Intended for healthcare professionals


No evidence backs reduction in abortion time limit, minister says

BMJ 2007; 335 doi: (Published 01 November 2007) Cite this as: BMJ 2007;335:903
  1. Adrian O'Dowd
  1. Margate

    No medical evidence indicates that the limit of 24 weeks for abortions in the United Kingdom should be reduced, according to a government minister.

    The health minister Dawn Primarolo defended the existing time limit in UK law when she gave evidence to the House of Commons science and technology committee last week, as part of its inquiry into whether abortion laws in England and Wales need to be updated.

    “The Department of Health's view and the advice to me is . . . that the act works as intended and doesn't require further amendment at the present time,” Ms Primarolo told the committee's MPs. She said this was why there were no proposals from the government to amend the act.

    The minister said that most abortions (89%) took place in the first trimester and that 11% of babies born at 23 weeks survive, while the viability is 1% at 22 weeks and zero at 21 weeks.

    “In this very complex area with regards to time and viability, we are following the medical consensus, and that consensus still indicates that while improvements have been made in care, at the moment that concept of viability cannot constantly be pushed back in weeks,” she said.

    Nadine Dorries, committee member and Conservative MP for Mid-Bedfordshire, said, “You are on the record as saying you are committed to the liberalisation of the abortion law. Do you think that given your opinion that you are the right minister for the job and maybe somebody with a fairer viewpoint on this issue should be in your place?”

    Ms Primarolo replied, “I am not here to discuss my personal views. I'm here as the minister to answer the questions the committee puts to me about the information the department has.”

    The Department of Health wanted to see abortions conducted as quickly as possible in line with medical opinion, she added, but emphasised that changes to the act were down to the will of parliament.

    When asked whether she agreed with the opinion of bodies such as the BMA and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists that the need for two doctors' signatures to allow an abortion should be dropped for first trimester abortions, she would not give an opinion.

    “Though there are increasing views expressed with regard to two doctors or one doctor, that would still have to be a matter for the House [of Commons] and not the government.”

    The deputy chief medical officer Fiona Adshead, also giving evidence, said, “Our policy has been to promote abortion at the earliest possible stage and in the last few years we have invested significantly over £8m [€12m; $16m] in order to achieve that.

    “Our statistics show that there has been a significant shift to abortions under 10 weeks and the vast majority occur under 13 weeks. We are aware of the evidence and we feel the current act is actually promoting early abortion.”

    A report from this inquiry is expected in the next month.

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