Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Don't tear a smiling foetus from the womb

A twelve-week old fetus yawns in the womb

By Aussiegirl

Do the feminists and others who support abortion on demand realize that in Europe abortions are strictly limited to early term abortions? This doctor is arguing for a further lowering of the time in which abortions may be permitted, while in this country we can abort full-term babies that are half-delivered in the hideous procedure euphemistically known as "partial-birth abortion". We must think seriously about these issues. When does one human being's right to "choose" supercede another's right to life? How can we argue quality of life issues, or inconvenience, or lack of money or lack of circumstances to justify murder? The obligation to care for sick children, aged relatives, disabled loved ones is no less onerous than bringing a child into the world without everything being just perfect. Would be justify murdering the inconvenient fully grown person because they present a burden on us? But perhaps it's already come to that with the advent of assisted suicide.

Telegraph Comment Don't tear a smiling foetus from the womb

There is something deeply moving about the image of a baby cocooned inside the womb. When four-dimensional scans first became available three years ago, I sat with parents who trembled at the sight of their soon-to-be newborn. They told me they wanted to stroke its downy head.

Advanced scanning means we have a window on the secret life of foetuses. At 11 weeks we can see them yawn, and even take steps. At 22 weeks, they begin to open their eyes.

Between 20 and 24 weeks we watch as they seem to cry, smile and frown. Understandably, these incredible images have influenced the debate on abortion. I pioneered the 4-D scanning technique in the UK and it has certainly caused me to question my own opinions.

advertisementI now believe the maximum age for abortion should be cut to 18 weeks so we do not abort foetuses who exhibit the signs of humanity these images portray. Of course, I have been accused of "sentimentality". Maybe this is right, but I defy anyone to see these pictures and not pause to wonder if they might be wrong.

With the 1967 Abortion Act, terminations could be performed up to 28 weeks for "social" abortions. In 1990, the law was changed to 24 weeks. At that time, a baby born at 23 weeks had less than a 10 per cent chance of survival. Now, it has a 66 per cent chance and we must change the law again.

My most vocal critics, Dr Donald Peebles at University College, London, and Dr Huseyin Mehmet at Imperial College, London, claim that these facial expressions are developmental reflexes. They are defending the abortion law as it stands.

But I am equally keen to protect a woman's right to choose. I've watched women die from the after-effects of backstreet abortions. But we have to draw the line somewhere and 24 weeks is too late.

Pain is a very difficult thing to measure in an unborn baby. Foetuses have no memory of pain, and no anticipation of it. But if you stuck a pin into a foetus, I believe it would make a crying face and flinch. Clearly, that's an experiment we can't carry out, but we can weigh up the evidence we have and make the best judgment possible.

Babies born at 22 weeks are never treated without analgesics. Why, if there is scientific evidence to prove their brains are too under-developed to feel pain or distress, would they be given medication to protect them from pain? And if we accept that these babies may feel pain, why is it so difficult to imagine they would feel the same sensation inside the womb?

I know if I gently push a baby in the womb at 28 weeks, it will make a crying face because it has been disturbed. How can we tell so precisely the point at which these expressions stop being simple reflexes and start to mean something?

And even if they can't feel pain, they can certainly survive outside the womb. A study at University College Hospital found that 72 per cent of babies born at 24 weeks survive. Another study in Minneapolis between 1996 and 2000 reported that at 23 weeks, 66 per cent survive and, though they may suffer serious medical complications, 30 per cent of babies born at 22 weeks will live.

Those casting doubt on whether a smile is really a smile are, in my opinion, defending the indefensible. If a baby has reached a stage where it could survive in a neo-natal unit, then the pregnancy shouldn't be terminated for social reasons.

And we must focus on terminations for social reasons if we are talking about amending the law. There are 1,200 terminations a year between 22 and 24 weeks, 70 per cent of which are for non-medical reasons.

We must grasp the nettle now. These are healthy babies, not brain-dead, feelingless creatures. When I see a foetus that can smile at me, I know absolutely that we should not tear it from the womb.

Prof Stuart Campbell is a consultant at the Create Health Clinic, London, and was head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at King's College School of Medicine


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