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Abortion - Misinformation in high places

Easter 2008

From triple helix - Easter 2008 - Abortion - Misinformation in high places [p5]

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The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, currently before Parliament, does not specifically deal with abortion but does nonetheless open up the whole of the Abortion Act 1967 for amendment. This is because its predecessor, the 1990 HFE Act, lowered the upper limit for so-called 'social abortion' from 28 to 24 weeks and raised the limit on disability from 28 weeks to birth.

Since 1967 there have been almost 7 million abortions, now 200,000 a year, with one in four pregnancies ending in abortion. Despite this there is a concerted move amongst pro-choice activists, abortion providers, some MPs, and institutions like the RCOG and BMA further to liberalise the law. [1] To support this agenda there has been misinformation in very high places.

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, chaired by Liberal Democrat MP Phil Willis, reported on 31 October 2007 after an enquiry into scientific developments relating to the Abortion Act. It recommended no lowering of the 24 week upper limit for 'social abortion', scrapping the need for two doctors' signatures, nurses doing abortions, and medical abortions in GP surgeries with completion at home. The committee report is important because it has since been accepted by the government and is already being used to inform Peers and MPs debating amendments to the 1967 Act.

However, serious questions have been asked about vested interests, transparency and competence. The pro-choice composition of the committee had been very clear from the beginning and although the written evidence received was relatively evenly balanced, 13 of the 18 witnesses chosen to give oral evidence were coming from a pro-liberalisation perspective.

A minority report issued by MPs and committee members Nadine Dorries and Bob Spink claimed that the committee selected evidence and experts on key issues such as neonatal survival, foetal pain and the relationship between abortion and preterm birth, mental health problems and breast cancer to support a pro-choice agenda. It later emerged in media reports that the committee's report was largely rewritten by Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris. Harris, who is Secretary to the All Party Prochoice and Sexual Health Group of MPs and whose partner works for the BPAS, one of the country's largest abortion providers, allegedly put down 126 amendments to the Chairman's first draft, some running to more than a page. [2] He has campaigned vigorously for more liberal abortion laws for many years, and has also used his position on the BMA Ethics Committee to influence that organisation's policy on abortion. Harris later set out to discredit in the national press witnesses, including some CMF members, whose evidence he didn't like. [3]

We would recommend that MPs make an effort to read Dorries and Spinks' minority report and make some attempt to review the reams of written and oral evidence received by the committee that have been sidelined and ignored. All the evidence submitted to the committee, including the final committee report, the minority report and relevant press coverage, is accessible via the CMF website. [4]


  1. Liberalising abortion law. Triple Helix 2007; Autumn:4
  2. MPs' report gives green light to DIY abortions. Daily Mail 2007; 31 October
  3. Criticisms by the Guardian newspaper.

Article written by Peter Saunders

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