abortion bill 'killed off'
by Peter Stanford
THE efforts of Bishop Hugh Montefiore of Birmingham to stop late abortions ground to a halt in the House of Lords this week in face of the determined opposition of Labour peer Lord Houghton of Sowerby. Despite government support and a majority in the Lords, the measure was put in the hands of a select committee of the House. To Bishop Montefiore this was tantamount to "killing my own bill which is so close to my heart" for the measure may be delayed in committee until parliament rises.
In an emotional speech to the House of Lords on Wednesday, perhaps his last since he is to resign his see and hence his seat in the Lords on April 1, Bishop Montefiore moved the motion to pass the bill to select committee "with deep feeling and a heavy heart". He did so in the face of determined opposition from 88-year-old Lord Houghton a former chairman of the parliamentary Labour party.
Lord Houghton planned to "filibuster" the bishop's bill according to his advisers, and would thus have dragged out discussion on the floor of the House ad nausem.
The bishop was reluctant to bow to such pressure for three reasons, he told the House on Wednesday. "Despite a clear majority in division, despite the promise of government support", he was being forced by "political" reasons to effectively shelve the measure.
Secondly, he noted, to delay the bill would mean that "hundreds of babies are going to be killed at a time when they would be capable of being born alive — in 1985 there were 494 abortions at 24 weeks and over".
And thirdly, the bishop went on : "This bill seems to have given rise to considerable emotional disturbance on the part of certain persons and I can see that it would be best to get it off the floor of the House rather than create the bitterness and inconvenience of acrimonoius exchanges night after night".
Lord Houghton defended his actions and told the Catholic Herald that such a bill was better dealt with in select committee where detailed medical evidence could be called.
"Where the bishop went wrong" said Lord Houghton," was in thinking that the question of the upper age limit of gestation could be altered by the simple amendment of the 1929 Act". At present the 28 week limit on abortions is set by the 1929 Infant Life Preservation Act.
For Lord Houghton this is a redundant act which has never successfully been invoked, and which needs a complete overhaul to take in not only medical advances such as those spoken of by Bishop Montefiore, but also questions of medical ethics and parental rights.
Since August 1985 private abortion clinics have been forbidden by the Department of Health and Social Security from carrying out abortions beyond 24 weeks. Lord Houghton argued that this "non-statutory basis" was the best way of regulation. One must be careful not to equate capacity to be born alive with capacity to survive, Lord Houghton stressed.
His views were attacked by Keith Davies of the antiabortion organisation, Life. Babies were capable of being born alive at 18 weeks, he said, and the law must take this into account. The pro-Life lobby, however, welcomed the Government's agreement in principle with the change in the law, and said that moves were underfoot to find a backbencher who would introduce the measure into the Commons as soon as possible.