In a nutshell
A series of votes on whether to reduce the period of time during which an abortion can legally be carried out. MPs had liberty to vote according to their conscience.
On 24 th April 1990 the House of Commons debated a series of amendments to the Abortion Act 1967 as part of its consideration of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill. One of the major changes being debated was the reduction of the maximum age at which a pregnancy could be terminated.
The Infant Life (Preservation) Act 1929 made it illegal to destroy the life of a child capable of being born alive. The act created a presumption that this point was reached at 28 weeks gestation. In order to avoid conflicting with the 1929 Act, the 1967 Abortion Act set the time limit for abortions at 28 weeks into the pregnancy. It was believed that it was impossible for a child to be born alive at such a premature stage.
However by 1990, because of significant medical advances, many babies born before 28 weeks gestation were surviving and this is why a shorter time limit for abortion was considered.
MPs were able to vote for a range of options between 18 weeks and the existing 28-week limit, but the order of the votes was made very complicated.
The 24-week limit was the proposal contained in the Bill itself and MPs voted by 411 to 154 to accept it.
Subsequently five amendments were voted on, all of which were defeated. This is the sequence of the votes taken and the record of the votes cast:
- 18 weeks: lost by 167 votes to 377
- 28 weeks: lost by 143 votes to 384
- 20 weeks: lost by 191 votes to 360
- 26 weeks: lost by 158 votes to 374
- 22 weeks: lost by 257 votes to 303
Therefore the 24-week limit now stands as law.1
How we recorded the vote
- Voted for keeping the abortion limit at 28 weeks
- Voted for reducing the abortion limit to 26 weeks
- Voted for reducing the abortion limit to 24 weeks
- Voted for reducing the abortion limit to 22 weeks
- Voted for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks
- Voted for reducing the abortion limit to 18 weeks
- Abstained or was absent on a series of votes for reducing the abortion limit from 28 weeks
- Voted against reducing the abortion limit to 24 weeks or lower, abstained or was absent on the vote keeping the abortion limit at 28 weeks and also on the vote reducing the abortion limit to 26 weeks
- Voted against reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on other votes
- Voted against reducing the abortion limit to 22 weeks or lower, abstained on other votes
- The only defensible pro-life position was to vote for 18 weeks, the lowest on offer. However voting for 20 or 22 weeks at least showed a desire for the limit to be lower than the 24 weeks contained within the Bill.
Our statement of an MP’s position describes their ‘first choice’ vote on the five amendments. Here are two examples:
- Edward Leigh voted as his ‘first choice’ for an 18-week limit. Even though he went on to support 20 and 22-week limits after the option of 18 was defeated, as an 18-week limit was his ‘first choice’, this is what we record.
- Diane Abbott voted as her ‘first choice’ to keep the 28-week limit. Even though she went on to support a 26-week limit after 28 was defeated, as a 28-week limit was her ‘first choice’, this is what we record.
Some MPs were either absent or abstained, or voted ‘No’ to all five amendments. In these cases we record how they voted on the 24-week limit. Here are two examples:
- Tony Blair voted ‘No’ to the 18, 20 and 22-week limits and was absent or abstained on the votes for the 26 and 28-week limits. However, in the first vote he supported the 24-week limit so we state that he voted for the 24-week limit.
- Kenneth Clarke voted ‘No’ to all five amendments. However, in the first vote he supported the 24-week limit so we state that he voted for the 24-week limit.
Other MPs with exceptional patterns of voting have had their actions described in the statement of their position (see panel above for all the voting patterns).
- 1Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act, 1990 Section 37