The time limit on “social” abortions should be cut from 24 weeks to 16, a senior doctor said yesterday.
Dr Vincent Argent, who works for the country’s biggest state-funded abortion service, said there should be an earlier cut-off point in cases where the woman’s health is not seriously at risk.
Currently, 98 per cent of terminations are carried out for socalled “social reasons” – danger to the woman’s overall physical or mental health, or to the health of her other children.
Giving his personal opinion on abortion provision, the former medical director of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service said that GPs are routinely flouting the law by signing abortion consent forms without even seeing or examining patients.
In some cases, doctors rubber-stamped the forms after the termination had been performed.
The intervention of Dr Argent, one of Britain’s most respected obstetricians, is bound to pile pressure on the Government to lower the upper limit for social abortions which are carried out under clauses C and D of the 1967 Abortion Act.
In a written submission to the Commons science and technology committee, Dr Argent stated: “Recent public opinion polls suggest that the public would like to see improved and easier access for early abortion but that the upper limit should be reduced, or that later abortions should be subject to greater counselling and stricter approval criteria.
“The debate on the upper limit is often polarised between pro-choice campaigners – who would keep the limit as it is – and the anti-abortion activists who would like a drastic reduction in the upper limit.
“A pragmatic middle-of-the-road view does not have a very strong voice. In practice, it would seem reasonable to reduce the 24-week upper limit for section C and D abortions [for ‘social reasons’] to 16 weeks.”
Dr Argent did not propose imposing any time limit on abortions carried out under clauses A and B of the 1967 Act.
These cover terminations where there is a risk the mother will die or suffer a serious permanent injury.
But Dr Argent did say there were too many abortions under clause E – where the child would be born “seriously handicapped”.
He said terminations were being offered “for minor abnormalities which would not cause serious handicap … such as cleft palate and lip”.
Dr Argent also claimed many doctors “misinterpreted and abused” the requirement for two signatures before an abortion could go ahead.
He said doctors saw the consent form as “just an administrative process”.
But rather than toughening up the rules, he said only one signature should be required for abortions before 13 weeks.
He also called for nurses to be allowed to sign the forms, because “in practice, many nurses carry out the whole of early medical abortions”.
The Commons committee is examining whether the law should provide women with easier access to early abortions and whether there is any scientific case for the 24-week upper limit to be lowered.
Activists have pointed out that just 6,087 abortions were carried out between 16 and 24 weeks last year.
Julia Millington, of the ProLife Alliance, called for the two-signature law to be strictly enforced.
“Dr Argent submits that the fact that the law is being routinely flouted by doctors shows that this legal requirement should be abolished,” she said.
“Surely the appropriate response is to ensure that doctors comply with the law.”
A spokesman for Marie Stopes International, a major abortion provider, said lowering the limit “will not end demand for later abortion, but will merely increase the hardship and emotional suffering of women seeking them. Women never make the decision to terminate later in pregnancy lightly.”
One in three pregnancies in Europe ends in abortion, according to a report in The Lancet today.
But the number of terminations worldwide dropped from 46million to 42million between 1995 and 2003.