Abortion: we need compassion, not dogma

At least New Statesman readers cannot say they weren't warned. In a cover story last November, Cristina Odone, then our deputy editor, wrote that US-style "moral majority politics" was coming here. Since then, a play that Sikhs disliked has been taken off stage in Birmingham and BBC executives have been berated for screening Jerry Springer: the opera. Now the movement that contentiously calls itself "pro-life" (but is rarely in the forefront of protests against, say, the deaths of Iraqi children from British and US bombing) has the bit between its teeth, and is being cheered on by the ayatollahs of Middle England, the editors of the Daily Mail. The spark was Michael Howard saying in an interview that "I personally" would prefer the legal time limit for abortions to be cut from 24 to 20 weeks. Mr Howard has since said this is not Tory policy and he did not intend it to become an election issue. But Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, has said abortion is indeed "a key issue" for Catholics and helpfully reminded his working-class followers that the Labour Party ain't what it used to be. Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

Two things need to be made clear. First, "pro-life" campaigners and Catholic priests are not moved by evidence that advances in medical technology allow premature babies to survive at earlier stages of pregnancy than previously thought possible. They oppose all abortion, and their aim is to stop it completely. Their concern is not to save the 3,000 "lives" terminated annually between 20 and 24 weeks, but to use a lower limit as a stepping stone to an outright ban. Second, a Conservative majority in the House of Commons would almost certainly lead eventually to a reduction in the time limit. Just as it needed a Labour majority to bring about the Abortion Act 1967, even though it was a free, unwhipped vote, so it needs a Tory one to modify it, as happened in 1991 and could happen again in, say, 2008. Emboldened by success on this issue, the moralists could well go on to challenge other aspects of the 1960s social settlement, on homosexuality and artistic censorship, for example. The left's "cultural" victory could turn into a defeat, to go alongside its economic defeat. Anyone tempted to cast a "protest" vote that could put a Tory into parliament should bear this in mind.

Pictures of healthy, much-loved children born at 23 or even 22 weeks ("haunting stories" as the Mail headlines them) are irrelevant. Nothing ever threatened those children except the limits of medical science. Their mothers had every right to bear them and every right to expect the most advanced techniques to be used to keep them alive. Nobody would quote to them the burden that premature babies can impose on the NHS and other services, both in the weeks after delivery and, given their higher than average level of severe disability, in the long term. The mothers' wishes are quite properly treated as paramount, and so should the wishes of women who prefer not to have children - though, in practice (see page 14), they find it increasingly hard to get a late abortion. A high proportion of those who seek one are teenagers, older women near the menopause, or women unexpectedly deserted by their partner. All these groups are likely to find motherhood difficult and demanding even in the best of circumstances.

The pro-life lobby is driven not by compassion for helpless babies - still less for women - but by moral or theological dogma. It is indifferent to the needs of the individual. No-body forces its members to have abortions, or to perform them. The pro-life lobby should not be allowed to force other people to have babies they don't want.

Four cheers for Gordon

The most cogent argument against Tony Blair stepping aside so that Gordon Brown can become Prime Minister is that the country would then need a new chancellor. The longer Mr Brown goes on, the more nervous one becomes about a successor. It is not just that the present incumbent has been focused on a few simple goals to a quite extraordinary degree (as Donald Hirsch details on page 12), it is also that his handling of the economy and the public finances has defied the experts. The OECD and the European Commission warned that public borrowing would run out of control; august bodies such as the Institute for Fiscal Studies have been predicting rises in the standard rate of income tax since 2001. All have proved to be wrong. Once more, Michael Howard denounced what he called a "pay later" budget. If only all bills took so long to arrive.

Not that Mr Brown is a perfect chancellor of the exchequer. He has completely ducked tax reform. He has failed to consider land tax, shied away from fundamental changes in inheritance tax, and made no sustained attempt to tackle "non-dom" status and other devices by which the stinking rich avoid tax. He could have gone much further in using tax to achieve green goals. He seems content to let the childless, workless poor go to hell in a handcart. His proliferating public service targets and his approach to local government finance betray the old Treasury faults of excessive centralisation.

But Mr Brown's four top priorities - more money for children and poor pensioners, more spending on education and health - are beyond reproach for a social-democratic administration. In other areas, his Budget measures can be erratic, bordering on the capricious, as if he had neglected to pay proper attention to them. Who cares? For nearly a century, people have been voting Labour in the hope of getting those four things. No other chancellor has pursued them so single-mindedly or delivered them so spectacularly.

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