The government has no plans to put forward legislation to reduce the time limit for abortion, Prime Minister David Cameron has said.
But he made clear that there were opportunities for MPs to bring about a vote in the Commons, which would be treated as a matter of conscience.
Speculation that the abortion time limit might be cut was sparked by health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who said that he would like to see a ban on terminations more than 12 weeks into a pregnancy.
But Mr Cameron has said that Mr Hunt was expressing his personal view, and not the position of the government.
In any vote on abortion, MPs would be free to back whatever limit they thought right, said the PM, adding that he personally favoured a “modest” reduction from the current 24 weeks.
Mr Cameron told BBC1’s Andrew Marr Show: “The government hasn’t got any plans to bring forward any legislation or bill.
“Parliament does vote from time to time about these issues. It does tend to vote once a Parliament or so. We now have, under this government, the ability for Parliament to decide what it wants to vote on.
“My own view is that a modest reduction form 24 weeks would be right and I would vote for that. I voted against 12 weeks.”
Mr Cameron said that Mr Hunt had not been intending to put the issue of abortion back on the agenda, but had simply been responding to press questions on the issue.
“He was asked a question because he previously voted for a 12-week limit and he said he has stuck to that view,” said the PM.
“It is a vote of conscience issue and the health secretary is quite entitled to have his own opinion, but it is not the government’s approach.”
Mr Hunt cheered campaigners for a reduction in the abortion time-limit with an interview in The Times in which he said: “Everyone looks at the evidence and comes to a view about when they think that moment is and my view is that 12 weeks is the right point for it.
“It is just my view about that incredibly difficult question about the moment that we should deem life to start.”
Home Secretary Theresa May and culture secretary Maria Miller pitched in with support for a more limited reduction to 20 weeks.
And Tory MPs seized on Mr Hunt’s remarks to signal the start of a new push in Parliament to tighten the existing law.
The move horrified women’s rights activists who warned that such a drastic reduction could effectively prevent testing for conditions such as Down’s syndrome.
Conservative MP Daniel Kawczynski - a strong critic of the existing legislation - said: “The health secretary coming out in favour of reigniting this debate will galvanise the caucus that exists in Parliament, cross-party, on this issue.
Fellow Tory backbencher Mark Pritchard, the vice chairman of the parliamentary pro-life group, said it was time for an “up-to-date” national debate on the term limits for abortions.
“The law currently lags behind recent scientific breakthroughs, where the survivability of young babies has increased greatly. It is time for the government to make time for a full debate on the issue,” he said.
But Professor Wendy Savage, a gynaecologist and long-standing campaigner on women’s rights, expressed alarm at the prospect of another move to reduce the limit following the defeat in Parliament of the last attempt in 2008.
“The number of abortions that take place over 20 weeks is very small. Of those a considerable proportion are of foetuses which have got a congenital abnormality,” she said.
“I think the majority of the population think that if somebody has got a foetus that, if born, will have a severe disability they should have the right to choose whether or not to continue with that pregnancy.”
Shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, who speaks for Labour on women’s issues, said Mr Hunt had shown a “chilling” disregard for the medical evidence.
“Jeremy Hunt’s statements on abortion are deeply worrying and show the health secretary has given no serious consideration to women’s health,” she said.