Tavish Scott: SNP may yet rue its stance on abortion

I HAVE never understood the desire of some politicians to offer their thoughts on abortion. This is a complicated medical issue where policy should be based on clinical research, judgement and common sense.

Yet a Conservative Health Secretary has now been backed by the Scottish Government’s Nationalist Health Minister in arguing for a reduction in the time limits for abortions.

Doctors who specialise on women and childbirth and their representative body, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, say they are wrong. There is little sustainable evidence that the survival rates for babies born under 24 weeks have improved in any meaningful way. So there is no medical basis for what this Tory and Nationalist are saying.

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So why do it? The UK health secretary is Jeremy Hunt, who should have been sacked for his role in the BskyB bid when he was culture secretary – but instead he was promoted. Now, in the midst of the Tory conference, he extols the virtues of reducing the 24-week limit for terminating pregnancies. Far from a debate about health this looks like an appeal to the Tory faithful..

Alex Neil is the Nationalist health secretary. He was promoted by Alex Salmond when Nicola Sturgeon was given the ministerial responsibility for delivering independence. Does Neil believe that making abortion and therefore women’s rights an issue will further the case for independence? I doubt it. Look at the debate over gay marriage. Three times the number of people who responded to the Scottish Government’s consultation on independence did so on gay marriage. The great majority is against. Elements of the Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church vigorously denounced this approach to equality despite the fact that no [church] minister will be forced to conduct such a ceremony.

If abortion becomes an issue in the independence debate nothing good will come of it. Yet the Nationalists have opened this up. After all, in an independent Scotland everything from abortion to the monarchy will be up for debate. That means the Nationalists will have to say what their position is. Westminster currently has the legislative responsibility. If abortion becomes Holyrood’s responsibility in an independent Scotland the Catholic Church will take a highly vocal and predictable position. It could hardly do otherwise. MSPs of that faith will be asked to take a stand in public and in Parliament.

The notion that the subsequent argument would be civilised and grown up is rather undermined by what happened over the repeal of Section 28 in the first term of the Scottish Parliament. Then the principled approach to teaching the understanding of relationships in schools was hijacked by those who do not accept homosexuality. Alex Neil has opened up a debate he may live to regret.

• Tavish Scott is Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland