June 21, 2006

Church leader urges Britain to change abortion law

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) - The head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales urged the British government on Wednesday to order a complete review of abortion laws in the light of advances in medical science.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor pressed Health Secretary Patricia Hewitt to consider whether the 24-week limit on abortions could be cut, his spokesman said.

"The 1967 act needs to be looked at again in the light of recent changes in science and women's experiences, and in the light of public opinion," the spokesman said.

Britain made abortion legal in 1967 and the 24-week limit was set in 1990. This compares to a limit of between 12 and 14 weeks for France, Germany and Italy, and no limit in Australia.

The Vatican last year criticized Catholics who supported abortion rights and insisted they back the church's teaching that life begins at conception and abortion is murder.

In the United States, where abortion was legalized in the 1970s but moves to ban the procedure are gathering pace in several states, the Catholic community was divided last year over whether to support presidential candidate John Kerry, himself a Catholic who supported abortion rights.

A debate on whether the British limit should be reduced was fueled in 2004 when doctors released dramatic new ultrasound pictures of a 12-week-old fetus apparently sucking its thumb and taking its first steps in the womb.

"We are dealing here with human beings and to simply say 'it's inconvenient, I want to get rid of this child on social grounds', is becoming increasingly unacceptable," Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff Peter Smith said.

Advances in obstetric and neonatal care mean doctors are better able to understand infant illnesses and are increasingly able to save the lives of very premature babies born as early as 22 weeks into a pregnancy.

Hewitt has already said she does not support changing the time limit. A Department of Health spokesman confirmed Hewitt was meeting the cardinal but added: "The government has no plans to change the law on abortion."

A MORI poll in January showed that 47 percent of British women think the legal limit for abortion should be cut from 24 weeks and 10 percent think it should be outlawed altogether.