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ss triple helix - summer 2008,  Abortion upper limit - We lost the vote but won the nation

Abortion upper limit - We lost the vote but won the nation

'Abortion fight “will go on after next election”, as MPs defy public opinion to keep 24-week limit', thundered the Daily Mail. 'Abortion debate: MPs are out of touch', concluded the Telegraph. 'Widespread disappointment at vote on abortion', observed the Times. These front page headlines, accompanied by high resolution ultrasound images of babies in the womb gave their judgment on Parliament's rejection of amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill[1] aimed at lowering the upper limit for abortion from 24 weeks to 12, 16, 20 or 22 weeks.

Inside pages carried testimonies of mothers whose children were 'born before the 24-week limit…who prove the law is wrong' and called 'contemptible' the action of whips who intimidated fellow MPs and blockaded the lobbies to ensure a vote for the status quo.

The campaigns run by 'Alive and Kicking'[2] and 'the 20 Weeks Campaign'[3] called for a modest change and resonated with the public mood. Testimonies, ultrasound images, stories of babies born after botched abortions, European comparisons, and survival statistics from top neonatal units had won the battle in the nation's living rooms, whilst tired warnings about returning to the days of back-street abortions and denials of advances in neonatal care had failed to impress.

However, voting fell heavily along party lines. The 332 MPs opposing 20 weeks included 35 Conservative, 248 Labour, 42 Liberal Democrat and 8 others. By contrast the 190 MPs supporting 20 weeks included 120 Conservative, 43 Labour, 13 Liberal Democrat and 14 others. This reflected the huge majority of pro-choice MPs in Parliament and the lead of the Prime Minister who, opposed to reducing the present 24 week limit, ordered a three line whip to ensure that Labour MPs, who largely favour abortion, attended.

We now know where virtually every MP stands on the matter. Alive and Kicking, representing twelve organisations including CMF, has produced an on-line database of MPs' views. But it may not be needed. If the composition of the next Parliament reflects voting in recent local elections and the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, then a 20 week vote will be won comfortably next time around.[4]

As Triple Helix went to press a backlash was in full swing, with a group of prochoice MPs led by Liberal Democrat Evan Harris attempting to liberalise the law through a variety of legislative, regulatory and other measures: abortion on demand up to 24 weeks; nurse-led abortions in polyclinics, cottage hospitals and GP surgeries; exclusion of pro-life doctors from counselling; and extension of the Abortion Act to Northern Ireland. By the time you read this you should know the outcome.

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