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Abortion limit: The 24 week debate

Sophie Herdman
By Sophie Herdman Published on 10 October 2012

Abortion - it's a contentious issue that understandably, triggers strong emotions in a lot of people. The legal time limit for abortion is 24 weeks. But in the past week many MPs - from Jeremy Hunt to Theresa May - have started to question this.

Abortion limit: The 24 week debate

We thought we'd take a look at exactly what the MPs have been saying about abortion limits as well as go over what we currently know about abortion.


Jeremy Hunt has radical views about the abortion limit. He thinks it should be cut in half, to make it 12 weeks. We should remind you that Hunt has recently been made health secretary and as a result, is in charge of the NHS. So it's a pretty big deal when he says something like this. He says his decision is based on scientific evidence (but is yet to show the evidence) and not on religious beliefs. Last week, pro-choice activists delivered a batch of 600 coat hangers, saying that restricting women's rights would lead to a rise in illegal and unsafe procedures.

Maria Miller,
culture and - here's the clincher - women's minister, said last week that she still thinks the abortion limit should be 20 weeks (she voted for this back in 2008). She says that based on advances in science, her decision is common sense.

David Cameron and Theresa May, the Home Secretary, said they also thought the abortion limit could be reduced to somewhere around 20 weeks, but didn't agree with Hunt's 12 week limit. The Prime Minister said Hunt was "absolutely entitled to hold an individual view" but that the government had no plans to lower the limit.

Nadine Dorries, a Conservative MP, who introduced the rejected 2008 amendment to reduce the abortion limit to 20 weeks, said she was delighted by Hunt's words and said she would reintroduce that 2008 amendment. She reasons that keeping the limit at 24 weeks ignores the number of women who are traumatised and vulnerable during the abortion process. She believes that trying to tighten abortion laws makes her more of a feminist.

Mark Pritchard, another Conservative MP who is also the vice chairman of the parliamentary pro-life group, said far too many abortions are performed in Britain and that our abortion limits lag behind recent scientific discoveries.


Yvette Cooper,
Labour's shadow home secretary, is not so convinced. She said that Hunt's views are chilling and show that he's given no serious consideration to women's health. In fact, she even said that his view is undoubtedly not based on evidence.

Dianna Abbott, Labour's shadow public health minister, is also shocked by Hunt's statements. She said there's no evidence to support a reduction in the abortion limit. She also said: "We're seeing a sustained attack on the science, and the rights that British women and families have fought for."

Plenty of people outside of government have also commented. Clare Murphy of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service told the Telegraph that Hunt's comments will spur on anti-abortion protesters to shout at women on their way to have an abortion. She said that abortion is a fundamental part of women's reproductive health.


The law

At the moment, women can have an abortion up to 24 weeks into their pregnancy.

Abortions can only be carried out after this time if two doctors agree that there is grave permanent risk to the women's mental or physical illness, or to her life, or if they agree that of the child was born, it would be severely handicapped.

This law was set in 1990 (before that it was 28 weeks) and in 2008 a proposed cut in the time limit was rejected.

The Science

Recent research has found that doctors can now save more babies born at 24 and 25 weeks. Survival rates at 23 weeks haven't improved.

A study in one British neonatal unit found that 71% of babies born between 22 and 25 weeks survived in the 1990s.

The stats

England and Wales has the highest rate of abortions among women under the age of 20 in Europe.

About 200,000 abortions happen each year in England and Wales and 90% of them happen before the 12 week mark. Less than 2% happen between 20 and 24 weeks.

One in five abortions in this country are had by teenagers.

Those who are for a reduction in the limit, say that because babies are more likely to survive at 24 weeks, abortions should not be allowed at this point.

Those who are against a reduction to the limit say that the 20 week scan is the one that reveals severe abnormalities, and that very few abortions happen after 20 weeks.

by Sophie Herdman