Anger over block on abortion debate

LONDON Wed Oct 22, 2008 6:59pm BST

Pro-choice campaigners wave banners outside the Houses of Parliament, May 20, 2008. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor

Pro-choice campaigners wave banners outside the Houses of Parliament, May 20, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Luke MacGregor

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LONDON (Reuters) - Campaigners on both sides of the abortion debate have criticised the government for blocking a rare chance to change key legislation on the issue.

They said minsters had used a procedural tactic to prevent MPs debating amendments to current abortion law when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill returns to the Commons on Wednesday.

"The government should hang its head in shame about denying parliament from both sides of the argument the opportunity to debate and vote on this matter," Liberal Democrat MP Evan Harris told the BBC.

Harris was one of a number of MPs proposing the extension of existing abortion laws to Northern Ireland, where women are still unable to legally obtain a termination.

Pro-choice campaigners also wanted to remove the requirement for two doctors to approve an abortion, a change supported by doctors' leaders at the British Medical Association.

The government move also frustrated pro-life MPs who wanted to propose a joint parliamentary review of abortion and practice.

"I cannot believe that we are missing an opportunity to say, let's revisit this issue and establish a commission and let's look at the facts," said Conservative MP Nadine Dorries.

But Baroness Ruth Deech, former chairwoman of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, said she supported the government's move.

She said the bill, reforming embryo research and fertility treatment, needed to be passed into law and that abortion reform should be treated under separate legislation.

"It would be tragic if it were to be hijacked by abortion provisions which really have nothing to do with the rest of the bill," she told the BBC.

"What we are facing now is the possibility that there will be so much contention that the liberalising amendments won't get through and the whole bill might fall."

A government spokesman said MPs had been given the chance for a free vote on "conscience" issues in the bill earlier this year.

In May, the Commons rejected pro-life amendments to reduce the upper limit on abortion to below the current 24 weeks, as well as voting to allow the creation of human-animal embryos, a concern to some Roman Catholic MPs.

Wednesday's procedural motion means that amendments directly relating to the bill will be debated first, effectively removing any time to consider abortion changes before a 7 p.m. deadline.

(Editing by Steve Addison)

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