To mark the 40th anniversary on October 27 of Britain's 1967 Abortion Act that legalized abortion in specified circumstances, church leaders are calling for a re-examination of the situation.
The department of health in Britain reported that in 2006 there were nearly 200,000 abortions in England and Wales, which represented a 4 percent increase from the preceding year.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Rowan Williams, wrote in Britain's The Observer newspaper on October 21 that the spirit of the act was being lost, with the procedure tending to be treated as normal rather than as a last resort in cases of extreme danger or distress.
Referring to recent discussion on whether women might take abortion-inducing drugs at home, Williams commented: "The pregnant woman who smokes or drinks heavily is widely regarded as guilty of infringing the rights of her unborn child. Yet, at the same time, with no apparently sense of incongruity, there is discussion of the possibility of the liberty of the pregnant woman herself to perform the actions that will terminate pregnancy."
The archbishop suggested that the present 24-week limit should be reviewed in the light of recent advances in scientific knowledge.
Instead of calling for an end to abortion -- the usual Roman Catholic position -- the leaders of the Catholic Church in England and Wales, and Scotland, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-0'Connor and Cardinal Keith O'Brien, in an open letter published on October 22, called for a change of heart on the issue. They urged better counseling to be provided for young women who find themselves pregnant, and more practical help for those who choose to have babies.
"Whilst upholding the principle of the sacredness of human life, it is both licit and important for those in public life who oppose abortion on principle to work and vote for achievable incremental improvements to what is an unjust law," the cardinals wrote.
In a radio interview on October 23, Murphy-O'Connor acknowledged that there could only be hope for incremental progress at present. If a gradual decrease in the amount of abortions could be achieved, it would be a step in the right direction, he said.
The Baptist, Methodist and United Reformed churches have marked the abortion law anniversary by publishing a joint briefing paper that provides background information for churchgoers to debate the issue. The three churches have also set up a joint working group to examine abortion, human embryology and early human life, including therapeutic cloning and pre-implantation genetic diagnosis.
A committee of British members of parliament is currently investigating whether, in the light of medical advances in dealing with premature births, the time limit for abortions should be reduced from the current 24 weeks. A recent opinion poll showed that only 20 percent of the British public supported a general ban on abortion.