Jeremy Hunt has been accused of having "no concern for women's health" after backing restricting abortion time limits in the UK by half, from 24 to 12 weeks.
In his first interview with a national newspaper since taking up his post in September, the health secretary told The Times his view was based on "evidence".
“Everyone looks at the evidence and comes to a view about when they think that moment is, and my own view is that 12 weeks is the right point for it... It’s just my view about that incredibly difficult question about the moment that we should deem life to start. I don’t think the reason I have that view is for religious reasons.”
In the interview, he adds: "There are some issues that cut across health and morality, a bit like capital punishment does for crime. There are all sorts of arguments in favour and against in terms of deterrence and justice, but also there is a fundamental moral issue that sits behind it. I think abortion is one of those issues.”
Responding to Hunt's comments a spokesperson for Britain's largest abortion provider, Bpas, told The Huffington Post UK Hunt's views had no basis "in evidence or concern for women's health."
"To attack the abortion time limit is to attack some of the most vulnerable women who have abortions," Bpas said.
Following Hunt's comments, Home Secretary Theresa May said she believed there was scope to reduce the limit on when a termination can take place, to 20 weeks into a pregnancy.
In a blog for The Huffington Post UK Diane Abbott, Labour’s shadow public health minister said women would find Hunt's comments "staggering".
"This is about politics not medicine. These statements are a deliberate attempt to appeal to that wing of the Tory right which is obsessed with rolling back women's rights over their own bodies," she said.
Darinka Aleksic, campaigns coordinator at Abortion Rights, told The Huffington Post UK the health secretary's views had no basis in evidence.
"Right now, groups opposed to abortion are picketing clinics around the country with the aim of deterring women from having abortions, while in Northern Ireland abortion remains virtually illegal and women can face life imprisonment for trying to obtain one," she said.
"So the fact that one of Jeremy Hunt's first statements as Health Secretary is to call for further restrictions to abortion access is an absolute disgrace.
"If Jeremy Hunt had actually studied the evidence as he claims, he would know that there is no scientific basis for reducing the abortion time limit. The main UK medical bodies all support the current 24 week limit.”
Conservative MP Nadine Dorries, who is pro-choice but wants to reduce abortion limits to 20 weeks, welcomed the comments, tweeting: "Will re-introduce my 2008 amendment to reduce to 20 weeks this session 3/4 of all GPs want a reduction from 24 weeks."
Hunt's comments come after culture secretary and women's minister Maria Miller was accused of making comments with "no basis in science" when she called for the abortion limit to be reduced to 20 weeks for medical reasons.
In 2008 Hunt voted for the abortion time limit to be reduced to 12 weeks from 24 - a stance which prompted pro-choice activists to deliver coat hangers to his office after he was made health secretary.
David Cameron, responding to Hunt, said he was in favour of a smaller decrease in the abortion limit: "I personally have voted for a modest reduction from the current limit of 24 weeks because I think there are some medical arguments for that. But I don't agree with the 12-week limit and that's not the government's policy," he said.
A Department of Health spokesperson told The Huffington Post UK Hunt's views were not government policy: "The way the secretary of state voted is a matter of public record, but the law and the government's policy on this are clear."
A spokesperson for pro-life charity LIFE said: "The UK's abortion laws are antiquated and fail to take into consideration a modern reality in which it is easy to establish as biological fact, the humanity of the baby inside the womb. In the age of information it is hard to hide this fact. It is therefore no surprise that most people, especially women, in this country support a reduction in the time limit on abortion in the UK."Suggest a correction