Nadine Dorries’ call for the time limit for abortions to be reduced by four weeks has provoked outrage among health care professionals.
The culture secretary argued the legal cut-off point for pregnancy terminations in the UK – which is 24 weeks – should be reduced by a month.
But the Tory MP for Mid Bedfordshire, who is also the patient safety minister, told Times Radio she is pro-choice – as well as also calling for the rule which stipulates two doctors need to consent to an abortion must be axed.
Katherine O’Brien, of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS), the UK’s leading abortion provider, told The Independent Ms Dorries’ calls to curb the abortion time limit were “abhorrent”.
She said: “It was absolutely extraordinary at a moment of huge political crisis, a cabinet member had chosen this as an opportunity to attack abortion rights.
“When the government collapses around her, she decides to attack abortion rights. It is also extraordinary as just last week Dominic Raab said abortion was a settled issue in this country yet government members in the highest offices are looking to restrict abortion.”
Ms O’Brien noted women who seek abortions after the 20-week cut-off point are “often in the most incredibly difficult of circumstances”.
She added: “They may have had a diagnosis of foetal anomaly with a very much wanted pregnancy or they may be young girls who haven’t had regular periods so don’t realise that they are pregnant.”
Ms O’Brien argued Ms Dorries’ position on the abortion time limit demonstrates “a complete lack of understanding for the reasons people have abortions post 20 weeks”.
“Nobody wants to have an abortion,” she added. “Let alone a late-term abortion that involves surgery. It is a difficult procedure. It is not something anyone wants to go through.”
Ms Dorries has repeatedly called for the time limit for abortions to be curtailed from 24 weeks down to 20 and sought to overhaul legislation to relinquish abortion providers’ part in counselling women.
Louise McCudden, of MSI Reproductive Choices UK, another leading abortion provider, said: “There is no clinical justification or evidence base for reducing the abortion time limit, and this would contradict guidance from the World Health Organisation.
“The vast majority of abortions happen under 10 weeks. The extremely rare cases that do take place over 20 weeks are usually complex and sensitive cases, such as fatal foetal abnormality or young girls who have been raped or taken a longer time to realise they were pregnant.
“Criminalising women and health providers in these situations benefits no one. Rather than restricting time limits, we should be looking at ways to better protect women and girls against our outdated abortion laws.”
A study, carried out by YouGov and MSI Reproductive Choices UK, previously found nine in 10 UK adults think women should be able to access abortion services in Britain and specifically identify as being “pro-choice”.
Commenting on Ms Dorries’ comments, Pam Lowe, a sociologist who specialises in anti-abortion activism in the UK, said: “The anti-abortion movement often focuses on issues such as reducing the time limit as a step-by-step strategy to restrict abortion more generally.”
Dr Lowe, a senior lecturer in sociology and policy at Aston University, argued this form of “tactic was successfully used by” anti-abortion groups in many states in America.
She added: “Despite what some believe, abortions later in pregnancy are not feckless decisions by irresponsible women, but usually due to circumstances outside of their control, such as a complication in pregnancy or difficulties in accessing abortion services earlier.”
While Dani Anderson, of the Abortion Support Network, insisted that “no medical basis” exists for an amendment to the legal limit for having an abortion.
“Reducing the limit will cause serious risk to women’s lives,” she added. “Second-trimester abortions are a vital part of medical care and what we need now is the decriminalisation of abortion, rather than following in America’s footsteps and restricting access even further.”
In the UK, abortions are allowed up to 23 weeks and six days of pregnancy but can be performed later if continuing with the pregnancy poses a significant risk to the life of the woman or there are serious foetal abnormalities.
Abortions are still deemed a criminal act in England, Scotland and Wales under the 1967 Abortion Act. If any medical professional delivers an abortion out of the terms of the act, they are at risk of facing criminal punishment.
Legislation passed in 1861 means any woman who ends a pregnancy without getting legal permission from two doctors, who must agree continuing with it would be risky for the woman’s physical or mental health, can face up to life imprisonment. But abortion providers, charities, medical bodies, and MPs have spent years demanding abortion is decriminalised in the UK.
The criticism levied at Ms Dorries comes after the US Supreme Court dismantled Roe v Wade – the landmark decision that legalised abortion nationwide in 1973 – at the end of last month.