Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Cabinet papers: Abortion Act

In December last year, more than 500,000 Cabinet papers from 1915 to 1977 were put online for the first time by the National Archives. Previously, I think, people had to go to somewhere in London and trawl through mountains of documents. Among the documents I have researched so far are cabinet papers in the lead up to one of the darkest days in British history, the passing of the Abortion Act in October 1967.


The search engine and downloading procedure is a faff. You have to give your email address for each document, add it to a basket and then "buy" it, although it doesn't actually cost anything. The information comes in PDF format but text from the early part of the century is not selectable so you have to skim read the whole document to find the reference you are looking for. But some of the content itself is revealing.


On May 31 1967, there is a confidential memorandum prepared by Roy Jenkins, the then Secretary of State for the Home Department, on David Steel's "Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill". In it, he urges his colleagues to agree that the private members' bill be granted government time to be debated, a clear indication, it seems, that a number in the cabinet wanted the law on abortion to be relaxed.

The memo states:
It seems clear from the volume of amendments that the report stage of the Bill will not be completed during Private Member's time on 2nd June, and that Government time should be given to enable decisions to be reached. I invite the Cabinet to agree that we should, if necessary, make it clear that Government time will be found.
At that stage, from what I can gather, the Bill was an early draft to what was actually passed in the October of that year. There is no mention of any time limits at this stage. It's horrific to even think that, at one stage, the Bill was drafted by supporters with no restrictions on the time limit. There was also an attempt to allow abortions on the grounds of "injury to well-being" as well as health.

In these papers, it mentions the only two grounds (after some proposed amendments) would be:
- risk to the life of the mother or injury to the physical or mental health of the women or any existing children

- and the serious handicap clause

In the end, as we know, several clauses were added to these and the Bill has horrifyingly become much wider in scope. Even at this time some five months before the Bill was passed by parliament, Mr Jenkins was saying:
The Bill will contain safeguards which are not in the existing law. A termination of pregnancy will be lawful only if both the operating doctor and another doctor are of the opinion, formed in good faith, that one of the grounds permitted by the Bill is satisfied; the operation may be performed only in a National Health Service hospital or in a place approved by the Minister of Health or the Secretary of State for Scotland; and notice of the operation must be given to the chief medical officer of the Ministry of Health or the Scottish Home and Health Department.

The Minister of Health and I are satisfied that, with these safeguards, the Bill, with the proposed amended grounds for abortion, and with other more technical amendments I have suggested to Mr. Steel will be in a workable form.

...it would be most unfortunate if Parliament were now prevented, by shortness of time, from reaching decisions on Mr. Steel's Bill. We should then almost certainly have to go through the same trouble again next session.
Draw your own conclusions, but, it seems, government ministers were in collusion with David Steel about finding time for this Bill to be debated. Remember that most private members bills fail because they run out of time. But killing unborn children seems to be the issue the Harold Wilson government seems to be keen on giving time to.

In the minutes of the actual Cabinet meeting on June 1 1967, the Lord Privy Seal questioned whether to make Government time available was compatible with the attitude of neutrality towards the principle of abortion that the government had adopted. The minutes go on to outline the Lord Privy Seal's argument:

Recent articles in the Press suggesting that the Government proposed to "come to the rescue" of the Bill and to " defeat a filibuster " had created an impression of Government support which would be confirmed in the public mind if Government facilities were now given. This might do harm to the Governments reputation with considerable sections of public opinion which were by no means wholly Roman Catholic, as was illustrated by the collection of 500,000 signatures to a petition against the Bill which had been organised by a non-Roman Catholic Committee.

He also said the inclusion of risk of deformity in the child among the grounds for abortion had been criticised by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York. But describing further discussion among members, the minutes say the Bill “dealt with an important issue on which public opinion was much concerned” and that Government time should be given. It was agreed to arrange for Government time on one evening after 7pm to be made available to the sponsors of the Bill. And we all know what happened in the Autumn of that year…

It’s a pity the cabinet papers currently available only go up to 1977, eight years before I was born and before the amendments to the Abortion Act in 1990 and the legalisation on human embryo experimentation. If these are the actions of the Wilson government, Lord knows what we’ll read in cabinet minutes from the Blair and Brown Governments when the become available decades down the line…

More tales from cabinet meetings to come.

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