The key architect of England’s 1967 abortion legislation – Lord Steel of the Liberal Democrats – has told the News Letter he still believes there are too many abortions taking place in Great Britain under the law he spearheaded.
He was speaking after MPs voted to relax abortion legislation in NI, where it is currently only legal if there is a risk to a woman’s health. In England it is legal up to 24 weeks if signed off by two doctors.
I still think there are too many, and [that it is] wrong to use abortion as contraception.Lord Steel
Speaking to Lord Steel, the News Letter discussed his more recent reflections on his 1967 act. In 2004 he advocated “reform” and was “increasingly drawn” to a more restrictive 22-week limit.
In 2007, he said that abortion was being used as a form of contraception and admitted he never anticipated “anything like” the current number of terminations when he was framing the 1967 Act.
“Everybody can agree that there are too many abortions,” he said, as he called for better sex education and access to contraceptive advice, and a debate on morality, to bring the numbers down.
He added at that time: “I accept that there is a mood now which is that if things go wrong you can get an abortion, and it is irresponsible, really. I think people should be a bit more responsible in their activities, and in particular in the use of contraception.”
Then in 2017 he called for decriminalisation, which critics believe would lead to an end to all restrictions and a surge in abortion rates.
But asked to explain why his position appears to have changed so significantly from 2004-2017, he affirmed his view that there are still too many abortions taking place today – almost 200,700 in England and Wales last year.
“I still think there are too many, and [that it is] wrong to use abortion as contraception,” he told the News Letter. “So no contradiction!”
Asked to reflect on his criticim of his own law and what shape he thought NI legislation should take, he replied: “I imagine the Commons will wish to update the 1967 legislation.”
Also asked if he supported the MPs’ vote to relax NI abortion legislation, he replied: “Yes, it’s long overdue.
“Though Jeremy Hunt and Nicola Sturgeon both recently allowed NI women access to NHS facilities [for abortions in GB], that was still expensive and inconvenient.”
NHS figures show there were almost 200,700 abortions last year in England and Wales, an increase of almost 1% on the year previous.
Two per cent were were due to the risk of “a seriously handicapped” child.
The figures also showed that 39% of women who had an abortion had already had one or more previous abortions, an an increase of 6% since 2008.
The NHS says that over past ten years abortion has decreased among minors but increased for women over 35.
David Smyth of the Evangelical Alliance agreed that there are too many abortions and that is “wrong” to use it as contraception. “When we say this we are deemed to be judgmental and ‘anti-women’, yet we share this common ground view with the very person who introduced the 1967 Abortion Act,” he said.
The peer’s act has led to an ideology, he claimed, which holds that women “cannot be free” unless they can access abortion “for any reason at any stage up to birth”.
Nola Leach, chief executive of pro-life charity CARE, also agreed that Lord Steel “is right when he says abortion has become a form of contraception and that there are too many abortions”.
She added: “Since 1967 there have been more than nine million abortions in GB. This is not in the best interests of the mother or the baby.”
The MPs’ vote, she said, will lead to “the removal of all safeguards for NI babies up to 28 weeks” which she said was “even worse” than in GB.
But pro-choice campaigner Goretti Horgan said it was “scaremongering” to say decriminalisation would lead to “abortions up to birth”; instead, it would simply be regulated like other healthcare.
There is “no evidence” of it being used as contraception, she said, but abortion clinics are reporting increased demand among women who are struggling financially since welfare reform.
Pro-life campaigner Bernie Smyth of Precious Life, said: “If Lord David Steel acknowledges that there have been too many abortions taking place in Britain under the 1967 law of which he was the architect, then he must be responsible for challenging it.
“Instead, it is outrageous that he supports forcing abortion onto many more innocent and voiceless unborn children in Northern Ireland through cruel and extreme abortion legislation from Westminster.”
Amnesty International NI was also invited to comment.