Health Secretary could back decriminalisation of abortion

Victoria Atkins
Victoria Atkins has previously supported decriminalisation - Heathcliff O'Malley for The Telegraph

The Health Secretary has indicated that she would back the decriminalisation of abortion, as MPs prepare to vote on the first major changes in the law for more than three decades.

In an interview with The Telegraph, Victoria Atkins said her voting record – she has previously supported decriminalisation, and backed buffer zones for abortion clinics – “speaks for itself.”

It comes as MPs will next month vote on two amendments that would change abortion law. One would decriminalise abortion after 24 weeks and the other would lower the legal time limit from 24 weeks to 22 weeks.

Diana Johnson, Labour chairman of the Home Affairs Committee, has tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill that would mean women would no longer be prosecuted if they ended their pregnancies beyond the 24-week legal time limit. It has so far gathered cross-party support from 20 MPs.

The second amendment, tabled by Conservative MP Caroline Ansell, would represent the first lowering of the time limit since 1990, when MPs backed reducing it from 28 weeks to 24 weeks. Her proposal is supported by a cross-party group of 25 MPs.

On Friday night, Downing Street indicated that MPs would be free to vote according to their consciences. “Abortion has always been a free vote for MPs,” a No 10 source said.

Ms Atkins said: “I’m very conscious as Health Secretary that whatever the House decides if there is a vote, my department will be the one to either maintain the status quo or to deliver change.

“And so at this stage, I’m not going to say anything publicly because I just want to see how the debate develops. But my voting record speaks for itself.”

The Telegraph understands that as the vote is a matter of conscience, the Health Secretary does not want her status as the minister responsible to influence other MPs.

A source close to the minister said: “She wants to respect the rights of MPs to make up their own minds but does not think it right in her capacity as Secretary of State to push debate in a particular direction when it’s a matter for Parliament.”

Misguided inclusivity

In her interview with The Telegraph, Ms Atkins speaks passionately about the rights of women – accusing the NHS of too often “writing women out of the conversation”.

Urging the health service to use the words “woman” and “mother”, she accused the health service of making misguided attempts at inclusivity.

Ms Atkins said it was “extraordinary” that the health service was promoting terms such as “chestfeeding”, in favour of breastfeeding, and using gender-neutral terms such as “people who have given birth” to refer to new mothers.

Last week, an NHS trust provoked fury after saying that breast milk produced by trans women who were assigned male at birth is as good for babies as that produced by a mother who has given birth.  “I’m a mum - I find it extraordinary that a trust thought this was an appropriate use of their time,” she said. “We need to be making this robust case to refuse to wipe women out of the conversation.”

“I’m very comfortable and clear that I am a woman and I would like my rights as a woman to be protected. And they will be protected by the Conservatives.”

She added: “Half the population are women. Of course the NHS should use the word ‘woman’.”

In 2018, as junior minister for women, Ms Atkins voted in favour of decriminalisation of abortion. An analysis by The Telegraph found 17 of the 22 members of Rishi Sunak’s Cabinet have previously voted for measures that favour greater liberalisation of abortion.

The MPs backing reducing the time limit to 22 weeks say the current 24-week abortion time limit is based on an outdated understanding of the viability of premature babies.

In the past decade, the survival rate for extremely premature babies born at 23 weeks doubled from two in 10 to four in 10. Some 261 babies born alive at 22 and 23 weeks in 2020 and 2021 survived to be discharged from hospital, according to research by Leicester University and Imperial College.

Twenty-two weeks is now recognised by the British Association of Perinatal Medicine as the point of viability outside of the womb and the point at which doctors are enabled to intervene to save premature babies.

Britain’s 24-week limit contrasts with most European countries where abortion is only legal on demand or social grounds up to 12 weeks of gestation. A ComRes poll in 2022 showed 60 per cent of the general public and 70 per cent of women supported a reduction in the time limit to 20 weeks.

Ms Ansell said: “The increase in survival rates for babies born at 22 and 23 weeks gestation is one of the great success stories of medical progress in recent years. More and more babies born at these ages are able to survive thanks to the hard work of neonatal teams.

“As in 1990, when our laws were last changed to reflect similar increases in survival rates, it is time our abortion time limit was updated. Our current time limit is an outlier compared with our European neighbours and my hope is this amendment will command widespread support across the House.”Her amendment is backed by Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg, the former Commons leader, Maggie Throup, former health minister, Rachael Maskell, former shadow cabinet minister, Marie Rimmer, a former shadow minister, and Miriam Cates, co-chairman of the New Conservatives group of MPs.

Professor John Wyatt,  emiritus professor of Neonatal Paediatrics at UCL, said medical advances allowing the survival of babies born at 22 or 23 weeks put politicians in the same position as 1990s when they backed reducing the limit from 28 to 24 weeks.

He said his own personal experience as a neonatal doctor had convinced him that the law needed to be changed.

“I have first hand experience that on the one hand we are able to keep babies alive from 22 to 23 weeks gestation and many of them survive and live normal and healthy lives, yet at the same time the current abortion act allows abortion to be carried out effectively at maternal request at 24 weeks gestation,” he told The Telegraph.

Speaking about the amendment that would decriminalise abortion, Ms Johnson said: “It is quite a limited amendment. It is just taking women out of the criminal justice system. One of the reasons I am really concerned about this is that there are a number of women being investigated because their pregnancies ended later on after something terrible has gone wrong.”

It is backed by MPs including Caroline Nokes, Tory chairman of the women and equalities committee, Harriet Harman, the former deputy Labour leader, Dehenna Davison, former levelling up minister, and Tracey Crouch, a former sports minister.

Abortion is still a criminal offence in England and Wales under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act, with a maximum sentence of life in jail. However, the 1967 Abortion Act provided exemptions to the 1861 act allowing abortions in certain circumstances – with the authorisation of two doctors and before 24 weeks of pregnancy except in exceptional situations.

The two doctors must be in agreement that having the baby would pose a greater risk to the physical or mental health of the woman than a termination.

Women can be jailed under the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act if they have an abortion outside those circumstances. Last year a mother of three was sent to prison for an illegal abortion, and about 100 women have faced police investigations since 2019.

Under the amendment, the 1861 law would no longer apply to women ending their own pregnancies although they would still have to abide by the requirements of the 1967 abortion act including the 24-week limit.

It would bring England and Wales into line with Northern Ireland, where abortions were decriminalised in 2019. It is backed by the Colleges of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, of GPs and of Midwives and the British Medical Association. A YouGov poll showed 55 per cent of MPs also supported the change.

The last attempt to cut the time limit on abortion was led by former Cabinet minister Nadine Dorries in 2008 with an amendment to lower it to 20 weeks. It was defeated by 332 to 190 votes with most of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet voting for the status quo. A proposal of 22 weeks debated at the same time was defeated by a narrow margin of 304 to 233 votes.

Catherine Robinson, of Right To Life UK, said: “At the moment, a baby at 22 or 23 weeks gestation could be born prematurely and have a dedicated medical team provide expert care to try to save his or her life, while another baby at the same age could have their life deliberately ended by abortion in the same hospital at the same time. This is a contradiction in UK law.

“Polling demonstrates widespread public support for a time limit reduction, with support for this reduction strongest among women”.

Remote appointments for early medical abortions were introduced as a temporary measure at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. In February 2022, Sajid Javid, then health secretary, announced that the “pills by post” system would be dismantled in England. But an amendment by a Tory peer calling for the system to remain was won. Although a free vote was held, the Government made it clear that it wanted the system abolished.

Ms Atkins was among MPs who defied government attempts to bring an end to home abortions


Victoria Atkins: ‘The Labour Party is writing women out of our vocabulary’

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