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08 / 07 / 2008 - Abortion MPs launch `all-out assault on the pro-life lobby`
Abortion shake-up proposed by MPs
The most significant relaxation of the abortion laws since the practice was first made legal more than 40 years ago is being proposed by a cross-party group of MPs.
Nurses in neighbourhood clinics would be able to prescribe abortion drugs to be taken by women alone in their own homes under the measures to be put before parliament.
The requirement for two doctors to approve an abortion would also be scrapped.
Pro-life MPs have vowed to fight the proposals, which they say send the wrong message to teenagers at a time when abortions among girls and young women are at an all-time high.
The two sides will clash during debates on final stages of the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill, which comes before the Commons on Monday.
A series of amendments to the bill have been tabled by pro-choice MPs including Frank Dobson, the former Labour health secretary, Jacqui Lait, the Conservative shadow minister for London, and the Liberal Democrat Evan Harris.
These include measures to scrap the requirement for two doctors to give their written consent to a termination; loosening the grounds on which an abortion can be obtained; allowing nurses to carry out early stage abortions and permitting abortions in GP surgeries and family planning clinics, not just hospitals and specialist centres.
They would also allow women to have a medical abortion at home up to the ninth week of pregnancy; ban "misleading" literature which uses inaccurate information to seek to persuade a woman to change her mind about having an abortion and stop chemists from using moral or religious objections to avoid prescribing emergency contraception.
Earlier this year, following an at-times emotional debate in the Commons during the second reading of the Bill, attempts to lower the legal abortion limit from its current level of 24 weeks were defeated by a majority of 71.
The unexpected size of the victory is said to have given pro-choice campaigners confidence that they could secure a relaxation in the laws relating to access to abortion services.
Their 11th hour bid to make it easier for women to obtain a termination has been described by pro-life MPs as an "ambush".
Geraldine Smith, Labour MP for Morecambe and Lunesdale, said: "Any one of these amendments would change the abortion laws in an extremely radical way and effectively usher in abortion on demand.
"It is utterly wrong that an attempt is being made to rush them through on the very last day with no proper consultation with the medical profession or the public."
Taken together, the amendments would effectively usher in abortion on request, and make it straightforward for any woman seeking a termination to gain one.
At present, it is necessary for two doctors to each give their written consent before a termination can be carried out.
They must agree that the procedure is necessary under one or more of four possible grounds - the most common of which is that the continuation of the pregnancy would harm the mental health of the women.
Pro-choice MPs want the consent of just one doctor in future, with the woman not required to fulfil any criteria other than that she is less than 24 weeks pregnant.
The emergence of medical abortions - which allow women to take drugs rather than undergo surgery to carry out a termination in the early stages of pregnancy - has led medical chiefs to suggest that nurses should be able to prescribe the pills as well as doctors.
Some MPs also want to change current laws which require abortions to be carried out in hospitals or a limited number of specialist clinics, so that drugs could be prescribed in GP surgeries or family planning clinics. Women could then take the pills at home.
Nadine Dorries, a Conservative backbencher, has argued against these so-called DIY abortions, saying they do not allow enough medical supervision of what can be a traumatic procedure.
She said: "We have enough abortions in this country without making it easier to obtain one.
"Are we really suggesting that we should allow a 14-year-old girl to pop a pill at home without informing her parents and then flush the remains of her baby down the toilet?"
In an all-out assault on the pro-life lobby, an amendment designed to limit the use of emotive literature to persuade women against having a termination has also been put forward, along with bid to make it compulsory for chemists to proscribe emergency contraception such as the morning after pill, regardless of their personal religious objections.
The liberalising amendments may not all be debated if the Speaker, Michael Martin, chooses not to select them when the Bill reaches its report stage and third reading on Monday.
It is traditional for abortion matters to be subject to a free vote, meaning MPs will make their decision according to their conscience rather than on party lines.
Frank Field, the former Labour minister, is proposing a "compromise amendment," supported by David Cameron, the Tory leader, which would involve the consent of only one doctor in the early stages of pregnancy but retain the requirement for two signatures after 13 weeks.
He opposes the other plans to make it easier to get a termination, saying: "Abortion should not be as simple as popping into Woolworths. We must not downgrade the seriousness of the decision that having abortion involves."
Andrew Lansley, the shadow health secretary, voted to lower the abortion limit to 22 weeks, but has said he favours making it easier for women to access abortion services.
The liberalising amendments are backed by a range of abortion charities and health groups, including the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Royal College of Nurses and Marie Stopes the family planning organisation.
Source : Daily Telegraph