When shadow Health Secretary, Dr Liam Fox appeared to suggest that the Tories should become the anti-abortion party. In 2001 Fox was quoted in the Conservative Christian Fellowship prayerbook as saying that the UK's 'pro-abortion laws' should be scrapped. In 2005 Michael Howard almost made abortion a general election issue when, towards to start of the campaign, he told Cosmopolitan magazine 'I believe abortion should be available to everyone, but the law should be changed. In the past I voted for a restriction to 22 weeks, and I would be prepared to go down to 20.'
It is because of examples like this that I am just a little sceptical about the new campaign launched yesterday by the Tory MP Nadine Dorries. A former nurse, Ms Dorries is leading a parliamentary campaign to reduce the upper limit for abortion from 24 weeks to 20 weeks when the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill is debated in the Commons later this month. The last time the law on abortion was amended was in 1990 – given the fact that both medicine and science have advanced significantly one cannot agree that a review of abortion legislation is long overdue.
At present, all legislation on abortion in Britain is considered as a matter of conscience and decided under a free vote. What worries me is that some MPs and campaigners may use the forthcoming debate as a means of polarising attitudes where the issue of abortion is seen only of terms of being a vote winner, or a vote loser. Yesterday’s Daily Mail led on the launch of Ms Dorries’ campaign and will no doubt be a strong advocate of the need for a change in the present law. Britain has a long and enviable record of allowing its elected representatives to make up their own minds in matters of conscience. The danger, as I see it, is that some of Ms Dorries’ colleagues may well be tempted to frame the debate about abortion in such a way that it heralds the first tentative steps to try and establish a political arm for the Christian right in Britain.
Ms Dorries has stated that the campaign is not a religious campaign (yet 6 out of the 10 organisations linked to it are backed by Christian evangelicals) nor, we are told, is it politically motivated. Let’s hope it stays that way.