The debate over lowering the time limit for abortions from 24 weeks could be reopened, after the health secretary became the latest cabinet minister to back a sharp tightening of the law on abortion.
In an interview with The Times, Jeremy Hunt said the limit should be cut to 12 weeks into a pregnancy but stressed that a change in the law would be a matter for a free vote in Parliament.
It follows comments by Culture Secretary Maria Miller, who has said she also believes the law should be tightened – although she backs a limit of 20 weeks.
Mr Hunt stressed that his view that the limit should be reduced was not influenced by his Christian faith.
“Everyone looks at the evidence and comes to a view about when they think that moment is and my view is that 12 weeks is the right point for it,” he said.
“It is just my view about that incredibly difficult question about the moment that we should deem life to start.
“I don’t think the reason I have that view is for religious reasons.”
Although 91 per cent of abortions take place before 12 weeks, opponents say that a 12 week limit would effectively prevent testing for conditions such as Down’s syndrome, which is usually detected from 12 weeks onwards.
Critics also claim that making the cut-off point earlier will rush women to make a decision about abortion at an earlier date, which they may come to regret.
Labour front benchers including shadow public health minister Diane Abbott and shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper were also vocal in their opposition. Ms Cooper described Mr Hunt’s remarks as “chilling”.
“Jeremy Hunt’s statements on abortion are deeply worrying and show the health secretary has given no serious consideration to women’s health,” she said.
“Everyone has personal views but as health secretary, Jeremy Hunt has a responsibility to lead government policy on women’s health. Perhaps the most chilling part of his interview is the claim that 12 weeks is based on evidence when it undoubtedly is not.
“David Cameron needs to make sure his health secretary doesn’t distort medical evidence and does not impose his own view on women about their health.”
“There is no evidence to support a reduction in the abortion time limit and this view is supported across the medical profession.
“Late abortion only affects a small number of women, who are often in extremely challenging circumstances.”
Some within the medical profession have also expressed dismay at Mr Hunt’s intervention on the eve of the Tory party conference.
Professor Wendy Savage, a gynaecologist and campaigner on women’s rights, expressed alarm at the prospect of another move to reduce the limit following the defeat in parliament of the last attempt in 2008.
“The number of abortions that take place over 20 weeks is very small. Of those a considerable proportion are of foetuses which have got a congenital abnormality,” she told Today.
“I think the majority of the population think that if somebody has got a foetus that, if born, will have a severe disability they should have the right to choose whether or not to continue with that pregnancy.”
The Department of Health said Mr Hunt was expressing a personal view and that the government’s law and policy on abortion was clear.
Like Maria Miller, who is also the minister for women, Home Secretary Theresa May has also backed a reduction of the time limit to around the 20-week mark.
But Mrs May stressed that all the ministers concerned were expressing personal views and that the government had no plans to review the 24-week time limit.
So far no other cabinet minister has backed a limit as low as 12-weeks other than Jeremy Hunt.
With Mr Hunt becoming the third cabinet minister to come out in favour of cutting the current 24-week limit, the pro-life campaign within parliament has been buoyed.
Mr Hunt’s comments were welcomed by backbenchers including Nadine Dorries, who has been campaigning for abortion reforms, Mark Pritchard, the vice chairman parliamentary pro-life group, and Daniel Kawcynski.
“There are Members of Parliament of all parties who feel very strongly that we need to change the limit,” he told the Today programme.