Neil said that advances in medical science meant there was a case for altering the current legislation despite the furore caused by UK Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt yesterday when he expressed his support for halving the limit to 12 weeks.
Speaking to Scotland on Sunday, Neil suggested that the dramatic cut backed by Hunt was unrealistic but he added the legislation should be reviewed in the event of abortion law being transferred from Westminster to Holyrood as a result of independence.
“I do thing there is a case to be had for a reduction from 24 weeks, but I don’t know if 12 weeks is realistic, frankly,” Neil said.
“But I do think there is now a case, given the state of medical science and the fact that babies do survive from an much earlier stage in the pregnancy.
“I do think there is a case for looking to bring down the number of weeks, but that is a personal opinion.”
Neil would not be drawn on precisely how long after conception women should be allowed to terminate their pregnancies saying politicians would have to consider the medical evidence.
Neil said: “I actually think the limit is something we need to look at, but I don’t think you can pick a number of weeks out of the air. That is something you would want to take evidence on and find out what the consensus is. I don’t think it is for politicians to pick an arbitrary number of weeks out of the air. There has to be evidence on the right way to go.”
The newly-appointed Scottish Health Secretary made his views known after Hunt’s support of a 12-week limit angered women’s rights campaigners, who warned that a reduction could prevent testing for conditions such as Down’s syndrome.
Yesterday, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, when asked about Hunt’s comments said he disagreed with his health secretary’s position and emphasised that the UK government had no plans to introduce legislation to change the abortion limit.
But Neil’s intervention in the debate raises the prospect of lower limit being introduced north of the Border, should Alex Salmond win the independence referendum.
Post-independence, any decision on abortion law would be taken by the Scottish Parliament with MSPs being given a free vote in recognition of the serious ethical questions and deeply held views on the issue.
Neil indicated that he would be relaxed about different limits applying to Scotland and England and pregnant women crossing the Border to take advantage of another country’s abortion legislation.
“That happens already in terms that the law is different in Ireland and different again in France. People do travel so if it was different between north of the Border and south of the Border that would just reflect the realities of modern life, that people do travel from one jurisdiction to another,” Neil said.
“People do travel between jurisdictions depending on what the law is, so I don’t think it would be particularly problematic if there was a different law north and south of the Border.”
But he added: “Although having said that, there is obviously a case for cross- border co-operation.”
Previously, Salmond has said he personally supports a reduction in the time limit for termination from 24 to 20 weeks and has said he would back the creation of an independent commission to examine UK abortion laws.
But Linda Fabiani, the former SNP minister and MSP for East Kilbride, said: “People come at this from different points of view. For me, I have seen nothing that would make me feel that the law should be changed from my point of view.”
Kate Smurthwaite, of the pro-choice Abortion Rights campaign group, said: “We keep hearing about this medical evidence suggesting that survival rates for premature babies have improved, but I have never seen this medical evidence.
“Medical bodies want to see the limit kept and reducing the rate whether that is to 20 weeks or 12 weeks will affect a group of women in extremely difficult and unusual circumstances.”