Last night, Tuesday 21st May, members of UK parliament’s House of Commons voted to reject a proposal to reduce the upper limit for abortions from 24 to 22 weeks.

The 22 week limit, which was rejected by a 304 to 233 majority by MPs who were given a free vote, was one of several proposals to overhaul the 20-year-old Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill and bring it in line with advances in science and medicine.

Nadine Dorries, a Tory MP proposed a 20-week abortion limit, but this was rejected by 332 votes to 190.

Dorries, who used to be a nurse, told the BBC that:

“There comes a point when it has to be said this baby has a right to life.”

There was also a proposal to cut the limit to 12 weeks, and bring the UK in line with most other European countries. This move was supported by cabinet ministers Ruth Kelly, Des Browne and Paul Murphy, reported the BBC, but was also rejected by a 293 to 71 vote.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown voted to keep the limit at 24 weeks, and Conservative leader David Cameron voted for it to be reduced to 22 weeks.

The pro-choice lobby, and Health Minister Dawn Primarolo said there was no scientific evidence to support changing the abortion laws. Primarolo said the situation in 1990, when Parliament set the upper limit at 24 weeks, is not different to what it is now.

Government figures for 2006 show there were over 190,000 abortions in England and Wales that year, of which nearly 55 per cent were of fetuses under 9 weeks old and 1.5 per cent were of fetuses aged between 20 and 24 weeks.

There appear to be three main areas of controversy in last night’s abortion limit debate. The first is the right of a woman to choose what happens to her body.

The second area of debate is that scientific advance appears to be bringing down the age at which a fetus, with assistance, can become a viable and eventually healthy human being, and today’s UK papers contain stories of babies who were born before the 24 week limit. And the third main area of debate is the rights of the unborn, and the “viable” unborn in particular.

Dorries, who as a nurse witnessed what she described as a “botched” abortion of a baby boy, said a woman’s right to decide what happens to her body must have limits, because at some point, the baby has rights too. In her view, these rights “kick in if that baby were born it would have a chance of life and if it feels pain as part of the abortion,” she told the BBC.

The shake up to the controversial bill included three other key proposals where MPs were also given a free vote:

  1. To allow human-animal hybrid embryos for research (motion carried 336 to 176).
  2. To allow “saviour siblings”, where a second IVF embryo can be selected on the basis that it is a tissue match for an older sick sibling (motion carried 342 to 163).
  3. To remove the need for fertility clinics to consider the role of the father in “assisted reproduction”, effectively removing the ban on single women and lesbian couples seeking IVF (motion carried, 290 to 222).

As medicine and science advances, the ethical questions appear to get harder. One is left with a deep sense of unease when considering what is now an increasingly likely scenario, where two women lie in the same hospital, in similar physiological states: they have both “lost” their fetuses at around 23 or so weeks: except in one case it is by abortion, and in the other, it is after a long struggle to save a premature “child” because the technology to make it worthwhile trying was available.

And in the middle of debating these heavy and ponderous issues, we must not forget the not inconsiderable stress on our medical professionals as they go through their own personal struggles with these dilemmas.

Sources: BBC News, MNT Archives.

Written by: Catharine Paddock, PhD