BY FREDDY GRAY
HEALTH SECRETARY Patricia Hewitt has rejected Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor's plea for a review of the abortion law.
The development came just clays after it emerged that Prime Minister Tony Blair had signalled to Cardinal Keith O'Brien of Edinburgh that he was prepared to allow time for a parliamentary debate.
Mrs Hewitt told Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor that the Government did not support a change in the law and that any reform would have to come via a private member's Bill.
After the meeting, the Cardinal appealed for the creation of a joint committee of peers and MPs to review the 1967 Abortion Act.
He said that in the light of medical advances, which
have made it possible for foetuses born at 24 weeks to survive, there had been a "moral awakening" in the country in support of a lower limit. "This is not primarily a religious issue," he said. "It is a human issue. Abortion is the wrong answer to fear and insecurity. As a society we need to look at ways of supporting women who find themselves in an unplanned pregnancy."
The Cardinal made it clear that the attempt to reduce the time limit was in no way a compromise on the Church's opposition to abortion at all stages. "The Church will continue to state that abortion is the wrongful taking of human life," he said.
But the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children was critical of the Cardinal's approach. "The events of the last few days have shown that this strategy is the most dangerous route possible," said Anthony Ozimic, the group's political secretary. "There is no prospect of saving lives. Any idea that a reduction in the upper time limit of abortions would limit abortions is deeply misguided."
He said that re-opening the Act would result in a relaxation of legislation restricting earlier abortions.
But Conservative MP Ann Widdecombe, a Catholic, disagreed. "Everybody knows that the teaching of the Catholic Church is no abortion. The point is if you have a shipwreck and you can't get everybody off, you try to get some of them off, that is effectively the Cardinal's position."
The former leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, Charles Kennedy, confirmed last week that he supported
Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor's plea. "I think there is a strong argument for reducing it," he said on BBC's Question Time.
Oliver Letwin, the Conservative Party's policy director, agreed. "I am inclined to believe that technology and medicine have changed and it is now possible for children to survive earlier and that does indicate that we should reduce the weeks," he said. However, Alan Johnson, the Education Secretary, was opposed to any change. "My view is that 24 weeks is right and the BMA [British Medical Association] and the Royal College of Obstetricians believe that 24 weeks is right and that's the way I would vote."
It is unlikely that the limit will be lowered as long as Mrs Hewitt is Health Secretary. In the 1970s, she was a senior member of "Co-ord", the Co ordinating committee in Defence of the 1967 Abortion Act, a strident group that aimed to protect and expand the "rights" of women to destroy their unborn.
In 1978, on the 10th anniversary of the Abortion act, Mrs Hewitt, as general secretary of the National Council for Civil Liberties, wrote an article fervently defending "terminations" .
"The freedom of a woman to control her own fertility is inextricably linked to fundamental principles of human rights." she wrote. "The woman's right to life, her human dignity, her privacy and her right to be free from discrimination — are all violated by the criminalisation of abortion."
Caroline Flint, the Minister for Public Health, is also understood to be resolutely pro-abortion.