Opinion: Hot Issue - Should the Government withdraw the annual £12m funding to BPAS?

The Sunday Telegraph has accused The British Pregnancy Advisory Service of referring women who are more than 24 weeks pregnant to a Spanish clinic for abortions that would be illegal in this country

YES - Ann Widdecombe, Conservative MP for Maidstone and The Weald

The press allegations are of a most serious nature and an immediate inquiry is necessary.

The taxpayer should not be funding any organisation that deliberately, blatantly and unapologetically breaks the very law it is supposed to be implementing.

Whatever the people who run the British Pregnancy Advisory Service may think, it is Parliament and not they which decides the law. Incredibly, this organisation is said to be defying not only British law but Spanish law as well. And, if it transpires that the press reports are true, BPAS officials should face a criminal prosecution rather than merely an investigation.

In my view, all those responsible for procuring illegal abortions should face penalties appropriate for infanticide. Meanwhile, not only should the Government suspend its funding immediately pending the outcome of an inquiry, but it should seek to recoup monies already paid out if the allegations are proved.

If BPAS gets away with anything less, then it will send a clear signal to other agencies that defying the law is a riskless act.

NO - Dr Evan Harris MP, member of BMA Medical Ethics Committee

The Government should not withdraw its £12m funding for BPAS because it does not fund the charity directly. The income that BPAS derives from the NHS is for the contracts it carries out with individual primary care trusts for terminations. That funding is, therefore, dependent on value for money, quality and contract compliance.

Those calling for sanctions should be asked why they are not calling for action to be taken against doctors, nurses and organisations in Northern Ireland, where abortion is illegal, and who help women access safe abortions on the British mainland - presumably because they recognise that such help is legitimate.

In the meantime, campaigners against late abortion should be calling for improved sex and relationships education, better contraception and easier access to early abortion, rather than running personalised campaigns against abortion providers.

However, in my view the Government really needs to agree to a Parliamentary debate on the abortion law. The current law is old, the public wants the issues aired and they will continue to be raised by pro-life groups and newspapers in a piecemeal and partisan way.

NO - Anne Quesnay, director, Abortion Rights

Abortion Rights is extremely concerned about the Sunday Telegraph's allegations, which have led Ann Widdecombe to table an Early Day Motion calling for an end to the Government's partnership with BPAS.

The charity provides a valuable service for some 50,000 women every year.

This is especially true in terms of 20-24 week abortion provision, of which it carries out 78 per cent. It is also important to clarify that the charity does not receive direct government funding. Primary healthcare trusts contract their service to BPAS, which, in turn, contributes to improving women's access to and experience of abortions in a country where provision remains notoriously patchy.

The campaign to vilify BPAS focuses on the issue of late abortions, of which there are in fact very few: 2,927 abortions between 20 and 24-plus weeks in 2003. But, because they are unpalatable, women who request them and those who provide them are put in the firing line.

In reality, Widdecombe's agenda is far more insidious. In attacking BPAS, she strikes at the right to choose. Instead, we need a positive approach to reproductive health, not a return to back streets and coathangers.

YES - Peter Saunders, general secretary, Christian Medical Fellowship

More than 50 per cent of babies born at 23 weeks will survive with neonatal intensive care. According to the Sunday Telegraph, Health Secretary John Reid ordered an investigation of the case after reviewing videos showing how BPAS offered a healthy pregnant reporter an abortion of her 26-week foetus in Spain. She was told staff would falsify records because abortions in Spain after 22 weeks are only legal if the mother's health is in 'grave danger'.

Section 1A of the Criminal Law Act 1977 makes it an offence to conspire in England to commit an illegal act abroad if that same act would be an offence here. Abortion is only legal in the UK after 24 weeks on grounds of 'grave permanent injury to the physical or mental health' of the mother or if there is 'substantial risk' of 'serious handicap'.

This suggests that BPAS staff were aware of the law in Spain and aware that they were doing something illegal. In the light of this, it seems extraordinary that Ann Furedi, the chief executive of BPAS, with the full backing of her chairman of trustees Joan Greenwood, could insist that the agency had done nothing wrong. It sounds like criminal proceedings are entirely in order. At the very least, all government funding to BPAS should be withheld.

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