Catholic leader plans to use meeting with Health Secretary to push for free vote for MPs on the 24-week upper time limit, reports Simon Caldwell
CARDINAL CORM AC MurphyO'Connor is to issue a direct appeal to the Government to tight en up abortion laws.
He will use a private meeting with Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt on Wednesday to call on ministers to cut the upper limit for abortions from 24 weeks.
His intervention in the political arena comes after Mrs Hewitt rejected demands froni MPs for a free vote as soon as possible in response to opinion polls which revealed that the majority, of women were uncomfortable with the present rules.
He is expected to tell Mrs Hewitt that the Government must heed the growing public unease over abortion and allow MPs to lower the limit if they wish.
The Cardinal believes that the British public has undergone a "moral awakening" about the humanity of the unborn child.
Scientific advances have made it possible to save many more babies before 24 weeks and public attitudes have also changed as a result of high-definition pictures of a 12week-old foetus apparently sucking its thumb.
There have also been repeated accounts of babies being born alive after botched abortion attempts.
The Cardinal requested a meeting in person with Mrs Hewitt soon after she told Sky News in January that she did not "want to see the legal maximum changed" and that the Government believed the matter should be "left to backbench members of Parliament in Private Members' Bills".
The meeting at the Department of Health was scheduled for the end of March but was cancelled after the Cardinal was summoned to Rome for Pope Benedict XVI's first Consistory of Cardinals.
The meeting will also come just weeks after Caroline Flint. the Minister for Public Health, spoke on the subject of the upper limit to a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Choice Group. Mrs Flint is planning to address Parliament's Science and Technology Committee on the same issue on July 12.
In his meeting with Mrs Hewitt Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor,73, is also expected to propose the creation of a new national bioethics commission, with a broad expert membership but no executive powers, as a replacement for the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority.
The Cardinal is concerned that the government quango has been setting policy on such controversial questions as the creation of babies to provide siblings with matching donor tissue. He is among a growing number of people who believe these matters should be decided by Parliament.
Dr Austen lvereigh, the Cardinal's spokesman, said that the Cardinal was consulting his advisers over precisely what he would bring to the table. "1 am pretty confident that we will bring the issue of abortion," he added. "I would be very surprised if that isn't on the agenda."
The Cardinal's initiative was welcomed by Martin Foley of Lite. the pro-lite counselling char ity. "I hope that he is able to convince the Secretary of State that there is an urgent need to act on this issue.he said. "The general consensus is that there are far too many abortions taking place in this country and the Government has responsibility to take that number down."
However, other pro-life groups expressed fears that MPs might reduce the time limit by a negligible amount at the expense of concessions that would lead to even more abortions being carried out.
Paul Tully of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said it was clear from statements made by Dr Evan Harris, a proabortion Liberal Democrat MR that the pro-abortion lobby sought a wider review of abortion law. Mr Tully said this might even include an increase in the upper time limit on other grounds, such as illnesses.
'As part of that whole discussion they want to see the removal of two doctors' signature requirements for the first three months of pregnancy. extension of abortion to Northern Ireland and extension of the grounds to later abortion as well," Mr Tully said. "It's a question of what is the right strategy." Phyllis Bowman of the Right to Life pressure group said Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor had been informed of the risks of opening the Abortion Act to amendments.
"Patricia Hewitt is for abortion up to birth, she regards abortion as a woman's right, she couldn't be more anti-life,said Mrs Bowman. "In this respect she is the worst Health Secretary we have ever had."
Mrs Bowman said she was not opposed to the Government amending the Act to lower the upper limit for abortion but was "tenified" that it might also be amended to make abortion more easily accessible. "My worry is that they might want to do a barter for one doctor's signature— only to state the gestational age of the baby — up to 16 to 20 weeks.
News of the Cardinal's intervention led to immediate calls by MPs for the 1967 Abortion Act to be debated on the floor of the Commons. The graphic images of unborn children have shown that the time limit could and should be reduced,Labour MP David Drew of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group told the Daily Mail.
"The evidence that is now available means we can have a much better infomied public debate than in 1990 or 1967. We have got sick of waiting for the Goveniment to provide an opportunity to stage this debate. Somebody has to push the issue and it is helpful if the Catholic Church joins with others to say things should change."
Tory MP Ann Widdecombe, another member of the group, said: "I think there is widespread concern that the age at which abortions are carried out is too high. It's time we had a chance to speak on the issue."
But she added: "Many people in the Labour Party are very proabortion and the Government's attitude is likely to be dismissive.
A Health Department spokesman said: "It is collective Parliamentary practice that pro posals for airy change in the Abortion Act come from the backbenches. The Government has not got any plans to make any changes to the Abortion Act.
Abortion became a key issue in last year's General Election campaign when Michael Howard, then Tory leader, said he wanted to see the time limit cut to 20 weeks.
David Steel, the architect of the 1967 Act. also said he wants the upper limit reduced to 22 weeks.
David Cameron backs a new limit of between 20 and 22 weeks, The limit was set in 1967 at 28 weeks because that was then taken to be the age at which a foetus would not be "viable", but it was reduced to 24 weeks in 1990.
The Government came under renewed pressure to amend the Act further when a MORI poll in January revealed that 47 per cent of women want the legal limit cut, while 10 per cent want an outright ban. Among the population overall, reducing the limit is the preferred option for 42 per cent.
Them are more than 180,000 abortions a year in Britain and the figure is continuing to rise in spite of an increase in the use of the morning-after pill. Abortions cost the NIIS £75 million a year.
In Germany, abortions for nonmedical reasons are allowed only up until the 12th week of pregnancy. In France, the cut-off point is 10 weeks.
Last year it emerged that 50 babies live through botched abortions in Britain every year. Some of the babies may have gone through more than one attempted abortion. The figures prompted doctors to carry out a review into why se many survived after just 22 weeks of pregnancy.
A recent study of premature babies at University College Hospital London found that almost half of those born at 23 weeks survived. At 24 weeks, the time limit for most abortions, 72 per cent of the babies survived. Each year more than 1200 babies are aborted at between 22 and 24 weeks.