Thursday 26 July 2012

45 years ago Dr Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, sold the pass on abortion

Today is the 45th anniversary of the Committee stage of David Steel’s Medical Termination of Pregnancy Bill in the House of Lords. Although the pro-abortion lobby were buoyed by their success on Second Reading, things did not go quite as well as they had planned when the Bill reached its Committee stage.

Although Second Reading decides the principle of the Bill, the Committee stage opens the whole Bill to scrutiny and amendment, with the Bill being debated line by line and Clause by Clause.

Two major amendments were carried by the House of Lords against the wishes of Lord Silkin (who sponsored the Bill in the Upper House) and the pro-abortion lobby.

Things got off to a ominous start for Lord Silkin and his friends in the pro-abortion lobby when an amendment moved by the former Conservative Lord Chancellor, Viscount Dilhorn, that one of the two doctors required to certify an abortion under the Bill must be employed under the National Health Service as a consultant or must be approved for this purpose by the Minister of Health or in Scotland by the Secretary of State.

Viscount Dilhorne said the amendment sought to ensure there was the right medical advice and opinions of the right medical people before the operation was performed to ensure it was performed by a person well qualified to perform it.

Lord Silkin on behalf of the sponsors of the Bill argued that in his opinion the Bill as it stood was right. Abortions, he said, could be carried out only in institutions for the purpose. He added that the previous week (during Second Reading) 123 peers had wanted the Bill passed. They approved it. He argued that, quite frankly “time is against us and if we pass any amendments of which the Commons did not approve, we have effectively killed the Bill.” The amendments had all been discussed in the Commons who had come to the conclusion as it stood in the Bill.

Silkin begged the House not to play around with it now. He was prepared, if the amendments were withdrawn, to discuss them later and see whether they could find an acceptable form of words to be moved after the summer recess. This drew a rebuke from Viscount Dilhorn who said: “the noble Lord has not promised to put in any words at all. All he has done—and he has done it before—is to say that he would consider it seriously. I am rather tired of that formula. I know the noble Lord does 'consider seriously', but nothing ever happens on this Bill after that consideration.”

Despite the opposition of Lord Silkin, the pro-abortion lobby and of the Labour Minister, the amendment was carried by 116 votes to 67.

The second amendment carried by a narrow 87 votes to 86 removed the words which permitted an abortion if the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the women’s existing children.

Viscount Dilhorn who moved the amendment said the provision was seeking to introduce as a justification for abortion a criterion wholly unrelated to the condition of the pregnant woman.

He said he found it difficult to visualise how the birth of a child could affect the physical or mental health of any existing child. Maybe little Willie would get so upset at the prospect of having a little brother or sister that his mental health would become disturbed, but that is no ground for terminating a human life.

Other amendments made on this day to the Bill included a re-writing of the conscience clause and at the request of the Home Office an amendment was carried delaying the commencement of the Bill by six months.

These two defeats led to a hysterical reaction by the pro-abortion lobby and their allies in the media who spoke of a constitutional crisis should the Lords amendments be rejected by the House of Commons.

The full debate in Committee can be seen here.

However, the story doesn't end on 26th July 1967.

During the summer recess, there was a campaign led by the pro-abortion lobby about a constitutional crisis if the House of Commons rejected the amendments and the Lords insisted on keeping them. At one point, there were even calls for the Archbishop of Canterbury to lose his Seat in the House of Lords.

During the Report stage (held on 23rd October, the first day back from the summer recess), the House of Lords reversed the two amendments to the Bill which they had approved in the Committee stage, and then went on to complete the Bill’s Third Reading.

In reversing the two amendments, they thus avoided a clash with the House of Commons which would probably have wrecked the Bill for the 1966-67 Session and could have caused - so the pro-abortion lobby argued - a constitutional crisis.

First the House of Lords defeated by 113 votes to 79 the requirement that one of the two doctors needed to agree on an abortion must be a National Health Service consultant. They had voted this amendment into the Bill in July by 116 votes to 67.

Later that day the House of Lords voted by 80 to 69 to restore the "social" clause, allowing an abortion on the grounds of injury to the health of children of the family. They had defeated this clause in July by a majority of one.

It seemed at first as if the House of Lords would stick with their amendments, led by Viscount Dilhorne, Lord Brock (president of the Royal College of Surgeons), the Marquess of Salisbury, the Earl of Longford, and the Archbishop of Canterbury (pictured above).

The first sign of weakening came when the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Ramsey, after speaking firmly against the deletion of the requirement of an NHS doctor, voted in favour of its deletion. Rebuked by Viscount Dilhorne, the Archbishop said he had been convinced by arguments during the debate and changed his mind.

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