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Health secretary sparks controversy by his support for a 12 week limit for abortion

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e6796 (Published 08 October 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6796
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

The new Conservative health secretary for England, Jeremy Hunt, has sparked an outcry by voicing support for a cut in the upper limit for abortion from 24 weeks’ gestation to 12.

The furore over his remarks, given in an interview with the Times newspaper on the eve of the Conservative Party’s annual conference, forced the prime minister, David Cameron, to issue assurances that the UK’s Conservative led coalition government had no plans to reform the abortion laws.

Hunt’s declaration of his “personal view” came after a call for a 20 week limit from Maria Miller, minister for equalities, prompting concerns that the government might be planning to change the law. The home secretary, Theresa May, also supported a 20 week limit, in answer to an interviewer’s question.

But Cameron, while stating his own view that the limit should be 20 weeks, declared that the government had no plans for a change in the law. He said that Hunt was “absolutely entitled to hold an individual view, a view of conscience, and on this issue all members of parliament—prime ministers, health secretaries, everybody—have to vote according to their consciences.”

Interviewed on BBC television’s Andrew Marr Show, he added, “They are totally entitled to hold that view, but people need to know the government has got no plans to bring forward any legislation in this area, and any vote that does happen will be a free vote.”

Members of parliament last voted on the issue in 2008, when they decided to retain the 24 week limit, rejecting calls to reduce it to 12, 16, 20, or 22 weeks.1

The current law, the Abortion Act 1967, applies in England, Wales, and Scotland but not Northern Ireland, which has a more restrictive law. The act was last amended in 1990, when the upper limit was reduced from 28 to 24 weeks because of better survival prospects for very premature babies.

Even after 24 weeks, abortions may be performed if necessary to save the life of the mother or to prevent grave permanent injury to her physical or mental health or if there is a substantial risk that the child, if born, would be seriously handicapped.

In practice, only one in 10 abortions in England and Wales takes place after 13 weeks’ gestation. The former Liberal Party leader David Steel, whose private member’s bill resulted in the 1967 Abortion Act, said that the figures were similar to those of other European countries.

“Our hospitals have since been free of wards cluttered with patients admitted for ‘septic or incomplete abortion’ and our death statistics no longer show 30 to 50 annual fatalities from illegal abortion,” he wrote in the Observer newspaper.2

Kate Guthrie, spokeswoman for the Royal College of Obstetricians, said, “The comments made by Jeremy Hunt politicise the debate around the abortion time limit and do not put women at the centre of their care. Reducing the time limit to 12 weeks would severely limit women’s choice at an extremely difficult time in their life.

“At the moment, access to services is sometimes delayed, making it harder for women to get the care they need. If the intention is to reduce the abortion rate, then health services should invest in the provision of comprehensive contraceptive services that improve access and provide women with a range of options.”

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6796

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