by Brian Dooley THE HOUSE of Commons is to be confronted with six options on how far to reduce the time limit for abortion next Friday. May 6 is the date when David Alton's Abortion Bill reaches its report stage and MPs will be voting on allowing it to proceed.
Mr Alton wants them to agree to his 18 week limit, but amendments have been tabled giving members the opportunity to vote for a limit of 20, 23, 24, 26 or 27 weeks.
The outcome depends largely on the order in which the amendments are voted on, because once one time limit is passed with a majority, all other amendments fall. This means that if a 20 week limit is agreed, MPs will not be able to vote on any other of the proposals.
Thus opponents of SLD MP David Alton hope that the Speaker, Bernard Weatherill, will choose to take the time limit amendments in descending order — from the highest one down to increase the chances of the 27 or 26 week limit being agreed on Mr Weatherill must decide at the start of the debate which order the amendments are to be voted on, and has been subjected to vigorous argument in the last week on the matter.
For his part, Mr Alton is publicly sticking with his 18 week proposals, although a member of his staff has admitted that "we can live with 24 weeks, provided that MPs have had the chance to vote for 18, 20 and 22 weeks".
Addressing a mass rally of supporters at Westminster on Wednesday. Catholic MP David Alton insisted that "no other time limit than 18 weeks will go any way towards solving the problem of late abortions and that is why we have refused to alter it or consider another option unitil the Commons decide differently".
He thanked those who had worked on behalf of his bill, and said that since he first announced his intention to sponsor an abortion bill six months ago, "the campaign has informed the country of the horrors of late abortions, 40,000 people have attended rallies and over a million have seen videos which show late abortion."
Next week's vote could mean the end of the bill and most observers agree that the outcome is to close to predict at this stage. Mr Alton gives himself an "even chance" of securing his 18 week limit, but the proliferation of amendments could cause confusion and a tense result.
At the bill's Second Reading in January, David Alton gained a majority of 54 when about 550 of the 650 MPs voted, but some of his opponents are anxious that this time the turn-out might be smaller with some members failing to return from their constituencies after campaigning for the local elections on Thursday May 5.