Crucial free vote on abortion time limits could see UK law shift in favour of protecting unborn

Catholics who’ve been scanning UK news media this week can hardly have failed to read the traumatic story of “35 year-old Katie from Cardiff” who was forced to travel from Wales to England in order to procure an abortion.

According to the story, which has spread rapidly across a wide range of news media, ‘Katie’ and her partner we delighted to find out that she was pregnant with their first child, but a routine scan revealed a ‘significant abnormality’ and doctors said the child would be unlikely to survive.

According to the story, this presented a dreadful dilemma for the couple, as the health system in Wales doesn’t tend to offer surgical abortions after 18 weeks and they faced the dreadful prospect of having to give birth in a labour ward full of mothers and newborn babies.

“To be told that was not an option for me in Wales, to be told that the health care I needed wasn’t available in my home country and to have to go to an unfamiliar place, was really shocking actually and really upsetting,” said Katie.

The story goes on to relate how Katie contacted the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), and eventually secured a surgical abortion under general anaesthetic in Bournemouth, though it says movingly that she had to spend “four figures” on accommodation and had to wait four days before they could bring their baby’s ashes back to Wales.

A spokesperson for the BPAS clinic in Cardiff said in the article that “around 100 women” have to travel from south Wales to England every year for post-18 weeks terminations. The BAPS Carfiff centre also said it takes NHS referrals “from 12 weeks and can perform abortions up to 18 weeks under conscious sedation.”

Quoting a number of professional sources from healthcare in Wales this article paints a bleak and moving picture of a system that is falling behind its UK counterparts badly, and is causing untold distress and anguish not only to many families, but to doctors and other carers across Wales.

The story concludes with a mention that The Women’s Equality Party in Wales has launched a campaign calling on the health secretary to prioritise abortion care and make sure the procedure is offered in Wales on the NHS.

It is unclear from where this harrowing story first emerged but across this week it has been replicated verbatim across a wide range of local and national media outlets. Of course “Katie from Cardiff” had to remain anonymous, but the responses and comments from other named healthcare professionals give the story its required credentials.

This might seem much as any other human interest story that finds its way into the news, but this one has a particular political resonance as in just over a week’s time UK legislators will be discussing and voting on legislation that could amount to the first change to the UK’s abortion law since 1968.

On Wednesday 15th May, members will be considering three crucial amendments relating to abortion that have been tabled as part of the Report stage of the Criminal Justice Bill, in an atmosphere where many arguments and apocryphal narratives have emerged on both sides of the debate.

To recap, under current UK law abortions can be accessed widely up to 24 weeks (around six months) and the law even allows abortion up to birth under very limited circumstances – if the mother’s life is at significant risk, or if she is at risk of grave physical or mental injury, or the baby is found to have a number of potentially life-altering conditions such as cleft palate or Down Syndrome.

As a significant number of recent press stories have confirmed, there are nowadays increasingly regular instances of babies surviving at earlier than 24 weeks.

Above: I have a great nephew who was born during Covid at 23 weeks. He has just joyfully celebrated his fourth birthday, and started at nursery last September.

1968 was a very long time ago and medicine has advanced unimaginably since, so there has long been pressure – not least from within the medical establishment that has to deal with these things – to update the law to reflect the current situation and practice. As it happens the UK is lagging way behind its European counterparts in this area – in France, for instance the limit is 14 weeks and in Germamy it is down to 12.

But of course any suggestion that the time limit for abortions should actually be reduced has raise the ire of relativists, secular liberals and a whole range of contra-campaign groups.

There are three amendments that legislators will have to consider next week: on the positive side, Caroline Ansell (Conservative) MP will propose an amendment that would bring the limit down from 24 to 22 weeks and put the UK far more in line with the rest of Europe. In a second amendment Catholic Conservative MP Sir Liam Fox (main picture) will be proposing a widely-supported change to the law to protect children with Down Syndrome from being able to be aborted up to birth. Sir Liam has been a consistent campaigner on behalf of Down Syndrome children.

Set against these two new-life-protecting proposals, the third amendment being debated comes from Labour MP Diana Johnson, who is seeking a change that will remove the current restrictions on women self-performing abortions after 24 weeks. Johnson’s proposal references the recent case of Carla Foster, who came before the courts after performing an illegal abortion on her 32 week child, after she was able to obtain abortion pills by post.

The mother of three – who was initially jailed for 28 months before an appeal reduced it to 14 – received the medication under the “pills by post” scheme, which was introduced during the Covid pandemic for pregnancies up to 10 weeks, after a remote consultation. Foster knowingly misled BPAS by saying she was below the 10-week cut off point.

Although the Foster case has brought some calls for a review and tightening of the pills-by-post scheme, pro-abortion campaigners have consistently referenced it in an apocryphal manner in their demands for a general removal from UK law of all criminal culpability relating to abortion.

Also lurking around next week’s debate is an additional – and far more ominous – amendment from a cross-party group of MPs which has been tabled by Labour MP Stella Creasy, which would not only make abortion access a ‘human right’, but would include a ‘lock’ to ensure that any future legislation and guidance could never be stripped back.

Whilst there have been concerted efforts in certain sections of society and the media to present the Johnson amendment as carrying a lot of traction, there’s noticeably less enthusiasm for the Creasy proposal, as legislators are understandably nervous about assigning an irreversible human right. What’s for certain is that the mind of a country once moving rapidly towards a secular, relativist position in which the rights of the individual were paramount and the right to choose is everything, has begun to shift.

In blunt terms few human beings would wish – or ought to wish – for the end of a life, especially before it has even begun, and advances in medical science – not only in childbirth but in the management of life-affecting conditions – have advanced to a degree that they are impacting increasingly on abortion legislation that was crafted in an entirely past generation, both technically and ideologically.

Thankfully, the social morality of the human person has also developed over the past half century, to the extent that the general public is now swinging away from endless individual rights and impositions towards a society framed far more around a mutual and humane understanding that recognises that we do not live alone, but are all members of one family and are in various ways responsible for each other.

Place this in the context of the abortion debate and there’s an increasing unease about the concept of an individual’s ‘right to choose’ when the life of another human being is being taken in the process. Far from being a finely balanced disagreement between the pro-life and pro-abortion lobbies, the underlying mood is moving towards a distinct separation of the conflicting narratives – on the one hand in a humane society all life ought to be protected at every stage of its development, but equally no person should have to suffer some of the traumas and devastation that certain circumstances around pregnancy brings.

There is an urgent need to somehow separate out the protection of human life, and the care and support for those who find themselves in impossible situations, especially surrounding pregnancy. But it should never be the case in a supposedly civilised society that removing one inhumanity could ever justify the creating of another.

Joseph Kelly is a Catholic writer and theologian

P.S. There is still time before the 15th to contact your local MP and make your views known on the abortion issue. It’s a free vote for MPs so it’s vitally important that they attend knowing – and being able to reflect – the feelings of their constituents.