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BMJ. 2007 November 10; 335(7627): 960.
Published online 2007 November 1. doi:  10.1136/bmj.39386.700949.DB
PMCID: PMC2072044

MPs want to drop second doctor's signature for abortion

Only one doctor's permission should be necessary for a woman to have an abortion, rather than the current UK legal requirement for two, MPs have recommended.

The 24 week time limit for abortions to take place should be kept, the MPs also recommended in the newly published report from the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee on whether abortion laws need updating.

The report, which focuses on issues capable of scientific evaluation rather than ethical considerations, says that the MPs are concerned that the requirement for two signatures to allow an abortion could be causing delays in access to abortion services and found no evidence of its value in terms of safety.

The other major recommendation made in the report is that there is no scientific basis to argue for a reduction in the upper time limit for abortions. Although survival rates at 24 weeks' gestation (the current upper limit for abortion) and above have improved since 1990, they have not done so below that gestational point, it says.

The controversial nature of the subject was reflected in the fact that the committee's own MPs had opposing views, so much so that some members published their own report which took a different view.

The main report says that nurses and midwives with suitable training and professional guidance should not be prevented by law from carrying out all stages of early medical and early surgical abortion.

On the issue of fetal pain, the committee said the evidence suggested that, although fetuses have physiological reactions to stimuli, this does not indicate that pain is consciously felt, especially not below 24 weeks' gestation. The MPs also said there was no evidence relating to safety, effectiveness, or patient acceptability that should deter parliament from passing regulations to allow women who chose to do so from taking the second stage of early medical abortion at home.

Committee chairman Phil Willis, Liberal Democrat MP for Harrogate and Knaresborough, said: “Abortion is a complex issue. In our inquiry we have attempted to sift the evidence on scientific and medical developments since the last amendment of the law in 1990 and since the 1967 Act. We urge all MPs and the public to study the evidence we have taken and the conclusions we have reached.”

A contradictory second report produced by Conservative MPs on the committee says that they were misled on survival rates by witnesses who gave evidence for the inquiry and on the question of whether fetuses could feel pain.

Anne Weyman, chief executive of fpa (Family Planning Association), welcomed the main report's recommendations and said: “The evidence for a radical review of the 1967 Abortion Act to modernise abortion services is now overwhelming.”

However, national pro-life charity LIFE was less pleased, and its spokeswoman, Michaela Aston, said the committee had followed a “predetermined ideological agenda that owes very little to a careful consideration of the facts.”

The committee's report comes as the Queen's Speech, on Tuesday 6 November, is due to announce a bill looking at human embryology issues. This is likely to offer an opportunity to review the current Abortion Act, and pressure groups are calling for parliament to review the current time limit on abortions.

Further reading

The report Scientific Developments Relating to the Abortion Act 1967 can be seen at www.parliament.uk/parliamentary_committees/science_and_technology_committee.cfm


Articles from The BMJ are provided here courtesy of BMJ Publishing Group