Abortion comes to head in Britain

One of the best things about the United Kingdom is that there electoral system is not as long as this year’s unprecedented U.S. Presidential election. The typical election season in Britain runs about six to eight weeks at most. The current US campaign literally started eight years ago after Hillary Clinton left the White House the first time around as First Lady.

Furthermore, unlike the United States, the Brits don’t determine their votes on single issues or by what some religious fundamentalist said. Thankfully, the folks on the other side of the pond think for themselves – until this week.

The British Parliament debated the divisive issues of abortion.

From The Economist

…For the first time in 18 years, there was a serious chance that Britain's abortion laws would be made less liberal. Most terminations are carried out on the grounds that continuing a pregnancy could harm the woman's physical or mental health, and such abortions are permitted only before 24 weeks' gestation. (Later abortions are allowed if the woman's life is in danger, or the fetus is abnormal.) MPs debated cutting this limit to 12 weeks, or 16, or 20, or 22. Only the last had a realistic chance of succeeding. In the event 304 MPs voted for the status quo; 233 supported cutting the limit by two weeks.

By precedent, votes on abortion are “free”: MPs may vote according to their consciences rather than a party directive. They still divided along party lines. Most Labour MPs—including the prime minister, Gordon Brown—voted against all the amendments, although three Catholic cabinet ministers supported a cut to 12 weeks. Most of the shadow cabinet voted for some reduction, and the Conservative leader, David Cameron, backed lowering the limit to either 22 or 20 weeks.

There were graphic descriptions of late abortions—Nadine Dorries, a Conservative MP and former nurse, described assisting at one in which the baby breathed for seven minutes. But the debate centred on how premature a baby can be and have a reasonable prospect of surviving. The current law, passed in 1967, permitted abortion only until a fetus was “viable”, which was assumed to be at 28 weeks. That limit was lowered to 24 weeks in 1990, as better care for premature babies meant more survived. Recent studies have suggested little, if any, improvement since then. But campaigners question the relevance of data on premature babies, many of whom are premature precisely because they, or their mothers, are ill. Before the vote, right-leaning newspapers ran stories of children born at 22 or 23 weeks and now doing well.

The abortion debate came at the end of two hotly contested days in the House of Commons. MPs attempting to cut back abortion were hoping to tack their amendments to a bill on assisted reproduction, a field with plenty of controversies of its own. Right before the debate on abortion came one on whether a child's need for a father should continue to be a factor that fertility doctors must consider when deciding whom to treat. The government wants to remove the requirement, as it discriminates against single women and lesbian couples; many Conservatives see the writing-out of fathers as part of a disturbing moral and social decline.

The day before that, MPs had voted on two other amendments. The first would have prohibited experiments involving “chimera” embryos created by placing human DNA inside empty eggs from other mammals. The second sought to rule out creating “saviour siblings”: screening embryos created by IVF in order to select a match for an existing sick child whose life could be saved by cord blood or bone marrow from a suitable brother or sister.

All three issues went the government's way, even though Mr Brown had to allow his party a free vote after a campaign by Catholic bishops made it clear that he risked losing three ministers if he did not. At the time his concession was criticised as caving in to special interests; now that his key measures have survived, it looks canny. A little good news for him at last.

Gordon Brown definitely survives this time around.



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