Monday 13 July 2009

Anniversary of Commons vote for Abortion Act

Today is the forty-second anniversary of the passage by the House of Commons of David Steel’s Medical Termination of Pregnancy, which became the Abortion Act 1967. The first day of parliamentary time provided by the Labour government led to an all-night sitting when pro-life MPs fought to defeat the bill, or at least to curtail some of its more extreme provisions. This time proved to be insufficient, and so the Labour Cabinet met again on Thursday 6 July 1967 to discuss whether further Parliamentary time should be provided.

According to the note of the cabinet discussion, there seemed to be a concern, that for the government to allow yet further time for this bill would be taken by the public as implying a degree of government support for it. However, after a full discussion, the cabinet
“agreed that further Parliamentary time should be provided by the Government for the Termination of Pregnancy Bill, on the basis that this time was allowed solely in order to enable Parliament to reach a conclusion on a Bill which had attracted considerable Parliamentary support.”
As a result, on Thursday 13 July, John Silkin, the government chief whip (and son of Lord Silkin, who would subsequently sponsor the bill during its passage through the House of Lords) moved that the Medical Termination of Pregnancy bill may be proceeded with (though opposed) until any hour i.e. another open-ended debate. This motion was agreed to by 303 votes to 202.

Once again, pro-life MPs fought against all the odds to prevent the passage of this bill. Norman St John-Stevas had circulated a letter asking pro-life MPs to filibuster. Sadly, the sponsors – using a whole host of untruths and exaggerations – persuaded the House of Commons to support the bill. However, it still took an all-night sitting for the bill to complete its Report stage. At 11.45 am on Friday 14 July, MPs voted by 167 votes to 83 to give the bill a Third Reading.

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