London (CNSNews.com) - Pro-life activists in Britain suffered a setback on Tuesday night when parliament rejected attempts to tighten abortion laws. This is the latest in a string of votes on controversial ethical issues.
The House of Commons voted 304-233 against cutting the legal time limit for most abortions from 24 weeks' gestation -- one of the highest in Europe -- to 22 weeks. Votes earlier in the day to lower the gestational age limit for legal abortion to 20, 16 and 12 weeks were defeated by larger margins.
Britain has not changed its abortion laws since 1990, and religious leaders had joined with some pro-life groups in a major campaign to lower the limit, arguing that advances in neonatal care meant that babies born at 22 weeks now have a decent chance of survival.
(Since 1990, abortion has been allowed right up to birth in certain circumstances, such as where there is evidence that the unborn child is seriously handicapped.)
Some pro-life campaigners have cautioned against initiatives to lower the limit, arguing that given a large pro-abortion majority in parliament, the efforts could backfire and result in a further liberalization of the current laws.
The vote was part of the larger debate over the controversial Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill, a sweeping revision of laws dealing with genetic research and fertility treatment.
Despite the outcome of the votes, pro-life members of parliament argued that public opinion was swinging to their side. Citing recent polls that showed a majority of women wanted a reduction in the time limit, they argued that the mood in the country was changing.
Conservative Party lawmaker Edward Leigh said the pro-choice lobby "dominates the establishment" but something had to be done about the roughly 200,000 abortions performed each year.
"In modern Britain, the most dangerous place to be is in your mother's womb," he said.
But Christine McCafferty, a Labor MP, said putting restrictions on women who had made the already difficult decision to have an abortion was cruel. "Support the status quo if you're pro-humanity," she urged members.
Although Prime Minister Gordon Brown said this week he favored keeping the 24-week limit, his Labor Party, like the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, allowed its members to "vote their conscience."
Louise Hutchins, a spokeswoman for the national lobby group Abortion Rights, late Tuesday welcomed the vote, and said the group would now fight to make abortions easier and quicker to obtain for all women in Britain.
In another vote on a contentious issue Tuesday, the House of Commons passed a measure making in-vitro fertilization easier for lesbian couples.
Current law mandates that fertility clinics consider the need for a father when screening potential mothers but wording in the Human Fertilization and Embryology Bill will change this to a requirement for "supportive parenting."
Conservative MPs argued that children need fathers around for their psychological development and to provide good role models. The government argued that the existing clause discriminated against lesbian couples.
Crowds of supporters on both sides of the issue demonstrated nosily outside parliament for much of the debate, with reverberations still echoing from two equally heated votes relating to the embryology bill from the previous day.
On Monday, the House of Commons voted to legalize the creation in medical clinics of part-human part-animal hybrid embryos. An amendment to ban hybrids was defeated by a 336-176 margin.
The law will allow scientists to insert human DNA into the hollowed-out egg of an animal such as cow, creating an embryo that will provide stem cells before being destroyed after no more than 14 days.
The aim is to ensure that scientists, currently hampered by a shortage of human eggs, have access to a larger supply of embryonic stem cells for research purposes.
Proponents of embryonic stem cells research say the cells could someday provide treatments or cures for debilitating diseases.
Opponents argue that stem cells from non-embryonic sources should be used instead, and that recent advances have moreover made the embryonic route unnecessary.
British MPs on Monday also approved the creation of so-called "savior siblings" - embryos created specifically so that the resulting IVF baby can be a donor of bone morrow and other tissue for older brothers and sisters with genetic-based diseases. A bid to ban the procedure failed by 342 votes to 163.
Andrea Minichiello Williams, a spokeswoman for Christian Concern for our Nation, said Monday's two votes marked a key turning point in British history.
"It was a disappointment," she said. "I think we crossed a line."
Vote Against Embryonic Cloning Seen as Sign of Shifting Debate (May 08, 2008)
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