THE RECENT attempt in the House of Lords to amend the Infant Life (Preservation) Act was important on a number of counts. A Bill to reform this Act was introduced by the Bishop of Birmingham. His aim was, in fact, to reform the Abortion Act by illegalising abortions on foetuses over 24 weeks old.
His reasons for doing so were twofold. As medical science has advanced, so too, has there been a drop in the age at which it is possible to keep a foetus alive. When the Abortion Act was introduced in 1967 it was impossible to keep a foetus under 28 weeks alive. Now, many premature babies, some as young as 21 or 22 weeks, survive. The Bishop felt that these changed circumstances should be reflected in the law.
During his speech, the Bishop compared the law in this country with that in Europe. In Switzerland, abortion is permitted only if a mother's life is in danger or if her health might be permanently damaged. The same applies in Italy once pregnancy has lasted 90 days. In France, abortion is allowed up to the 10th week and up to the 12th in Denmark, the Federal Republic of Germany, Austria and Norway. In Sweden, considered the most liberal of countries, abortion is illegal after the 24th week of pregnancy.
The most effective spokesman for those opposed to the reform was Lord McGregor of Durris. McGregor is a truly great orator. His contribution focussed on the 471 women who, in 1985, would have been denied an abortion under the changes proposed in the Bill. Lord McGregor stated that this group could be subdivided between those who, late in their pregnancy, were told their child may be handicapped, and those who are young enough to conceal the fact that they are pregnant for up to 24 weeks. These are the people for whom pregnancy may be a lifedestroying event!
The whole of Lord McGregor's contribution, and that of most other Peers who spoke relates to the mothers. Few voices were raised in support of the children whose lives are destroyed by abortion. Surely they too have a right to be heard?
It is at this point that the abortion debate becomes even more difficult. In an ideal society there would be no such thing. But we don't live in such a state. The crucial question is, therefore, "how do we move from this undesirable state to a more desirable one?"
The Bishop's Bill offered that opportunity. It also illustrated
one of the weaknesses of the Lord's proceedings. On these issues it is important that the Church's views are known. But the only ecclesiastics to enjoy, as of right, a place in the House of Lords are the senior Anglican Bishops.
Any Prime Minister concerned about the quality of public debate would ensure that the leaders of other major churches were represented. This could be easily achieved and would not require any reform of the House of Lords itself. An all-party agreement to appoint Cardinal Hume and his senior colleagues, together with representatives of other religious bodies, would achieve this objective.
In order that they, like the Anglican Bishops, should represent their particular interest their membership should not be a personal honour, but should depend upon their tenure of ecclesiastical office.
There might be difficulty in obtaining Labour Party agreement to this change. Officially the Party is in favour of abolishing the Lords. Any reforms which rendered the Lords more effective would, therefore, lessen the chance of its final abolition.
This is the classic dilemma which generally faces reformers. But there is a distinction between abolishing the Lords and not having a second chamber. At the present time, the second chamber carries out a vital constitutional function, by
safeguarding the Parliament Act and thereby ensuring that the Commons has to seek re-election every five years.
That check currently enshrined in our constitution by the existence of the House of Lords, needs to be perpetuated. But it also carries out other functions. It is a revisory chamber which makes numerous sensible amendments to Government bills. Admittedly, the Lords also employ wrecking tactics against Commons measures.
The Lords would be more effective in carrying out this revisory function if its membership was transformed. Is there a case for hereditary peers? I think not. Yet the Commons would not easily agree to an elected chamber, as this might use its authority to challenge the Commons. But there is a case for appointing to it representatives of all major interests in this country, including women. Such a reform would make the debate in the Lords — on abortion and other issues — more representative of the views in the country as a whole.