Maria Miller, the new minister for women and equalities, would like to see the upper abortion limit come down.
Having voted in 2008 to reduce the legal limit for abortions from 24 weeks to 20 weeks, she has just confirmed in an interview for the Daily Telegraph that she would vote that way again ‘absolutely’.
Miller, who describes herself as ‘a very modern feminist’ argues that ‘you have got to look at these matters in a very common sense way’ and says that she is ‘driven by that very practical impact that late term abortion has on women…What we are trying to do here is not to put obstacles in people’s way but to reflect the way medical science has moved on.’
She is not alone in this conviction.
Nearly two thirds of the public and more than three-quarters of women support a reduction in the 24-week upper age limit. 76% of the public think that aborting a baby at six months is cruel. Furthermore a 2007 poll by Marie Stopes International found that two thirds of GPs wanted a reduction from 24 weeks.
Why has public opinion changed on late abortion? There are five main reasons: 4D ultrasound, babies surviving below 24 weeks, stories of babies born alive after abortion, fetal sentience, and European precedent.
We have all seen Professor Stuart Campbell’s high resolution 4D ultrasound images of babies ‘walking’, swallowing, coughing, hiccupping from 12 weeks gestation and experienced how mothers bond emotionally to their babies as a result of these scans. We have also seen photographs of babies alive in the womb at 20 weeks (left).
The public also know about individual high profile cases like Manchester’s Millie McDonagh, born after a 22-week pregnancy and the world’s most premature baby, Amillia Taylor, who was born a week younger in the US. Experts may argue about survival figures and about comparisons between population-based studies like EPICure and those from top neonatal units but the fact remains that some babies do actually survive below 24 weeks.
Stories of babies born alive after failed abortions are also not uncommon. In a 2007 West Midlands study of 3,189 cases of termination for fetal anomaly, 102 (3.2%) babies were born alive. This included 65.7% of those between 20 and 24 weeks. Accounts such as these understandably upset people.
And then there is the question of whether fetuses feel pain. The general public intuitively concludes that they do when they hear that from 16 weeks babies will recoil from a noxious stimulus in the womb and that premature babies born earlier than 24 weeks, if stabbed in the heel with a needle, will withdraw and cry. The RCOG wheels out its experts to tell us that babies below 24 weeks do not have the neurological apparatus to sense pain but fail to tell us that this is a controversial view not shared by other experts who regard it as being based on an outdated understanding of physiology.
Which of us, honestly, can imagine telling the mother who feels her baby kick at 20 weeks that it is not a sentient being?
Finally, Britain is out of touch with most of Europe in this matter. Most countries in the EU, 16 out of 27, have a gestational limit of 12 weeks or less. These include Germany, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Belgium and Austria plus most countries in Eastern and Central Europe who once had far more liberal laws. At 24 weeks Britain is up there with former Soviet States Lithuania and Latvia.
In 2010 there were 792 disabled babies and 1,936 able-bodied babies aborted in Britain between 20 and 24 weeks. Every single one of the latter group was aborted under ground C of the Abortion Act, which in 98% of cases means protecting the mental health of the mother.
Lowering the abortion limit to 20 weeks for able-bodied babies (as Miller and many other MPs would support) would give more legal protection to about 2,000 babies a year; just 1% of the total. It would put clear blue water between the upper abortion limit and the lower threshold of viability. And it would show that parliament is beginning to listen.
Of course it would also raise the question of whether we should be doing the same for disabled babies, who can currently be aborted up until the moment of birth, but that is a subject for another blog.