.- Two Catholic Church leaders have urged the British government to review the 1967 Abortion Act and to establish a bioethics commission to evaluate the ethics of new technologies.
Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, in a private meeting June 21 with Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt, said it was time for Parliament to re-examine its abortion laws in light of a recent newspaper poll that indicates the majority of British women support a tightening of abortion laws in the country, to make it harder to terminate a pregnancy.
47 percent of women polled supported limiting abortions prior to the current limit of 24 weeks; another 10 percent were opposed to abortion under any circumstances, reported the London Times.
“There is substantial and growing disquiet in Britain at the numbers of abortions. Our laws should reflect this disquiet,” he said, according to a statement from the archdiocese.
The cardinal also urged Hewitt to back his call for a national bioethics commission. He said the current mechanisms are inadequate for dealing with ethical dilemmas posed by new technologies, such as embryonic stem-cell research and genetic screening of embryos used for in vitro fertilization.
Currently, research licenses are being distributed by regulatory bodies after they deliberate on ethical questions behind closed doors.
“There is public disquiet at the lack of openness and consultation over important ethical issues affecting the future of society,” said the cardinal. “The public need greater assurance that these big issues are being given adequate attention and not decided by unaccountable bodies.”
“We need greater public involvement,” he continued. “Science is speeding ahead of our capacity for reflection. We need a far broader public debate about these vital questions, which touch on the very origin and sanctity of life.”
Hewitt told the London Times after the meeting she had with Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor that she had no intention of reviewing the abortion laws at present.
Cardinal Keith O'Brien, head of the Catholic Church in Scotland, also urged Prime Minister Tony Blair to review the 1967 Abortion Act and encouraged a public and private debate this year, reported the Herald. He is also considering plans to write to every Catholic priest in Scotland to urge their parishioners to lobby their Members of Parliament on the abortion issue.
However, according to the Herald report, Blair told Cardinal O’Brien that he accepted the case for a public debate since so much had changed in 40 years and there was a sense public opinion had shifted, but that new legislation would not be directly introduced by his government.
Legislation may, however, be raised by individual MP’s. Some politicians have argued that the time limit for abortions should be reduced in the light of medical advances which have made it possible for up to 39 per cent fetuses born at 24 weeks to survive. About 124 fetuses were aborted at the 24-week stage in 2004, reported the Times.
Department of Health statistics for women resident in England and Wales show that in 2004 the total number of abortions was 185,400, compared with 181,600 in 2003. The vast majority - 88 per cent - were carried out at under 13 weeks gestation.
The prelates, however, made clear that they are promoting debate upon the issue in general, not simply supporting the reduction of the time limit on abortions. “Whilst I would welcome any move to reduce the number of abortions in Britain,” the Cardinal said, “the Church will continue to state that abortion is the wrongful taking of human life.”