Cardinal reopens abortion limit debate

The head of the Catholic church in Britain will reignite the debate over abortion today when he is expected to call on the government to lower the current 24-week limit.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor’s meeting with health secretary Patricia Hewitt comes amid mounting calls for a review of the latest time women can have an abortion.

An early day motion put by Labour MP Geraldine Smith last week has already attracted 20 signatures from backbenchers, among them Evan Harris MP, a former doctor who has previously called for the law to be reconsidered.

The motion says the government should set up a joint committee to consider the “scientific, medical and social changes in relation to abortion that have taken place since 1967, with a view to presenting options for new legislation”.

A Mori poll taken for The Observer in January also revealed that 47 of women believe the abortion limit should be cut from 24 weeks, with a further ten per cent saying the practice should be outlawed altogether.

Only one person in three agreed that the “current time limit is about right”, with 31 per cent of women and 35 per cent of men agreeing with this statement. Just two per cent of women and five per cent of men thought the current limit should be increased.

In response to that survey, a spokesman for Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said there had been a “moral awakening” in the past few years about abortion, and called on politicians to take heed of this “growing unease” about a women’s right to abort a foetus.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Health refused to comment on what the cardinal might discuss with Ms Hewitt in their meeting today, but made clear that there were no government plans to change the abortion limit.

“Any change to the abortion law is subject to parliamentary processes. We are not looking at changing it at the moment,” she said.

The current 24-week limit was set in 1990 – it was reduced from the 28 weeks originally set in 1967 after new research changed scientists’ estimations of the age at which a foetus could survive outside of the womb.

The latest figures from the Department of Health show 185,400 abortions were carried out in England and Wales in 2004, an increase of 2.1 per cent on the previous year, with the highest number taking place among women in the 18-24 age group.

A majority (88 per cent) were carried out at under 13 weeks, and 60 per cent were at under ten weeks. Just two per cent were carried out over 20 weeks.