Jeremy Hunt has no evidence for his abortion stance

Health Secretary says 24-week limit should be halved to 12 weeks. But where's his evidence?

Jeremy Hunt appears intent on proving as controversial in his new job as he did in his old one. In his first newspaper interview since becoming Health Secretary, Hunt declares his support for halving the legal time limit for women to have abortions, from 24 weeks to 12. He tells the Times (£):

I'm not someone who thinks that abortion should be made illegal. Everyone looks at the evidence and comes to a view about when that moment is and my own view is that 12 weeks is the right point for it.

It’s just my view about that incredibly difficult question about the moment that we should deem life to start. I don’t think the reason I have that view is for religious reasons.

Hunt voted in favour of a 12-week limit in 2008, so this isn't the first time he's expressed his views on the subject, but his promotion to Health Secretary means they have taken on a new significance. Downing Street has emphasised that Hunt was expressing a personal view and that it has no plans to change the current law, something that would require a free vote by MPs. But at the very least, Hunt's status as Health Secretary affords him a powerful platform to argue for a lower limit and, upsetting the Tories' pre-conference preparations, he has chosen to do so.

In response, health professionals have warned that a 12-week limit would effectively end testing for conditions such as Down’s syndrome and force women into having terminations before they are ready. Just eight per cent of abortions currently take place after 12 weeks.  Kate Guthrie, spokeswoman for the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, told the Times:

If everybody had to have abortions by 12 weeks, my worry would be that women would be rushed into making decisions: ‘I have to have an abortion now or I can’t have one.’ That’s an absolute shocker. You will absolutely create mental health problems if you start dragooning women into making decisions before they have to.

The paper's columnist Alice Thomson points out (£):

The vast majority of those whose abortions take place after 12 weeks have a good reason for the delay and are the most complicated cases. It’s the women who have abortions before 12 weeks who tend to be more likely to be using abortion as a lazy contraception. The cases after 12 weeks tend to be young girls who didn’t realise they were pregnant or suspected that they were but were too afraid to discuss it, or women in their late 40s who believed they were menopausal and are worried about the risks of late motherhood.

One searches in vain for any consideration of these points by Hunt or any "evidence" in favour of a 12-week limit. The Health Secretary is entitled to his views - would we rather he concealed them? - but he will be judged accordingly.

Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt said "my own view is that 12 weeks is the right point for it". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.