POLITICS

Published: 14/10/2004, Volume II4, No. 5927 Page 23

By the time you read this, health ministers may have become embroiled in another of the kind of disputes politicians do not want as an election looms.

The Mental Capacity Bill, which was before MPs on Monday and addresses competence among the elderly and chronically ill, has been targeted by pro-lifers as another example of creeping euthanasia.

That is not the end of it. As health secretary John Reid's team geared up for the parliamentary season, the Sunday Telegraph devoted its splash, plus five inside pages, to exposing things which I suspect most of us intuitively knew. Bodies like the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the country's largest NHSfunded abortion provider, is sending 'hundreds' of pregnant women a year to a Spanish clinic which aborts beyond the UK's 24-week legal cut-off.

Nothing wrong or illegal there, insisted BPAS, as the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, the leading pro-life body, called for an inquiry.Mr Reid duly noted that a 'long and anguished debate' had reduced legal UK abortion limits and called on the paper to provide its evidence - which it seems to have done.

'If there is evidence that the will of parliament is being thwarted and that the law of a fellow European country is being broken by an organisation in receipt of public money this would be a very serious situation indeed, ' said the health secretary.

It was not the Telegraph's repor t which troubled me - It is a good paper, it was thorough and this is an ethical minefield. It was the scale and timing: six emotive pages just a few days after the courts had ruled that 11-monthold Charlotte Wyatt from Portsmouth, her life too damaged, should be allowed to die. The Telegraph rubbed home its point by interviewing a Kiwi teenager said to have survived a similar diagnosis.

With the election looming, the phrase I murmured was 'culture wars', a familiar concept in the US where divisive prolife issues are prominent in the presidential elections, as President Bush intends, and abortion doctors have been murdered.We do not have that in Europe, although it is best not to be smug: our devolution legislation retained abortion as a Westminster responsibility because it is such a hot topic in Scotland.

Indeed. And John Reid, MP for Hamilton North and Bellshill, is a cultural Catholic from the Glasgow side of the argument.

This is one reason, some say, for his antagonism towards the Protestant-and-Edinburgh chancellor, Gordon Brown.

Pro-life websites report that Mr Reid 'has consistently supported the lobby against abortion on demand and is against late abortions'.

'In 14 years [as an MP] he has rarely missed a vote on the issue of abortion.'He has also voted against euthanasia and the use of human embryos for experiments under 'the most unsympathetic government on pro-life issues' for 30 years.

In doing so, that puts Mr Reid against majority opinion in his party, as well as at odds with prime minister Tony Blair, who is very keen on high-tech bio-research.

The semi-Catholic PM had a run-in with Scotland's Catholic capo, the late Cardinal Winning, before the 1997 election when he tried to wriggle.

All sensible people are against abortion, but you have to recognise moral dilemmas in a secular world, said Mr Blair.

That is roughly my view, but I am not a premier or prince of the church. It should be treated 'like any other form of murder, ' retorted Cardinal Winning.

Many people agree, but you can see why I - and almost certainly the politician in Mr Reid - am so keen to keep temperatures down.

Only Ann Widdecombe lists 'abortion' as one of her special interests, though others (not all Catholics) take a strong line.Most on both sides do not rush to stir this pot.

Right-to-live cases on behalf of the unborn are different from right-to-die cases like Diane Pretty or Tony Bland, whose life support system was switched off after a judicial ruling in 1993.

The Human Rights Act has not seen it overturned.What all these rows share is a moving frontier between science (what it can achieve) and ethics, religious and secular. Passions simmer.

When I rang LibDem health spokesman Paul Burstow, busy looking after three kids under eight, he said: 'The reality is that the information is there anyway on Google. It is surely better to be informed in a calm environment than make a desperate personal internet search.'

My own conclusion is that parliament should decide - and in calm, open debate, not backstairs manoeuvres in cahoots with the medics. But not before an election. Please.