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Brittania rules again

International | British Prime Minister Blair calls abortion a personal matter, but members of his government are laboring to export into Ireland and Scotland a liberalized abortion law

Issue: "Paying with your life," April 4, 1998

Short of revelations about alleged offspring of Dodi Fayed or assertions from the bodyguard of Princess Diana's crumpled car, the Fleet Street press is still reeling from the demise of its most sensational news item. So much so that when British Prime Minister Tony Blair attended Roman Catholic mass-alone-several weeks ago, it went front page.

Mr. Blair is often seen entering Westminster Cathedral with his family. His wife Cherie is Catholic. The fact that he went unaccompanied, however, raised questions: Was the Anglican prime minister contemplating a conversion? Would a change of religious affiliation precipitate constitutional problems for the state-established Church of England? Would such a change provoke any personal change of heart? "If he did convert to Catholicism, he would have to review his positions on a whole range of ethical issues to conform to the church's teaching," said Martin Casey of Britain's Society for the Protection of Unborn Children.

Chief among Mr. Blair's disagreements with the Catholic church-as well as with others-are his views on abortion.

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Mr. Blair has expressed personal opposition to abortion while refusing to consider changes to Britain's 30-year-old law allowing it. When Cardinal Basil Hume, leader of the Roman Catholic church in England and Wales, challenged Mr. Blair last year to convince his party and the nation that "abortion is wrong," Mr. Blair answered that it was not his responsibility.

On national television, Mr. Hume said: "My message to Tony Blair would be, 'You are a man of integrity and you see things clearly. You should give leadership within your party and try to convince them that abortion is wrong and that we ought, as a nation, to do something about it.'"

Mr. Blair replied through his Downing Street spokesman: "We have made it clear that it is a matter for the conscience of individual MPs [Members of Parliament]. It would be improper for a governing party to impose its will."

Britain's 1967 abortion law allows for abortion during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy and with written permission of two doctors. Those stipulations are easily circumvented, by most reports, and British women currently abort 470 babies a day.

Since Mr. Blair became a Member of Parliament in 1983, he has never voted to restrict abortion; on several occasions he voted to liberalize the practice. All this at the same time he has spoken openly about his Christianity and its relevance to public-policy decisions. Mr. Blair voted in favor of a 1990 proposal to allow abortion up to the time of birth if the baby was handicapped. In conjunction with the same measure, he supported an amendment that required only one doctor to give permission for an abortion performed in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy.

Conservative Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major were not much kinder to pro-life forces and unborn children. It was nonetheless a setback when the Labor Party ousted Tories in 1997 and Mr. Blair became prime minister. Seventy-eight pro-life MPs lost their seats. Crucial cabinet posts went to pro-abortion advocates, including Health Secretary Frank Dobson and Northern Ireland Secretary Mo Mowlam. A survey found that 15 of 22 members of the Blair cabinet support abortion on demand during the first trimester. Curiously, their view contrasts with a majority of British women who say abortion has become too easy. A Gallup poll found that 60 percent of women favor a tightening of abortion laws to cut the limit for having abortions from 24 to 10 weeks.

What these Labor lawmakers want to do with their leadership status is export a liberalized abortion policy to two divisions of the UK traditionally opposed to abortion: Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Last September, Scotland voted by referendum in favor of a Blair proposal to restore the Scottish Parliament, a lawmaking body that is separate but not entirely independent of London. Scottish voters will elect that parliament in May 1999. Debate continues in London over which functions will be devolved to the Scottish Parliament. In spite of an agreement to hand over both health and criminal law matters, Labor government officials have said they want to retain control of abortion policy in Scotland. Ironically, Britain's 1967 abortion law was introduced by a Scottish MP, David Steel, the son of a Presbyterian minister.

Labor MPs are "in a muddle," said Mr. Casey. To deny Scotland's prerogative on an important issue like abortion could make the Scottish Parliament look like a paper tiger. Handing over the abortion issue, however, would likely lead to a law in Scotland restricting abortion, given that it is an area where both Protestant and Catholic influence is strong. That would correspondingly weaken the Blair government's effort to overcome opposition to abortion in Northern Ireland. If Scotland gets to decide, Belfast voters will wonder, why can't they?

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