Blow for abortion campaigners as rise in survival rates ‘not statistically significant’

By Charles Maggs

Campaigners for a reduction in the abortion limit from 24 to 20 weeks received a blow today as a report suggested increases in survival rates of premature babies was so slight it could be down to chance.

The British Medical Journal report, which covered all births between 1995 and 2006 of babies born between 22 and 25 weeks, suggests there were far more babies being born prematurely in 2006 than in 1995 – up 44%.

The report goes against suggestions from Cabinet ministers Jeremy Hunt and Maria Miller that improvements in science mean the limit on abortion could be reduced to as little as 12 weeks. A change to 20 weeks is thought to have more widespread support and could be politically feasible, however.

Overall, the number of babies surviving after being born between 22 and 25 weeks gestation increased by 13%.

The British Pregnancy Advisory Service (BPAS) said the case for maintaining the current limit has not changed.

"It is very sad that there has been no significant increase in the survival of infants born before 24 weeks," a spokesperson said.

"While this latest data shows there is certainly no clinical basis for calls to reduce the abortion time limit, the science will only ever be one part of the picture. The moral case for why a small number of women in difficult circumstances need access to later abortion care remains as compelling as ever."

The report suggests that with more babies being born early – with a high likelihood of long-term health problems – there is going to be an added strain on the health service.

"Increased admissions, increased survival, and unchanged rates of major adverse outcomes suggest that the while the total number of children surviving extremely preterm birth free from impairments will rise, so will the number with long term health problems," the report concluded.

But Anthony Ozimic of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said that opposition to abortion at any stage has nothing to do with survival rates.

"Although we welcome any advances in saving the lives and improving the health outcomes of premature babies, such advances do not and should not have any relevance for abortion law reform," he commented.

"It is simply unjust for parliament to decide whether or not to allow unborn children to be killed based on such changeable circumstances."

Foetuses' survival at such an early stage are low mainly due to the lack of development in their lungs, but improved antenatal steroids means that doctors believe that the  survival chances are likely to improve in the future.