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5 April 2005

MSI claims to support time limit cut

One of Britain's largest abortion clinics wants to cut the upper limit for terminations to 20 weeks because advances in medical science mean that the babies are 'potentially viable', the Daily Telegraph reports.

Marie Stopes International, the largest provider of abortions outside the NHS, said yesterday it wants the controversial 24-week limit - the highest in Europe - to be cut by four weeks.

Dr Tim Black, chief executive of Marie Stopes International, which performs around 60,000 abortions each year, said: ‘Public opinion is in favour of abortion but falls off quite quickly when we get to 20 weeks because there is a perception that the fetus is potentially viable. We do feel that in light of medical developments the upper limit should come down.’

A spokesman for Marie Stopes said yesterday it has held that view ‘privately’ for some time but has now decided to go public at a time when abortion has become once again a highly political issue. It said it was aware that it might be treated ‘like a pariah’ for having gone public.

Last month, Michael Howard, the Tory leader, reignited the debate after saying during an interview with Cosmopolitan magazine that he would be in favour of reducing the upper limit to 22 or 20 weeks. Several religious leaders supported his decision.

A Telegraph poll last month showed that most people, including a large majority of women, agree with him that the upper limit should be cut back. It found that 55 per cent of voters of both sexes would welcome new laws reducing the time limit.

Those findings, coupled with yesterday’s announcement, could put pressure on politicians such as Tony Blair to reconsider their belief that the current law should be left as it is.

But Marie Stopes said it would support a reduction only if the ‘ridiculous and anachronistic’ law that a woman cannot obtain an abortion without written permission from two doctors was abolished. It would agree with the upper limit being cut to 20 weeks only if a woman could have an abortion before the 12th week of her pregnancy ‘on demand’ without having to obtain permission.

A spokesman said many women who visited one of Marie Stopes’s nine clinics in England tried to have an abortion in the very early stages of pregnancy but were delayed by a month or more due to delays or difficulties speaking to a doctor.

The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said it was ‘very wary’ of proposals to reduce the limit because they were always linked to other moves, such as waiving the need for doctors’ consent, which could increase the number of abortions.

Paul Tully, the general secretary, said:

‘Any reduction in the number of abortions would be welcome. However, reducing time limits doesn’t necessarily mean reducing abortions. The last time MPs thought they had a chance to reduce the time limit, they ended up widening the law. Abortions have continued to rise to record levels since. One must consider carefully what effect any given proposal will have.’

The issue of the ‘viability’ of babies born around 24 weeks was the subject of a recent BBC Panorama documentary about the findings of a study of babies born only a few weeks after the mothers were just halfway through their pregnancy. Of 26 children who survived in 1995 after being born at 23 weeks, just three went on to have no impairment or disability.

Leading abortion clinic backs 20-week limit. Daily Telegraph, 4 April 2005