Britain keeps legal abortion limit at 24 weeks

LONDON (Reuters) - Britain’s parliament voted on Tuesday to keep the upper legal limit on abortion at 24 weeks, disappointing campaigners who argue survival rates have improved.

The vote blocked attempts to lower the legal limit to 22, 20, 16 or 12 weeks in parliament’s first look at abortion laws in almost two decades.

The upper limit was reduced from 28 weeks to 24 weeks in 1990. Britain legalized abortion in 1968.

Many European countries allow abortion on demand up to 12 or 13 weeks in to pregnancy, after which it is limited to cases where the baby or mother is at risk. Termination is legal up to 22 to 24 weeks in Spain, Switzerland and the Netherlands.

For three hours, British parliamentarians passionately debated the right of women to choose versus the right of a fetus to live.

“While there have been medical advances in caring for premature babies, only a small number born after 24 weeks gestation can survive,” health minister Dawn Primarolo told parliament, arguing for the status quo.

She said there was no scientific evidence showing a significant improvement in a baby’s chance of survival at 24 weeks since the 1990 law.

Labor lawmaker Julie Morgan said any move to reduce the upper limit was an attack on abortion and the right to choose.

But proponents of a reduction said it was morally wrong for babies at 24 weeks to be terminated when they could survive and that fetal pain and distress must be taken into account.

“I think there comes a point when it has to be said this baby has a right to life also,” said Conservative lawmaker and former nurse Nadine Dorries, who argued for a 20-week limit and offered a graphic description of late terminations.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown had said he favored 24 weeks.

Around 200,000 abortions were carried out in Britain in 2006, of which about 3,000 were conducted after 20 weeks -- 1.5 percent of the total.


The abortion vote is the final contentious issue in an overhaul of fertility and embryology laws dating from 1990 being debated by parliament. The government has won all key votes.

Earlier, lawmakers voted to remove the need for an involved father as well as a mother when women seek fertility treatment, making it easier for lesbian couples to access the treatment.

Parliament passed a bill that says doctors should look for evidence of “supportive parenting” rather than the presence of a father figure when offering in-vitro fertilization (IVF).

Government ministers said removing the need for a father brought fertility laws into line with equal rights and human rights legislation and to retain the need for a father would have been discriminatory against lesbians and single mothers.

But Conservative lawmaker Iain Duncan Smith, supporting the need for a father, said a child’s rights should outweigh the human rights of adults to have children and the bill sent a message that “fathers are less important than mothers”.

On Monday, parliament approved a bill to allow human-animal embryo research and to permit parents of children with genetic conditions to use IVF to select “savior siblings” who can act as donors to save their sick brothers and sisters.

Editing by Charles Dick