ABORTION BECOMES ISSUE IN ELECTION; the Leader of Britain's 6million Catholics Warns Blair over Termination Time Limit

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Byline: DAVID HUGHES;JANE MERRICK

TONY BLAIR was thrown on to the defensive last night as abortion became a burning election issue.

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, the leader of Britain's six million Roman Catholics, joined Michael Howard in calling for a lower time limit on terminations.

He stunned Downing Street by warning that the Catholic community's traditional support for Labour was a thing of the past.

The Cardinal urged Catholic voters - who include Mr Blair's wife Cherie - to judge politicians on 'key issues' like abortion.

His intervention is a major blow for the Prime Minister, who said at the weekend he had no plans to reopen the abortion debate.

His strategy has been wrecked, however, after Cosmopolitan magazine-asked all three party leaders about the issue.

Mr Howard called for a cut in the 24-week upper limit on abortions in all but the most exceptional cases.

Citing medical advances which mean premature babies can survive from a much younger age, the Tory leader added: 'In the past I voted for a restriction to 22 weeks and I would be prepared to go to 20.' Liberal Democrat leader Charles Kennedy said he had also voted for a 22-week limit but medical progress meant 'I don't know what I would do now'.

Their comments have ensured that a debate on abortion will figure in the General Election campaign after decades of being treated as a taboo subject for party politics.

Mr Howard believes his stance will resonate with mothers and older women, a crucial electoral constituency.

The Prime Minister has been left looking flatfooted once again as the opposition dictates the agenda.

His position also appears to have changed since last summer, when dramatic 3D pictures were published of 12-week old foetuses 'walking' in the womb.

Mr Blair told MPs then that it may be 'advisable to have another look at the whole question'. He is now under intense pressure to do just that.

In 2002 more than 1,300 babies were aborted at later than 22 weeks gestation.

Cardinal O'Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, pulled no punches as he endorsed Mr Howard's call.

He said: 'It is very important that this debate has been opened, both in the leadup to and after the election.

'Abortion, for Catholics, is a very key issue, we are totally opposed to it.

The policy supported by Mr Howard is one that we would also commend, on the way to a full abandonment of abortion.' He urged the four million Catholics of voting age, in a letter, to question election candidates on right-to-life issues and marriage as well as education, criminal justice, refugees and migrants and 'the common good'.

Cardinal O'Connor dismayed Number 10 by warning this may mean a break with traditional backing for Labour. He said: 'There has been a notion that Catholics would be more in support of the Labour party because they were working-class people. I'm not so sure that will be quite so true today; the Labour Party has developed. …