Medical advances prompt abortion law examination

The House of Commons science and technology committee today launched an enquiry into Britain’s abortion laws.

Specifically the influential group of MPs will examine medical advances since the implementation of the 1967 Abortion Act and whether the 24-week limit should be amended.

The group will also examine the effects of late termination on a mother’s health and whether babies under 24 weeks old can survive.

Professor Stuart Campbell, former professor of obstetrics and gynaecology at King’s College London, feels the limit should be changed from 24 to 20 weeks.

“It should be reduced to 20 weeks,” said the professor on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

“Foetuses can survive; even at 23 weeks a large American study shows over 60 per cent of babies survive.

“And even at 22 weeks there is a reasonable survival rate; admittedly many of these babies are handicapped. But the simple fact is that with medical advances babies between 20 and 24 weeks can survive.”

However, the British Medical Association (BMA) argues, despite dramatic advances, the law should remain the same.

The organisation also seeks to remove the requirement for women seeking an abortion to gain approval from two doctors.

“As long as they have had all the risks and benefits explained to them, discussed with them so they have an appropriate amount of information to make a legitimate decision, we feel it is up to them to decide what is best for them,” said Dr Tony Calland, chairman of the BMA’s medical ethics committee.

The BMA are joined by Lord Steel – who was one of the driving forces behind the original legislation – in arguing the limit should remain the same.

“We ought to wait for the considered view of the medical profession,” he told the BBC’s Today programme.

According to the Department of Health there were some 193,000 legal abortions in the UK last year, or which 89 per cent were carried out in the first 13 weeks of pregnancy.

There was support for the lowering of the limit from the ProLife Alliance.

“The Human Tissue and Embryos Bill provides a very real opportunity to amend the current law on abortion and it is the first such opportunity since the law was last looked at 17 years ago in 1990,” said Julia Millington, political director at the ProLife Alliance.

“So I think both sides are well aware of this chance to change certain aspects of the abortion law and are therefore very keen to do so.

“Since the law was last looked at our understanding for example of foetal viability has changed. We now know that babies born prematurely before the current 24-week time limit do survive.”

The original law allowed for terminations up to 28 weeks, but this was lowered to 24 weeks in 1990.