LONDON — With less than five months to go before a general election, a new and explosive issue - abortion - is moving rapidly up Britain's political agenda.
It was hoisted there last weekend by Cardinal Basil Hume, leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales. His forthright comments on "this great evil," which he said was "really unworthy of a civilized society," have unleashed a storm of controversy within and between leading political parties.
Cardinal Hume's remarks have also spurred pro-life groups to prepare to support single-issue candidates in many of Britain's parliamentary constituencies where sitting members of Parliament (MPs) are strongly pro-choice.
For years, abortion has been kept out of politics as an issue in British general elections and has been seen as a matter of individual conscience. In addition, single-issue campaigning in Britain is rare. But two months ago, Cardinal Thomas Ewing, leader of Roman Catholics in Scotland, accused Tony Blair, leader of the opposition Labour Party, of trying to "wash his hands" of the abortion issue.
At the time Mr. Blair said he was privately opposed to abortion but did not believe it should become a mainstream issue in politics.
Hume's weekend remarks, broadcast on nationwide television and followed by an interview in London's Daily Telegraph on Monday, drew rebukes from leading Labour politicians, who see their party as vulnerable to challenges by pro-life candidates in the coming election campaign. George Robertson, Labour's "shadow" secretary for Scotland, said abortion should be a matter for the individual voter's conscience, not a question to be decided through the ballot box.
In fact, Labour is not alone in fearing that the sudden arrival of abortion as a mainstream campaign issue threatens to dent the prospects of pro-choice election candidates. Virginia Bottomley, a senior member of Prime Minister John Major's Cabinet, is outspokenly pro-choice. A new special interest group, Pro-Life Alliance, plans to field at least 50 candidates in the general election and has indicated that Mrs. Bottomley will be a target of its campaign.
"The days when the pronouncements of churchmen made much difference in British politics are long since behind us," said Edwina Currie, a senior Conservative backbencher and active pro-choice campaigner, in response to Hume's remarks. But like Bottomley, Mrs. Currie has been advised by her election manager to expect to face a rival pro-life candidate in her Derbyshire constituency.
Even Mr. Major has voted against abortion in the past, and supported a move six years ago to reduce the limit on how far along a woman can be in her pregnancy and still have an abortion from 28 to 24 weeks.
Hume says he is not trying to tell Britain's 4.4 million Catholics how they should vote. Rather, they should find out what each candidate thought about abortion before voting "with a conscience informed by the church's teaching on the subject," he told the Daily Telegraph.
Ann Furedi, director of the Birth Control Trust, deplores the cardinal's intervention, which she says, "seems guaranteed to increase women's suffering instead of reducing it."
But the Pro-Life Alliance is receiving support from some unlikely quarters. It was reported Monday that Mohamed Al Fayed, chairman of the world-renowned London department store Harrod's, has pledged 25,000 ($42,300) to the Alliance - enough to pay for the 500 election deposits of 50 pro-life candidates.