Monday 27 June 2011

BMA rejects move to lower upper abortion limit to 20 weeks for normal babies as six US States bring in laws to support it

In view of the BMA debate today (Tuesday 28 June) on lowering the upper abortion limit for able-bodied (as opposed to disabled) babies from 24 to 20 weeks (lost by 2 to 1 majority btw) I was interested to see this article yesterday in the New York Times, ‘Several States Forbid Abortion After 20 Weeks’.

It’s primarily a moan by a pro-choice journalist (this is the New York Times after all!) about how abortion laws are being systematically chipped away all over the US, state by state, by pro-lifers who are getting legislation passed to give women fully informed consent, the option of seeing an ultrasound, information about alternatives to abortion etc.

It also recycles ad nauseam the same tired mantra on fetal sentience by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists about babies not being able to perceive anything below 24 weeks, the view that has been termed ‘the Emperor’s new clothes’ by a recent editorial in a leading paediatric journal.

But what particularly struck me was the way that 20-week upper limits for abortion are being established all over the US, not by way of arguments about fetal viability at various ages, but by arguments about fetal sentience.

The author complains that ‘laws passed in six states in little more than a year, ban abortions at the 20th week after conception, based on the theory that the fetus can feel pain at that point… Since Nebraska passed the first 20-week limit last year, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma and, this month, Alabama have followed. A similar law has advanced in the Iowa legislature, and anti-abortion campaigners have vowed to promote such laws in more states next year.’

No wonder the pro-choice lobby here is so keen to keep the argument on upper limits here focused on neonatal viability and away from 4D ultrasound and fetal pain.

It was striking that today the Chairman of Council Hamish Meldrum and the Chairman of the ethics committee Tony Calland both opposed the motion to provide better legal protection at the threshold of viability - and that Calland said the debate was all about viability (I have already critiqued the BMA briefing paper on this motion and given the arguments in its support)

As Bertrand Russell once said, ‘A fisherman once told me that fish had neither sense nor sensation but how he knew this he could not tell me’.

I wonder, does that tell us something about the propensity of UK gynaecologists and BMA leaders to cherry pick their scientific advisors on fetal sentience?

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