual health and relationship education compulsory in all our schools. In contrast, any reduction in the upper time limit would force a very small number of vulnerable women to continue a pregnancy against their will. Proposals to reduce the time limit do not even take into consideration the terrible plight of women who have a wanted pregnancy but discover a foetal abnormality at a later stage.

I, too, want to see a reduction in the number of women seeking abortion—I imagine that all Members in all parts of the Committee do—and a reduction in the gestation period at which abortions take place, but late-term abortions are very rare. In 2006, less than 1.5 per cent. of all abortions took place after 20 weeks, and of those, a mere 0.7 per cent.—a tiny fraction—were carried out at 22 weeks or later.

I say to Members that they should vote for 22 weeks or less if they really are anti-choice. They should vote for 22 weeks or less if they really believe that a woman should be required to continue a late-diagnosed pregnancy even if her health is at risk or the foetus is abnormal. They should vote for 22 weeks or less if they do not believe that such difficult decisions should, wherever possible, be made within the family. For the purposes of giving the Committee an opportunity to vote positively on 24 weeks—23 weeks and six days is the medical definition of 24 weeks, the status quo—I say to Members that they should support the status quo if they are pro-life, pro-quality of life or pro a woman's life. They should support the status quo if they are pro women's rights—after all, women's rights are human rights. They should support the status quo if they are pro reproductive rights, because reproductive rights are also human rights. They should support the status quo if they are pro-humanity, because any reduction of the upper limit would be cynical, cruel, ill-informed and inhumane.

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