Foetal sentience committee plan branded a ploy to ‘roll back abortion rights’

The current legal limit for most abortions is 24 weeks’ gestation.

There were heated remarks in the Lords as foetal sentience was discussed
There were heated remarks in the Lords as foetal sentience was discussed (Gareth Fuller/PA)

An attempt to set up a Government-backed committee to determine the sentience of unborn babies and embryos has been branded a ploy to “roll back advances” in abortion rights.

Conservative peer Lord Moylan insisted his proposed committee did nothing to change abortion law or “impinge on the legal rights of women to terminate a pregnancy”.

His Foetal Sentience Committee Bill would require ministers to create a group tasked with providing science-based evidence and expertise about the sentience of human foetuses in light of developments in science and medicine.

But as the House of Lords began considering the Tory peer’s proposals, Labour and Lib Dem peers warned of its consequences.

The current legal limit for most abortions is 24 weeks’ gestation, with the latest advice from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists suggesting it is “unlikely” that human foetuses feel pain before 28 weeks.

But Lord Moylan sought to suggest there was some disagreement among medical professionals about this, with the British Medical Association recommending pain relief drugs are used when operations are carried out on babies in the womb.

The Tory peer said: “I think it is fair to say that there is considerable breadth of view on this question of human foetal sentience and when it kicks in.

“We would all benefit, Government would benefit, but so would all the relevant professions, from having a forum in which a clearer and more determined view and one which developed over time could be thrashed out between different medical professions.”

He also suggested there were inconsistencies between the way the UK treats animals and human foetuses, claiming that the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Act 2022 allowed for the creation of a similar committee related to animals, while recognising the sentience of mammals and some sea creatures like lobsters and octopuses.

“I would be surprised if the minister wanted to say that a human foetus should be denied the same esteem as a lobster, but in fact that is the current position,” Lord Moylan said.

He also added: “The Bill does nothing to change abortion law.

“It does nothing to change the way in which any proposed future changes to abortion law are carried out.

“It has no implications other than providing a focus for scientific knowledge on the course of legal developments relating to abortion, and it does nothing to impinge on the legal rights of women to terminate a pregnancy.”

Labour peer Baroness Kennedy of the Shaws questioned why the committee would be needed in light of existing expert medical advice.

She added: “Dark money has surged into the United Kingdom’s anti-abortion groups in recent years.

“We should be concerned about overseas political influence inside our own country, but sadly many far-right organisations are being funded by sources that come this way.”

Lord Moylan intervened to ask if he was being accused of receiving “dark money”, to which Lady Kennedy replied: “I am perfectly happy to say that some innocent dupes are used by some of these organisations that are funded in this way.”

Tory peer Baroness Lawlor then asked: “What precisely has this to do with a Bill proposing a committee of research and analysis?”

Lady Kennedy replied: “It is quite clear that the purpose of this Bill is to seek to roll back advances that have been made in relation to abortion, and to try and limit the time limits that we currently have.”

Tempers continued to flare as Conservative former MP Lord Jackson of Peterborough spoke, taking issue with Lady Kennedy’s claims about international funding.

Labour frontbencher Baroness Thornton asked the Government whips to ensure Lord Jackson refrain from “shouting you and pointing” at her colleague.

Speaking from the Lib Dem frontbenches, Baroness Barker agreed with Lady Kennedy, telling the Lords: “This is a Bill which is part of a far wider anti-gender, anti-LGBT attack on human rights, which is a campaign which is international, and which is largely put forward, but not exclusively, by national conservatives and Christian nationalists.”

Health minister Lord Markham expressed “reservations” about the Bill, and said peers could set up such a committee without Government involvement if they wished.

He said: “I fear that if the Government was to set up such a committee, immediately you get into issues of who should be on it, what is the composition of it, is it one way or the other and it would inevitably lead to a politicisation of it all.”

While he said ministers did set policy on animal welfare, he added: “The Government does not set policy with regard to foetal awareness.

“When we consider matters as sensitive as that of foetal awareness it is right that clinical policy should be reached through medical consensus amongst the professional bodies who set clinical guidelines.”