Hunt comment signals possible change to abortion law

Louice Tapper Jansson examines Jeremy Hunts controversial remarks.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt’s recent comment on changing the law on abortion has been met with criticism from several directions. In an interview with The Times, Mr Hunt confirmed he is still convinced that the legal limit for the termination of a pregnancy should be halved from 24 weeks to 12. Although he expressed that this was a personal view, many are now worried that this could soon become government policy.

Due to the adverse reactions, Prime Minister David Cameron had to defend his party colleague. In an interview with BBC, Mr Cameron stated that “the Government has no plan at this stage to bring forward legislation in this area”. He stressed that the comment made by Mr Hunt was an individual view and that Members of Parliament should vote according to their conscience.

Mr Hunt, who has previously voted for a change to the legal limit of termination, says that abortion should not be allowed after 12 weeks. The statement is apparently based on scientific evidence and not on his personal Christian beliefs. To The Times, he explained that, “it’s just my view about the incredibly difficult question about the moment that we deem life to start”.

Much of the heavy criticism derives from the fact that Hunt was recently appointed health secretary. Many, including Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary, Yvette Cooper, are concerned that women’s health is not prioritised. She struggles to see how there is enough medical evidence to back up Mr Hunt’s statement.

Most members of the Conservative Party, including Prime Minister David Cameron, are supportive of a modest lowering of the present limit of 24 weeks. However, many Tory members are disappointed with the timing of the statement with the Conservative conference dominating the headlines. They may now have to state their views on abortion, distracting from discussions on other important issues.

Part of the issue seems to be whether Mr Hunt merely answered honestly to a question. One could ask whether it is suitable for the Health Secretary to express his own personal opinions on health when in a public role. When Mr Cameron claims that the government has no current plans of suggesting a change to the legal limit, but that he would support a modest change, he could be indirectly supporting Mr Hunt’s opinion.

As mentioned earlier, Jeremy Hunt is not the only Conservative MP who is in favour of changing the current allowance of 24 weeks. The new Culture Secretary and Women’s minister Maria Miller has stated that she would vote to lower the legal limit on abortions from 24 to 20 weeks. The Telegraph reported Ms Miller’s claims that due to developments in science, a 20 week limit would be more suitable, since doctors are able to keep a foetus alive outside of the womb after 24 weeks.

It could be problematic to refer to science without also recognising the needs of women. Clare Murphy, from the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, is concerned that a new 12 week limit would most affect vulnerable women. Although 91% of all abortions are carried out within 12 weeks, according to Ms Murphy a pregnancy sometimes is not revealed until the 20th week. Halving the legal limit would mean denying care to affected women.

A change of the legal limit might be supported by some parts of the population. In two recent surveys by YouGov and Angus Reid, it was revealed that the majority of those who voted in favour of lowering the limit were women. This could be a sign that many believe that the present 24 week legal limit is no longer reasonable. People might believe that it is now too easy to go through with an abortion. If the government wants to reduce unwanted pregnancies, more money could instead be diverted towards sex education.

According to Guardian journalist Michele Hanson, Mr Hunt is “obsessed with a silly idea” and does not know enough about the issue. Ms Hanson is convinced that any lowering to the legal limit would mean an increase of unwanted births as well as child poverty. Meanwhile, Ms Murphy is convinced that abortion is not used as contraception. She stated to the BBC that “Women are the best makers of moral decisions when it comes to abortions”.

Louice Tapper Jansson