This article appears in the May 1999 edition of the Catholic Medical Quarterly

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Private Members' Bills in Parliament manifest the expectations of hope over experience. The perennial apology for their lack of success is always lack of Parliamentary time. Filibustering, and the tabling of a large series of amendments by their opponents, rapidly exhaust the meagre time allotted for debate. The late Enoch Powell used to explain that without Governmental support it is almost impossible for a Private Member's Bill to become law unless it relates to some entirely uncontroversial subject which arouses little or no opposition.

As more than thirty years have gone by since the summer of 1966 when the then young Liberal MP David Steel introduced his ‘Abortion Bill’, certain glimmerings from the past may not be out of place. The list of those MPs who tabled amendments to the Abortion Act following its Royal Assent on 27th October 1967, over the succeeding years, reads like an impressive role of honour: James White, Sit William Benyon, James Corrie culminating in the last noble attempt by Lord Alton.

What indeed happened over the years was not free Parliamentary voting according to conscience but rather a mockery of it. Governments make much of the 'free votes of conscience'; and it is a good thing that MPs should be free to judge issues, where party considerations do not or ought not to apply, according to their consciences. But the appearance of freedom conceals the reality. Governments pick and chose the 'conscience' legislation they will aid. By so doing they get what they, or their departments want without having to take responsibility for it.

An interesting insight into the many sided activities of Parliament is provided by the public revelation of the papers of the Labour Cabinet of those days in 1967 under the unveiling for scrutiny of 'Thirty Year Rule'. They are examined in detail in the Winter News Letter of the Association of Lawyers for the Defence of the Unborn. Care is taken to remind younger readers who may not have been born at the time that the then Prime Minister was Harold Wilson, the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins (now Lord Jenkins), the Lord Chancellor was the late Lord Gardiner and the Lord Privy Seal was the Earl of Longford.

The greatest difficulty confronting David Steel (now Lord Steel) was the lack of time which could be allocated to a Private Member's Bill. The Labour Government of that time declared publicly that its stance and attitude towards the Bill was 'neutral'. Nevertheless the Government on at least two occasions allowed the Bill extra time for the debate.

Machinations within the Cabinet reveal that, when the Bill had reached its Committee Stage, with the Report Stage and Third Reading scheduled in a few weeks' time being a Private Members' Bill, it would not have sufficient time to complete the final stages in the House of Commons. But if Government time was provided it would clearly imply that Government, far from neutral, was in favour of the principles involved. The key role devolved on Mr. Jenkins, as Home Secretary, who submitted a memorandum on the proposed Bill to the Cabinet Legislation Committee with the concluding invitation to 'make it clear that Government time will be found'.

The memorandum, which played such an important role in the ultimate decision, contains many interesting points.

One was that the Bill intended to clarify and give statutory effect to existing case law which it erroneously stated

'permits abortions on grounds of risk to the life or health of the expectant mother'

These words were quoted, in summing up to a jury, by Mr. Justice MacNaughtan in 1939 and never formed part of a judgement of a High Court. No case law was therefore available. Thus was the Cabinet deceived.

The memorandum went on to affirm that further safeguards would be contained, not present in existing laws, that abortion would not be an offence

 ‘only if both the operating doctor and another doctor are of the opinion, formed in good faith, that one of the grounds permitted by the Bill is satisfied’.

But when the Bill became law it did not require that the operating doctor need express the needful opinion. The scandal of the Bill is that it imposed no requirement that either of the two opinion-forming doctors should have examined, or, even met, the mother whose baby is to be aborted.

The compelling reason why the Legislation Committee was urged by Mr. Jenkins to ensure that Government time should be given was contained in the final paragraph

'the arguments for and against abortion law reform and the grounds on which abortions should be statutorily permitted, have now been very fully debated in both Houses, and it would be most unfortunate if Parliament were now prevented, by shortness of time, from reaching a decision on Mr. David Steel's Bill. We should then almost certainly have to go through the same trouble again next session'.

So not only give the Bill time but hurry up and get it passed.

In the Legislation Committee the only member, with great credit, to object to the highly exceptional proposal to provide Government time to the Bill was Lord Longford.

This he did again in Cabinet, but the Bill became an Act and its law is being flouted at present right, left and centre as a matter of routine, in the opinion of a leading Consultant speaking on BBC Radio 4 (27th August 1996 ).

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Abortion Act Conscience Clause - Help Needed

Care (Christian Action Research and Education) are carrying out research into the operation of this clause on behalf of the All Party Parliamentary Pro- Life Group. They are trying to obtain information on any cases of doctors, other medical personnel, nursing staff, ancillary workers or administrative staff who have had problems with the working of this clause or where it has failed to provide adequate protection or been ignored. If members have any information which might be useful, please write to Philippa Taylor at CARE, 53, Romney Street, London SWIP 3RF.