October 24, 2007 / 8:05 AM / 12 years ago

Calls for abortion law change rebuffed

LONDON (Reuters) - Public Health Minister Dawn Primarolo rebuffed growing calls for reform of the abortion law on its 40th anniversary, saying there was no medical evidence that a reduction in term limits was possible.

A doctor is silhouetted as he walks past a poster showing images of the development of a human foetus at Italian fertility doctor Severino Antinori's private clinic in Rome June 6, 2005. REUTERS/Alessia Pierdomenico

The 1967 Abortion Act allows terminations to be carried out up to 24 weeks after conception.

The British Medical Association (BMA) backs the current set-up and even advocates easing restrictions on abortion in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy so that women would no longer require the signature of two doctors.

However anti-abortion campaigners argue that medical advances mean that babies have a better chance of survival at 24-weeks than in the past, and say the upper limit should now be reduced.

Primarolo told the Committee on Science and Technology, which is discussing whether this upper limit, cut from 28 weeks in 1990, is still appropriate, that survival rates for babies born before then were not improving.

She told the committee, which is examining scientific rather than ethical or moral issues, that the survival rate for babies born at 21 weeks was 0 percent. It was 1 percent for those born at 22 weeks, before rising to 11 percent for those at 23 weeks.

“The medical consensus still indicates that, whilst improvements have been made in care, at the moment that concept of viability cannot constantly be pushed back in weeks,” she said.

“The Department of Health’s view and the advice to me is that — and that’s why there is no proposal from the government to amend the act — the act works as intended and doesn’t require further amendment at the present time.”

In 2006, there were nearly 200,000 abortions in England and Wales, according to the Department of Health, a 4 percent rise from the previous year.

Primarolo said 89 percent of terminations were carried out before 13 weeks of pregnancy and 68 percent before 10 weeks.

Campaigners argue the abortion figures were escalating with terminations available “on demand”.

“We are opposed to all abortion and therefore an abortion at 16 weeks is no more acceptable than an abortion at 24 weeks. However a reduction in the time limit will, at least, save some lives,” said Julia Millington of the ProLife Alliance.

“We have always supported the right to life of the unborn but we are also seriously concerned about the health and welfare of women.”

The growing number of terminations has also provoked comment from religious figures and the MP behind the original act.

The Archbishop of Canterbury wrote in the Observer on Sunday that abortion was becoming commonplace and that people were insufficiently troubled about terminating pregnancies.

“Something has happened to our assumptions about the life of the unborn child,” Rowan Williams said.

Lord Steel, one of the main architects of the 1967 Act, voiced his concern that too many abortions were being carried out, although he advocated better sex education rather than a change to the law.

“Everybody can agree that there are too many abortions,” he told the Guardian on Wednesday.

“I accept there is a mood now which is that if things go wrong you can get an abortion, and it is irresponsible really.”

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