Daniel Kawczynski MP: Why I voted for twelve weeks
Daniel Kawczynski, MP for Shrewsbury & Atcham, explains why he voted for a reduction in the abortion time limit. A survey released today shows that most Conservative candidates sympathise with this view.
I recently took part in the intensely controversial debates in Parliament about various proposed amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, most notably the attempts to reduce the upper time limit for abortions variously to 12, 16, 20 and 22 weeks from the current 24 week limit.
I am fully aware of the wide range of opinions on this important ethical subject in this country and around the world. I have, of course, listened carefully to the arguments presented to me by the constituents that I represent here in Shrewsbury and Atcham, but ultimately as this is a ‘matter of conscience’ I must follow my own personal beliefs. I strongly believe however that there is merit in listening to all sides of an argument, even where I do already have my own clear cut and well thought-through views.
My own position is quite strongly pro-life and I therefore voted in support of all the amendments to cut the upper limit for terminations, up to and including a reduction to 12 weeks. I was deeply saddened that only 70 other MPs shared my views that all ‘social’ abortions – that is, those without genuine life-limiting medical needs - above 12 weeks should be outlawed.
Equally, I was disturbed that this supposedly non party political vote turned out to be anything but that. Labour whips insisted on a full turnout from Labour MPs who were strongly encouraged into the ‘no’ lobby. In the end, voting was largely on party lines, with the vast majority of Conservative MPs voting to reduce the time limits, at least to some extent, and a similar margin of Labour MPs voting to retain the status quo.
In my mind, there are two fairly distinct considerations in the abortion debate: firstly whether abortion should be permitted at all, then secondly at what stage it should be permitted.
On the subject of whether any social abortions should take place, one fact that many people are not aware of is that abortion is in fact illegal in this country: the 1967 Abortion Act brought in situations where exemptions to the law that states that it is illegal to kill an unborn child are granted – it did not legalise abortion. I share the concerns of many pro-life campaigners that the provisions of the 1967 Act have been grossly abused in the subsequent four decades, during which nearly seven million unborn babies, the overwhelming majority without any disability or health problems, have been killed.
I would never claim that a woman undergoes an abortion lightly, but nonetheless there are those who appear to be relying on abortion as an alternative to contraception. There is a great need to reduce the incidence of unwanted pregnancies, especially among teenagers and other vulnerable groups, but this must be tackled in ways other than more-or-less free access to abortion. In spite of substantial advances in recent years, more education and information on contraception still needs to be made available to our young people.
I believe in the sanctity of life and, therefore, think that any circumstances in which life is prematurely terminated need to be controlled and considered at the deepest ethical level. The right of a woman to ‘choose’ is also a powerful argument and I can understand and respect this, but equally the rights of an unborn child to life need to be considered, along with the rights of fathers. In addition to restricting the number of abortions that are carried out in this country, I believe there is a desperate need for a re-balancing of our outlook as a nation on the matter of unplanned pregnancy. I do not doubt that it can be extremely traumatic for many women who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant, but the current emphasis on providing abortion services overlooks the need to provide support for the alternative: carrying a baby to term. I would like to see greater promotion of the work of organisations such as Life, who try to support women through their unexpected pregnancies, whether they will eventually keep their baby or arrange for adoption. At the very least, women seeking help when they are facing an unplanned pregnancy should be receiving a balanced input from healthcare professionals about the different options available.
Returning to the matter of abortion time limits, although I am perhaps not altogether surprised that the votes for reducing the limits to 12 or 16 weeks were not passed, I am shocked that my fellow MPs did not support a reduction to 20, or even 22, weeks. It concerns me greatly to hear the arguments that are being made by colleagues in Parliament in favour of retaining the 24 week limit, including by the Health Minister, Dawn Primarolo. The rejection of scientific evidence and statistical facts regarding the status of foetuses in the 20 to 24 week gestation range is quite alarming.
It is true that many hospitals are seeing only modest survival rates of 22 to 24 week babies, but in the top neonatal units in the UK and the US over half of 23 and 24 week babies are surviving. This points not only to the need to respect the right to life of foetuses at this stage of gestation, but to the need to spread best practice techniques and skills from these centres to other special care baby units around the world. I cannot support the termination of pregnancies beyond the stage at which even one baby has been shown to be viable: currently the earliest surviving baby was born at 21 weeks and 6 days.
Finally, I will comment briefly on the controversy over the subject of foetal sentience – at what stage do unborn babies feel pain? What level of awareness do they have at what point in their development? There is incontrovertible scientific evidence that foetuses have responses to external stimuli – touch, sound and sight - from 20 weeks of gestation and even earlier. To what extent stimuli can be experienced as pain or distress may well always be impossible for us to tell, but I feel that the only morally correct response is for us to take the most cautious view and assume that pain and some level of consciousness may be in existence at 20 weeks. Therefore, I believe that all MPs should support a reduction of the abortion time limit to 20 weeks, regardless of whether they are pro-life or pro-choice on the broader issue of whether abortion should be permitted in the early stages of pregnancy.
Personally I believe that the path to existence as a human being starts at the point of conception and progresses to birth and beyond. Undoubtedly this is a gradual developmental process, but since we are unable to know the course of this development, I stand by my pro-life beliefs and will continue support proposals to reduce abortion rates in this country at every stage of pregnancy.