On Sunday, June 9, the foreign secretary and Conservative leadership candidate Jeremy Hunt told Sky News’ Sophie Ridge that he maintains his personal support for lowering the abortion ban in Great Britain from 24- to 12-weeks and that he would vote for a private member’s bill to this effect if one were brought forth while he was leader. While he later clarified that he would not bring forward government legislation to change the country’s abortion law, his statements raised alarm bells with many pro-choice advocates.
Hunt had last spoken publicly about his views on abortion in a 2012 Sunday Times interview, when the issue was in the headlines in as the result of Conservative MP Nadine Dorries’ unsuccessful attempt to bring forth legislation to lower the time-limit on abortions from 24-weeks to 20. Only two other Cabinet ministers voiced their public support for Dorries’ proposal: the Women’s Minister Maria Miller and the Home Secretary Theresa May. (Neither May nor Miller supported a reduction to 12-weeks.)
In 2008, Hunt, May and Miller had all voted for legislation to lower the limit on abortions from 24 to 20 weeks. The vote, which lost by 331 to 190, was, like all votes on abortion in the House of Commons, a “free vote,” where members were not whipped for or against the legislation. It nonetheless broke down along clear party lines: 43 Labour MPs voted in favour, with 246 Labour MPs against the change. In contrast, only 35 Tory MPs opposed the legislation, with 118 — including not only Hunt, May and Miller, but also party leader and future prime minister David Cameron — supporting the change.
In light of the recent history, two questions are worth asking: is abortion in Britain a party issue? And why has the furore over Hunt’s support for changing the law on abortion been so much greater than that raised by the two previous prime ministers’ similar personal commitments to rolling back abortion rights?
The answer to the first question has been the subject of significant historical debate. Officially, abortion has remained largely outside the scope of party politics. The 1967 Abortion Act, which sanctioned abortion up to twenty-eight weeks to protect the physical or mental health of the mother, had broad cross-party support. The Act began its life as a private member’s bill, put forth by the Liberal MP David Steel. Although the Labour government officially remained neutral, the Home Secretary Roy Jenkins spoke passionately in its favour, and the bill passed its second reading by 223 votes to 29.
The Wilson government’s precedent of remaining neutral on abortion has been followed by successive administrations. In 1979, Thatcher personally abstained from voting on a private member’s bill put forth by Conservative MP John Corrie, which would have limited abortions to 20 weeks. Beatrix Campbell, author of Iron Ladies: Why Do Women Vote Tory? saw in Thatcher’s stance a reflection of the wider attitudes of Tory women, which, she argued, were more supportive of abortion rights than previously assumed. Lawrence Black, in contrast, has underscored the strength of pro-life and broader moralistic politics within the Conservative Party at this period, but argued that Thatcher’s libertarianism made her reluctant to turn to the state as an enforcer of moral values.
Nine years later, Thatcher again abstained on a private members’ bill put forth by the Liberal MP John Alton that would have curtailed the window for abortions even further, to 18 weeks. However, this time around she publicly indicated that she would personally support a 24-week ban on the procedure. Her statement reflected a broader shift in attitudes towards abortion on both sides of the chamber – a reflection of advances in neo-natal medicine which now made it possible for babies born at 24-weeks to survive outside the womb.
Alton’s bill passed its second reading, but was quietly moth-balled by the government. However, it led to the creation of a select committee to consider the continued relevance of the 1929 Infant Life (Preservation) Act, which had defined fetal viability at 28-weeks and had been used to justify the cut-off period in the 1967 bill. The committee argued that advances in fetal medicine made this sixty-year old act irrelevant, and led to the decision to table amendments to the 1990 Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act which would remove references to the IL(P)A in determining the cut off for abortion, and replace these with a fixed time limit.
MPs, after a series of free votes, passed a new 24-week limit by 335 to 149. Ironically, the bill also increased the age under which abortions could be carried out in certain circumstances, lifting any time limits on procedures carried out to protect the life of the mother, or in the case of a substantial risk of serious foetal abnormality (although this last measure was passed on a comparatively narrow margin of 277 to 210).
The above history suggests that abortion law was not, before 1990, a party-political issue. But has it now become one? While recent polling suggests that public attitudes towards abortion are not correlated to party affiliation, the party skew in the 2008 vote results indicated that there was much stronger support for curtailing abortion access within the Conservative party than in Labour. A similar skew was evident in the voting on an amendment to the Serious Crime Bill in 2015 which would have criminalized abortions on the grounds of sex selection Here, Labour MPs voted 178-27 against; Conservative MPs voted 149-77 in favour. Yet, it was support from Conservative MPs – including those such as Leadsom and Miller who had previously supported lowing the limit on when abortions could be performed — for the private member’s bill put forth by the Labour MP Stella Creasy to allow women from Northern Ireland access to free abortions on the NHS which forced the government to change its position on the issue.
May’s government, which is propped up by the pro-life Democratic Unionist Party, has refused to take direct action to overturn Northern Ireland’s draconian abortion law, which limits abortions to instances when there is a risk to the life of the mother, or a serious risk to her physical or mental health. It’s a pragmatic stance, but one which has come under censure from MPs across the political spectrum.
Here, perhaps, lies the clue to the greater furore raised over Hunt’s support of a twelve-week ban than by Cameron and May’s earlier support for a more modest roll-back.
In the US, access to abortion – like the right to bear arms – is seen as an existential battle, where any move in one direction is the beginning of a slippery slope toward prohibition or the first of a death by a thousand cuts. In Britain, in contrast, even pro-choice advocates are apparently willing to tolerate some degree of disagreement over the limits of abortion access without fearing that women’s right to choose an abortion is seriously under threat. What they are not prepared to do is to accept that a woman should not be able to make a real choice about whether or not to carry pregnancy to term. In a country in which most women do not have their first ultrasound scan until 12-weeks gestation, Hunt’s position seems to many to come too close to denying women that access to informed choice, and puts him firmly beyond the pale.
Laura Beers (@Fiery_Particle) is Associate Professor of British History at American University, in Washington, DC. She is the author, most recently, of Red Ellen: The Life of Ellen Wilkinson, Socialist, Feminist, Internationalist (Harvard, 2016). She is currently researching a book on the politics of infertility research and treatment in modern Britain.