The impact of abortion policy on Ministers

Just when it is very important Ministers look in control of government, a Senior Minister calls for the arbortion age to be lowered from 24 weeks to 12 weeks. This is followed by two other Cabinet Ministers saying they personally want it lowered to 20 weeks. Meanwhile Downing Street puts out that it will stay at 24 weeks. The Coalition government has no intention of changing the age limit, we are told. I doubt there is a majority in the current Parliament to reduce the limit to 20 weeks, and I am sure there is no chance of Parliament lowering it to 12 weeks.

I do not understand why we needed an argument about abortion if there is no plan to make any changes. I do understand that in a Coalition there will be occasions and issues when Lib Dem Ministers on the one hand, and Conservative Ministers on the other, wish to say their parties have different views and different approaches to big issues. That reminds us all when that happens that the resulting policy is a compromise, and heartens the supporters of the respective parties that their leading lights are thinking of what they wish to do should they win the next election with a single party majority.

I would be happy, for example, for Conservative Ministers to explain how they would change our relationship with the EU given a majority, whilst Lib Dem Ministers explained how they like the current relationship. That would be sensible political differentiation. That is what party conferences are for. I do not understand how a statement now of the disagreements between Conservative Ministers over abortion is productive.

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64 Comments

  1. Posted October 6, 2012 at 8:13 am | Permalink

    Absolutely right. The last thing we need is a distraction caused by a pointless series of personal comments about any particular policy.

    In the extremely sensitive issue of abortion, the UK has always proceeded with caution and consultation. That should remain the case.

    • Posted October 6, 2012 at 10:04 am | Permalink

      About the same relevance of gay marriage and changing the law on it when it was not a manifesto pledge. It does fulfil MR Clegg’s ideology for changing the country’s culture that he dislikes so much.

      • Posted October 6, 2012 at 5:31 pm | Permalink

        I see that the Home Secretary is weighing in with her private views too. One might begin to suspect that they will try and raise as many issues as possible, rather than actually concentrating on the ones that they are supposed to be implementing like getting the budget deficit down to stability, reducing net migration, and making sure that we can still brew up a cup of tea in a couple of years time…..

        zorro

    • Posted October 7, 2012 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

      I’ve been chatting with my friends about this this weekend.

      I think Peter Walker’s comment is spot on – but just to add a little more detail.

      We think it is important that the detail of the law and policy (including education policy – which is so important) on abortion is regularly reviewed.

      Medical progress does change things but more significantly than that there the debate heightens discussion and awareness in ways which cause women (in particular) to think through and discuss the issues in detail and we value that this is done as we all learn from it and then go on to make more informed decisions and to be able to better support and advise those around us.

      Discussion forums are also revealing greater insights about people’s views and experiences.

      However as Peter so clearly said we feel it’s important that debate is widely informed and measured. It should include views from all the representative bodies. As part of the picture we think that it’s important to look in particular at what’s happening in the most deprived estates – not through statistics but by taking the time to go and talk to the people who know because this is part of the picture which is important but it easily neglected (some women will speak up and speak out about what’s going on and some won’t).

      We are deeply sceptical about they quality of the discussion which will take place at this time due to the way it’s been raised. But we hope the media will treat the topic in a constructive way to encourage personal reflection, as they often do well with difficult topics like this.

      Essentially it seems we are not looking for major changes in the law but we are looking for better education and awareness so that as few people as possible end up having abortions as a method of contraception or end up having abortions they then regret.

      We’re also keen to know whether there has been any progress in rethinking how the processes of late abortion might be made less traumatic for the mother and the foetus.

  2. Posted October 6, 2012 at 8:40 am | Permalink

    This is a surprising repetition of Mr Hunt`s view, given he is now SoS for Health. My immediate reactions were either he is trying to save money (by removing entitlement to abortions under the NHS) and/or trying to curry favour with the anti-abortion lobby. The latter is certainly a double-edged issue because he is equally likely to offend many pro-abortion women voters.

    Although it is stated that this is his personal view, some will conclude that he will, nevertheless, attempt to influence NHS practices from his position of authority. A PPE graduate strikes again!

    • Posted October 6, 2012 at 10:46 am | Permalink

      Hunt is not seeking to remove entitlement to abortions, he is merely seeking to protect the unborn child when medical advances make the child viable.

      • Posted October 6, 2012 at 5:39 pm | Permalink

        Medical advances haven’t made it viable to survive at 12 weeks. Even at 24 weeks half of those born prematurely die, and the majority of the survivors have mental and physical disability. Some are even seriously disabled.

        • Posted October 6, 2012 at 9:34 pm | Permalink

          @uanime5
          Isn’t it the first trimester in France & Germany?
          Maybe we should fall into line for the sake of EU harmony.

          • Posted October 7, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink

            For the sake of uanime5’s EU harmony perhaps so……

            zorro

          • Posted October 7, 2012 at 5:20 pm | Permalink

            Just because some European countries have a lower abortion limit than the UK doesn’t change the fact that babies born at 24 weeks or earlier are highly likely to die or suffer permanent disabilities.

          • Posted October 7, 2012 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

            In France and Germany they count from the date of conception, not the last menstrual period. So the 12 week limit in France and Germany would be 14 week by UK standards.

  3. Posted October 6, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    I imagine they started an argument precisely because there are no such plans and they feel strongly that there should be. Seems clear enough to me.

    • Posted October 7, 2012 at 2:37 am | Permalink

      Aside from the fact that this is about abortion this is exactly the same as any other political argument.

      One side puts a point of view and waits for an opposing view. I suppose you could call it an argument. It is after all one.

      Why should a Government minister be barred from making a personal statement in this area as opposed to another?

  4. Posted October 6, 2012 at 8:48 am | Permalink

    John, both Maria Miller and Jeremy Hunt are on the record in Hansard as voting for a reduction to 20 weeks and 12 weeks respectively. They were asked about their voting record by journalists so they can’t exactly deny it. It’s just journalists looking for a story.

    Reply Senior Ministers have to control the agenda as best they can. When asked about something like that all they need say is “The government has no plans to change the abortion laws and will not be bringing forward a vote” . If the journalist persists and says “Last time you voted xxx” they just repeat “the government is not going to have a vote, and I support government policy”. Ministers have to keep their personal views to themselves – I remember well how many “personal views” I had, which were expressed at cabinet but not to the press.

    • Posted October 6, 2012 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      In response to Mr Redwood’s reply:

      There is a problem with the approach that Mr Redwood advocates in that many journalists, particularly if the interview is live on TV or radio, will not accept a reply that is in essence saying “I don’t want to answer that question”. They will make it sound as though the minister is being evasive and has something to hide. These non-responses are accepted in the Commons, but they are not accepted on TV or radio. Politicians need to come up with an acceptable way of saying that they see any need to answer a question and do not want to answer it.

      But I have no idea how that can be done.

      When I was in the civil service I used to quite enjoy the exchanges where someone would give the same response to a repeated question, often to the exasperation of the questioner. It usually meant that the responder was quoting the departmental line on some issue, but that he personally thought it was absurd.

      Reply They can and should say “I am here to explain government policy. As a Minister I support government policy. Government policy is not to change the abortion laws this Parliament”. If they can’t say that then they resign.

      • Posted October 6, 2012 at 9:53 am | Permalink

        I meant to write “don’t see any need”.

      • Posted October 6, 2012 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

        Indeed Ministers are representing the government’s position. Their personal opinions should be kept to themselves.

        • Posted October 6, 2012 at 5:37 pm | Permalink

          Ministers should use the opportunity of cabinet discussion to put forward views to challenge policy, or put their arguments in writing to the PM. Once government policy is agreed in Cabinet, they should defend that position, unless they begin to feel that the position is untenable, in which case they should resign.

          zorro

    • Posted October 6, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

      You reply is spot on ministers should keep their personal views to themselves.

      It is a silly distraction from the main issues which are getting out of the EU, recovering the economy and halving the size of the state sector, getting a sensible energy policy and preventing Cameron being even worse than Heath and Major. I suspect it was intended as a deliberate distraction. Just as Cameron’s royal gender neutral succession proposals were.

      • Posted October 6, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

        I think that you are correct in that view of events.

        zorro

  5. Posted October 6, 2012 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    24 weeks, 20 weeks, 12 weeks, does it have all its toes yet? Does it have its ears and nose yet? Can the mother feel it wriggling? Taking a life is taking a life.

    • Posted October 6, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

      Cancer is also alive and has the same DNA as a human. Do you consider it wrong to kill cancer as well?

      • Posted October 6, 2012 at 8:13 pm | Permalink

        Dear Uanime5,
        With respect, that is a breathtakingly ignorant and offensive remark.
        Your contributions on this topic at least prove that you are male rather than female.
        This is not the place to abuse Mr Redwood’s hospitality by arguing the pros and cons of later abortions but I am astonished that you should regard abortion as a good left-wing issue. Don’t you realise that most women who undergo abortion nowadays are driven by poverty and that many families are driven to it because it is now so much harder for families on average incomes to live a comfortable life with only one income and that mothers also fear that they will be discriminated against in employment. Abortion, especially post 3 month abortion, is about oppression not human rights.

        • Posted October 7, 2012 at 9:49 am | Permalink

          Outsider ,

          If you want a career as a professional feminist an abortion is something you need to have on your C.V.

          A kind of initiation ceremony .

        • Posted October 7, 2012 at 5:30 pm | Permalink

          Simon argued that abortion was wrong because it takes a life, I pointed that that cancer is also alive and asked if he also felt it was wrong to kill cancer.

          Unless you’ve conducted a study on why women have an abortion you’re in no position to conclude that it’s mostly due to poverty. There are several non-economic reasons include the contraceptive failing, the foetus has a disability, the mother’s life is in danger if she continues the pregnancy, the mother was raped, or the mother isn’t mature enough to have a child (for example she’s a teenager).

  6. Posted October 6, 2012 at 9:13 am | Permalink

    Perhaps Hunt is finding his new job as PR executive for the Dept. of Health a little taxing and so wanted to express a personal opinion about something connected with it, so that we don’t forget all about him.

  7. Posted October 6, 2012 at 9:18 am | Permalink

    All most of us would like is to have the existing law properly enforced.
    When it was introduced (and I supported the introduction), it was to be limited to a small range of causes, essentially when the mother’s life was in danger of the baby was severely deformed.
    Now it is abortion on demand, with doctors using “mental health” as the reason that the mother’s life is threatened. I’m sure this is not what parliament intended, indeed at the time we are assured that we would not have abortion on demand.
    Like too many laws and law changes introduced, they get stretched to the limit, and then far beyond the limit with unintended consequences.
    I note the BBC carried a very pro-abortion news item on its morning programme, having a long interview with someone from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, who criticised Hunt and put forward the case for no change, but as usual didn’t offer any contrary viewpoint.

    Reply: My point is there is no advantage in everyone getting passionate again about this highly charged issue, as there is no intention to have a Parliamentary vote on it any time soon according to the government. It was last settled by parliament in 2008.

    • Posted October 6, 2012 at 2:00 pm | Permalink

      Trouble is that, like it or lump it, nobody has any respect for this government and do not like being constrained by what it says or doesn’t say and, again like it or not, that applies to members of the government. Besides, taking your line, John, government policy would never change unless our beloved PM daft as brush as he is decides to come up with some PR stunt. Personally I don’t give a damn what the government line is on abortion of all things. Seems little understood that foetuses viable much earlier than was the case two or three decades ago which seems hugely relevant whether the government thinks so or not.

    • Posted October 6, 2012 at 3:03 pm | Permalink

      So why have they just suddenly decided to talk about it then as this very controversial point was nailed in 2008? Is this supposed to be some sort of smokescreen? What coming up?

    • Posted October 6, 2012 at 4:12 pm | Permalink

      Anything to avoid Cast Iron’s failed leadership: this PM is the most pathetic wretch EVER to hold the office. And that is saying something!!!

      • Posted October 6, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Permalink

        Another maybe at the next election John…..

        zorro

    • Posted October 6, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

      Given the stress of raising a child, especially if you already have children, it’s no surprise that having a child will harm the mother’s mental health.

      Abortion was legalised in 1938 when in the case of R v. Bourne the judge ruled that a doctor wouldn’t be imprisoned if they performed an abortion when the pregnancy was a threat to the mother’s mental or physical health. Then in 1967 the Abortion Act codified this judgement and states that an abortion could legally be performed to prevent mental or physical harm to the mother. Parliament did intend for abortions to be performed to prevent the mother suffering mental harm.

      • Posted October 7, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink

        The vast majority of the 200,000 abortions a year are abortion on demand and have nothing to do with physical or mental health issues .

        Whether we individually believe abortion on demand is right or wrong is a separate issue .

        It would be much more honest if the law recognised that by allowing “on demand” to be stated as the reason on the form rather than denying what has been happening for at least 30 years .

        Adoption is an option too .

        I find it profoundly sad that we value children so little in this country both before and after birth .

        • Posted October 7, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Permalink

          Given that the only reasons a woman can have an abortion is because the pregnancy is threatening her physical or mental health, or that the foetus is disabled it’s highly likely that the majority of the abortions were due to physical or mental health reasons.

  8. Posted October 6, 2012 at 9:32 am | Permalink

    Seems to me that Hunt in fraternal friendship with his boss and sponsor is mere trying to distract the attention at Birmingham from more critical and amendable matters.

  9. Posted October 6, 2012 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    John,

    I appreciate that you do not want an extended debate on this topic. However I would like to say that Hunt’s proposal for 12 weeks seems to be impossible to work in practice, bearing in mind the timescales for the detection of a pregnancy and the time to see the medical profession and decide and arrange matters. What was Hunt trying to do by proposing the retention of abortion but on a practically impossible timescale?

    The man is out of his depth as a Minister.

  10. Posted October 6, 2012 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Surely preventting the murder of unborn babies is much more important than changing relationships with the EU.

    Reply: This Parliament has no majority for 12 weeks.

    • Posted October 6, 2012 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

      Yes Mr Wilson, for once I cannot quite see the logic of Mr Redwood’s argument. The points he makes about discussing abortion (whatever one’s view) seem to apply equally to anything about the nation’s relationship with the EU, including the point that “there is no majority in the present parliament”.

      Reply: My point is a Minister should not stir up the issue when they have no intention of resolving it. Of course the rest of us can talk about what we like, and can try to force Parliament’s hand where appropriate.

    • Posted October 6, 2012 at 2:07 pm | Permalink

      Reply to reply, Even taking you at face value, John, ie that you are right about the 12 weeks (which you state as if it is not, frankly, obvious that no majority at present) what happened to the weeks in between 12 and the present 24? Going to 20 at least seems a no brainer to me.

      Reply: That has more support,but as we have heard the government does not wish to allocate any of its time to Parliament to reconsider this issue.

    • Posted October 6, 2012 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

      There is not way they could get such a reduction through this parliament so why bring the subject up?

      Personally, I would favour a small reduction.

    • Posted October 6, 2012 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      The parliament has no majority for exiting from the EU but that doesn’t stop it being discussed. It is hardly fair to raise the argument of no majority to prevent discussion of the much more important issue of making abortion illegal.

      Reply Try reading what I said. I was talking about Ministers, who should have the power to command the majority, and who look out of control if they want something but cannot secure the majority for it.

      • Posted October 6, 2012 at 10:07 pm | Permalink

        I understood exactly what you were saying. The problem is that you are making the choice between two subjects both of which have majority problems based on your own personal wishes
        The problem I have is not with abortions that take place after 12 weeks most of which can be justified but those that take place before that time a large proportion of which take place for the convenience of the pregnant woman. It is these abortions that can only be described as unjustified murder. We should not be supressing discussion on these simply because without a thorough discussion there would not be a majority for changing the law.
        Would you prevent any debate on the position of the UK within the EU simply because the last vote on the subject put us in the current position? How is the abortion debate any different, particularly when there seems to be a movement amongst ministers to get the situation changed?

    • Posted October 6, 2012 at 5:46 pm | Permalink

      People will say that the Parliament has no majority for negotiating us out if the EU but it doesn’t stop us wanting it. But I agree that this is a distraction issue at this time, even though I might agree with the aims of those who want changes. Apparently 91% of abortions (of which there were 169,000 in the UK last year) are before 13 weeks – so that makes approximately 11,800 terminations at over 13 weeks.

      zorro

  11. Posted October 6, 2012 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Premature babies can now survive from a younger birth age, thanks to medical advances. So there is a case for lowering the limit to 20 weeks. There is no case for lowering it to 12 weeks, a suggestion which I suspect is coming from religious establishments.

    It is interesting that cabinet Ministers feel free to air their ‘personal views’ whilst acknowledgeing that there is no government policy for change. I suspect we are at the beginning of a campaign to change policy.

    • Posted October 6, 2012 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      What sort of argument is that? Whether a baby has a chance of survival after abortion is totally irrelevant. It should be illegal to kill it, if it has a chance of surviving in its mother’s womb.

      • Posted October 6, 2012 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

        What about cases or rape or incest, or where the mother’s life is threatened? Surely the mother should have the right to decide if she remains pregnant.

        Reply A mother can have a late abortion after 24 weeks if there are good grounds.

  12. Posted October 6, 2012 at 10:59 am | Permalink

    This Government does not speak with one voice and that is its failing.

    There is a complete lack of discipline because Lib Dem Minister’s are given carte blanche to undermine Government policy by speaking against it without any repercussions whatever; Conservative Ministers are now following suit.

    A Government either speaks with one voice or it falls, and the coalition government is going to fall. Having two leaders means having no leader, no discipline, no unity and no respect, either for the putative leaders from those inside Government, or for the Government from those outside.

    Being in Government is a privilege, and there have to be rules attached to that privilege, and there have to be consequences for breaking those rules.

  13. Posted October 6, 2012 at 11:13 am | Permalink

    Whether or not we kill the unborn is, um, a hugely important issue. Of course the metropolitan lib-lefties in “Downing Street” would want to keep the limit at 24 weeks, even when many other nations have it lower.

    Reply: The present Parliament is very unlikely to vote for 12 weeks, even it were allowed to express an opinion in government time.

  14. Posted October 6, 2012 at 1:12 pm | Permalink

    As you say John this is an unnecessary distraction, in the category of “When nothing further needed to be said on the subject, this man would say it”.

    I note that Mr Hague says in the Telegraph that he sees no reason for an in/ out referendum on Europe but possibly one on renegotiated terms.
    Can you not all realise that:-

    there is significant support for an in/ out vote.

    that there is great suspicion about more obfuscation to tide the conservatives over until the next election is over and then you can forget about it for another five years and it will be pro-Eu business as usual.

    The UKIP vote will ensure that many conservatives lose their seats even if UKIP get no MPs actually elected.

    Please oh please do what the public want and MPs do as they are told by their electors and promise and carry out an in/ out referendum.
    If this is against any MPs personal beliefs or conscience then they should stand down because they are not properly representing their electors.

    Reply I expect a majority of the Parliamentary party now disagree with Mr Hague on this issue. 100 of us disagreed with him in the last 3 line vote on this issue, and more have joined the cause since.

    • Posted October 6, 2012 at 5:50 pm | Permalink

      Reply to reply – How many now John do you think?

      zorro

  15. Posted October 6, 2012 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Abortion has become the new contraception it is basically murder.

  16. Posted October 6, 2012 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    Personally I think it’s refreshing to hear Cabinet Ministers expressing their real opinions. Refusing to answer the question, as JR seems to advocate, is one reason why the public have such a low opinion of politicians. Everyone knows this is an incompetent divided Government anyway so I don’t see what the problem is. As you say there are no plans to lower the limit and there wouldn’t be a majority anyway, but if Cabinet Ministers are asked a simple question they should answer it honestly. They shouldn’t try to make the Government appear happily united, the British people are not fools and most probably couldn’t care less anyway. Abortion is an old issue, the Government has no right to decide what women can do with their bodies. It’s nearly 2013 let’s move on.

    Reply: i want to hear Ministers talking about the thibgs they are deciding, not the things they are not deciding. It crowds out important matters where they are having an influence and could make a difference.

  17. Posted October 6, 2012 at 5:59 pm | Permalink

    The main problem with the abortion row is that it shows how detached some ministers and MPs are from the professionals (in this case doctors). The Health secretary wants the limit reduced to 12 weeks but an amniocentesis test is dangerous at less than 15 weeks and the results may not be known until weeks 18-19. So either Mr Hunt has almost no knowledge as to why the abortion limit needs to be over 20 weeks or he knows about this but has decided that his ideology is more important than the patient’s right to chose. Either way it indicates that he isn’t fit to be running this department.

    Regarding foetal development the cerebral cortex (grey matter covering the brain), without which pain impulses cannot be perceived, is not formed until 26-27 weeks’ gestation. So before this a foetus cannot feel pain and can only respond by unconscious reflexes.

  18. Posted October 6, 2012 at 7:41 pm | Permalink

    Abortion from age 0 onwards is murder.

    • Posted October 7, 2012 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

      At age 0 they would have been born. Also if the mother is suffering from postnatal depression and kills her child she’ll be charged with voluntary manslaughter rather than murder.

  19. Posted October 6, 2012 at 7:44 pm | Permalink

    On the in/out referendum , you cannot negotiate with a totalitarian regime, so it’s in or out there is. No third alternative.

  20. Posted October 6, 2012 at 7:48 pm | Permalink

    Most people in the UK want to leave the EUSSR immediately this WILL happen eventually why not have the referendum now?

  21. Posted October 6, 2012 at 7:56 pm | Permalink

    Uanime5

    You should visit an abortion clinic, it would immediately change your mind, I would say that it is highly probable that you have never done this, your blog on this is theoretical therefore irrelevant.

    • Posted October 7, 2012 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

      Given that the main emotion women feel after an abortion is relief, while those who give their children up for adoption spend the rest of their life worrying about what happened to their child I know which is better for the mother.

  22. Posted October 6, 2012 at 9:36 pm | Permalink

    In 1990 my wife was pressurised by an NHS doctor to have an abortion as “the baby will be severely disabled” – She said no – the doctor then accused me of putting pressure on her not to consent – three weeks ago I took the “severely disabled” child to her digs in London to do her degree – I get ever so slightly agitated when ministers start talking about time constraints – Euphemise it any way you want – abortion is murder.

  23. Posted October 8, 2012 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Govt. ministers should keep their personal views to themselves. It’s the pregnant female’s decision and it should be respected.

  24. Posted October 8, 2012 at 4:16 pm | Permalink

    Dear Outsider, Many private clinics perform abotions and their clients are not short of money. So do not use poverty as an excuse.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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