Scots Abortion Choice; Alex Salmond: Legal Shake-Up

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Byline: STUART NICOLSON

SCOTLAND could be given control of its own abortion laws in a futureexpansion of Holyrood's powers.

First Minister Alex Salmond has said he favours lowering the time limit forterminations.

And he now wants the issue to be included in the so-called NationalConversation about the powers of the Scottish parliament.

Any move to transfer responsibility for abortion to Edinburgh raises theprospect of different laws on either side of the Border.

Mr Salmond supports lowering the time limit from 24 weeks to 20 weeks, in linewith recent medical advances that have made the survival of very prematurebabies much more commonplace.

Abortion law was one of the areas reserved to Westminster when the ScotlandAct, which set out Holyrood's devolved powers, was drawn up a decade ago.

Mr Salmond wants MSPs to be given responsibility for the matter north of theBorder.

He said: 'My own position on abortion, which I believe must be an issue ofconscience for members of parliament, is that I would probably vote to tightenthe time limit in accordance with recent advances in medical science.

'I believe the issue should be kept well away from party politics and indeedparty instruction.' A spokesman for Mr Salmond added: 'Alex was at Westminsterthe last two times abortion was addressed and was very disappointed by thechaotic and illinformed nature of much of the debate.

'The conclusion did not necessarily reflect what people were trying to vote for- a more studied view would be a far better way forward.' The LibDems have saidthey are happy to discuss giving MSPs authority for abortion policy as part ofthe debate about Holyrood's powers.

A spokesman for the Scottish Tories said the party wanted a general discussionabout Holyrood's future, without singling out issues such as abortion.

Official figures show that abortions reached an all-time high in Scotland lastyear, with a total of 13,081 terminations carried out - up from 12,603 theprevious year.

Of those, the number of women having abortions between the 20 to 24-week periodwas 62 last year, compared with 46 in 2001.

Abortion remains a touchstone issue for many religious leaders and Mr Salmondhas discussed the matter with Cardinal Keith O'Brien, leader of Scotland'sRoman Catholics.

Some Labour figures with strong Catholic links may also be sympathetic to theidea of transferring responsibility to Edinburgh.

But even if a majority of MSPs were to back the move, it is likely they wouldmeet strong resistance from Westminster.

UK ministers have made it clear they are against any moves which might open upa cross-Border difference in abortion law. A spokesmanfortheScotland Office said: 'The Government takes the view that it would be wrong fordifferent policies to apply north and south of the Border and that the balanceof the argument favours consistency on this sensitive issue.' Earlier thismonth, a new poll by antiabortion group Life showed that seven out of ten womenwant the 24-week upper limit for abortion to be halved. …