§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ Mr. Speaker
Before I call the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) to move the Second Reading of the Bill, may I make an announcement. So far, 32 right hon. and hon. Members seek to catch my eye in this debate. Members can help each other and help the case for and against the Bill by speaking briefly.
This debate cuts across party lines, so I shall endeavour to balance the debate, not as between parties, but as between supporters and opponents of the Bill, and also those who give qualified support or qualified opposition.
§ 11.10 a.m.
§ Mr. David Steel (Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The issues involved in discussing this Bill today are complex and arouse strong feelings among both the supporters and opponents of the Bill. First, I am grateful that so many Members have decided to remain here on a Friday in order to support this legislation—and I also recognise that a number have made equal sacrifices to be present in order to register their strong opposition. I echo what you have already said, Mr. Speaker. I know that many hon. Members wish to speak. I hope that it will be a good debate, and I hope to set a reasonable example by being as brief as possible in introducing a Bill of this complexity.
I am grateful to the opponents of the Bill for the terms in which they have tabled their very reasonable Amendment, recognising as they do the concern that we, the presenters of the Bill, have in bringing it before the House.
At a party meeting the other day an avuncular Liberal Peer said that he was very concerned that Mr. David Steel should be introducing this Bill, not because he disagreed with it—he was a wholehearted supporter of it—but because Mr. Steel was rather young. I suppose that this is a risk which we 1068 must run, unless we are prepared to amend our Standing Orders to exclude Members of Parliament under the age of 30 from the Private Members' Ballot—and there may be something to be said for that.
Since I decided to introduce the Bill it has been the subject of much study, and a selection of correspondence and reports which I have received now sits more than a foot high on the bench beside me. The discussions which have taken place among the sponsors and supporters of the Bill have been very extensive.
Before I come to the terms of the Bill, I would point out that this has been a difficult choice for me. It remains my view that it is unfortunate that the practice in the House is for controversial social issues of this kind—issues such as the abolition of capital punishment—to be left entirely to private Members to bring forward. In my opinion, it would be better if the Government, as part of their social reform, were prepared to bring forward these Measures, although leaving them to be decided entirely on a free vote of Members of the House and of the Government. But this is not so, and I therefore had to consider my choice in the light of the present practice of the House.
Naturally, there are some matters of deep constituency interest which I would have liked to bring forward. It is no secret that I have campaigned in my constituency and in the rest of the country for an extension of the principles contained in the Highlands Development (Scotland) Act and the use of development authorities for certain areas of the country. Unfortunately, much as I would have liked to introduce something of this kind, it has not been possible to obtain Government support and, quite apart from the practical difficulties involved in any private Member's introducing something for the benefit of his own constituency or his party's propaganda, and also the technical difficulties, there is an issue of principle involved, in that the opportunity to introduce a Private Member's Bill is an almost unique one, which in my opinion should not be used to express a particular point of view for party advantage, perhaps with one eye on the next election. I think that it should be 1069 used for something positive—whether it be a major or a minor reform—which can have a reasonable prospect of arriving on the Statute Book.
I would have voted for a Bill of this kind had someone else brought it forward; I therefore thought it right, given this opportunity, to bring it forward myself.
It is right to start by outlining the present state of the law on abortion. In England and Wales, the law is governed by the Offences against the Person Act, 1861, which in Section 58 refers to the unlawful administering of any poison or noxious thing or the unlawful use of any instrument with intent to procure a miscarriage. Although the word "unlawful" appears in that Act, nowhere in our Statute Law is there any reference to what would be lawful. Therefore, the law in England and Wales has been built up over a series of cases.
In Scotland, the situation is slightly better ordered—as it frequently is. There the procuring of an abortion is a Common Law offence ; there is no Statute Law. But criminal intent must be proved. The Scots law therefore recognises that in certain circumstances it may be necessary, in the interests of the mother and in good faith, to carry out an abortion —something which English law does not specifically recognise.
In England and Wales the law has developed over a series of cases, the most noted of which was the Bourne case, in 1938, when a distinguished gynaecologist was tried, following the termination of a pregnancy that he carried out on a girl who, at the age of 14, had been raped by a soldier. Unfortunately, the case was not judged on the issue whether or not it was right, because of the circumstances of conception, for this operation to have been carried out ; the judgment was based on the effects which the continuation of the pregnancy would have on the patient. The judge, in directing the jury, stated that where a medical practitioner was convinced that the effects of a pregnancy on his patient would be to make the woman a physical or mental wreck, he was justified in carrying out the operation. There has been a series of cases 1070 since then which have developed this aspect of the law.
But there is total uncertainty about the exact legal position. It is left far too much to the judgment of individual practitioners whether they are or are not within the law. Moreover—a point which is sometimes not noted—neither in England and Wales nor in Scotland does the law require any conditions under which this operation may be carried out. This is something that my Bill seeks to introduce.
There are four different methods by which, at present, a woman may obtain an abortion. The first is under the present law, uncertain as it is. Each year, either under the National Health Service or through private practice, a number of women obtain terminations of their pregnancies within the terms of the present law. But even this is not satisfactory, because the likelihood of any woman, in any given situation, being able to obtain a termination of her pregnancy is to a large extent dependent on where she happens to live and upon the practice of hospitals and medical practitioners in her area.
Therefore we find that whereas at one end of the country—in Aberdeen, under the wider ambit of Scots law and under the practice of Professor Sir Dugald Baird and his colleagues—a fairly large proportion of those desiring medical terminations of their pregnancies are able to achieve this, in some other parts of the country it is almost impossible.
The other three means are all illegal. The second is to obtain an abortion by some self-inflicted means. As far as we are able to discover from the investigations made into this subject, this is far and away the largest section of illegal abortions ; indeed, the number of attempted abortions—so far as surveys have been able to discover—is far higher than those which are actually attained.
The other two categories comprise abortions carried out by other persons, by a friend or someone anxious to help—a neighbour, perhaps—or by someone for cash without any particularly persuasive motives. These in many respects are the most dangerous. They have led to the highest number of admissions to 1071 hospital following unsatisfactory operations carried out sometimes in the most appalling circumstances.
The fourth category comprises those which are illegal but have a covering of legality, those where the patient, because of her financial circumstances, is able to find or be directed to medical practitioners or psychiatrists who will sign the necessary certificates to cover the existing law on payment of a fee of perhaps 100 or 200 guineas and have the operation carried out in adequate circumstances. This is limited, of course, to those with the means to pay the substantial fees involved. Any law which means one law for the rich and another for the poor is in itself unsatisfactory and should be examined.
Estimates of the number of illegal operations carried out each year vary tremendously. I should not like to assert any particular figure, but a recent survey carried out and published only last week by the National Opinion Polls on behalf of the Abortion Law Reform Association assessed that, at a minimum, about 40,000 abortions took place each year. Some estimates made by people who have studied this subject go as high as 200,000. I would not settle for any definite figure, but it is probably somewhere between 40,000 and 200,000 a year.
I believe that a strong argument for bringing forward the Bill at this time is that there has been a growing tide of public opinion in favour of such a change. I should like to trace this. In 1931, in a case of a woman charged with murder after she had illegally operated on the mother of three children, who had then died, Mr. Justice McCardie said:The law on abortion as it exists ought to be substantially modified. It is out of keeping with the conditions that prevail in the world around us…It is plain to me that many of those who seek to uphold this law of abortion are wholly ignorant of the social problems which menace the nation…I cannot think that it is right that a woman should be forced to bear a child against her will.Following that judgment, there occurred more public agitation.
In 1934, there was the first resolution on the subject, passed by a substantial body of people at the Conference of the Women's Co-operative Guilds. In 1935, the National Council of Women added 1072 their support, and in the same year the Abortion Law Reform Association was founded. In passing, I should like to pay tribute to the work of the Association over the last 30 years. In 1935 also—more than 30 years ago—the subject was raised on the Floor of the House, and in the same year the British Medical Association committee reported that it was in favour of a reform of the law, although the report of that year did not go as far as that report which the Association produced recently.
This led up, just before the war, to the appointment of a Government Interdepartmental Committee, which reported also in favour of reform of the law. No doubt, had it not been for the outbreak of war, the reform which we are seeking might well have been passed by the House of Commons some time ago. The Chairman of the Interdepartmental Committee, the late Lord Birkett, said at the time:One of the great tragedies of war is that, inevitably, it diverts attention from pressing social questions to the grimmer business of the moment.He went on, however, to speak of:…the urgency of the problem of the misery and heartbreak which at present prevail, of the need for clear thinking on the problem, and of the strong necessity for making the law clear and intelligible and in accordance with public opinion—the only ultimate sanction of the law.It is this phrase," in accordance with public opinion" , to which I am referring.
In recent years, the Churches have added their weight to the demands for reform—the Church of England Assembly, the Methodist Conference and, this year, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Two National Opinion Polls carried out recently have indicated that three-quarters of the population are in favour of a reform of the law.
Of course, many previous attempts have been made in the House to introduce Bills of this kind. One was sponsored by the present Minister of Health. Among the sponsors of my Bill are two hon. Members who have previously attempted to introduce this reform. Perhaps the greatest jolt to public opinion and one reason that there is more interest and discussion in the Press, in the broadcasting media and among the public, was the introduction of a Bill in another place by the noble Lord Silkin, to whom also I would pay tribute. 1073 The effect of the passage of that Bill and its detailed discusion in Committee has been significant in bringing public attention to this matter.
I will turn now to the specific terms of the Bill. The first point to make is that my Bill demands that an operation for the medical termination of pregnancy can be carried out only on the opinion of two registered medical practitioners. In Clause 1, we set out the grounds on which we believe that they should reach that decision. Subsection (1,a) says that a doctor may decide that a termination is justified if the continuance of the pregnancy:…would involve serious risk to the life or of grave injury to health, whether physical or mental, of the pregnant mother, whether before, zit or after the birth of the child;This, of course, does no more than make declaratory and clear the existing case law.
Subsection (1,b) goes further and states that it tray be carried out if:…there is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped ;I believe this subsection to be justified in the light of more recent medical developments. This is the major difference between this year's B.M.A. Report and their pre-war report.
For example, machines are now being developed in the United States which can determine if the chromosomes of a fœtus are so severely disordered that no human being recognisable as such could be born as a result of the conclusion of the pregnancy. The recent survey to which I referred earlier found that these grounds for the termination of pregnancy received the highest support from public opinion—91 per cent.
Subsection (1,c) refers to the pregnant woman's capacity as a mother being severely overstrained by the care of a child or of another child. We here come to the more controversial matter contained in the Bill. This is known, for the sake of brevity, as the" social" Clause. There is great argument as to whether we ought to try t: write into the Bill a" social" Clause, trying to define the circumstances in which doctors would be justified in carrying out a termination of pregnancy rather than leaving it to the wider interpretation of" risk to physical or mental 1074 health". It is important that we should dwell on this matter for a moment.
One could say that it would be better to drop subsection (1,c) altogether and leave the continued operation of the law based solely on the definition of physical or mental health which any doctor may choose to make. But to do this is to leave too great an uncertainty still in the law. It would leave open far too much the interpretation of the law by medical practitioners and would place too great a responsibility on them.
If we in Parliament decide that we want cases of severe social hardship to be considered, we ought to say so. We ought not to demand of the medical profession that they should slip these in under a general Clause relating to physical and mental health.
An alternative way of doing it, although possibly slightly dubious, would be to leave it out and to put in another interpretation of the word" health". An alternative which was suggested was that if one takes the definition of" health" contained in the World Health Organisation's constitution, that is so worded as to include, as it does, social well-being, so that the cases which we have in mind could be covered. But, again, that is not as satisfactory as being absolutely clear what we mean. Paragraph (c) may not be as well worded as many hon. Members would wish. I understand that the Home Secretary has some improvement to suggest in it. I am quite open to all suggestions for improving the wording of the Clause, but I think that we must bear in mind some of the cases which are on the borderline between social, economic cases and purely medical cases.
Paragraph (d) is perhaps the most difficult paragraph in legal terms. It refers to a pregnant woman being a defective or becoming pregnant while under the age of 16 or becoming pregnant as a result of rape. I believe that all these should be put together in one category. I find it difficult to understand the distinction between, for example, the case of a girl under 16 and a case of rape. In fact, in Scots law if one omitted the reference to a girl under 16, she would in any case be covered by the reference to rape, because intercourse with a girl under 16 is rape in Scots law. I believe that both of these should go into 1075 one category and that we should look at the category closely.
Most hon. Members would agree that to have a woman continue with a pregnancy which she did not wish to conceive, or in respect of which she was incapable of expressing her wish to conceive, is a practice which we deplore, but the difficulty is to find an acceptable wording which will enable termination to be carried out following sexual offences of this kind but which does not allow an open gate for the pretence of sexual offences. I have tried to cater for this in subsection (4), but it may be that it is a difficulty. I believe that the Committee dealing with the Bill must look very closely at the whole question to see whether the wording of the Bill can be improved.
The rest of the Bill, I believe, is self-explanatory. I think that it is useful to have some form of notification of those cases which are not carried out in National Health Service hospitals ; the latter are, in any case, in hospital records. If one wishes notification it follows that one must have some kind of a penalty included in the Bill.
The difficulty in drafting a Bill of this kind is to decide how and where to draw the line. We want to stamp out the back-street abortions, but it is not the intention of the Promoters of the Bill to leave a wide open door for abortion on request. The difficulty of finding wording in the Bill which will satisfy both those requirements is clear. Experience in Sweden, which is sometimes mentioned by those who oppose the Bill—namely, that following reform of the law illegal abortions still take place—suggests that in Sweden they have not overcome this difficulty.
I am told that one of the reasons why illegal abortion still takes place in Sweden is their insistence on a panel rather than leaving it to the decision of two medical men. There is a panel including social workers, psychiatrists and medical practitioners to examine and pass each case. They are behind in their work, and many women are reluctant to appear before a panel of this kind. We have to avoid in the Bill wording which is so restrictive as not to have the effect which we are seeking—namely, the ending of the back-street abortions.
1076 I believe that there is one side benefit of the Bill which is sometimes overlooked. If the Bill becomes law it will become possible for a patient to consult her family doctor freely and openly about her pregnancy and about the possible termination of the pregnancy. This is an important new provision. At present the whole question is surrounded by so much whispering and so much doubt about the legality that the effect is that the last person, very often, with whom a woman wishes to discuss it is her family doctor. It may well be that in many cases the effect of introducing the Bill will be that instead of a woman having a back-street abortion, she will discuss the matter with her family doctor, in some way be reassured and feel that she has been offered some guidance, and no abortion will take place at all.
I am reminded of one case, in particular, which shows the need for reform of this kind. It was a case outlined by Alice Jenkins in her book" Law for the Rich." She was approached by her domestic help about a friend who was living with her husband and two very young children in two rooms of a tenement. The only medical advice she was given was that she should have the third child and then learn to practise birth control. She was in very squalid economic conditions and Alice Jenkins was unable to do anything more for her or to give her any further advice. She writes:Little did I foresee what she would actually do. A few days later she was taken to hospital in a high state of delirium and died the next day. Soon after, two detectives visited my home to find out what I knew of the case, and, before leaving, were kind enough to ask if I should be interested to attend the inquiry. Several days later, in the coroner's court, the widower said in the witness box that he had not known that his wife was pregnant…Later, the pathologist stated that he had examined the deceased, who had died from acute septicaemia brought on by the use of a kitchen utensil…which had pierced the wall of the uterus. And the doctor's voice continued, ' There was no pregnancy '.The effect of bringing the matter into the open and enabling the family doctor to be consulted would, I believe, prevent tragedies of this kind.
It is right that I should say something about my attitude to the passage of the Bill in Committee because I have been asked about this by many hon Members. I do not think that there is any point in 1077 accepting Amendments from those who are opposed—quite rightly from their point of view—in principle to the Bill and wile would remain opposed to it no matter which Amendments I accepted. On the other hand, I want to make it clear that this is a difficult matter and that I do not pretend, in spite of all the consultations which we have had, that the Bill is in any way in a perfect form. I believe that it is quite right that the Committee should be open to invite me to accept Amendments, which I shall certainly be prepared to accept, and in any case it will be for the Committee's free decision to decide how the Bill can and should be improved. It is in that spirit that I look forward to the Committee stage.
In conclusion, I want to deal with two opposite views on the Bill. The first is the attitude of the Roman Catholic Church. I entirely respect the doctrine and beliefs of that Church in this matter, but I would point out that the doctrine of the Church is not necessarily permanent. We are seeing now the possibility of a great change in the attitude of the Catholic Church to the whole question of contraception which would have been unthinkable twenty or thirty years ago. My respect for the Catholic position on this question is occasionally dented by references to euthenasia and other matters which are in no way connected with the Bill.
There is also nothing in the Bill which compels a Catholic patient or a Catholic doctor to be in any way involved in the termination of a pregnancy, and there is also a clear statement in the Bill that nothing in the Bill affects the protection afforded by the law to the viable foetus. I would also point out to the Catholic objectors that public opinion in the Catholic Church is not necessarily behind the doctrine of their own Church and that the surveys carried out show that among Catholics some 57 to 60 per cent., depending on which survey we take, believe that the law should be reformed. Indeed, the most recent survey, to which I have referred throughout my speech, shows that of those women who had had abortions, the percentage who were Catholics was very comparable with the percentage of all those interviewed.
§ Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)
Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that it would be extremely rash to draw any conclusion from such surveys unless one had a very close definition of what constituted a polled Catholic in these circumstances?
§ Mr. Steel
The definition of" Catholic" is, of course, open to the person answering the interview. I would not vouch for any greater accuracy than that. I would not even stand by the complete accuracy of these figures, although I have read the surveys repeatedly and believe them to be as accurate as any can be.
All I am suggesting to those who, like the hon. Member, belong to the Roman Catholic Church is that they do not necessarily speak for the entire membership of that Church, although they speak for its doctrine. I have had a mountain of correspondence on this subject, including several letters from Catholics. I remember one in particular from a Catholic, who wrote to me that she was a devout and practising Catholic and that in the course of her family life she had had five natural miscarriages and simply could not accept the doctrine of her church that on each occasion some form of human soul had been destroyed. I believe that, despite the genuinely-held beliefs of the Catholic Church, Catholics would not wish to impose their own view of this matter on those who do not agree with them. That is one view at one end of the scale.
The other is the view which has been expressed, and which some hon. Members have indicated will be expressed, that the Bill does not go far enough for them and that abortion should be entirely a matter for the woman concerned to decide and that it should be open to all. Again, I respect that view and it has equal force of logic with the Roman Catholic view. It has been tried in some countries. I cannot support that decision, and I do not agree with Mr. Paul Ferris, who has done a great deal of valuable work on this subject, when he says in his book that he hopes that the time will come when the whole question of abortion will be regarded in the same unemotional light as a tonsillectomy. I cannot accept that. This is an entirely different gradation of subject 1079 with which we are dealing, but again I respect that point of view. As I said earlier, what we have to do is to try to find a balance of judgment between one extreme and the other in the wording of the Bill.
Finally, those who wish to oppose the Bill have to consider the effect of their opposition. If they were opposing the Bill because they could devise some other means by which abortions would stop tomorrow and by which there would be no unwanted pregnancies and none of the tide of human misery which is developed by our uncertain state of the law, then they would have a strong case. But, as the Home Office statistics show, over the last few years an average of some 25 to 30 women have died as a result of complications following illegal abortions. Many more have been cluttering up hospital beds with the treatment required following these operations. Many lives have been lost through suicide following conditions in which it was impossible to obtain an abortion, or in which abortion was in some way involved.
I will give two instances reported in the Press in May this year. In one a 27-year old house surgeon was sentenced to four years' imprisonment in Liverpool for being an accessory before the fact of the manslaughter of his 20-year old student nurse girl friend. She had had an illegal operation which had been performed by another doctor who later committed suicide. In a case reported in the Evening Standard, a 24-year-old woman was found dying in a North London street, after having had an abortionShe was the victim of a classic case of back-street butchery ' a coroner said today. After hearing from police that they had been unable to find out where the abortion took place, the St. Pancras coroner said: We are up against a blank wall of unwillingness to know and unwillingness to talk '".Hard cases, as we are always told, make bad law, but a multiplication of bad cases reveal a very bad state of the law.
The Report of the Social and Moral Welfare Board of the Church of Scotland quotes a German theologian as stating that human life in every form is sacrosanct but that we have to ask ourselves what the quantitative item of sacrosanctity may be attached to each form of life—the ovum fertilised, the 1080 moving embryo, the born child and the mother. He said:A paper thin wall separates us from sacrilege—all such decisions can be made only under saving grace—such dangers always go with freedom. Those who want to avoid the dangers do so only by setting up a rigid dogma.…So there is obviously no perfect solution. The decision has to be taken in the light of God's understanding of our human frailty.It is in that spirit that I have approached the drafting of the Bill, and I hope that the House will give it a Second Reading.
§ 11.45 a.m.
§ Mr. William Wells (Walsall, North)
I beg to move, to leave out from" That" to the end of the Question and to add instead thereof:this House, whilst acknowledging the humanitarian motives of those who seek to amend the law with respect to abortion, declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which threatens the independence of the medical profession, contains no adequate safeguard against the destruction of potentially healthy babies, and undermines respect for the sanctity of human life, which is fundamental to British law.I should like, at the outset, to pay tribute to the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) for the moderate and well-reasoned way in which he moved the Second Reading of his Bill. He told the House that he thought that one disqualification was his being young. That is a disability which he will soon outgrow. My disqualification is the contrary one of being old and that, unhappily, only gets worse year by year.
We are dealing with a matter of deep importance and of great controversial potentialities on which there are deep anxieties and strong feelings on each side. I hope to deal with it in a way which will not inflame those feelings. However much we differ, there are at least three respects in which, I would have thought, all hon. Members could agree: that we are dealing with people suffering in different ways and in an acutely tragic predicament, that too little has been done for such people in the past, that more should be done for them in future, and I am sure that it is common to both sides of the argument that we would wish to restrict and, if possible —it is unlikely to be possible—to abolish the activities of the back-street abortionists.
1081 Having said those things, I want to make some general observations on the approach of some of us to this matter before dealing with the three grounds on which we ask the House to reject the Bill. The hon. Member has spoken of the position of the Catholics. As some hon. Members know, I am a Roman Catholic, but the hon. Lady the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight), who, if she catches your eye, Mr. Speaker, will speak in the debate and who has seconded my Amendment is not a Roman Catholic. Nor are a number of hon. Members who have put their names to the Amendment, I shall not seek to introduce any theological arguments, for one very good reason: I am not qualified to do so. But, for another reason, those of us who are Catholics are taught that, although some of our beliefs transcend reason, they can all be explained in reasonable terms, in terms of logic, and those arc, the terms in which I shall try to speak.
I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that the last thing that we as Catholics would or should seek to do is to impose our beliefs, or the consequences of our beliefs, on those who do not share them. We do not in fact do so. I think that the hon. Gentleman is beating the pistol in what he says about contraception and is quite wrong about the likelihood of a change in the Church's attitude to abortion. We do not regard contraception and abortion as things which can be discussed on the same plane.
In matters of contraception, people must decide how they manage their own lives in accordance with their own consciences. We would not seek to interfere with that in any way. But we say that abortion is an entirely different matter and that in taking the stand which we take we are not only upholding the common tradition of Christianity, but are protecting principles which stand at the very root of an ordered society. We may be right, we may be wrong, but that is our position. That is the sense in which we argue.
There is a third approach which I would wish to put before the House. This matter is sometimes argued as though it were an issue between enlighten- 1082 ment and obscurantism. Those who, like myself, regularly read the New Statesman are very familiar with the argument. Some people suggest that abortion is part of a common approach to a progressive society. They bracket it with capital punishment, the legalisation of homosexual practices between consenting male adults in private and even almost the nationalisation of iron and steel.
I voted for the abolition of capital punishment in the Criminal Justice Act, 1948, when the hon. Gentleman would probably modestly tell us that he was at his preparatory school. I was a signatory of the Wolfenden Report on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution. I was a member of the drafting sub-committee with Sir John Wolfenden and Canon Demant. When that Committee met and Sir John was unable to be present its members did me the honour of moving me into the chair. Finally, my record on the nationalisation of iron and steel is unsullied. I was one of those who, in the 1945 Parliament—
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. Passing reference to these matters is all right. The hon. Gentleman must come back to the Amendment.
§ Mr. Wells
I accept that, Mr. Speaker. But may I say, apostrophising a famous phrase, on this record who is enlightened ; and I am not enlightened. I stand firmly against the Bill.
May I deal with the three grounds on which we ask in our Amendment the House to reject the Bill. We say, in the first place, that it threatens the independence of the medical profession. I do not seek to argue more than this, although perhaps more can be argued, that the medical profession is clearly deeply divided about this matter. The B.M.A., for instance, supports change, but not altogether the change which the hon. Gentleman proposes. The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists says," Let us get more information before we do anything". [Interruption.] I did not hear that interruption. Perhaps I may be excused for developing my argument in my own way.
§ Mrs. Reneé Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)
Would my hon. and learned Friend give way, so that I can make him hear the question? May I point out 1083 to him that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said more than he has given the House to understand it said. What it said very recently, in March this year, was thatThe Council of the College accepts that there is a case for amending the law to make it positively rather than negatively clear that there are circumstances where abortion is justified, namely, when it is in the interests of the physical and mental health of the woman.It went on to say:If a new law were enacted it would be wise to include as an indication a considerably increased risk that the baby if born would be seriously handicapped either physically or mentally.The Royal College went further than my hon. and learned Friend gave the House to understand it went.
§ Mr. Wells
I said that I would try to deal very shortly with most of the aspects of the Bill because other Members who have more knowledge of particular points would develop them. I have read the report to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Renée Short) referred. I entirely accept what she says. But all I sought to show was that it did not wish any change to be made until more information had been obtained.
I do not know why it has happened in this way, but the gynaecologists in the Birmingham area who have been consulted seem to be uniformly or almost uniformly—by an overwhelming majority —against any change in the law at present. Therefore, I think it is established that the medical profession is deeply divided.
§ Mr. Wells
In view of the considerable differences of emphasis between, on the one side, the Royal College's approach and that of the Birmingham gynaecologists and, on the other, the B.M.A. one would be inclined—but I would not press it for a moment—to say that where there is more specialised knowledge the more the need for caution is accepted.
But this does not go to the question of independence. Why do we say that this Measure threatens the independence of the medical profession? My postbag 1084 contains a good deal of evidence that doctors do indeed feel this. But the more the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles emphasises the fact—from which I do not differ—that there is a strong demand for abortion from many quarters, the more difficult is the position of a doctor who has any criteria introduced by the law except the ordinary test of what is in the interests of the health of the patient who has come to see him. I think that this must be so with the practitioner in ordinary practice.
But when we come to the doctor and the nurse employed by a hospital, it is manifest that a doctor in a junior position who refuses to carry out an operation which is against his conscience, but which is ordered by a superior medical authority is in a very difficult position. But the difficulty of the doctor's position is as nothing compared with that of the nurse.
I respectfully ask those who support the Bill to bear in mind that there is a shortage of nurses and that a considerable number of the nurses in our hospitals are Catholic girls who come from Ireland, and from a purely practical standpoint the administration and manning of hospitals may become more difficult if the spiritual advisers of young girls in Ireland tell them," Do not go and nurse in England because you will have to do things which are against your conscience." [HON. MEMBERS:" Oh."] I am not saying this happens. [An HON. MEMBER:" They are doing it now."] It would be a bad thing if it happened to an increasing extent.
§ Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)
Already, under the law, some abortions are legally permissible. I understand from some friends of mine practising in hospitals that there are already whole wards devoted to legal abortions. Are not Catholic nurses already faced with this dilemma, and does it really make any difference whether we extend the scope a little more?
§ Mr. Wells
The answer is that the more one extended the scope the graver the problem would be. Every abortion which is carried out has something to do with conscience. Catholic nurses cannot help that because all the abortions that are carried out in hospitals at present have been certified by doctors 1085 as being necessary for the health of the patients, and nurses are there, whether they are Catholics or otherwise, to look after the patients.
The second ground on which we seek to reject the Bill is that it contains no adequate safeguard against the destruction of potentially healthy babies. If one looks at Clause 1(1,b, c and d) of the Bill, it is perfectly clear that this argument is justified. The very wording of paragraph (b) makes it clear that if the Clause becomes law there will be a number of embryos capable of development and with a chance of developing into healthy human beings which will be destroyed.
Paragraph (c) deals with the pregnant woman's capacity as a mother. It is perfectly clear that the health of the embryo and the likely physical future of the embryo is not one of the factors that will be taken into consideration at all. It is clear that under this Clause a number of potentially healthy human beings will be destroyed.
§ Dr. Dunwoody
Perhaps I might just make one point. Would not my hon. and learned Friend agree that the situation at the moment is that the vast majority of legal abortions which occur, and also certain obstetric manoeuvres, which are, fortunately, not as frequently used now as in days gone by, involve the destruction of potentially healthy babies? This is the situation which is present at this moment.
§ Mr. Wells
Of course it is, but it is present at the moment only where operations are carried out in accordance with the law where the life or health of the mother is at stake. In paragraph (c) there is no reference to the life of the mother. The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles was very frank in saying that it was not really a question of health, either. One of the fundamental objections to the Clause is that it makes doctors arbiters not of medical questions, but of social ones.
1086 Paragraph (d) states:that the pregnant woman is a defective or became pregnant while under the age of sixteen or became pregnant as a result of rape.It is clear that none of these things necessarily prevents the child which is born from being a perfectly healthy one. There is no need to argue further, I trust, that the Bill seeks to legalise the destruction of a number of potentially healthy human beings.
Our third ground is the most difficult to argue and the most important. It is that the Bill would undermine respect for the sanctity of human life which is fundamental to British law. I do not altogether agree with the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles that the law of England is totally uncertain. However, I will not argue that aspect, because if there were a demand simply to clarify the existing law, although I would not think it necessary and although many doctors would say that any definition tends to restrict the freedom of the doctor to care for his patient, I myself would not oppose such a Measure. I would not oppose a Bill which provided as Clause 1 (1,a) provides and which made the necessary mechanical changes.
The Bill goes far beyond that. I ask the House to think of the question which will arise when, under the Bill, a woman complains that she has been raped and seeks the destruction of her child on that ground. We all know that very tragic and terrible cases of rape come before the courts. We also know that a great many charges of rape are made which are quite unfounded and which are made for quite different motives. Indeed, the late Queen Elizabeth, who was a lady of considerable, though not altogether orthodox, experience, always exercised the prerogative of mercy in cases of rape because she said that this offence was an impossible one. I would not go as far as that.
Let us look at Clause 2(4) and at what is to happen when a woman complains of rape. She willrequire the certificate of a registered medical practitioner consulted by the patient freshly after the alleged assault that there was then medical evidence of sexual assault upon her.I have not been able to get a satisfactory answer from the dcotors whom I have consulted as to what is meant by" medical evidence of sexual assault". There are some cases where it is obvious what it 1087 would consist of, but there are others where it is very obscure. The danger of the Clause—it is a terrible danger for the doctor—is that it puts the doctor in the position of judge and jury as well.
The Bill draws in its provisions a sharp distinction between the born and the unborn child. Hon. Members, who would recoil with horror at the destruction of a live baby, are perfectly willing and anxious to legalise the destruction of embryos. I am told—I may be wrong ; I know no medicine—that three weeks after conception the embryo has a heart which beats. This seems to be as clear a case of the existence of an independent human life as it is possible to have. I cannot accept this distinction, nor has it been the position of either Christian countries or civilised countries in the past to accept this distinction.
It was that robust, anti-Catholic Pope who described abortion as a heinous misdemeanour. The path which the Bill seeks to tread would reverse the trends that we have tried painfully to build up in this and in other countries for respecting all human life as something sacred in itself.
I have spoken all too long. [HoN. MEMBERS:" Hear, hear."] I am glad to find agreement on that issue. I apologise to you, Mr. Speaker, and to the House for having done so. It would be wrong to leave out Of account altogether the emotional aspects of the Bill. The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles is, so far as I know, not yet a father. May I hope that he will become so. He may have a daughter.
§ Mr. Speaker
Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman who seeks to intervene that interventions prolong speeches.
§ Mr. William Wells
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman, as I am sure the whole House will. If he has a daughter, she may grow up to have a vocation for nursing.
Let me ask the hon. Gentleman this question quite seriously. What does he 1088 think his feelings will be if his daughter becomes a nurse and if, when he sees her at the weekend and says," What have you been doing this week, darling?", she answers," I have been in the operating theatre terminating pregnancies" —
§ Mr. Wells
No, I am sorry.—" and I have burned six embryos." Will the hon. Gentleman really—[HON. MEMBERS:" Oh."] This is a serious debate. I ask hon. Members on this side to detach themselves a little from the physically comfortable life in the House, with its due order of movement from the debating Chamber to dining room and from dining room to Committee room, and project themselves to places where life may be more harsh and where the real actualities of these matters are undertaken.
I have spoken to several doctors, but I have not yet come across one doctor or one nurse who has not found this an abhorrent operation, however necessary they may have thought it to perform.
I ask the House to reject the Bill, because it is bad sense, bad law and bad ethics, but, above all, because it is emotionally and aesthetically repugnant.
§ 12.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Edward Lyons (Bradford, East)
To make a maiden speech on pregnancy is perhaps a trifle forward, but I have refrained, at times with difficulty, from making earlier speeches in the House the better to ensure my participation in this debate.
Mr. Frank McLeavy was my predecessor as Member for Bradford, East. He was a respected Member of the House for 21 years and served the people of Bradford, East conscientiously and well. In his retirement they and all of us wish him well.
Bradford has always bred a sturdy independence. Its people twice shed their blood in the Parliamentary cause resisting Royalist sieges on their city. Wool packs, Bradford's alternative to sandbags, shielded the cathedral from Royalist cannon. The city is the wool textile centre of the world. Its exports of wool created the words" British made" as a universal symbol of quality. Its name 1089 means" at the broad ford" , and it has over the centuries tolerantly absorbed into the broad stream of the city's life many immigrants and many new and excellent ideas. I am sure that Bradford's views on abortion are humane and enlightened.
In a debate of this kind, experience of the problems raised by certain pregnancies is especially valuable. I have represented abortionists, both medical and lay. I have, therefore, met the 30s. abortion with Higginson's syringe and a soapy solution, undertaken in a kitchen by a grey-faced woman on a distracted multi-child mother, often the wife of a drunken husband.
I have also come across the more expensive back-bedroom abortion by the hasty medical man whose patient returns to a distant town, there to lie in terror and blood and without medical attention. We must think, too, of all these women who, by the use of a variety of pills and liquids and instruments, make attempts upon themselves. Had this Bill been law, it would not have helped all such women, but at least it would have succoured those who came within its very limited categories.
I ask for compassion from the opponents of the Bill. I ask them what course they would urge upon their daughter, pregnant under the age of 16, or by brutal rape, or by a husband who had fecklessly hounded her from pregnancy to pregnancy. Clause 1 (1,b) is particularly welcome. It permits the termination of pregnancy when there is substantial risk of a child emerging with serious physical and mental abnormalities. That proposal is endorsed by the Gerrard Committee of the British Medical Association, by the Abortion Law Reform Association and in a booklet recently published by the Conservative Political Centre.
It is a disgraceful law which forbids the interruption of a pregnancy resulting from incest, yet a child of incest may be seriously abnormal, while the difficulties in its social environment defy exaggeration.
It is also unlawful to terminate where the mother has suffered rubella—German measles— in early pregnancy, yet the deformity rate from such pregnancies is said to be 30 per cent. That statistic 1090 conceals dire disabilities. Some years ago, a general practitioner told me in distress how two gynaecologists in his West Riding town had refused to terminate his patient's rubella pregnancy. The law was upheld. The child had just been born, and it was deaf and blind. The mother already had children and she could not cope with this one. It lives out its life in an institution, bereft of sight and sound and of love. I will never know the simplest joys which are taken for granted by the children of the opponents of the Bill.
Nor must we forget the bitter anguish of the mother of the child. That doctor spoke to me because he knew of my wife's rubella pregnancy. In our case, despite the family doctor's recommendation, the gynaecologist refused to terminate. We came to London and diverse, contradictory and evasive reasons for refusal were offered by medical men. Our quest was in the end successful, and we have no regrets.
But what kind of a law is it that seeks to force the production of blind and twisted babies and drives members of a high and proud profession in fear to shifts and evasions? The Bill is purely permissive. It requires no one to act in a way that his or her conscience forbids, yet for those embraced by its provisions this is a wholesome, glorious and compassionate Measure.
Mr. Speaker, so that, in accordance with the traditions of this House, my speech may be uncontroversial, may I, with the licence allowed to maiden speakers, ask those opposing the Bill to reconsider their position?
§ 12.28 p.m.
§ Mr. W. F. Deedes (Ashford)
It is very pleasant and very easy to congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) on his maiden speech. As he told us, he deliberately embarked on a very brave course of action. He waited until a controversial Bill of this complexity came before the House before he made his maiden speech. I recall no maiden speech which has been addressed to a more difficult subject and I think that he has acquitted himself splendidly. The House will look forward to hearing from the hon. Member again.
1091 I also congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) who, whatever view one may take about the Bill, moved its Second Reading in an irreproachable manner. I want to acknowledge at once the very fair way in which he put forward a Bill on this very difficult subject.
It is an even more difficult subject for those who, like myself, have the strongest and even decisive reservations about these proposals. I think that the first instinct of a layman, who is not a doctor or a lawyer, and cannot speak authoritatively for the Church, is really to steer clear of the subject altogether. That is much the easiest course. Yet I do not think that it would be right, which is why I now seek briefly, and however indifferently, to explain why I cannot support the Bill as it stands and, I am quite clear in my mind, is likely to remain.
The case for clarifying the law is compelling—I accept that at once. The reason most often and urgently advanced for the change is the suffering, mental and physical, inflicted on numberless women who resort to illegal operations and the human misery that is occasioned. That is indeed compelling, and there is no need to argue the statistics, not all of which I accept at their face value.
To me, hardly less strong is the intolerable position in which, admittedly, the present law places many members of the medical profession. It seems to me intolerable, because in a great many instances doctors today are confronted with a choice between humanity and illegality, and they work here in a very big dark area rather uncertainly lit by a certain amount of case law. I stress this, because it has seemed to me that in a great deal of discussion on this subject doctors have been treated as subsidiary agents, agents to perform whatever we may consider right or wrong. I cannot accept that. This profession—
§ Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)
I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider that idea about doctors being considered subsidiary agents. Doctors in this context are just the same as any other social worker who serves the community, and the House is nothing unless it represents the community. Those of us who support the Bill would say 1092 that doctors are not subsidiary agents ; they are means to humane ends.
§ Mr. Deedes
That is the point. I am saying that a great deal of argument that I have heard on this subject implied that doctors are agents who would be subsidiary to the will of Parliament.
As the right hon. Gentleman well knows, the medical profession comprises a great diversity of men, diverse in their religious outlook and the application of their medical skill under the medical code of ethics to which they all adhere, and men who are left with a great deal for individual conscience to decide.
There may be a consensus among doctors on this subject, but it is unwise to calculate here too much by consensuses. Certainly, there is a minority of doctors averse to the termination of pregnancies in any circumstances. There must be a majority who strongly support the termination of pregnancies in particular circumstances. There is another minority, a small minority, willing to consider termination of pregnancies without too close regard to circumstances. I would only stress that there is a need to bring them into account in a matter which goes so close to the heart of medical ethics.
I turn to the Bill itself. Like the hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North (Mr. William Wells), I should not be opposing the Bill if it consisted only of Clause 1 (1,a). I think that was the point that the hon. and learned Gentleman made in moving his Amendment. I accept Clause 1 (1,a). It is only in the knowledge that it cannot and will not stand alone in the Bill that I think it right to adopt the attitude which I do adopt to the Bill itself, because, reluctantly, I cannot accept the remaining three paragraphs of Clause 1(1) in the same way.
My own instinct is against even paragraph (b). Granted, medical science can now forecast foetal abnormalities with greater certainty than ever before, and the certainty is becoming greater all the time. It seems to me a very big decision, and it must always be a medical decision, to declare that a life must be condemned unseen. But I am persuaded by the attitude of the medical profession itself and by members of my own Church that the law should be changed. Well, so be it.
1093 I reject paragraph (d) because it would give rise to the gravest administrative difficulties. I am not alone in thinking that. It would also give rise sometimes to a conflict of medical ethics. There would obviously be, in the category of paragraph (d) , extreme cases which might often be covered by paragraph (a) and by paragraph (c) , which brings me decisively against the Bill.
Paragraph (c) is too widely drawn and too vague, and seems to take away from the medical profession with one hand what we seek to proffer with the other. It exchanges one set of dilemmas for another. The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles, in dealing with this paragraph, admitted that it was controversial. It was the so-called social provision. But he said that to leave it out would be to leave a great area of uncertainty, to leave the medical profession in an area of doubt.
With respect, I suggest to him that it does the reverse of clearing up those matters. It is too imprecise. I reach these apparently illogical conclusions for the following reasons. To me, paragraph (a) is in a class apart, because it touches life itself. It will often, though not in every case, represent the balance of one life against another. I am aware that there are hon. Members whose religious beliefs render them unable to weigh it even in that light. I respect this, and they will speak for themselves ; but I do not share their view. In effect, paragraph (a) applies the severest compromise compatible to those who feel deeply about the sanctity of human life, and feel disquiet at some of the views now current in that regard. For that reason, I put it apart from the others. I think that it is administratively feasible, fair to the medical profession and it is to me—this is an individual matter—morally defensible.
That said, what should one's attitude be to the Bill as a whole? The most agreeable and easiest course would be to give it conditional support. But the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles has been very fair to the House about his attitude to Committee. He indicated that those who are opposed to the Bill should not seek by Amendment or by some other means the course that they desire. One cannot be opposed to half the provisions, give unqualified sup- 1094 port, to a quarter of the Bill and reluctant support to a quarter, and then offer conditional support. Therefore, I reluctantly oppose.
I hope that no hon. Member, whether supporting or opposing the Bill will be too sanguine about the Bill's effect in any form in ending the danger, the squalor, the misery of illegal abortions. No one could deny that the Bill, if it passes into law, will make a contribution. But short of comprehensive legislation, permitting abortion in all circumstances, almost as of right, some evasion of the law is inevitable. It may be said that the wider we take the law the fewer evasions there will be. That seems to me to be a dangerous doctrine. I grow rather mistrustful of the doctrine that the right cure for social abuse is to legalise it with suitable restraints. We tried that once with gambling, and the experience there does not encourage me to apply that doctrine in this far more difficult subject.
We should not consider the Bill without awareness of some streams of current thinking. It may well be that science and its little pill will enable so-called civilised countries to treat sex more and more as a sport and less and less as a sacrament in love, a divine instrument of procreation. It may well be, in fairness, that the Bill stops far short of that, but it is that consideration that gives me pause now. That is why I think we should do what is absolutely necessary to give more guidance to doctors to clarify matters, but not more than is necessary. The right answer, if there is one, is almost certainly the hardest answer, and probably, to the majority of people, the unacceptable answer.
§ 12.39 p.m.
§ Dr. John Dunwoody (Falmouth and Camborne)
I welcome this Bill which I believe to be a significant liberalising Measure. Perhaps it is apt that it should have been presented as ably as it has been from the Bench opposite. I should like to remind the House of what in fact this Bill proposes to do.
The position at the moment it that we have legal and illegal abortions. Admittedly the position at the moment depends mainly on case law. This Bill proposes to change the boundary between legal and illegal abortion, but we shall still have legal abortion and there will still 1095 be circumstances in which abortion will be illegal. We are, I admit, as one hon. Member opposite said, going to exchange one set of dilemmas for another.
It may be that doctors, members of my profession, will be faced with as difficult problems under the new law as those with which they are faced today in this field. But we cannot escape this—at least we cannot escape this unless we advocate either the complete relaxation of the law so that abortion on demand becomes the law, something which I think public opinion is not ready for yet, or advocate regressive legislation in order to render all forms of abortion illegal.
I believe that the proposals in this Bill are in keeping with the feeling of the general public and in keeping with the general feelings of the medical profession as a whole. I should like to follow up three points which are raised in the Amendment. First, I take up the point of the independence of the medical profession being jeopardised by these proposals. I listened very carefully to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. William Wells) who proposed the Amendment. He spoke at some length about divisions within the medical profession. Certainly divisions there are, in the same way as those of us who support this Bill are divided as to exactly how far we should go, but I believe there is very little difference of opinion among the great majority of doctors in this country that some form of liberalising legislation is necessary. But this division does not touch on the independence of the medical profession.
I tried to follow the argument of my hon. and learned Friend very carefully. It seemed that the whole case he was putting was based on the position of the junior hospital doctor and the position very simply of the doctor who had a religious or conscientious objection to taking part in abortions in hospital. Of course that doctor is facing that position today in legal abortions, and he has to face a very similar position in many other medical fields because medicine is about life and death. I believe that the attitude of the vast majority of doctors to their colleagues who have objections, particularly those with religious objections, to abortion is such that if the Bill 1096 is passed no junior doctor in any British hospital will be forced to do anything by his seniors which is obviously against his conscience.
I cannot see any reason why we should accept that the introduction of this Bill will threaten the independence of the medical profession. Indeed, I think the opposite is true and that it would give independence of action to the doctors and that doctors will be faced with a choice of avenues along which they wish to go.
The second objection which the Amendment raises is that this Bill does not contain adequate safeguards against the destruction of potentially healthy babies. I think that is basically an emotional argument and, as I said when I intervened earlier, the position under this Bill would be no different from the position now. We have legal abortion in certain circumstances. We also have rather complicated obstetric manoeuvres. happily much less frequently necessary. with modern surgical techniques Caesarean section in particular. Both involve destruction of essentially healthy babies. There is not any change proposed in this Bill in that regard. It is not a situation which any doctor welcomes, but this is the position at the moment and one should recognise that it is not proposed in the Bill to make any change in that regard.
Finally, the objection was raised that this Bill would undermine respect for the sanctity of human life. I would agree with the proposal of the Amendment that this is the most difficult and perhaps the most important part that we should be thinking about. There is, I hope, more to life than merely survival and we should be also thinking about the quality of that survival. I am thinking particularly of the mothers with large families and the burdens of large families very often with low incomes. Sanctity of human life to me does not mean just the human life of one individual. I like to think more of the family unit, of the mother and father and the children. I take it further than that and think of the community as a whole. If one looks at it in that light one can see that far from undermining respect for the sanctity of human life this Bill could enhance respect for 1097 human life in the fullest sense of the phrase.
The grounds for abortion which this Bill proposes are four groups, in paragraphs (a), (b), (c), (d) of Clause 1. Paragraph (a) clarifies the state of case law under which the majority of doctors operate today. One should emphasise the majority because one of the illogicalities of the present situation is that the law is so vague that some doctors adopt one attitude and other doctors adopt a different one.
Paragraphs (b) and (d) give rise to difficulties in judgment. They are provisions which in Committee we should think about very carefully and go into rather deeply. In numerical terms, so far as the numbers of mothers are concerned, they are comparatively unimportant. The important proposals are contained in paragraph (c) , which lays down the grounds of the mother's capacity being severely overstrained by the care of a child or another child. This is the social Clause, and I think it is the keystone to the whole Bill. Because of this Clause, I am supporting the Bill.
We heard from the mover of the Amendment that abortion was an abhorrent operation. I could not agree more with him as a doctor, but then so is so much else which doctors have to do. Because things are abhorrent we must not prevent people doing them if we think it is right that they should be done. I think there are circumstances where abortion for all its abhorrence is something which is right and proper to do.
The important incidental advantage of this Bill has been mentioned—the incidental advantage that it will enable patients to consult their doctors more freely. All too often today, because of what people know about the legal situation, because people know that doctors are unable to offer abortions, unable to offer termination of pregnancy except in extreme cases, they do not go to their doctors. The mover of the Bill quoted a dramatic example, and I think there have been a number of similar cases of someone who imagined she was pregnant but feared to go to a doctor because she knew that little could be offered. Such a person may be tempted to secure an abortion and then subsequent events prove that she was not pregnant in the 1098 first place. This Bill would, I think, remove the barrier to medical advice caused today to a young woman or young girl who thinks, possibly rightly or wrongly, that she is in the early stages of pregnancy.
I have been for 12 years a doctor before I came to this House, and I had very considerable obstetric experience. I have been previously consulted, despite this barrier, by women who wanted abortion, women whom I believed morally and socially ought to have an abortion and whom this Bill would allow to have an abortion but, as things stand at the moment, I have had to refuse them. There was nothing I could do. It was quite pointless to refer them to any consultant. I do not believe that this is right for those with over-large families which could become larger still. In years to come the situation would be very much better if we passed this Bill.
§ Sir Harry Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)
I thank the lion. Member for giving way, and I assure him before putting my question to him that I have still not made up my mind what to do about this Bill and am most anxious to try to get the right answer. Would he tell us what he really thinks the phrase" capacity as a mother" is intended to mean in Clause 1(1, c)? Is it the capacity to bear children, the capacity to bring up a family, or the capacity to wean a child? What is it?
§ Dr. Dunwoody
As I understand it, it means capacity as a mother in the fullest sense. I think it means something much more than the ability to bear a child or to wean a child. It means the ability to be the person who brings the family together, who knits the various children and the mother and father together, so that the mother can play the part she ought to play in building and maintaining the family unit.
My belief is that in many cases today where we have over-large families the mother is so broken down physically and emotionally with the continual bearing of children that it becomes quite impossible for her to fulfil her real function, her worthwhile function as a mother, of holding together the family unit, so that all too often the family breaks apart, and it is for this reason 1099 that we have all too many problem families in many parts of the country.
The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) said that he had no children of his own and remarks were made by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Walsall, North about how he might feel if he had a daughter. I have three children, including one daughter, and if my daughter wanted to become a nurse I would hope that she would be a nurse at a time when the law on abortion would be more enlightened and more rational and more realistic than it is today, and I would not be afraid if she were to come home and tell me of the things which the hon. and learned Member was so alarmed about.
Finally, I must say, as a doctor, that I support the Bill primarily not on medical grounds but social grounds. This is a piece of social legislation rather than medical legislation. I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles upon introducing this Bill. I think it is not always easy for a back bencher, particularly those of us whose security of tenure here is perhaps not as great as we would like it to be, to introduce as a Private Member's Bill a Measure like this.
It would have been very easy for the hon. Member to have selected one of those very pressing constituency problems which constituencies like his and mine possess in great numbers. He has shown his political courage. I think that his reward in years to come will be the silent gratitude of very many women.
§ 12.52 p.m.
§ Mrs. Jill Knight (Birmingham, Edgbaston)
While paying tribute to the good and sincere intentions behind this Bill, may I assure the House that the intentions of those who support the Amendment are also good and sincere.
When I first knew that this Bill was being introduced I was very sympathetic. Perhaps the House will allow me to claim that I am in rather a special category in that I am one of the very few people here who is physically capable of appreciating to the full exactly what an unwanted pregnancy can mean. I have 1100 been engaged in social work for some years and have heard many heartbreaking stories from women about this, because women will talk very openly indeed to other married women in their own age group who have families. So I started out with built-in sympathy with certain parts of the Bill, but the more expert evidence I read and heard the more worried I got. The more I have talked to doctors, gynæcologists and psychiatrists, about this Bill, the more I have come to feel that it is a bad Bill.
Mr. Wilfred Mills of the British Medical Journal circulated 68 gynaecologists and obstetricians in the Birmingham area, over 90 per cent. of whom were not Roman Catholics, nor is he a Catholic incidentally, and, as has already been said, nor am I. Out of the 68 he found that three thought this change in the law desirable, three were for it and 65 were against it. Those are clinical and not religious views.
I should say that I have never supported abortion on demand. Although I have been sympathetic to this Bill, I could never go all the way with the suggestion that there should be abortion on demand, which, of course, is what subsection (1, c) actually means. This subsection is so wide and so loose that any woman who felt that her coming baby would be an inconvenience would be able to get rid of it.
There is something very wrong indeed about this. Babies are not like bad teeth to be jerked out just because they cause suffering. An unborn baby is a baby nevertheless. Would the sponsors of the Bill think it right to kill a baby they can see? Of course they would not. Why then do they think it right to kill one they cannot see? It seems to me that this is a most important point. I have come to believe that those who support abortion on demand do so because in all sincerity they cannot accept that an unborn baby is a human being. Yet surely it is. Its heart beats, it moves, it sleeps, it eats. Uninterfered with, it has a potential life ahead of it of 70 years or more ; it may be a happy life, or a sad life ; it may be a genius, or it may be just plain average ; but surely as a healthy, living baby it has a right not to be killed simply because it be may inconvenient for a year or so to its mother.
1101 Our reformists appeal to humanity in ridding a woman of an unwanted pregnancy, but they utterly fail to recognise the inhumanity of abortion itself. If we agree that we should have abortion simply because a mother feels she cannot cope with caring for her child, what about the other end of the scale? And it is important to talk about this because plenty of sons and daughters who are grown up and married feel they cannot cope with their elderly parents. Should they be put down, too? [HON. MEMBERS:" Oh."] It is an utterly inhuman doctrine, yet it would be a perfectly logical next step after this Bill.
Once we accept that it is lawful to kill a human being because it causes inconvenience, where do we end? Society, or at any rate the majority in this House, has already conceded that the life of a convicted murderer shall be preserved. How can we possibly agree to that and yet kill the most innocent of all things, an unborn baby? It just does not seem to be logical.
After all, there are two ways round an unwanted pregnancy. First, there is family planning. Birth control methods are becoming safer and easier all the time. I absolutely reject the argument used by some emotional do-gooders that poor people do not understand how to use contraceptives. Of course they do ; they are not stupid. I am 100 per cent. in favour of family planning clinics and every bit of advice and help possible being available, but there is every difference in the world between deliberately not starting a baby and deliberately killing one which has been started. People must be helped to be responsible, not encouraged to be irresponsible.
The second way round the problem is to extend considerably the help and support to women who are in the throes of unwanted pregnancy. One of the most learned and experienced consultants in Birmingham area, Mr. Myre Sim, consultant psychiatrist to the Birmingham Group of Hospitals, says this:An abortion is the deliberate destruction of a potentially healthy life and society would not sanction such an act unless it were satisfied that all other possible treatments, including social support, had been tried.He goers on to discuss the fact that a number of people with knowledge and 1102 experience in this field do not abort on psychiatric grounds and says:Because of our policy of non-termination we are seeing a growing number of patients —the number at the moment is approximately 60—where there were adverse social or domestic factors and the pregnancy was unwanted. When these patients are given support during their pregnancy they do not suffer mentally because of it. In fact the phase of rejection is short-lived in most and is hardly in evidence after the fourth month, and many have written to express their gratitude to us for our refusal to terminate. This has some bearing on recommending abortion for the unwanted child, for the state of not wanting is generally a temporary one, while to abort is a permanent and final act.This man has no axe to grind, not even on religious grounds. His sole concern is the welfare of his patients. His very wide knowledge and experience makes him a man to whom we should listen.
The House will appreciate that until now I have been speaking solely on subsection (1, c). I want now to speak briefly on the problem of the child mother. When a girl under 16—
§ Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Exeter)
May I ask the hon. Lady if she has ever seen anyone who has been given social support, who has gone the term, carrying a child that she does not desire in circumstances with which she cannot possibly cope, and then, if the good Lord has been more kind to her than man, has perhaps lost the baby at the end? Has the hon. Lady ever known anyone who has suffered that and seen the scar on that woman's personality for life?
§ Mrs. Knight
This is a subject about which it is not advisable to get emotional, if I may say so. I have tried, sincerely and honestly, to assess the evidence which I have been given. That seems to be perfectly fair.
I wish now to speak about the girl under 16. Does anyone think that the problem of the 15-year-old mother can be solved by taking the easy way out? This category which comes under subsection (1,d) is almost negatived a little later in the Bill by Clause 3(1), because in nine cases out of ten a girl of this age who finds that she is having a baby does not tell anyone that she is pregnant until about the fifth month, by which time she would not be able to get an abortion under the Bill anyway, and by which time having an abortion would be very dangerous. Even supposing that 1103 she is the tenth girl and does tell, here is the case of a perfectly healthy baby being sacrificed for the mother's convenience.
Of course, it is a tragedy that little girls should have babies when they are only 12, 13, or 14 or even 11. But is it morally right to destroy one child to help another, and is having an abortion all that much better than having a baby which, after all, if the mother wants, will quite easily be adopted by parents who want it deeply and will give it a good life? For goodness sake, let us bring up our daughters with love and care enough not to get pregnant and not let them degenerate into free-for-alls with the sleazy comfort of knowing," She can always go and have it out". [Interruption.] I do not know why hon. Members opposite are clucking. That is no more than the truth.
I have had a great many letters from doctors since it was stated in the Press that I supported the Amendment, and I should like to quote briefly from one of them. It is from Professor McLaren, Head of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Birmingham University.I thought I should write to you to let you know the present opinion held by my gynaecologist colleagues and myself in the Midlands. Those of us who work in hospital are in no way worried by the present state of the law…on social abortions or abortions of covenience: none of us are prepared to empty the uterus because of the youth of the mother, or because the mother decides that it is inconvenient and embarrassing for the child to survive.…I am writing with some anxiety about the future in the hope that you will throw out Mr. Steel's Bill.The argument that abortion should be possible where there is a reasonable chance of the child being born deformed is one which, on the face of it, we could all support. Yet that is not easy, because who is to say that a child with a club foot or a spastic child is not fit to live? Who is to say that he cannot enjoy life? I have seen plenty of spastics who appear to be thoroughly enjoying life. There is something utterly repugnant to me here, because it so reminds me of Hitler's conception of a race of perfect physical specimens. Is it right that only the physically perfect should be allowed to survive? We should be careful how we answer that one.
1104 Then again, I understand that it is often not possible to say with any certainty that the child is deformed or a monster until abortion is too late for safety. Abortion is frequently an extremely dangerous operation. Obstetricians hate it. I know from my post that they detest and fear the thought of this Bill becoming law. That is partly because of the danger and partly because they hold in great reverence the solemn oath which they have all sworn to preserve life.
In that connection, I want to quote from another letter:Generally this operation has always been considered contrary to good medical practice ever since the time of Hipprocrates.…It is quite wrong to expect a highly skilled and noble profession to terminate pregnancies by government decree, even when they consider this to be bad medical practice and dangerous for the mother.I believe that a mother should have an abortion if her health is endangered ; but that, of course, is already done, and, if it is necessary to make that more clear, I would support it wholeheartedly. I believe that, if it comes to a choice between the mother's life or the baby's, the mother is very much more important. She has ties and responsibilities to her husband and other children. I believe that abortion should take place where a woman or girl has been raped. I believe that the back-street abortionist is an evil, but evidence exists which proves that making abortion legal does not end back-street abortions. I believe that an extra pregnancy can be a wretched thing for a woman with a large family already, but there are other ways of tackling the problem than the extreme one of abortion, and it is far more preferable and humane to help women not to start babies at the beginning than to say," It is all right. Do not worry. You can always have an abortion."
§ Mrs. Knight
I am afraid that I cannot give way any more. I have given way once and I am trying to be brief.
One thing above all that I have learned about abortion is these last few weeks is that we do not know enough about what is involved. Like other hon. Members, I have had letters from women's organisations and independent women, and it is 1105 clear that the people who have written have not read the Bill. They start, as I did, with enormous sympathy and emotional judgment. But we must judge from knowledge and not emotion.
In the present climate, suitably prepared with heavily slanted propaganda, it may be that society says that a woman should have an abortion on demand and that if excuses are wanted for the squeamish they can be easily invented. Those responsible for administering our society should behave responsibly. Yet we see Private Members' Bills introduced to both Houses before there has been an adequate collection of evidence by an independent tribunal. If we are to change the law, it should be done by a society which is fully informed of the facts. At present, this country has had information only from the mass media in the form of radio and television programmes and Press reports.
§ Mr. David Steel
I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. I wish to point out that what she is saying is not true. Over the last thirty years, there have been various reports and inquiries, including one Government inquiry, which came to the conclusion that the law should be reformed.
§ Mrs. Knight
I have been reading from a letter which was sent to me with the full approval and support of obstetricians in the Birmingham area, some of whom are constituents of mine. None of us here is as expert as those men, and they say, from a lifetime of experience, that it is wrong that we in this House should presume to take such a decision when we do not know enough about it.
We have had official inquiries into docks, transport, merchandising and a thousand other problems. We have had Royal Commissions on capital punishment, homosexuality and prostitution. Surely we deserve to be more fully informed on the problem of abortion before we change our laws.
Why is there all this hurry to act in ignorance? If one really believed that the law should be changed and that one possessed irrefutable evidence in support, one should want to place such evidence before an independent tribunal to convince the country of its truth and one's own integrity. The reformers have not 1106 asked for such an inquiry. Indeed, since the B.M.A. set up its Committee of Inquiry, they have pressed even more strongly for quick law reform. Are they afraid of the truth? They may be, but the country must have the truth before it is asked to legislate. The matter is not so urgent that it cannot wait for the facts to be gathered and for opinions from responsible people to be canvassed properly.
It is not pleasant or easy for me to speak in this House on something on which I have a perfect right to utter privacy, but I must say that I am in the position, with my family almost grown up, and having a job to do here in this House, that it would be disastrous for me if I were to start having another baby. Yet, in my position here, I beg the House to believe that I speak with absolute sincerity. I cannot, with all the information that is before me, find it in my heart right to support this Bill which regards getting rid of an innocent baby as something that is right.
§ Mrs. Renée Short
Can the hon. Lady tell the House why, on 28th March, during the election campaign, she wrote a letter to all her constituents saying that she would support the reform of the abortion law on the grounds of the serious risk of a defective child being born, and also on the grounds of incest, or intercourse with a girl under 16? Was this just because it was during the General Election campaign and the hon. Lady wanted to get support from the electors? What is the hon. Lady's real view—the one that she has expressed today, or the one which she expressed during her election campaign?
§ Mrs. Knight
I had concluded my speech, but I hope the House will allow me to answer that question. I said then, as I say now, and as I said in my speech, that I would support abortion after rape. I said that only a few minutes ago. In my letters to my constituents I have stated precisely the circumstances in which I would support abortion, and I touched on them again today. If the hon. Lady's correspondent has sent her the whole of my letter, she will know that on every occasion I said that I could not support abortion on demand. That is what I said then, and that is what I say now.
§ 1.12 p.m.
§ Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)
I have pleasure in supporting the Bill, and I congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) on the way in which he introduced it. I should like the House to take particular notice of what was said by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Cam-borne (Dr. John Dunwoody), because on this matter he has more experience than anybody in the House, and I thought that he put his points extremely fairly and reasonably.
I realise the sincerity with which she spoke, but I regret that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) made some of the remarks that she did. I think that my hon. Friend rather exaggerated when, with regard to subsection (1,c), she talked about abortion on demand, because it refers specifically to abortion when a motherwill be severely overstrained by the care of a child or of another child as the case may be.I thought that the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne demonstrated clearly what this meant, and what I felt, about family life in this connection.
I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) is not here, but he told us why he had to leave. A well-reasoned document entitled" Abortion. A Conservative view" , has just been published. The group which wrote this document suggests thatthe law should be altered or at least clarified by statute so as to make it lawful for a registered medical practitioner to terminate pregnancy…in the belief that there is a substantial risk that the child will be born in such a physical or mental condition that it will have little or no prospect of living a reasonably ordinary and normal life.I am glad that that point has been made. Perhaps that type of wording would have satisfied my right hon. Friend.
I admire the excellent work done by psychiatrists, but if a woman has six or seven children she does not have time to spend two or three hours a day, or even a week, with a psychiatrist going over her problems. She is anxious not to create further problems for herself.
I am glad that the hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North (Mr. William Wells) has returned to the Chamber, because I did not think that he made a 1108 very good case for his point of view. We all have the sanctity of life in mind. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford. We do not want to encourage abortion, but we want to take a step forward in helping the woman concerned.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston was worried about the loss of life, but Lord Brain said:What is lost in an abortion is not a conscious individual, but only the potentiality of one which may owe its very existence to chance or negligence.I think that one must take that factor into account when discussing the Bill.
As an unmarried woman, I find it a little difficult to address the House on this subject, but, speaking from my knowledge of social work, I think that most women desire motherhood. It is natural for a woman to want to have a child. When I tried to bring in a Bill to deal with desertion and affiliation orders, I was impressed by the fact that women were often pregnant at the time their husbands deserted them and that the girl in respect of whom there was an affiliation order was, of course, expecting a child. What most of them wanted was financial support. They had no thought of terminating their pregnancies.
This interested me considerably. It is only in extreme cases that a woman wants to terminate her pregnancy. I know a young woman who has had two children by two different men, and she is working very hard to bring them up. I think that it is an exaggeration to say that women desire this operation which, as the hon. Member for Falmouth and Cam-borne said, is not a pleasant one. It is carried out only when it is essential for physical or mental reasons.
When I heard that the Bill was to be introduced, I attended a one-day conference organised by the Family Planning Association. One general practitioner ended his speech with this cry from the heart:I will not discuss the subject. Thou shalt not arbort, but she ought to have her pregnancy terminated. We do not know what to do. You must go elsewhere. They will do the operation for us.I do not think that women are selfish. In general, they are very law-abiding. They rarely seek an abortion for its own sake, but for the sake of the family and 1109 the unborn child. I suggest that we know very little about what drives a woman to try to terminate her pregnancy. Until our antique and confusing abortion laws are changed, many women will continue to seek these illegal abortions.
I heard another general practitioner say this about a patient who came to see him:Doctor, may I please have some pills to bring on, my period?This, he said, was a cry from the womb, a womb invaded, perhaps by accident, perhaps by force, but it arouses equal feelings of distress in the family doctor. His actions are restricted by a law which is permissive, but which, at the same time, is vague.
I have received a letter from St. Paul's Union of Catholic Mothers. I think that they rather misunderstand the purpose of the Bill, because they say:But a baby who may, and here I stress the word ' may ', be born deformed, or imbecilic is to be condemned to death before birth, before they have a chance to prove what good they may be to this world of ours.They are not condemned to death at all. Nothing can be done without a mother's complete agreement and permission.
I hope that we shall make the way easier for the general practitioner, because he now has a rather difficult time. He has to consult a gynecologist, and he cannot be certain who will act for him. He alone has a real knowledge of his patient, and if he is a good general practitioner his patient will have discussed the matter with him, and it is extremely unfortunate that on many occasions he may have to" shop around" to find a gynecologist to help him with his problem.
I think that we would all agree that where the physical health of an expectant mother is in danger there is little difficulty in obtaining action. Nevertheless, if we can make a change in the law it can be of great advantage to a woman, because she will know that she can go quite openly to her general practitioner. Dr. Joan Malleson, writing in the Lancet, said:Countless women undergo the dangers of unprofessional abortion when no pregnancy exists and without having received any medical opinion whatever. Yet it happens that with invalidation or death of these mothers the 1110 family disintegrates, for around their health and their capacity to tend the children the whole house revolves and, therefore. these mothers are the very last to be permitted to jeopardise their well-being.There is also the question of spontaneous abortions. A great number of abortions are spontaneous, and nobody says that in those circumstances the mothers have killed their children. According to a report of a survey made in Charing Cross Hospital, of 208 cases there were 109 spontaneous abortions, 45 induced abortions and 54 cases where the cause was not known. Many women lose their children through spontaneous abortion, and nobody suggests that life has been taken—they get all our sympathy.
Dr. Harry Roberts, who wrote" A symposium on abortion" , strongly urged that some action should be taken. He said that when the operation of abortion is performed by competent surgeons with full legal and social approval there is very little danger. I want to make sure that there is no danger to the women concerned.
My hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston referred to the question of family planning and contraceptives. She probably knows that the Birmingham Abortion Law Reform Association has made a study of the situation and has discovered how inadequate are many of the medicines and other preparations sold to women as being fully protective. This evidence comes from her own city. In my opinion, abortion should be allowed where the doctor honestly believes that if pregnancy continues there will be a risk of the patient's dying or becoming a physical or mental wreck.
Most of us have received many letters on this subject, and a gynaecologist, Mr. Peter Diggory—some hon. Members may have seen the letter he wrote to The Times—wrote in support of the Bill and I also have here a copy of a lecture that he gave at the conference to which I have already referred. He said:We can reduce this number" —that is, the number of women who seek illegal abortions—only by trying to understand the motives that impel women to such action and then by striving to alter the social climate and improve social benefits and services to aid them.1111 That is what the House should be trying to do. Whether the Bill does or does not do this is something that we can thrash out in Committee. It is extremely difficult to talk about a subject on which people feel so strongly in a debate like this, but in Committee we can discuss the details of the Bill, and how it can work.
Mr. Diggory went on to say that he carried out therapeutic terminations both under the National Health and privately. He said:When I was first made a consultant I tried to have these abortions only in my N.H.S. beds ; but, unfortunately, my views were well known, and cases were referred to me from all over the country, often because the local gynaecologist had religious or other strongly-held objections to abortion. I could not block my waiting list with cases of this type coming from outside my hospital area.It is quite wrong for any doctor to put his ethical reasons before the consideration of his patient, but I suppose that this would be the only case in which we would refuse an operation on those grounds.
Mr. Diggory went on to say, of therapeutic abortion, that of about 110 he carried out, 96 were for psychiatric reasons, two were cases of chronic nephritis,' one was the case of a girl barely 15 years of age who had had one kidney removed and had had two major operations on the other. In 11 cases there were indications that there was danger of the birth of an abnormal foetus ; in 10 of these the mother had had rubella in early pregnancy, and in one a woman already had a congenital amaurotic idiocy. It should be pointed out that she was a doctor's wife, and had apparently been refused termination elsewhere.
I hope that we shall give the Bill a Second Reading, so that we can discuss in Committee how the law should be changed, and so that other people who have not had a chance of doing so today can put forward their views. I have some experience in respect of Private Members' Bills. Mine, regrettably, was talked out. I hope that this will not be. I hope, however, that if it is the Government will have the courage—as Mr. Butler, as he then was, had in respect of my Bill—to take it over.
I agree with the sponsor that it is wrong that these matters of great impor- 1112 tance should be left entirely to private Members. So much depends on the vote today. I hope that there will be very strong support for the Bill and that it can go to Committee for detailed discussion. If, however, by any unhappy chance it should fall by the wayside, I hope that the strength of opinion shown in the House will be such that the Government will feel bound to take it over.
I could not agree less with the hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North. I have opposed the Wolfenden Report on every occasion, especially in connection with the Street Offences Act, and I shall go on opposing it as long as I can, but I do not think that the hon. and learned Member was showing a very liberal mind by supporting that Report and refusing to support this Bill. He did not advance any real argument against this Bill, nor did my hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston. Neither hon. Member has shown that there is no need for a change in the law. I therefore repeat my hope that the Bill will receive a Second Reading, and that it will not be too emasculated in Committee so that it means nothing in the end.
§ 1.30 p.m.
§ Dr. David Owen (Plymouth, Sutton)
It gives me great pleasure to speak immediately after the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers). She and I shared the same political platform at an inter-Church meeting and declared our intention to support a Measure of abortion law reform should one come before the House. I support the plea for this Measure to be given Government time. Obviously there should be a free vote, but leaving such Bills to the vagaries and difficulties of Private Members' time means that a Government is shirking this responsibility.
No one can speak for a whole profession, least of all the medical profession ; which contains so many different strands of opinion, different thoughts and religious beliefs. I would not wish to do so. I should like, however, to tell the House something of the experience of someone who has had cases referred to him for a psychiatric opinion on abortion. In particular, I should like to draw the attention of the House to Clause (1,c), which is the main strength of the 1113 Bill and, naturally, its most contentious portion.
Paragraphs (a) and (b) are clarifying the law as it is already practised. They are not a substantial advance on present practice. Paragraphs (c) and (d) are new and would be very valuable additions for the guidance of practitioners faced with this difficult decision. At times, in the debate, we have tended to become too emotional. This is an extremely difficult issue. People who relate abortion to tonsillectomy are doing their cause a great disservice. This is a very different issue. The whole reproductive cycle of woman is intimately linked with her psyche. We know that a woman is susceptible to depression at times of pregnancy, at times of the menopause and at times of menstruation.
Interfering with a natural course of pregnancy is something which a doctor does only with great care, knowing full well that he is doing something which could have adverse effects. I should like to quote from the views of one organisation which has a unique contribution to make to discussion of this matter—the Royal Medico-Psychological Association. I should declare an interest, because I am a member.
This association speaks for the body of psychiatrists in this country and has produced a memorandum on the subject, which is necessary reading for everyone who is interested in the Bill. It is worth quoting at length from their preamble:The…Association believes that certain courses of action in relation to therapeutic abortion should be permissible by law because they contribute, according to the best available knowledge, to the promotion of health and the prevention of disease. In this belief they do not presume to dictate to those of their members who cannot personally adopt this pragmatic view of medical ethics ; they must clearly be free to adhere to the ethical standards prescribed by their religion or philosophy. Indeed, the association would be opposed to legislation which might bring pressure on an individual doctor to act contrary to his conscience.I would say to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. William Wells) that there would be no pressure on junior doctors to undertake an operation to which they felt a religious objection. I have worked as a junior doctor in a hospital and I know that this applies also to nurses, and that if any nurse feels that this is a distasteful opera- 1114 tion she is at freedom to leave the operating theatre. Many do, and the medical profession as a whole accepts this.
The profession must also accept that society has the right to make certain demands on it. I was glad that my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. C. Pannell) made the cogent point that the medical profession has to serve the community as well. This is why paragraph (c) is so important, because what it is attempting to do—although we may change it in Committee—there is much of the Bill which I should like to see changed and clarified in Committee—is to draw attention to the fact that medicine and the concept of health have been undergoing a dramatic change over the last decade.
Social medicine is at the moment one of the most expanding aspects of medicine. The new concept has emerged of the doctor as the leader of a medical team of social workers—phychiatric social workers and welfare officers—who consult among themselves, and the social and economic background is a vital part of health. By giving a Second Reading to the Bill, we would underline a change which has already occurred, is continuing and is a progressive and inevitable outcome of modern medicine.
The more we learn about depression, the more we realise how it is influenced by social factors, by appalling housing and overcrowding. We should think of the doctor who is faced with the problem of a woman with seven children who tells him that she shares her bed with her husband and two children, with perhaps two other children living and sleeping in the same room. This sort of thing still occurs in this country, and we must face it.
When we decide whether abortion should be given in contrast to the person with four bedrooms, and a bedroom for each child, the doctor must take this into account—
§ Mr. Peter Mahon (Preston, South)
Does my hon. Friend, in all seriousness, consider that abortion is the remedy for the social evils which he is outlining?
§ Dr. Owen
No, I should like to assure my hon. Friend that I do not think it is the remedy. There are many remedies, 1115 but we are faced with the immediate situation as it is.
Such a woman is in total misery, and could be precipitated into a depression deep and lasting. What happens to that woman when she gets depressed? She is incapable of looking after those children, so she retires into a shell of herself and loses all feeling, all her drive and affection. Members of my profession in the House have seen people who are depressed and the total lack of energy and drive.
§ Dr. Owen
No. I will not give way again. My hon. Friend may have a chance of speaking.
Depression is often linked with this and is something of which we must take cognisance. There are, of course, differences of opinion in the medical profession. Some doctors feel that the incidence of depression in pregnancy has been exaggerated. Many do not think so and this is the view of the association. This is the more relevant part of the Bill—the social and economic factors.
§ Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)
My hon. Friend has dwelt on the question of depression. Would it not be fair, since he alone so far has emphasised the seriousness of this and the possible consequences, also to stress that, among the sequelae of abortion, can be very serious, chronic and sometimes permanent effects by way of depression? Would that not be fair, to get a balance?
§ Dr. Owen
I was going on to make this point and of course I agree with this. I sometimes feel anxiety about talking about the Bill, because the issue is balanced on both sides and is very complex. Because of my own indecision and pointing out these difficulties, I sometimes feel that I might harm the Bill. I do not want to do so, but it is right that these things should be pointed out, which is why many psychiatrists give great thought to the matter before recommending a termination of pregnancy.
This is where it must be said—my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Walsall, North was right to do so—that this is not a great radical reform which 1116 can be equated with all other reforms. It needs very careful thought.
When a doctor makes up his mind on a termination of pregnancy, social and economic factors will inevitably come into his consideration—I believe, rightly so. We can no longer treat these as separate issues. Hon. Members have said that they would like to keep to the simple connotation of "health". I suggest that health embraces an increasingly wider field. It is this to which we must carefully give consideration.
In the medical profession there is full recognition of the difficulties created by the present situation. We know that we shall not stop back-street abortion, but there is a feeling in the medical profession that many women are stopped from going to their doctors to discuss their pregnancies because of the present legal situation. If we allow abortion to become lawful under certain conditions, a woman will go to her doctor and discuss with him the problems which arise. If he is a good doctor, he will listen to her patiently and discuss it with her, and he may well be able to offer that support which is necessary for her to continue to full term and successfully to have a child.
I have seen many women who have been given this support, have reached full term, and have been grateful to the doctor for enabling them to do so, but, equally, I am convinced there are people whose pregnancies have rightly been terminated and who would not have been able to accept the burden of another child. I suggest to the House that, given these considerations and the right of doctors to decide the issues, and aware of the social environment into which we are moving and of the feeling in the country, we should regard the Bill as offering a significant advance in our thinking. I am sure that in Committee it can be clarified and the provisions tightened so that there will be less misunderstanding. We need a little less emotion in discussing the issue and a little more realisation of the extreme complexity of the problem. Given that, I believe that we can make a significant advance and that abortion law reform will be understood by everyone.
It is strange that the House is discussing this Bill in this order of priority. It is appalling that the country still does 1117 not offer under the National Health Service family planning available for everyone. This is the key to the problem. We cannot discuss abortion without relating it to contraception. Until we break down the barrier of suspicion and ignorance of contraceptive practice, we shall be faced with this increasing problem of abortion. The cure for it is to put the onus on the medical profession to provide advice on contraception.
I should like the next Private Member's Bill to provide that when a doctor makes his six-week post-natal examination the onus is placed on him to introduce the question of family planning. It would be for the woman to decide whether she wished it to be discussed, but this is a positive contribution which must be made by the medical profession in order to spread advice about contraception throughout the country. The necessity to make this very difficult decision about abortion would then be markedly reduced.
§ 1.43 p.m.
§ Mr. Angus Maude (Stratford-on-Avon)
I rise to oppose the Amendment and to give qualified support to the Bill. I must say that I find it very much easier to make lip my mind to oppose the Amendment than I do to decide how qualified is my support for the Bill.
My decision was rendered easier by the speech of the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen). I think that I agreed with nearly everything he said. I found his attitude in marked and refreshing contrast to that of some of his hon. Friends who, from those who made interjections and sedentary noises to those who wholeheartedly opposed the Bill, suggested that it was their view that this was a simple matter and that anybody who did not accept the whole argument and the whole Bill was automatically obscurantist, inhumane and unintelligent.
This seems to me not only an arrogant, but a dangerous attitude. The hon. Member for Sutton rightly said that unless we realise that this is a subject which is very difficult, which has marginal implications and secondary effects arising out of almost every provision of the Bill, we shall not do it justice and we shall not eventually allow to emerge 1118 from the House a Measure which will work.
I hope that we shall come to a vote on Second Reading this afternoon and that no attempt will be made to talk out the Bill. We ought to thrash it out in Committee and on Report and to discuss what sort of Measure this ought to be.
I am sorry that my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) is not here. I listened, as I always do, with great attention to what he said, because over the many years that I have know him I have come particularly to value the humane and yet penetrating way in which his mind works on social and moral problems of this kind. I want to try to explain to the House why, sharing most of the doubts that he has, I decided marginally that I would vote for the Second Reading of the Bill whereas he decided marginally that he would vote against it.
I believe it to be important that the statute law should codify the case law of the Bourne judgment and since. I know the arguments against interfering with the case law—that it may rigidify the position and make it more difficult for doctors, but I believe that Parliament should place the position beyond doubt. If my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson) or any other lawyer takes part in the debate, I hope that he will tell us whether the Bill places the position beyond doubt and whether it would codify it in the right way. I think that we ought to know about it and that it ought to be discussed in Committee.
I turn to the emotive content which is inevitable in the Bill. I, being subject to no religious dogma in this respect—I am an Anglican—cannot find it in me, and I do not believe I ever shall find it in me, to regard the non-viable foetus in utero as a human personality. I cannot say that I am right to believe this, but nobody can say that I am wrong. I am, therefore, left unmoved by talk of killing unborn babies.
It seems to me that this is to get the discussion on to altogether the wrong foot, because it concentrates attention in the most emotionally possible way on the act of termination of pregnancy without considering what is much more important— 1119 the results of doing it and the circumstances in which it is done. It seems to me that that is the only thing to which we ought to be directing our attention when we are discussing the Bill.
I have no hesitation at all no reservation in saying that I believe that, subject to proper safeguards, a pregnancy ought to be medically terminated when there is a clear and grave danger to the life or physical health of the mother. I have, as I think anybody must have, slightly more reservations when we come to mental health, despite the enormous advances in psychiatry—not just in specialist psychiatry, but, what is perhaps more important, the increasing knowledge of or familiarity with psychiatric practice on the part of general practitioners. Because of this advance it is much less dangerous to give slightly more latitude here than once it was.
Nevertheless, as was said by the hon. Member for Sutton, who has much greater knowledge and experience than I have, there is a difficult borderline. It is very much a matter of experienced judgment—not guesswork—as to whether the sort of profound depression, amounting to dangerous melancholia at times, which many of us have seen in cases of quite normal pregnancy, can, in fact, be dealt with medically and whether the woman be brought to her term and helped to produce a happy, healthy child and to become once again a happy healthy mother. Sometimes she can, sometimes she cannot. But it is a very dicey decision to say whether she can or cannot, I suspect, and, therefore, to decide whether one should take the responsibility of terminating a pregnancy which might result in the birth of a normal, happy, healthy and useful child.
Those are all to a certain extent imponderables. One does not know what might have been if one had done such and such a thing or had not done it. It is almost the same problem as is exemplifield in Aldous Huxley's" Fifth Philosopher's Song":And among that billion minus one, Might have chanced to beShakespeare, another Newton, a new Donne—But the One was Me.It is a solemn thought.
When we go beyond the question of danger to life and physical and mental 1120 health, I find myself not wholly in agreement with the provisions in the Bill, but I go a little less far than some who have objected and a little further than others. For example, I accept Clause 1(1,b) unreservedly. This is one that I know has given some considerable difficulty and doubt to other hon. Members. I agree that this is something extraordinarily difficult to define, and it will be extraordinarily difficult to prove. Nevertheless, I believe that paragraph (b) is right and that, subject to clarification and definition, this should form part of the Bill.
I find it almost impossible to accept paragraph (c) in anything like its present form. I am sure that this will have to be changed in Committee, and I am almost certain that it ought to be taken out. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight), despite the uproar that it created opposite, was perfectly right, surely, in saying that this is not a problem which ought to be dealt with primarily by the termination of pregnancy. This is, as the hon. Member for Sutton said, a mater which one cannot consider in isolation from current attitudes towards contraception. The terrible social inadequacies in housing and the ignorance and prejudice about contraceptive practices which still persist—therein, in the end, lie the solutions.
I believe that we may actually find that we are making these solutions more difficult to obtain if we give the idea that abortion is the answer to these problems and that it is something that can be made easier. The pressure to get an abortion in circumstances where it is a struggle for the mother, and where it is only too easy, goodness knows, to feel that the struggle is hopeless and intolerable, may distract attention from the needs for reform in other fields.
Paragraph (d) is something like a lottery. I am prepared to accept some parts and not others. I accept" defective" , subject to legal advice about the adequacy of the existing statutory definition, as a proper reason for abortion. Again, recognising the difficulties of definition and proof, I absolutely accept rape as a reasonable cause for termination of pregnancy. I do not believe that it can be right to ask a young woman to bear a child whose father she did not choose and may not even know, and as 1121 a result of sexual intercourse which has been forced on her and to which she was not a consenting, willing partner.
With respect to the hon. Gentleman the Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel), who said that under the law of Scotland sexual intercourse with a girl under the age of consent was treated as being equivalent to rape, I cannot accept that they are the same at all. I do not think that pregnancy of a girl under the age of 16 should automatically be regarded as a good legal ground for termination. The circumstances here are clearly different. One may perfectly well say, if talking of a girl of, say, 11 or 12 years, that the law says that she is under the age of consent, and, therefore, in a sense this puts it on the same, footing as rape and the victim of rape is not a consenting partner. Nevertheless, we all know that a 15-yearsold girl nowadays is very different from a child. It may have been, as the Prayer Book says, entered into lightly, wantonly and inadvisedly, but nevertheless the girl, if it was not rape, was a consenting party to sexual intercourse—unless she was a defective, in which case she is dealt with separately—presumed to have some knowledge of the risks and what the implications would be.
Nor do I accept that it automatically follows that the results of the pregnancy will be disastrous. After all, if the girl is liable to suffer serious physical or mental damage she is covered by paragraph (a). It seems to me that the chances are that the girl, if she is properly looked after and if her parents rally round and she is properly medically looked after, will have a successful pregnancy and a successful birth and produce a perfectly normal and healthy child.
There is seldom any difficulty about adoption in those cases. The girl may be none the worse for the experience. I am not at all sure that I believe that we should remove what is in a sense a useful sanction. I know that that perhaps sounds a heartless thing to say, but one needs to think twice before one removes all the consequences of folly from people. One does at least need to think what the implications are.
Having said all that, and having shown, I hope, that I want to look at the impli- 1122 cations of the Bill impartially, I hope that the House will decide to give the Measure a Second Reading so that the matters that I have raised can be discussed more carefully in Committee.
To conclude, my right hon. Friend the Member for Ashford and my hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston were, I think, getting near to this point. I said that the implications, the secondary effects, of legislation of this kind need careful consideration. I hope that the House, when it takes responsibly the decision, as I hope it will, to legislate in this matter, will recognise some of the doors that it may be opening in the future. I think that all the intelligent people, whether they be religious and of whatever Church, or whether they are agnostics, atheists, rationalists or humanists—whatever they may be—would agree that one of the things which, in the next generation, will produce the most alarming and exercising social and moral problems is the increasing ability of men to interfere with the processes of nature and actually to control them.
These matters, whether it be in the case of nuclear fission or experiments, which will certainly succeed, to control the weather, raise problems, some of them social, others moral, which exercise us all. But when we come, as we are coming quickly, to the ability of science and medicine to control the evolution of humanity, we shall have to look at a new set of problems in terms of new categories of thought. This may seem far from the Bill, but I do not believe that it is.
There was a letter in The Times this morning from a gynaecologist which illustrated the point which I am making. He supported the Bill really on the ground that it would open the way for medicine deliberately to try to improve congenitally the human stock by scientific means. I am not so optimistic or foolish as to believe that one can stop the progress of science in this way, for it is in the nature of man to ask questions. If he asks them, he will try to find answers to them. If he finds the answers, he will try to act on them. Nothing can stop man behaving in this way. But he had better watch out that some of the answers which he gets do not beg even larger questions.
1123 If medicine and science are to be able to control the evolution of humankind and produce mutations to carry out deliberately the practice of eugenic selection, then, without any question, somebody—and it will in the last resort be Governments—will have to decide how far they will control this for social and moral reasons. I think that what we are doing in the Bill may be the first decision that we have to take in this field. It is not an unimportant consideration, and I hope that the House will bear it in mind.
§ 2.2 p.m.
§ Mr. Kevin McNamara (Kingston upon Hull, North)
In the Declaration of Human Rights, passed in Plenary Session of the United Nations in 1959, there appeared the following resolution:The child by reason of its physical and mental immaturity needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection before as well as after birth".This quotation contains not only the essence of Christian belief, not only the common law of our land, but, from the nature of the Assembly which passed it, the common law of humanity. This is what the Bill seeks to change, for if it does nothing else it legalises the taking of human life.
I find it tragic that so many hon. and right hon. Members who in the last Parliament walked through the Lobby in support of the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act outlawing capital punishment could at the same time support the Bill before us today. Had I been a Member of the House then, the same motives which would have taken me into the Lobby in support of my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Sydney Silverman) would make me reject this Bill. [Interruption.] There are many hon. Members who wish to speak. I would prefer to continue with my argument. I have sat here since 11 o'clock this morning listening to the debate and wanting to interupt, but I did not do so. I ask for the same courtesy from other hon. Members.
In The Times of 20th July there was printed a letter from Dr. Bernard Towers, Tutor and Director of Medical Studies at Jesus College, Cambridge, in which he wrote:If this Bill is not in effect a proposal for legalizing the taking of human life its supporters must advance cogent arguments to 1124 prove that a healthy embryo is either (a) not alive, (b) not human or (c) not a unique, individual organism. I know of no competent embryologist today who would deny these attributes to a normal human conceptus, at least from the time of the first cleavage-division of the fertilised ovum".Later he said:English law has always offered protection to the rights of the individual. The first of these rights is the right to life. At what point in our personal life-spans did each of us acquire those rights? If even such minor details as the colour of my hair and the shape of my nose were specified in my original gene-complex, was I not ' made ', as oriental chronology has long insisted, some nine months before I was born? Everything thereafter, whether it happens in uttero or outside it, is a process of growth of development, and all divisions and nomeclatures, however useful for descriptive purposes, are arbitrary in relation to the individual person".This is part of the case which the proposers of the Bill must answer. But it is only part of the case, for they must justify not only the principle but also the content and, indeed, the purpose of the Bill.
I think that the proposers of the Bill would say that it has three main aims. As I summarise them. I hone that I do no injustice to their case. If I do, I will willingly give way. As I see it, they rest upon three main arguments: first, that there is need for certainty in the law: secondly, that the present law if rendered certain is inhumane—inhumane because there are many cases in which motherhood will impose severe emotional strains inhumane because the child is likely to be born abnormal or defective: inhumane because the circumstances of the conception are such as to render the birth of the child repugnant to the mother, her family or society at large: inhumane because the law insists on a woman bearing an unwanted child.
In its extreme form, I think that this argument becomes the alleged right of every expectant mother to decide whether her child shall be born or destroyed, but I grant that the Bill does not go this far. Finally, they say that it is inhumane because many women suffer great pain and hardship because they have had to have recourse to a back-street abortionist. The third reason which the proposers of the Bill put forward is that the administration of the law has broken down, that it is neither respected nor obeyed. I could never defend a situation in which there is one law for the rich and another for the poor.
1125 I should like to deal in detail with these three points. The first is that the law should be certain. This demand seems to me to be largely synthetic. It does not seem to come from the medical profession itself. Indeed, the report of the Royal College to which so many hon. Members have referred specifically states:Those who advocate major changes in the law governing induction of abortion do not always appreciate that current medical practice in the United Kingdom is not seriously hampered by the present legal position".Later, i t states:We are unaware of any case in which a gynaecologist has refused to terminate pregnancy, when he considered it to be indicated on medical grounds, for fear of legal consequences.Further, the report of the Special Committee of the B.M.A. on Therapeutic Abortion argues that the cases in which abortion is necessary to preserve the life or physical health of the mother are now far fewer than they were 30 years ago. There are cases in which the mental health of the mother is said to justify it, but these, too, are decreasing as psychiatry advances. I agree that on medical grounds there seems to be a fair balance between these points.
The second point is the argument as to the inhumanity of the present law. I wish to deal briefly with the problem of the back-street abortionist. I will deal later with paragraphs (b) (c) and (d) of Clause 1(1). But if the Bill covers only the grounds which are in Clause 1 there are still many cases which will make necessary recourse to the back-street abortionist. If, on the other hand, this is not so, then the Bill, if passed, which I hope it will not be, will not be rigorously enforced and we are merely legislating to make a mockery of ourselves and finding a pretext of one form or another to allow mothers to be aborted apparently legally with adequate medical safeguards.
Will we with this legislation reduce illegal abortions or eliminate them altogether? Foreign experience seems to suggest to the contrary. In Japan, Sweden and Hungary, there has not been a reduction but an increase, due apparently to a woman's desire for secrecy and haste and a climate of opinion which regards abortion as a trivial affair, although I agree that there might be some substance in the case advanced by the hon. Mem- 1126 ber for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) and his comment about the Swedish medical boards.
§ Dr. Winstanley
Would not the hon. Gentleman also accept, in addition to my hon. Friend's observations about Sweden, that there is also the fact that many people who misunderstand the situation in Sweden deliberately go to Sweden to obtain what they hope will be legal abortions, find that they cannot get them, and then have illegal abortions, thus inflating the total number?
§ Mr. McNamara
That may be the case. In view of the nature of much of this evidence, we do not know, because these are not Government statistics, but I would be prepared to accept that. I think I am also right in saying that in Sweden the climate of opinion seems to be going against legal abortion in that the numbers are falling, but one can draw what conclusion one likes from that.
Let us also consider the difficulties and dangers of widening the grounds for abortion. In its report the Royal College points out that the danger of death from abortion is more than it is with normal birth, that the danger of non-fatal but serious complications is as high as 3 per cent., and that there is a danger from postoperative psychoses which is variously estimated at between 9 and 59 per cent. ; and even 9 per cent. is alarmingly high. I agree that there is a very delicate argument, a very nice argument, but the danger here is that these psychoses are, unfortunately, very difficult to treat, because they often arise from a feeling of guilt which all too clearly has a factual basis, being based on the denial of the maternal instinct and the natural law—and I put it no higher than that. 'This is a fact which the supporters of the Bill on this ground should weigh most carefully when they advance the argument of the need for abortion as a cure for the psychoses of pregnancy.
I come now to administration. No one would deny that the present law is flouted, but we are entitled to ask whether the machinery proposed in the Bill would be sufficient. Certainly it contains far less than the Bill introduced in another place by my noble Friend Lord Silkin. It lacks precision of definition, a point to which I shall come later, and it is certainly less strict than the Royal College itself would have it. One must ask why 1127 there is reluctance about asking for a consultant's opinion—and I agree that there is a technical argument about weight of numbers and so on—but one is therefore entitled to ask, the present state of the law being what it is, how many general practitioners have specialist knowledge of abortion in theory. From the state of the law as it is, very few should have it in practice.
Again, where does the medical profession stand if women in certain instances can claim abortion of right, as they could under the Bill? This is an important consideration which has been developed before and to which the institution to which my hon. Friend belonged made an important reference when it mentioned the possibility of the psychiatrist or doctor becoming a mere technician if people could demand this as a right. I put the argument no higher than that. Medical opinion is disagreed about it.
I turn now to Clause 1, in order to make not Committee points, but points of substance. Clause 1(1,a) would appear to be declaratory of the existing law. This would be something which, while from my own ethical point of view I would not like to see it, I would certainly not try to oppose or obstruct. But subsection (1,b) immediately suggests difficulties. The phrases which are used" substantial risk" ," seriously handicapped" —are difficult to interpret and are incapable of precise definition. What exactly does" substantial risk" mean? When Lord Brain wrote his commentary on the first Bill of Lord Silkin in the British Medical Journal he pointed out the difficulties which their Lordships have had medically and legally in trying to find a meaning. It is almost impossible to give a definition. How are we to measure this? Where do we draw the line?
Rubella was mentioned earlier and the 30 per cent. chance of a child being born deformed, but what of the other 70 children in that statistical 100? What does the phrase" seriously handicapped" mean? Serious abnormality in pregnancy is now being diagnosed very easily, but although it is being diagnosed very easily this should not overcome the fact that it is still extremely difficult to diagnose abnormality in early stages of pregnancy. For example, when one takes X-rays and 1128 the child's bones are then visible, the pregnancy is so far advanced that the child is viable. In certain forms of growth abnormality, the child may not be viable, being a full monster, and in such cases it is often safer to let the pregnancy go full course rather than terminate it and possibly risk the mother's life.
There is the more important question —what of the foetus? I mean more important not in relation to the mother's life, but what of the foetus, of the child for all its handicaps made in the image of God? How are we to judge whether the potential child would have any reasonable prospect of enjoying life?
There is a facile assumption that the presence of a severe abnormality like spasticity or mongol characteristics must inevitably deprive a child of enjoyment of life. Yet they cherish their lives. Those who have read the debates on similar Bills in the other place cannot fail to have been moved by the quotation of a letter in the Daily Telegraph by the noble Lord Iddesleigh:Sir—We were disabled from causes other than thalidomide, the first of us having two useless arms and hands, the second two useless legs, and the third the use of neither arms nor legs.We are fortunate only, it may seem, in having been allowed to live, and we want to say with strong conviction how thankful we are that no one took it upon themselves to destroy us as useless cripples. Here, in the Thomas Delarue School for Spastics…we have found worthwhile and happy lives and we face our future with confidence. Despite our disabilities life still has much to offer, and we are more than anxious—if only metaphorically—to reach out towards the future."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. House of Lords, 30th November, 1965 Vol. 270, c. 1175.]One must balance a statement like that against the very often tragic and emotional arguments concerning the strains and stresses upon parents.
It is also strange that abnormalities which we are able to diagnose within the womb we are prepared to terminate, while those which cannot be diagnosed until after birth we are to let live, things like epilepsy, biochemical disorders and mental defects. Who are we to judge to say that those who are born abnormal but not diagnosed should live, while the child who may be born blind or deaf because its mother may have contracted German measles or had a sweat rash is to be condemned to die? Who are we to 1129 make the judgment? Who is the mother to make the judgment?
Those who talk about the abnormalities of rubella ought also to remember the advantages of gamma globulin and its effect in the early treatment of rubella. Nor should one forget that under this Clause many a normal child may be sacrificed in order to avoid the risk of bearing a handicapped child. It is too high a risk to run and it is too high a price to pay.
Subsection (1,c) contains the phrases" capacity as a mother" and" severely overstrained". Again, these are terms which are impossible to interpret or to limit, and they are to some extent ludicrous. How can a woman's capacity to be a mother be measured before she has a child? Fecklessness, a bad background, being a bad manager—these are handicaps, but they are nothing to do with love, that indefinable bond, no matter how bad the social conditions, no matter how strange or difficult the circumstances, which links a mother to her child and makes her cherish it.
The social argument based on bad housing, poor wages, to justify abortion strikes me as a very sad argument coming from these benches. I came to the House to get a better human deal, to get decent and improved family allowances, to redistribute wealth, and to help people in just these circumstances. This is a bad argument and again I say that it does not come well from these benches.
The hon. Lady the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight) has already covered many other objections which can be made to this subsection. I shall not cover that ground again. I turn to Clause 1(1,d) which provides, amongst other things, for termination of pregnancy wherethe pregnant woman is a defectivesuffering from subnormality under Section 4 of the Mental Health Act, 1959.
It is popularly thought, not without some ground, that a mother as mentally defective as defined in the Acts is more likely than a normal woman to have a mentally defective child in the sense of the 1959 Act and to be more likely of being incapable of rearing such a child. While this broad generalisation cannot be disputed, it is another matter whether 1130 or not this should be regarded as adequate grounds for terminating a pregnancy. With slighter degrees of subnormality, the transmission of defectiveness varies tremendously and many healthy and normal children are born to such mothers.
Once it was thought that intelligence was a fixed quantum that did not rise. This is now open to grave doubt as the influence of environment and other factors are changing the face of medicine. Children of less afflicted subnormal parents may, if reared in the right circumstances, reach average or above-average intelligence. Indeed, many normal children are born to mothers of the middle and slighter degrees of mental subnormality. One must again ask: are these, too, to perish?
The Bill makes no provision for the intelligence level of the father, and it has yet to be proven that the intelligence level of the father is not in some way related to the intelligence of the offspring. But, above all, this part of the Clause leaves the mentally defective woman the prey of men of mean and base instincts, something which is very reprehensible.
The hon. Lady the Member for Edgbaston has referred to pregnancies of girls under 16. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. William Wells) spoke of the legal difficulties of proving rape.
May I, as my last point on the contents of the Bill, refer to Clause 1 (4). This is a dangerous provision. First, there is no definition of" freshly" in the phrasefreshly after the alleged assault".I do not wish to elaborate this point, because I do not think I ought to, except to say that to my knowledge it has no scientific meaning on any time scale and has not yet been used as a term of art within the law.
But the phrasemedical evidence of sexual assaultis another matter. The question has already been raised of the difficulty of proving rape legally. My medical informants tell me that tearing, scratching, bruises, are not uncommon accompaniments of normal sexual intercourse. Here the doctor, on the uncorroborated evidence of his patient, is to be placed in the position of judge and jury. It is 1131 an impossible position for him to be placed in and the whole of this subsection begs the question of the proof of rape.
Finally, where applicable there is no mention in the Bill of the father's consent to his wife's being aborted. This is a serious lapse, because the child is the child of both the parents and the responsibility of each of them from conception until it has established for itself a life of its own independent of them, when it has matured into adulthood, remains undiminished. This is a serious omission.
I have spoken at length on some of the what might be termed Committee points of the Bill because of what the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles said in moving the Bill about the attitude he would take to people who were opposed to it. I have therefore felt that I must elaborate this case, because there are many points of substance which legally I do not think bear examination, besides the objections that I have from my own convictions.
§ Mr. David Steel
I hope that the hon. Gentleman has not misunderstood—I fear that he has—what I tried to say about my attitude towards Amendments. The hon. Gentleman has indeed been relating Committee points. If the hon. Gentleman would be willing to give the Bill a Second Reading, these are precisely the type of points which should be examined in Committee and as to which I should be perfectly prepared to accept alterations to the Bill. I did not intend to suggest that, because they happened to be minor points and because they happened to be made by people who object to the Bill, I would not accept them.
§ Mr. McNamara
I do not regard many of these what might be termed Committee points as minor points. It is not certain that I, at any rate, will be able to make these points in Committee. I therefore felt that I should make them now so that, in case the hon. Gentleman is not already aware of my attitude, he should be made aware of it.
I apologise to hon. Members for having spoken at length, but to me the sanctity of life of both the mother and the unborn child is of such importance, and the Bill is such a bad Bill, striking at the very roots of my concept of life and of man, 1132 that I felt that I had to make my case in some detail, lest it should go by default. I support the Amendment.
§ 2.26 p.m.
§ Sir John Hobson (Warwick and Leamington)
May I begin my short intervention by congratulating, I am sure on behalf of the whole House, the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) on the manner in which he moved the Second Reading of the Bill. He did so with great moderation. He marshalled all the facts and arguments both fairly and clearly. His manner of presenting the Bill had the further advantage of being thoroughly unemotional.
This topic raises great emotions, as we have seen in the House today. This subject touches the origin and continuation of the human species. The only sound basis on which to approach legislation on this topic is the adoption of an unemotional approach to the real problems which the Bill presents to the House as a whole.
I want to make it clear from the outset that, though I speak from the Front Bench, I am not, on behalf of the Opposition, advancing any view one way or the other about the Bill. This is not only a Private Member's Bill, but it is one of those Private Members' Bills on which we all agree that there should be no party view. It should not be assumed that Private Members' Bills should not arouse deep and passionate party contentions. However, there are classes of Private Members' Bills which deal with moral and ethical questions affecting the individual citizen in relation to which it is right and proper that hon. Members should not adopt a party attitude.
The law on divorce has always been a matter for Private Members' Bills. It is desirable that other Bills dealing with issues of a moral and ethical nature and which affect the life of the individual citizen, rather than the community as a whole, should always be treated in the House when presented by a private Member not as matters for either party to deal with.
Therefore, I desire to make it clear that, though I speak from the Dispatch Box, the Opposition do not have a party line of any sort or description in relation 1133 to the Bill and it is left to the conscience of hon. Members on these benches, as I believe it is to hon. Members opposite, to vote exactly as they please.
Having said that, I want to put my personal view. The Home Secretary will follow me. He is in a slightly different position, because he will speak on behalf of the Government and with all the authority and knowledge of one of the Departments of State, though, apart from that position, he no doubt has his own private view. The House has always greatly benefited by the advice of a Minister speaking as a Minister, but we shall be interested to hear the right hon. Gentleman's personal views apart from those of his Ministerial responsibility.
The present law dealing with abortion requires clarification and amendment. To that extent, I welcome the Bill. I think that it is necessary that we should do something about the present law and that it is both necessary and desirable that it should be not only clarified, but also amended. To that extent, I greatly welcome the bringing forward of the Bill and the discussion of the subject today. It is of considerable importance to the public generally in their individual lives and the way in which they can or cannot receive medical help in dealing with the problems of parenthood and conception.
But I am bound to add that I feel the greatest personal qualifications about subsections (c) and (d) of Clause 1. I believe that it is not right to refrain from raising what might be considered to be Committee points under subsections (a), (b), (c) and (d) , for these are the substance of the Bill
§ Mr. McNamara
I only made the point because of what the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) said in moving the Second Reading.
§ Sir J. Hobson
Of course—I am supporting the hon. Member for Kingston-upon-Hull, North (Mr. McNamara). I cannot see how one can consider the Second Reading without considering, also, what is included in those subsections. They are what it is about. One cannot claim that they are technical matters of drafting. They contain the substance of the effect of the Bill. To this extent, we must discuss the details of these pro- 1134 visions on Second Reading and hon. Members on both sides, whatever their views, have to make up their minds on subsections (a), (b), (c) and (d) , because they are what the Bill is about.
The drafting of the Bill, and its predecessors, has led to a great deal of pamphleteering and it is plain from the terms of the Bill that the people who are really affected are the medical profession. The Bill deals with the powers and responsibilities and duties of the medical profession under the law. To that extent, it is very important indeed, whatever other pamphlets have been written, that one should look at the authoritative pamphlets issued by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists and by the Special Committee of the B.M.A. While one may recognise that there are divisions within the medical profession, I place very great weight on the views of these authoritative committees of these two branches of the medical profession.
Subsection (a) , as has been said, is no more than a fairly accurate, indeed, in my view, wholly accurate codification of the existing law of England as I understand it. My hon. Friend the Member for Stratford on Avon (Mr. Maude) asked me to express a view on this. I think that subsection (a) does no more than what is generally understood in England to be the present law on the subject. I think that it is useful that the clarification should be put into statutory form. It is a good thing that we should put into a Statute what is generally understood. Neither the Court of Criminal Appeal nor the House of Lords has ever considered this subject and subsection (a) will remove some anxiety from doctors in this respect, although I do not think that they need have very much.
Subsection (b) deals with the question of the possible risk that a child may be born subject to a physical or mental abnormality and may be seriously handicapped. This raises a very different combination of conceptions. First, there is the question of the seriouness of the risk, and, secondly, there is the risk of serious deformity. These are two quite different subjects.
The ordinary law affecting people working in factories recognises this. One has to consider, first, not only whether there is a serious risk but whether, if one takes it, anything serious will happen. 1135 Secondly, one must consider whether the risk ought to be guarded against, because if anything happens there will be the most serious consequences. It is like a person walking along a narrow, dangerous wall only 6 ft. from the ground. That is a different matter from walking along such a wall 60 ft. high. In the one case, the risk may be acceptable because, although it is a serious risk, the consequences will not be very great. Conversely, if the consequences are to be utterly disastrous one should not accept the risk.
That is the great difficulty of putting, in a formula that will be comprehensible and must be applied by doctors, this conception that one must look at what are the chances and what will be the consequences. I think that the drafting of this provision might be capable of some minor improvements, but, substantially, I think that it does the right job. I think that many of us have taken the view, when we have considered this question in the light of medical knowledge, that the questions answers itself.
This may be no more than saying that doctors know which way they would operate it and that, whatever the formula, each individual doctor will form a view of the cases in which he will or will not think that the risk of deformity is so great that he should terminate the pregnancy. I do not think that we can go further than that, but we should give the doctors help and, therefore, we should support subsection (b) as it stands.
On subsection (c) , it has been made plain by many hon. Members who have spoken in its support that they intend to make it operate upon the basis that it will give doctors an economic or social judgment to do what they would think was right in social and economic conditions and, because of those conditions, to terminate a pregnancy. I cannot accept that that is a way in which we ought to legislate.
First, I do not think that it is right to commit to the hands of doctors decisions on social and economic problems which are to be solved by the termination of prospective life. The hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Dr. John Dunwoody), who spoke with great experi- 1136 ence and feeling, said in express words that he desired to have the power to terminate a prospective life because he wanted to solve social and economic problems.
I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman's judgments are good and that he is honest about them, but they may be wholly different from those that others in the medical profession or outside it would take of such topics. To that extent, it is not right that doctors should terminate life upon a judgment as to purely social and economic consequences. If that had been the law during the last 1,000 years, the number of persons born into this world might have been very substantially reduced, because we are constantly going through evolutions in our social and economic conditions and always, unhappily, a substantial proportion of the population are below the average that most people would like to see.
§ Mr. C. Pannell
I do not think that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is stating the position fairly. My hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Dr. John Dunwoody) did not want to solve social and economic problems. He wanted to solve, as a doctor, the impact of a social or economic problem upon his patient. The duty is to the patient. He is not asking for carte blanche for doctors in this respect. The right hon. and learned Gentleman is usually most fair, and I hope that he will acknowledge this.
§ Sir J. Hobson
I certainly accept that that was one way of expressing the view of the hon. Gentleman, but I still do not think that it is an acceptable basis. One should not put into the hands of doctors the right to terminate a prospective life because in an individual case the mother has a social or economic problem that could face her in the future. I think that the drafting of the paragraph is very vague. I do not know what" capacity as a mother" means. I have never heard the phrase before. How long has that capacity to be overstrained—one year, three years, ten years, six months? We do not know anything about that. The paragraph gives carte blanche to doctors to apply in individual cases pretty well whatever views they may take on difficult questions and I do not think that it is 1137 right to place on the medical profession generally the right to take these decisions—
§ Sir J. Hobson
We want to proceed as quickly as possible, and I know that the Secretary of State for the Home Department wishes to speak.
On paragraph (d) , I have a great deal of doubt about whether it is right to terminate a pregnancy because the mother is a defective. If, however, the reason is given that there is a strong possibility that the mother being a defective may suffer serious consequences as a result of having the child, why cannot ,he be dealt with under paragraph (a)? If, on the other hand, the reason is the risk that the child itself will be seriously handicapped, then this point is already dealt with under paragraph (b). While I see the arguments, which are quite good, I should have thought that the fact that the mother is a defective will be fully covered by (a) and (b) and this part of paragraph (d) is unnecessary and superfluous.
The next point is that concerning a woman who becomes pregnant while under the age of 16. I concede that there are very many circumstances in which the physical and mental development of the mother is one which would lead any doctor to terminate the pregnancy I am happy to leave it to any doctor to say under paragraph (a) whether the consequences to a mother who is young, and exceedingly young, are such that she should have her pregnancy terminated. I do not even mind if he decides that a girl over 16, who is very immature, both physically and mentally, should have her pregnancy terminated. I cannot see that the age of 16 has any magic.
The medical profession is well able to apply the tests in parapraphs (a) and (b) to the question of the youth of the mother. While it can be a very difficult question, it is not the youth in terms of age, it is the youth of the child in terms of physical and mental maturity or immaturity which is important, and this can all be dealt with under paragraphs (a) and (b).
Finally, there is the question of whether conception as a result of a rape should automatically place upon the doctor the 1138 right to abort, or the difficult duty of refusing to abort. It is almost impossible to decide this question since conception may have taken place as a result of intercourse obtained by force or by fear or by fraud. The idea that one has to have medical evidence that a lady has been raped is wrong, when one remembers that a woman can be raped by fear or fraud, when no physical or medical evidence will exist that that has occurred.
Therefore, paragraph (d) is unnecessary and one comes back to the problem raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon, whether a raped woman should be allowed to bear a child, when she might not even know the father, has never consented to have her child and did not want it. Almost all those cases would also be covered by paragraph (a). This was the way in which the pregnancy was terminated in the Bourne case. There are very difficult questions of administration of the law in deciding when there has or has not been a rape. I would prefer to stand on paragraph (a) , but if there were a way in which doctors could decide whether or not a lady had been raped I would be content to allow the provision on rape to go in.
When one considers the attitudes of the professions in the two pamphlets I have mentioned, it is noteworthy that the proposal of paragraph (c) is not supported either by the Royal College or by the B.M.A. Both make it clear that they do not support the termination of pregnancy for non-medical reasons and that they think that it would be most unfair to place any such burden on doctors. I agree with that view.
They also do not support any of the proposals under paragraph (d). On the question of the girl being under the age of 16, the Royal College of Obstetricians is against any such provisions, and the B.M.A. strongly disapproves of putting any age into the Bill. On rape, they both take the view that there are very difficult administrative problems.
Having adopted the view that I have to the various paragraphs, I find myself in a considerable difficulty. It is a difficulty that many hon. Members are in. I like much of the Bill. I am strongly in favour of paragraphs (a) and (b) and think that we should approve 1139 them. But what do I do about paragraphs (c) and (d)? The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles has made it plain that he is not proposing to take any steps that will get rid of paragraphs (c) and (d).
§ Mr. David Steel
No. If I did, I made a mistake, and I was misunderstood. I want to make it quite clear that on the hon. Gentleman's own summary of the rape paragraph I am entirely with him. We just agree or disagree on whether it should be in at Second Reading.
§ Sir J. Hobson
It is important, in considering what we should do about the Bill, to consider what is likely to happen in Committee. That is very likely to be controlled by the proposers and supporters of the Bill, and if they are not prepared to give any undertakings that they will try to improve both paragraphs (c) and (d) I would find it difficult to support the Bill.
§ Mr. J. J. Mendelson (Penistone)
Would the right hon. and learned Gentleman not agree that those of us who support the principle of the Bill can give it Second Reading, but those who have objections of detail would be in a strong position, given the opinion of the House, which finally has to approve it after Committee, to get those Amendments passed?
§ Sir J. Hobson
If one does not know whether any Amendment will be made, one has a real problem. In my position, I find it very difficult to say that one should at this stage vote for a Bill when one has not the faintest idea of what will happen in Committee. It may well come back from Committee with those Clauses in and that would be objectionable.
§ Mr. S. C. Silkin (Dulwich)
This is surely precisely what Third Reading is for. If these Clauses are still in, the right hon. and learned Gentleman would be within his rights in voting against it.
§ Sir J. Hobson
We all know that when a Bill has gone through Second Reading and Committee the chances of defeating it on Third Reading are almost nil. To that extent, this is a very difficult problem.
1140 I am in a middle position in which I greatly approve of part of the Bill and do not approve of the rest. I shall listen to find out whether any undertakings can be given to help me on paragraphs (c) and (d) , but so far they have not been given. This is the problem which affects all of us. We have each separately to make up our minds on the Bill, which is of great importance. I am glad that it is being treated on an entirely nonparty basis.
§ 2.50 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Roy Jenkins)
The right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson) said in the earlier part of his speech that this was a subject which arouses considerable emotions. Indeed it does more, it is at once an extremely complicated and emotive subject. Bearing in mind both considerations, we have had a remarkably good-tempered debate throughout the hours which have gone by so far.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) on the force and clarity with which he explained the provisions of the Bill to the House. We can also, whatever our views about the Bill, pay tribute to his sincerity and courage as well as his luck in the Ballot which made it possible for him to introduce this Bill.
The House will not be surprised when I say that the Government's collective attitude to the Bill is one of neutrality. Abortion is a controversial subject on which wildly differing views are held both in this House and in the country. These two facts in themselves would not, of course, preclude Government legislation on a subject. If they did, the House would be very much less troubled by legislation than it is at present. But this diversity of opinion cuts fairly sharply across party lines. It cuts in some surprising ways.
Some opponents of the Bill include those who most vigorously support—and, indeed, occasionally complain about me not affording Government time for— 1141 other Measures for liberalising social reform. I notice that the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas) is among those who signed the Amendment calling upon the House to decline to give a Second Reading to the Bill at this time.
It is thoroughly proper that legislation on abortion should be dealt with by a Private Member's Bill, with the Whips off and with all hon. Members entirely free to vote according to their personal convictions. That free vote will, of course, apply just as much to the individual members of the Government as it does to anybody else. But while the Government's collective attitude must remain one of neutrality, we should be glad to give drafting assistance should the House decide to give the Bill a Second Reading and should such assistance be necessary or desirable either before the Committee stage or between the Committee and the Report stages.
The fact that the Government's collective attitude is one of neutrality, as the right hon. and learned Member foreshadowed does not—and, I think, should not—preclude me from expressing my own views on this issue. This I shall now do, asking the House to recognise that I am speaking for myself, as I am entitled to do, as is any other hon. Member, and on my own responsibility. I certainly am convinced—
§ Mr. Peter Mahon
On a point of order. Before my right hon. Friend gives his own personal views, may I ask whether it is in fact and in truth a real demonstration of neutrality if the Government decide prematurely to give drafting assistance to the Bill?
§ Mr. Jenkins
I am myself convinced that the existing law on abortion is uncertain and is also, and perhaps more importantly, harsh and archaic and that it is in urgent need of reform. I certainly shall have no hesitation in voting for the Second Reading of the Bill.
I take this view because I believe that we have here a major social problem. How can anyone believe otherwise when perhaps as many as 100,000 illegal operations a year take place, that the present law has shown itself quite unable to deal 1142 with the problem? I believe this, too, because of the danger which exists at present to those who are forced to resort to back-street abortionists and to the misery which is caused to some of those who fail to get an abortion. I believe it also because we all know, as was said by the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles, in his opening speech, that the law is consistently flouted by those who have the means to do so. It is, therefore, very much a question of one law for the rich and one law for the poor.
I believe it also because it causes many otherwise thoroughly law-abiding citizens to act on the fringe, or perhaps on the wrong side, of the law. As the Minister responsible for law enforcement, I believe that to be a thoroughly bad thing. In addition, there is mounting evidence that public opinion outside is now strongly in favour of a change. I think that there is fairly general agreement—I must not put it higher than this—on Clause 1(1,a) of the Bill, which allows abortion, subject, of course, to safeguards, wherethe continuance of the pregnancy would involve serious risk to the life or of grave injury to the health, whether physical or mental, of the pregnant womanLegislation on these lines would at least give statutory effect to the present case law. How much more it would do would need to be worked out in practice.
When Lord Silkin's Bill was debated in another place there was near-unanimity on this provision at least. The more difficult questions are whether we should go further and legalise abortion in the circumstances set out in paragraphs (b), (c) and (d) of Clause 1. I would not try to pretend that those provisions do not raise problems both of practice and of principle. It can be argued that the only satisfactory reform of the law, once it is accepted that it would be wrong simply to place the present case law on a statutory basis, would be to permit any doctor to terminate a pregnancy at his discretion —provided, of course, that this coincided with the wishes of the pregnant woman herself.
There are certainly logical attractions in this course which would go much further than putting the back-street abortionist out of business, but I recognise—as I think we all must—that many even among those who support major social reform in this field feel that this would 1143 be going too far and that we must try to find a defensible half-way house. The Bill, I think, attempts a compromise which in spite of some practical and legal difficulties, might I hope be broadly acceptable to a majority of the House.
I should like to say something about the main provisions of the Bill. In doing this, I shall, for the reasons I have explained, have to point to some of the difficulties of interpretation to which they may give rise and to some of the difficulties which I believe can be dealt with in Committee. I deal, first, with the provision in Clause 1 (1,b ) that a pregnancy may be terminated wherethere is a substantial risk that if the child were born it would suffer from such physical or mental abnormalities as to be seriously handicapped;None of us is likely to forget the thalidomide tragedies of four years ago. Many will have personal experience of the suffering caused to both children and parents by such disasters as there may be for women contracting German measles in the early stages of pregnancy. My own conviction is that the circumstances envisaged in this paragraph and the decision whether to terminate a pregnancy should be left to the wishes of the mother and the judgment of her doctors.
In saying this, I take into full account the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) which, I thought, was an attempt to make all the points extremely fairly and very carefully indeed. When he said," Who are we in this House tto decide?" I paused and thought, but we are not deciding ; we are only making it possible for others to decide. When he went on to say," Who is the mother to decide?" I was not sure that I did not begin to part from him, for I think that the mother has a good deal to do with the decision.
§ Mr. McNamara
I appreciate the point that my right hon. Friend is making, but would he not agree with me that in the normal family unit the child is the responsibility of both the father and the mother, and that the father's wishes in this matter must also bear very gravely on this issue, as well as the mother's, though I grant that it is the mother who 1144 has the primary interest, as having to bear the child in the womb?
§ Mr. Jenkins
Certainly, and obviously, the father must have a most important part in the family unit, but I doubt myself whether, in practice, there are many examples of women securing abortions against the wishes of the fathers. I think that it is a point fully to be taken into account.
As case law now stands, a doctor has, of course, no choice, and should have no choice, but to refuse abortion except where the likelihood of the child being handicapped puts the mental health of the mother at such serious risk as to move her into the position envisaged in paragraph (a). I do not think that that is sufficient to meet the point which we have in mind here. On the other hand, there are others who say that our paramount concern must be for the sanctity of human life and that this life is equally to be protected before or after birth.
Convictions on this problem are held at such a profound level and raise such deep questions of our whole philosophical attitude to life and death that I am doubtful how far it would be useful for me or any other hon. Member to attempt a rational analysis of the merits of the respective positions, or to seek to persuade those who hold the view that every unborn child is a potential human being entitled to life, and that it is always wrong to destroy the foetus. I can only state my own belief that to take the risk of condemning a potential human being to a life likely to be dominated by suffering and hopeless inadequacy is to assume a responsibility at least as profound as to destroy a foetus which may, in the words of the Amendment, be" potentially healthy". We must surely have regard to the likely effect of such a half life upon the mother and the other members of the family concerned as well.
Paragraph (c), the" social clause" , as I think the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles described it, is not without its difficulties. Nevertheless, it is, I think, of some importance, because without it many women who are far from anxious to escape the responsibilities of motherhood, but rather wish to discharge their existing ones more effectively, would be denied relief.
1145 Sir H. Legge-Bourke: Would the right hon. Gentleman consider that, perhaps, in order to determine whether a woman's capacity as a mother would be affected by pregnancy and birth, in addition to the medical advice referred to at the beginning of Clause 1 some other advice should be brought in? As I understand it, the whole Clause depends upon the opinion of two doctors, a decision of two doctors. Is there a case, perhaps, for bringing in someone else?
§ Mr. Jenkins
The hon. Gentleman will agree t hat we have been discussing exactly how far it would be appropriate to raise Committee points on Second Reading, and, clearly, one cannot dissociate one set of points from another. I think that that is pre-eminently a Committee point. The position I am stating from my own personal point of view here is that I see the principle of Clause 1(1,c) as an attempt to deal with a real issue, and that it would be a pity if this issue could not be considered. I am not saying there is a totally satisfactory means of dealing with it in the paragraph as at present drafted, but I do not think that the sponsors of the Bill, though I cannot speak for them, would not be willing to listen to advice on that point, as to any advice which came from the Government Front Bench during Committee.
Clause 1(1,d) differs from Lord Silkin's Bill in that as well as covering the case of a woman who is defective or who becomes pregnant under 16 it adds rape as a ground for abortion. I would imagine that most hon. Members who are not opposed to the principle of the Bill would regard rape as a reasonable ground for abortion, though perhaps not in the form in which this is put in the paragraph. The fundamental problem here really is that—if I may so express it—the processes of human gestation are much quicker than those of the British legal system. It is very difficult to get a conviction or decision on the indictable offence of rape until the pregnancy has become too far advanced, as most of us would think, for abortion to be a satisfactory solution.
The sub-paragraph seeks to enable the doctor to make a prima facie judgment not about the guilt of the assailant, but about whether the woman is entitled to relief, provided that the complaint is 1146 made immediately and, as it would have to be in practice, well before pregnancy is established. That might preclude some bogus complaints, but it is still open to considerable practical objection. It may be that in Committee these practical difficulties can be overcome, or it may be that in most genuine cases of rape there will be other grounds already covered in the Bill for terminating the pregnancy.
Even speaking in a personal capacity, I have not attempted to conceal some of the real difficulties from the House. I must add that there are some others relating to the qualifications of the doctors who will be allowed to perform the operations and the places where those operations may take place which fall within the province of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health. But anyone who knows the record of my right hon. Friend on the subject will not doubt his desire to find a way through them. I think that the House as a whole, if its desire is to proceed on this subject, should also be able to find a way through the difficulties.
The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles said that he would be open to amendments at the Committee stage. I think that he was wise to say that, because the view cannot be taken that the Bill is perfect as drafted. I have seen no abortion Bill yet which is. The hon. Gentleman also said that he would resist Amendments which struck at the root of the Bill, and he was wise to say that.
I would add a further word. I do not think that it would be any use the House pretending that it wanted to reform the law of abortion if, at the same time, it was to be blind to the practical consequences of any real reform. Few things could be worse than to go through the pretence of a reforming Measure and end up with a statutory position which was just as or even more restrictive than the present practice. I do not think that that is what the House wants or what the country wants.
In my view, opinion is ready for an important far-reaching change, but it is essentially a matter upon which it is for the House to decide. I do not think that it will get a better opportunity than it has today, and I hope that it will not dodge the issue.
§ 3.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Leo Abse (Pontypool)
The Home Secretary has, characteristically, made a courageous speech, and it is one which we would expect of him. However, he commented that he has noticed that among those who are involved with this Second Reading there are considerable differences of opinion and indeed opinions which he may regard as eccentric to the contributors is that I doubt whether anyone can view a Bill of this kind with enthusiasm. Although I do not go as far as the hon. Member for Chelmsford (Mr. St. John-Stevas), who appears to take such a view that he is minded to vote against the Bill, it would be wrong to say that I can view the Bill with any enthusiasm.
Even if we come to the conclusion that it must proceed, in some measure the passing of the Bill is bound to be a proclamation of defeat on behalf of the community. If it were a very widely drawn Bill, it could be a proclamation of bitter defeat. If it were more narrowly drawn, it could be a defeat, just the same. No hon. Member who acknowledges that life is our most precious gift can possibly view with enthusiasm a Bill whose declared object is to thwart the life of the unborn babe.
As there have been so many quotations, perhaps I might bring in a Talmudic one which says that the world survives in the breath of little children, and some parents daily tell themselves just that.
Hon. Members on this side of the House, and many on the other side, too, must believe that, ideally, a society should be such that every child, whether born fatherless, whether born handicapped, whether born in a palace or in a manger, should be received with warmth and be endowed with care. This is our starting point. Let no one suppose that a Bill of this kind can be a triumph for the community. There are societies which are impatient of doctrines which place the same ultimate worth on each personality. These societies are ready to rid themselves of all the weak, whom they regard as encumbrances. The Nazi society, the great life deniers, killed off the aged and the mentally backward. The primitive African tribes, which some of us may have known from our military 1148 experience during the war, still commit infanticide against a child lacking a limb, and not long ago the Chinese were leaving the new-born female child to die of exposure and succouring only the male child.
Respect for life is the cornerstone of our society today. Every failure that we make to plan so that every life can live out its full potentiality within its puny transient span is a defeat, just as every hanging of a murderer or traitor is a defeat for the community, and a sign that the community does not know how to gain loyalty and is admitting its failure to deal with its failures.
Other hon. Members have said that they wanted to declare their prejudices or philosophies, and I think that I should make mine. Speaking as a humanist concerned with life, not with after-life, I find myself with a deep sense of unease about the approach to a Bill of this kind. The lack of frankness in the Amendment is not made any the more attractive by this sickly reference to the humanitarianism of its sponsors.
I prefer the more robust attitude which the Royal College has adopted on this question. It said quite bluntly that those without specialised knowledge, and this includes members of the medical profession, are influenced in taking what they regard as a humanitarian attitude to the induction of abortion by a failure to appreciate what is involved. The Royal College of Obstetricians do not regard abortion as a trivial operation free from risks, and they say that there are serious risks. It would be unfortunate if, as a result of this debate, when clearly a more permissive atmosphere is part of the ambience of this Parliament, it were thought that we were treating abortion lightly, that it was a case of something like taking out a tooth. It should be emphasised that it is a serious act, and figures show that the maternal mortality rate of legal abortions in Denmark is three times our own, including the legalised abortions that take place here.
As the right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and Leamington (Sir J. Hobson) said, we must have regard to what the Royal College has said. They say that there are immediate risks of peritonitis and thrombosis. There are sequelae which can lead to a hysterectomy ; there are statistics which show 1149 that apart from the possible fatal consequences when abortions are done, not in back streets, but in optimum conditions, serious consequences, which are nonfatal, can follow.
There are dangers of sterility. The College emphasise the personal tragedy of the premarital abortion which eventually means that when a girl marries she is unable to have children. From my experience in a divorce practice, having seen so many well-documented case histories of abortion within the divorce papers, where an abortion taken too trivially and too lightly in the early years of a marriage has led unfortunately to sterility and the subsequent mutual recriminations that almost inevitably follow, I sometimes think that people talk too lightly about what is a serious act.
My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Dr. David Owen), who spoke as a medical man and as a member of the Royal Medico-Psychological Association, spoke quite rightly about the psychological consequences to a woman who wants to have an abortion and fails to have one. I pointed out—and my hon. Friend acknowledged the truth of what I said—that there were also serious consequences when a woman had an abortion.
Statistics have been quoted by the Royal College which conform with my opinion that a high percentage of women may suffer all their lives as a consequence of the guilt which burdens them when they find they have decided to kill their own child. Depression and serious psychiatric disorders can follow. I hope that nobody will allow it to go out from the House that in adopting a Measure of this kind we are taking the question of abortion lightly.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton indicated that he thought that the priorities of the Bill were odd. I agree. There is a prissy attitude on the part of the State to planned parenthood—something which my hon. Friend the Member for Bebington (Mr. Brooks) hopes to remedy, to some extent, in the Bill which will come before the House later. The prissy attitude that we have adopted means that we are a long way from having within our National Health Service the possibility of everybody having access to the knowledge and guidance necessary for planned parenthood and the stability of family life that goes with it.
1150 Before we turn to the serious operation of aborton we should consider all the medical opinion, and the question whether there are alternatives. I do not understand why, so far, nobody has referred to the fact that the Royal College, with all its knowledge, has said that it is a far less dangerous operation—almost a slight operation—for a man to be sterilised. But I have noticed that if one says to a man," Look, if a working class woman has six or seven children and is worn out, and there is every probability that she will have another one, do you agree that she should be sterilised?" he will often agree, but if one puts to him the reverse possibility—the sterilisation of the man, which could end the dilemma of the working class family in such circumstances—he recoils, because he regards it as an assault upon his own masculinity. There is not the same reaction when one suggests that action should be taken by way of an abortion which many women regard as an assault upon their femininity.
It is unfortunate that the sponsor has not taken account of the advice of the Royal College and incorporated in the Bill an explanation of the law of sterilisation, which requires definition just as much as does the law of abortion.
It would make it clear and would mean that we would provide a solution for working-class women who are often in great difficulty. I am not impressed by the argument that because the rich do something stupid working class people should follow their example. If it is healthier to avoid abortion it must be avoided by rich and poor. Some of my hon. Friends should not think that they are waging the class struggle when they are participating in a discussion of the reform of the abortion laws.
Some of the Clauses in the Bill are naive. I will not refer to the obvious anomaly within the Clause of rape. Lawyers must look with cynicism at a Clause of this kind, when they consider their own experience. After all, I once defended a man accused of raping six prostitutes. There was nothing physical to show at the end. All he had done was call on a prostitute by himself and produce a weapon and insist that, under duress, she should have intercourse with him. Technically, as the right hon. and learned Member for Warwick and 1151 Leamington has pointed out, that would be rape.
Easy talk of this kind, suggesting that one gets a certificate as if one were having a few days off work in a serious matter of this kind, shows an extraordinary naivety. More seriously and to the point, there are some aspects in these Clauses, such as that which deals with the position of the schoolgirl mother, which show a lamentable lack of understanding. I am proud to be associated with the National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child. The Council recently held a conference to discuss" Pregnancy in Adolescence" in which a number of important contributions were made.
The man who had perhaps the greatest experience was a psychiatrist who runs a hostel for schoolgirl unmarried mothers, and he pointed out that the one common feature of very young mothers which he had seen was an extreme craving to be loved. He said:They have all shown, in a variety of ways, that they felt deprived of love and attention somewhere in their immediate family. They have also shown a strong and conscious desire for motherhood as well as a more conscious need for sensual gratification.What he was saying was that a schoolgirl pregnancy is a sign of unhappiness as well as a cause.
We should use more caution when we think of introducing a Clause which would mean a new burden inflicted on a schoolgirl in the form of an unwanted operation forced on her in the name of progress and freedom. I believe that weight should be given to some of the deeper factors. I do not share the view that by saying this I may be drawing back from supporting a Second Reading of the Bill. It is self-evident that there is a need for a declaratory law to be put unambiguously before the medical profession.
There is a strong case for Clause 1 (1,b), but there is a need for caution and for considerable discussion in Committee. I am not as pessimistic as the right hon. and learned Member. I do not think that if, as I hope, the Bill receives a Second Reading, we will therefore forfeit our right in practice so to mould the Bill that it will more commend itself to us. I have had experience of sponsoring 1152 a Private Member's Bill, which had a Second Reading and went right through Committee but was finally sabotaged in its final stage by a cabal.
I would say to that same cabal, if they are operating in the House today, that they will be doing a great disservice to themselves if they seek to adopt the tactics over this Bill which they adopted in the past, if they do not allow this Second Reading because they hold particularly religious views. This debate should be voted upon and I hope that the Bill will be given a Second Reading. I hope that the Bill will be thought upon and worked upon in Committee so that it will come back to the House. Then we will have to apologise for it to ourselves, shall have to say," It may be that we have not as yet sufficient medical or psychiatric knowledge, or social services of quality. It may be that there are still lamentable social conditions which compel us to permit abortion. We apologise and, with dismay and no great enthusiasm, we pass the Bill on to the country."
§ 3.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas (Chelmsford)
We all agree that this has been a vitally important debate, conducted on a level which is worthy of the highest traditions of the House, and rightly so, because we are dealing with issues of paramount importance both to our morality and to our future as a society. I should like to join in the congratulations which have been expressed to the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. David Steel) on the manner in which he introduced the Bill, which he did with extraordinary moderation and skill, and I should also like to congratulate the hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North (Mr. William Wells), who moved the Amendment, and, in particular, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight), who spoke very movingly. After all, a woman has much more right to speak in this debate than has any other hon. Member. I hope, Mr. Speaker, that the hon. Lady the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East (Mrs. Reneé Short) will catch your eye when I have concluded.
At the outset, I want to make my own position plain. I am not a member of a cabal, as the hon. Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse) seemed to be suggesting. My 1153 personal religious commitments are probably known to hon. Members. I do not seek to build my case against the Bill on those today. In our contemporary pluralist society, which is secular in substance although not in form, religion cannot play a determining role. For better or for worse, theology is no longer queen of the sciences—not absolute ruler, not even a constitutional sovereign ; but the voice of theology can be raised, although I should be the first to agree that it should not be imposed.
I accept that position fully. There is one point nevertheless which I must stress—and that is the position of those in the medical profession who have a conscientious objection to abortion, which was a point raised by the hon. and learned Member for Walsall, North. The Bill does not require in so many words a doctor or a nurse to carry out an abortion. It is permissive, not mandatory. Yet if it is passed it must create a new state of affairs in which abortion, will be much more extensive as a part of medical practice than at present.
§ Mr. St. John-Stevas
I do not want to give way to the hon. Member. There are many hon. Members who wish to speak in the debate.
I should, therefore, like to see a conscience Clause included in the Bill which would specifically safeguard the interests of those doctors and nurses so that under no circumstances would they be compelled to take part in abortions which were against their conscientious convictions. That would be a fair balance for the extension provided by the Bill.
The arguments on the Bill have been put forward with great conviction and great emotion. We should see them in some perspective. First of all, to put it at the highest, abortion is a necessary evil ; that is the most that one can say for it. The mental suffering which may come to a woman after abortion is very considerable. Secondly, we should remember when discussing the question that the problems of sterility are much more intractable and cause much more suffering than the problems of fertility.
The case for the Bill has rested partly on utilitarian consideratians —that there 1154 is a high number of illegal abortions and that this Bill would reduce them. It is my view that both these propositions are ill-founded. In the nature of the case there can be no reliable statistics on the number of illegal abortions. The degree of variation is so wide that one could only call it wild.
The hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles quoted figures from 200,000 at one end to 40,000 at the other. That is an immense variation. Lord Silkin quoted a figure of 100,000 illegal abortions a year, which I was very distressed to hear the Home Secretary use in his speech. As far as I know, that is a statistic founded on no evidence whatever ; it is a guess. I was sorry to see the Home Secretary depart from his neutrality on that point. Other evidence put forward by Dr. Goodhart in a learned medical journal puts it at 10,000. My point here is that these statistics are so unreliable that they cannot be used as a basis for a rational judgment.
The second point made in favour of the Bill is that it would reduce the number of illegal abortions. It may, but the experience of other countries, such as Sweden, and certainly Eastern European countries, is quite the opposite. Illegal and legal abortions go up together. The only way that one will get rid of illegal abortions is to get rid of restrictions altogether. That will get rid of illegal abortions ; nothing else will. Presumably that is a view which some supporters at least of the Bill take.
The supporters of the Bill have a theology of their own which has at times been implicit and at times explicit in the course of the debate, namely that every woman has a right to an abortion to get rid of a child that she does not want. That is certainly the view of the Abortion Law Reform Association. I will quote a letter by an official of that association, Mrs. Chataway, to the Spectator recently. She concluded her letter by saying:Every woman has a right to an abortion and every child has a right to be born wanted.That is very nice if one can arrange it, but to do so one has to choose one's parents extremely carefully. But this is a significant step in the argument because abortion has been changed from a crime, to a right, to a duty. If an unborn child has a right to be born wanted, then if it 1155 is not wanted the parents clearly have a duty to dispose of it.
Against that view another quite contrary view has emerged in the debate, that there is not one right involved here, the right of the mother, but that there are two rights. There is the right of the mother, of course, but there is the right of the unborn child. It is the almost universal tradition of the Western world that a child in the womb has rights, both legal and moral.
Surely this is correct. After all, who is more affected by the decision to have an abortion than the unborn child whose life is to be snuffed out? When the decision to abort or not is taken, with all the dramatic implications for life and death, everyone can speak except the child. The mother can give her views, the father can give his and the doctor can speak, but the only person who is silent is the person most radically affected. The child cannot rise up in the womb and say," I want to live". Here, surely, the tradition of the Western world is right—that the law should intervene to protect the silent child. Which of us if given the choice at that time would have opted for death rather than life?
It is precisely because the unborn child is so helpless and unable to speak that it has a claim on our protection. It is for this reason that the common law, Statutes and codes of medical ethics from the Hippocratic oath onwards, have extended their protection to the unborn child.
The Bill is fundamentally flawed because it rests upon denial of the sacred character and value of human life. The principle was recently reaffirmed by the House when it voted for the abolition of the death penalty. This principle is not one dependent on the recondite speculations of scholastic theologians as to when the soul does or does not enter the body, because nobody can know that. It rests upon the moral principle, all but universally accepted, that human life has an intrinsic value in itself, and that innocent human life should never be taken.
That is implicit in the common law idea of the liber et legalis homo et legal homen. It is explicit in the Declarations of Human Rights that have been issued from the American Revolution onwards. 1156 The acceptance of this principle has had a profound effect on the character of our society, on it is based not only the concept of liberty, but those of equality and fraternity as well.
Of course, there is scope for argument about when the right to life begins, but it is of profound significance that modern microbiology has confirmed the assertions of theologians that human life is fully present from the moment of conception and there is no qualitative difference between the embryo and the born child. There is only a difference of development. The embryo has a life of its own and has the full potentiality of becoming a human being. Therefore, it cannot be treated as mere animal matter to be excised from the womb and thrown aside and discarded in a dustbin or incinerator.
I should not oppose subsection (1) of Clause 1 of the Bill, because it clarifies the existing law. The Clause is based on the clear principle of the legal doctrine of necessity, that there are circumstances which face one with an agonising choice which must be made. Subsection (2) is very different. It provides for abortion if there is a substantial risk that the child may suffer from physical or mental abnormalities so as to be seriously handicapped. That introduces a quite new principle into the law, namely, that one human being can make a judgment about another as to whether that human being's life is worth living. That is an entirely new principle in the law. In my view, it is dangerous and wrong. The evidence of deformity in any case is far too uncertain to be able to form a basis for a reliable judgment. If it is desirable to blot out deformity it would be much more logical and sensible to let the child be born, to see whether it is deformed when born, and then to destroy it. That was a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Edgbaston. But we would all recoil, rightly, from such a course. Yet there is no difference in reality between the two situations. The only difference is that the second course strikes the imagination much more forcibly and effectively.
The Amendment pays tribute to the humanitarian motives of the sponsors of the Bill. That is not a piece of cant, as 1157 the hon. Member for Pontypool suggested. It is a genuine appreciation of the depth of conviction of those who support the Bill. But we are not concerned so much with the motives of hon. Members. We are concerned with the effects of the legislation which they promote. Considering the effects of the Bill, there is only one word—and I choose it very carefully—which I would use to characterise some of these proposals, and that is" barbarous" because they attack a principle on which the whole security of society rests, namely, the principle of the sanctity of life.
The attack is not from without the city ; it is from within. Yet never was there a time when it was more important to preserve our basic moral consensus of which this respect for life is a vital part. Never was there a time when it was more important to preserve our faith in the value and uniqueness of our own humanity. As my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) said, we are faced with an advance of technology, which, while seemingly bringing benefits to man, may in the end dehumanise him. In this situation the moral consensus bequeathed to us by previous generations is of vital importance in erecting barriers beyond which technology cannot pass.
It may be that the Bill commands the support of the majority of members of the public. That for me does not decide the issue. I would not submit my views or conscience on an issue of this kind to a public opinion poll any more than I would submit them to a Church or a political party. I view with dismay a society which combines a low level of thinking on matters of principle with a high degree of benevolence and good will. That can be a very lethal combination.
In conclusion, may I say that if the Bill has the support of the majority of hon. Members here, it is right that it should pass and I hope that there will be no attempt to talk it out. Certainly no such attempt will be made by me. Those of us who oppose the Bill will, of course, abide by the decision of the House and we will work constructively to improve the Bill and to neutralise its dangers. But even if the Bill passes the House, a t least we shall have had the satisfaction of having had the oppor- 1158 tunity, those of us who have opposed it, of having stated what is still virtually the universal Christian tradition of the vital importance of the sanctity of life, a tradition which in the long run may well prove to have been the true humanitarian position as well.
§ 3.41 p.m.
§ Mrs. Reneé Short (Wolverhampton, North-East)
This has been one of the best debates to which the House has had the pleasure of listening for a long time. Like the hon. Member for Chelmsford, (Mr. St. John-Stevas), I think that it has been evidence of the House of Commons at its best.
We have had some very good speeches, and I should like, first, to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, East (Mr. Edward Lyons) on his maiden speech. As the hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Maude) said, it was a difficult occasion on which to make a maiden speech, and my hon. Friend acquitted himself extremely well.
I should also like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Dr. John Dunwoody) who gave a considered medical opinion which was very valuable to the House. His contribution to the definition of the inadquate mother and the stresses and strains which a mother can undergo when she suffers too many pregnancies in the wrong circumstances was invaluable.
We have had evidence over many years, and from many different bodies, of the need and support of the country for a change of the law. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said in his notable contribution to the debate, people are behind us in this step to change the law and to ma[...]e it more humane and to remove some of the anomalies which inhibit both doctors and patients in the search for a solution to this problem. But the State and the law are concerned with all people and are not obliged to observe, although they should respect, the religious scruples of the minority. It is not for me to attempt to join in any of the religious arguments put forward today. I am not qualified to do so. Nor shall I bandy words with the hon. Member for Chelmsford about the assessed numbers of illegal abortions.
The Inter-Departmental Committee of almost 30 years ago accepted the figure of 50,000 illegal abortions a year. Of 1159 course, there has been variation in the figures put forward since, but the most recent National Opinion Poll, which, significantly, was carried out among women —and it is women who have babies and it is women who have abortions, legal and illegal, and it is women who are in a position to answer these questions—makes it clear that there are about 40,000 a year and that in addition there are about 85,000 attempted illegal abortions a year, induced or attempted to be induced by the woman herself, or by the back-street illegal abortionist to whom desperate women will go.
The House should accept it as a basic fact that if a woman is so desperate that she believes that she must terminate her pregnancy, she will go to all lengths to do so and that whatever the House decides today, abortions will continue. We can accept that a tremendous amount of experience and knowledge has been gained during the last 30 years and when hon. Members ask for more information or suggest that we should have a Royal Commission, I ask them, in return, what the delay would produce and what further information we would get.
Nearly thirty years ago the comprehensive committee which spent some time on taking evidence from lay and medical bodies, and which was chaired by the then Mr. Norman Birkett, K.C., came out in favour of reform of the law. It recommended that the law should be reformed to safeguard doctors who terminated in good faith and to protect the mental and physical health or life of the patient. It said that it would welcome legislation to enable pregnancies resulting from rape to be terminated if a satisfactory solution could be found to the legal difficulties involved. Therefore, as long ago as 1939 a responsible committee recommended that rape should be a ground for termination of pregnancy, provided that the administrative and legal difficulties could be overcome.
In many countries where rape is a ground for termination—in Western Europe, in Scandinavia, in Eastern Europe—this difficulty has been overcome. I had the opportunity, only the week before last, in Stockholm, of having a long discussion with a member of the National Medical Board in Sweden, which is the board to which gynaecological, 1160 psychiatric and social workers' reports are referred when a woman applies for a termination of pregnancy. It is this board which decides whether the application shall be granted.
The provision in Swedish law is that the offence should be reported immediately, either to the police or to the doctor. and that then, provided that the social worker, the psychiatrist and the gynaecologist are satisfied during the course of their normal interviews with the patient, if she should discover later that she is pregnant, that the offence in fact took place, the termination is approved, irrespective of whether legal action takes place after the police investigate the complaint, and irrespective of whether a verdict is given in favour of the patient.
I am not suggesting that the House should consider introducing the rather cumbersome machinery which Sweden has introduced. It is interesting that the Swedes have now set up a commission to examine the question of liberalising their law, because they feel that their present system is too cumbersome and that too many women have to wait too long before termination can be carried out. I submit that we have evidence on which to go forward on this ground.
In relation to the Clause which deals with the abnormality of the foetus, again it must be borne in mind that the committee suggested that this should be a ground, and medical knowledge is now greater than it was 30 years ago. Much progress has been made by medical science during the last 30 years. There is much more evidence about foetal abnormalities and how these are caused. There is much more knowledge about the risk of physical or mental abnormality and about the ways of detecting these. Prediction can be made with some certainty about genetically determined disease and chromosomal disease and abnormalities.
As recently as Monday of this week hon. Members will have noticed a report of a considerable break-through in this respect, namely, an electronic device which can show the contents of the uterus without exposing the mother and the foetus to the dangers of X-rays. We also know that by the withdrawal of amniotic fluid from the uterus it is possible to examine the chromosomal 1161 structure. It is also known that serious defects like mongolism can be detected in this way. The B.M.A. Special Committee, which reported earlier this month, said that the risk of serious foetal abnormality should be included as a ground for termination in any amendment of the law. It is significant that, in the poll conducted among women recently. 91 per cent. were in favour of termination on this ground.
I cannot accept the view, put forward by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Mrs. Knight), that a girl under the age of 16, in addition to having to undergo the sexual assault and the serious psychological trauma that takes place after the event, should also he compelled to bear the child. I cannot agree that the solution is to tell our young girls that they must not become pregnant. Our young girls will become pregnant and not from their own fault.
The community would be affronted if we were to say that a girl or woman compelled to submit to a sexual attack for which the law has severe punishment should be compelled by the same law to bear the result of that criminal offence and give birth to the unwanted child.
§ Mrs. Short
The National Opinion Poll carried out among women showed that 82 per cent. were in favour of termination on this ground, too.
But in considering this complex and difficult problem of abortion law reform, we have to consider the view of the child as well as of the mother and consider the age at which many young girls are now being asked to bear children. In 1964, there were 225 offences of unlawful intercourse under the age of 13 known to the police. There were almost 4,000 cases under the age of 16. Does not society owe its protection to these victims?
Last year, 4,000 girls under the age of 16, most of them still at school, had illegitimate babies. This is alarming doctors and social workers alike. Several local authorities have opened homes for unmarried mothers. Many schoolgirl mothers aged 11 and 12 are being cared for by local authorities. It seems to me that Sweden, Denmark and other 1162 countries which are prepared to relieve children of this age of unwanted pregnancies are very much more progressive than we are.
§ Mrs. Short
I am sorry, but I cannot give way. I must get on.
In the case of incest, as in the case of rape, proof is difficult, but I am sure that I speak for the sponsors of the Bill and its other supporters on both sides of the House when I say that we shall consider all the arguments that have been put forward in the debate and all the Amendments put down in Committee, that we shall do our best to reach an agreed wording of the difficult phrases and Clauses in the Bill and that we shall do everything in our power to make it possible for these provisions to be made.
My hon. Friend the Member for Pontypool (Mr. Abse), in a characteristically energetic and lively, though perhaps not very helpful contribution, drew attention to the dangers that can occur from this operation and the psychiatric disturbance that occurs after termination. I suggest that a good deal of the psychological disturbance that occurs on occasion after termination is due to the attitude of society to this problem and that this is inculcated when the unfortunate patient goes to hospital and finds that she is attended by doctors and nurses who disapprove on religious grounds and make her feel that she is guilty of a criminal offence.
I cannot accept that point of view. If society as a whole has a more reasoned, enlightened and sensible attitude to this difficult problem it will help these women who find that they have to seek the help of gynaecological surgeons for the termination of a pregnancy in the way outlined in the Bill.
Before I conclude I should say something that I think perhaps will counteract some of the speeches that have come from the Birmingham direction. We must consider what happens to some of the unfortunate unwanted children born into inadequate homes, disabled children, mentally defective children. They come into the care of the local authority. A research project has been carried out by a Birmingham University social 1163 worker, who shows that it is not uncommon for a child of this kind to have up to 10 different homes in five years.
The number of foster homes that have broken down has increased during the past few years, and he believes that children coming into care in this way are often more difficult and more disturbed, and that they are the delinquent adolescents. The delinquent adolescents become the parents of more unwanted delinquent adolescent children in the next generation, generating another cycle of cruelty and neglect.
We now find ourselves in a situation that is clearly unfair. The law is unenforceable ; it is one law for the rich and one for the poor. Those who know where to go and those who have the money with which to do it are able to have their terminations carried out in suitable circumstances by a gynaecologist, with very little risk to themselves.
The majority of women seeking termination of pregnancy are married
§ women with too many children. Of course, education and birth control are the answer if we are to create the ideal situation, but we shall never live in an ideal situation, and until the perfect contraceptive has been devised, until all men and women act responsibility to each other, there will be a need for the Bill. I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading and so relieve women of a great difficulty and burden.
§ Question, That the Question be now put, put and agreed to.
§ Question put accordingly, That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 223, Noes 29.1165
|Division No. 144.1||AYES||[3.58 p.m.|
|Abse, Leo||Davies, Dr. Ernest (Stretford)||Henig, Stanley|
|Albu, Austen||Davies, Robert (Cambridge)||Heseltine, Michael|
|Allason, James (Hemel Hempstead)||Dean, Paul (Somerset, N.)||Hilton, W. S.|
|Archer, Peter||Dewar, Donald||Hooley, Frank|
|Armstrong, Ernest||Dickens, James||Hooson, Emlyn|
|Atkinson, Norman (Tottenham)||Digby, Simon Wingfield||Homer, John|
|Bacon, Rt. Hn. Alice||Dobson, Ray||Houghton, Rt. Hn. Douglas|
|Bagier, Gordon A. T.||Driberg, Tom||Howell, David (Guildford)|
|Barnes, Michael||Dunnett, Jack||Howie, W.|
|Barnett, Joel||Dunwoody, Mrs. Gwyneth (Exeter)||Hunt, John|
|Beamish, Col. Sir Tufton||Dunwoody, Dr. John (F'th & C'b'e)||Hunter, Adam|
|Beaney Alan||Eadie, Alex||Iremonger, T. L.|
|Bell, Ronald||Edwards, Robert (Bilston)||Jackson, Colin (B'h'se & Spenb'gh)|
|Benn, Rt. Hn. Anthony Wedgwood||Ellis, John||Jeger, Mrs.Lena(H'b'n&St.P'cras, S.)|
|Berry, Hn. Anthony||Ennals, David||Jenkin, Patrick (Woodford)|
|Bessell, Peter||Evans, Albert (Islington, S.W.)||Jenkins, Hugh (Putney)|
|Bidwell, Sydney||Evans, Gwynor (C'marthen)||Jenkins, Rt. Hn. Roy (Stechford)|
|Binns, John||Fisher, Nigel||Johnson, Carol (Lewisham, S.)|
|Blenkinsop, Arthur||Fletcher, Raymond (Ilkeston)||Johnson Smith, G. (E. Grinstead)|
|Booth, Albert||Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)||Jones, Rt.Hn.SirElwyn(W.Ham, S.)|
|Boston, Terence||Fletcher-Cooke, Charles||Judd, Frank|
|Bottomley, Rt. Hn. Arthur||Floud, Bernard||Kerr, Mrs. Anne (R'ter & Chatham)|
|Braine, Bernard||Foot, Sir Dingle (Ipswich)||Kerr, Russell (Feltham)|
|Bray, Dr. Jeremy||Fortescue, Tim||Lee, Rt. Hn. Jennie (Cannock)|
|Brooks, Edwin||Foster, Sir John||Lee, John (Reading)|
|Brown, Sir Edward (Bath)||Fowler, Gerry||Legge-Bourke, Sir Harry|
|Brown, Rt. Hn. George (Belper)||Freeson, Reginald||Lewis, Arthur (W. Ham, N.)|
|Brown, Hugh D. (G'gow, Provan)||Gardner, A. J.||Lipton, Marcus|
|Brown, Bob(N'c'tle-upon-Tyne, W.)||Giles, Rear-Adm. Morgan||Lloyd, Ian (P'tsm'th, Langstone)|
|Buchan, Norman||Gilmour, Ian (Norfolk, C.)||Lloyd, Rt. Hn. Selwyn (Wirral)|
|Butler, Herbert (Hackney, C.)||Ginsburg, David||Longden, Gilbert|
|Butler, Mrs. Joyce (Wood Green)||Goodhart, Philip||Luard, Evan|
|Cant, R. B.||Gordon Walker, Rt. Hn. P. C.||Lubbock, Eric|
|Carlisle, Mark||Gregory, Arnold||Lyon, Alexander W. (York)|
|Carmichael, Neil||Gresham Cooke, R.||Lyons, Edward (Bradford, E.)|
|Carr, Rt. Hn. Robert||Grey, Charles (Durham)||McCann, John|
|Chapman, Donald||Griffiths, Rt. Hn. James (Llanelly)||MacColl, James|
|Coe, Denis||Griffiths, Will (Exchange)||MacDermot, Niall|
|Coleman, Donald||Grimond, Rt. Hn. J.||McKay, Mrs. Margaret|
|Corbet, Mrs. Freda||Hamilton, William (Fife, W.)||Mackie, John|
|Crawley, Aidan||Harris, Reader (Heston)||Maclennan, Robert|
|Crawshaw, Richard||Hart, Mrs. Judith||Macleod, Rt. Hn. Iain|
|Dalyell, Tam||Hastings, Stephen||Mallalieu, J.P.W.(Huddersfield, E.)|
|Davidson, James(Aberdeenshire, W.)||Hefter, Eric S.||Marquand, David|
|Marsh, Rt. Hn. Richard||Price, Christopher (Perry Barr)||Spriggs, Leslie|
|Maude, ,Angus||Reynolds, G. W.||Steel, David (Roxburgh)|
|Maxwell-Hyslop, R. J.||Richard, Ivor||Stewart, Rt. Hn. Michael|
|Mayhew, Christopher||Ridley, Hn. Nicholas||Strauss, Rt. Hn. G. R.|
|Mendelson, J. J.||Ridsdale, Julian||Swingler, Stephen|
|Mikardo, Ian||Roberts, Albert (Normanton)||Taverne, Dick|
|Millan, Bruce||Roberts, Gwilym (Bedfordshire, S.)||Thatcher, Mrs. Margaret|
|Mitchell, David (Basingstoke)||Robinson, Rt.Hn.Kenneth(St.P'c'as)||Thomson, Rt. Hn. George|
|Molloy, William||Robinson, W. 0. J. (Walth'stow E.)||Thorpe, Jeremy|
|Morris, Alfred (Wythenshawe)||Rodgers, William (Stockton)||Tuck, Raphael|
|Moyle, Roland||Roebuck, Roy||Urwin, T. W.|
|Mulley, Rt. Hn. Frederick||Rogers, George||Varley, Eric G.|
|Murray, Albert||Roots, William||Vaughan-Morgan, Rt. Hn. Sir John|
|Newens, Stan||Rowland, Christopher (Meriden)||Vickers, Dame Joan|
|Noel-Baker, Francis (Swindon)||Rowlands, E. (Cardiff, N.)||Wainwright, Richard (Collie Valley)|
|Norwood, Christopher||Russell, Sir Ronald||Wallace, George|
|Ogden, Eric||Ryan John||Weitzman, David|
|Orbach, Maurice||Sandys, Rt. Hn. D.||Whitaker, Ben|
|Orme, Stanley||Scott, Nicholas||White, Mrs. Eirene|
|Orr-Ewing, Sir Ian||Sharpies, Richard||Whitlock, William|
|Owen, Dr. David (Plymouth, S'tn)||Shaw, Arnold (Ilford, S.)||Williams, Alan Lee (Hornchurch)|
|Owen, Will (Morpeth)||Sheldon, Robert||Williams, W. T. (Warrington)|
|Paget, R. T.||Shore, Peter (Stepney)||Wilson, William (Coventry, S.)|
|Pannell, Ft. Hn. Charles||Short, Rt. Hn.Edward(N'etle-u-Tyne)||Winnick, David|
|Pardoe, John||Short, Mrs. Renée (W'hampton, N.E.)||Winstanley, Dr. M. P.|
|Park, Trevor||Silkin, John (Deptford)||Woodnutt, Mark|
|Parkyn, Brian (Bedford)||Silkin, S. C. (Dulwich)||Worsley, Marcus|
|Pentland, Norman||Silverman, Julius (Aston)||Zilliacus, K.|
|Perry, Ernest G. (Battersea, S.)||Silverman, Sydney (Nelson)|
|Pink, R. Bonner||Sinclair, Sir George||TELLERS FOR THE AYES:|
|Prentice, At. Hn. R. E.||Smith, John||Mr. Hamling and|
|Snow, Julian||Mr. Peter Jackson.|
|Alldritt, Walter||Irvine, Bryant Godman (Rye)||Rossi, Hugh (Hornsey)|
|Bitten, Join||Knight, Mrs. Jill||St. John-Stevas, Norman|
|Black, Sir Cyril||Lever, L. M. (Ardwick)||Symonds, J. B.|
|Cullen, Mrs. Alice||Macdonald, A. H.||Teeling, Sir William|
|English, Michael||Mackenzie, Alasciair(Rossi)||Wells, William (Walsall, N.)|
|Errington, Sir Eric||McNamara, J. Kevin||Williams, Mrs. Shirley (Hitchin)|
|Galpern, Sir Myer||Mahon, Peter (Preston, S.)||Wood, Rt. Hn. Richard|
|Goodhew, Victor||Oakes, Gordon|
|Grant-Ferris, R.||Page, Graham (Crosby)||TELLERS FOR TIIE NOES:|
|Hamilton, James (Bothwell)||Powell, Rt. Hn. J. Enoch||Mr. Dunn and Mr. Gurden.|
|Harris, Frederic (Croydon, N.W.)||Rawlinson, Rt. Hn. Sir Peter|
§ Bill read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).