Abortion law has been in the news over the last few days, with Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt saying that he would personally support a significant reduction in the time limit for terminating pregnancies, from the current limit of 24 weeks to 12 weeks.
Other government figures have also set out their own views, with Prime Minister David Cameron saying that he supports a “modest reduction” from the current 24 week limit, and equalities minister Maria Miller drawing some criticism by calling for a cut to 20 weeks.
I didn’t think initially that there was any reason to think that these comments made a change in the law particularly likely. The MPs were talking about their personal beliefs, not matters of party policy, and David Cameron has stressed that the government has no plans to change to current laws. Any vote in parliament, which would be required to change the law, would be a “free vote”: one in one in which MPs are not told how to vote by their party, but instead vote according to their conscience. In the last such free vote, in 2008, MPs voted against any reduction in the current limit, by 304 votes to 233.
However, although MPs vote according to their conscience, what their conscience tells them about an issue does seem to vary markedly according to which party they belong to.
So in the 2008 vote, approximately 69% of Conservative MPs voted for a reduction to 22 weeks, while only 12% voted to keep the current 24 week limit. Amongst Labour MP these proportions were almost reversed, with 67% of Labour MPs opposing any reduction and only 17% in favour. Liberal Democrat MPs were more evenly split, with 53% for and 35% against any reduction.
Following the 2010 election, there are now more Conservatives in parliament, and fewer Labour and Lib Dem MPs. So if there were another free vote on a reduction to current abortion limit, and if the MPs within each party voted for and against a reduction in the same proportions as they did in 2008, the outcome of any vote could be quite different. If my maths are right, the numbers of MPs in the three main parties voting for and against could look something like this:For a reduction:
Lib Dem 20
Total 276Against a reduction:
Lib Dem 30
Total 240So among the 3 main parties there would be a majority in favour of a reduction, which might well increase when the votes of MPs from smaller parties are considered, as they tended to support a reduction in 2008.
Incidentally, in the 2008 vote, David Cameron voted for a reduction to 22 weeks. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and Labour Leader Ed Miliband both voted against a reduction.