Science and Technology Committee

No. 66 of Session 2006-07, 31 October 2007



The Science and Technology Committee today sets out its conclusions on scientific developments which ought to be considered in any new Parliamentary debate relating to the Abortion Act 1967.

The Committee decided to hold its inquiry in order to inform parliamentary and public debate after it was ruled that abortion would fall within the remit of the Human Tissue and Embryos Bill, which is likely to be presented to the House in the 2007/8 session.
The Committee makes clear that its conclusions and recommendations are restricted to those issues capable of scientific evaluation and recognises that other factors also come into play when abortion law reform is being considered by Parliament.

The Committee concludes that while survival rates at 24 weeks (the current upper limit for abortion) and over have improved since 1990, survival rates (viability) have not done so below that gestational point. The Committee concludes that there is no scientific basis - on the grounds on viability - to reduce the upper time limit.

The Committee supports the removal of the requirement for two doctors signatures before an abortion can be carried out. The Committee is concerned that the requirement for two signatures may be causing delays in access to abortion services and found no evidence of its value in terms of safety.

Nurses and midwives with suitable training and professional guidance, should not be prevented by law from carrying out all stages of early medical and early surgical abortion. The Committee says that it found there is no evidence that this would compromise patient safety or quality of care.

On the issue of foetal pain, the Committee says the evidence suggests that while foetuses have physiological reactions to stimuli, this does not indicate that pain is consciously felt, especially not below 24 weeks. It further concludes that these factors may be relevant to clinical practice but do not appear to be relevant to the question of abortion law.

While new 4D imaging techniques are a useful tool in diagnosis of foetal abnormality, there is no evidence they provide any scientific insights on the question of foetal sentience or viability.

Any debate on the impact an alteration to the upper time limit would have on those women who present late for abortion would be better informed if there was improved collection of information relating to the reasons why women come forward at this late stage and about how many women travel overseas for late abortions.

On the question of the merits of clarification or a definition of "seriously handicapped", the Committee does not consider that an exhaustive list of abnormalities is feasible, but believes that guidance on what "serious handicap" means would be helpful; and further that data collection in this area be improved.

The Committee concludes there is no evidence relating to safety, effectiveness or patient acceptability that should deter Parliament from passing regulations which would enable women, who chose to do so, taking the second stage of early medical abortion at home. The Committee would like to see the necessary legislative change that would enable this to be pursued or at least piloted.

It also recommends that the clinical guidelines on abortion provision, including health risks associated with abortion, should ultimately be taken over by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE).

Chairman of the Committee Phil Willis said: "Abortion is a complex issue. Legislative decisions are informed by ethical , moral, religious and political views, case law, scientific and medical evidence. As a Science and Technology Committee, we have focused on the science, and have done so rigorously.

"In our inquiry we have attempted to sift the evidence on scientific and medical developments since the last amendment of the law in 1990 and since the 1967 Act.

"We urge all MPs and the public to study the evidence we have taken and the conclusions we have reached."