Britain's new health secretary has said he favours reducing the limit for women to have abortions from 24 weeks of pregnancy to 12, sparking criticism from opposition lawmakers and women's rights activists.
Jeremy Hunt, who took up the job just a few weeks ago, said he believed that 12 weeks was "the right point," telling The Times newspaper in an interview published Saturday: "It is just my view about that incredibly difficult question about the moment that we should deem life to start."
The comments followed recent remarks from Culture Secretary Maria Miller – also the minister for women – who said she would like to see the law tightened so that the limit comes down to 20 weeks.
The Prime Minister's office at Downing Street stressed that Hunt was expressing purely personal views, and that the government has no plans to change laws on abortion.
But his remarks, coming just ahead of the annual Conservative Party conference, immediately stirred up political debate and anger from pro-choice campaigners.
Abortion is a divisive political issue in Britain, though not as much so as in the US, where it has flared up in the presidential campaign despite the candidates' reluctance to dwell on the topic.
The 24-week limit applies to England, Wales and Scotland. Abortion is illegal in Northern Ireland except when the mother's life is in danger or there is a serious threat to her health.
Department of Health figures show that the vast majority of abortions last year were carried out at under 13 weeks. Critics of Hunt's position argue that the current 24-week limit should be kept because severe health problems such as Down syndrome are often not revealed in testing until later in the pregnancy.
They say the remarks show that Hunt does not have a full understanding of why women need late abortion services.
"I think women and families across the country will find it staggering that the priority for this government is playing politics with people's lives, like this," said Diane Abbott, the health spokesperson for the opposition Labour Party. "Late abortion only affects a small number of women, who are often in extremely challenging circumstances."
Prime Minister David Cameron said that he did not agree with Hunt's position, and instead personally favoured a more "modest" reduction in the legal limit. Home Secretary Theresa May expressed similar views Saturday, telling the BBC in an interview that "there is scope for some reduction."
"My own view is probably a reduction to 20 weeks. That is a personal view of mine," May said. – Sapa-AP.