England and Wales are out of time and out of touch on abortion limits | Georgia L. Gilholy
The UK may have left the European Union at the beginning of this year, but in one important aspect, our country has been disconnected from our continental cousins for much longer. Whilst the UK has permitted abortions in most cases up to 24 weeks since 1990, (before that, allowing up to 28 weeks, following the 1967 law change) the median among EU member states is half that at just 12 weeks.
This means that the UK’s upper abortion limit is double that of countries we consider culturally similar to ours, the likes of France, Belgium, Denmark, and Ireland. In Europe, only the Netherlands allows abortions as late as here, and a mere handful of countries across the world permit terminations at 24 weeks.
Some in Parliament want to see these extreme gestational limits raised yet further. Indeed, just this year we have witnessed a shocking attempt by Labour MP Diana Johnson to legalise abortions up to the moment of the birth of a child – a hideous move thankfully rejected by MPs.
By contrast, polling shows that 70% of British women want to see the current term limits lowered. In fact, the largest number of women surveyed (24%) preferred a reduction to 12 weeks’ gestation – which would effectively bring the UK in line with the majority of EU countries.
The law change in 1990 was, in part, based on a Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) report into neonatal survival rates before 28 weeks of gestation, which recommended that the age at which a foetus should be considered viable should instead be 24 weeks.
It should be no surprise there have been further significant scientific advances in this field since 1990 which was, after all, the year that saw the first internet browser and the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope.
Today, the latest guidance from the British Association of Perinatal Medicine establishes 22 weeks’ gestation to be the point of viability and enables doctors to intervene to save premature babies from 22 weeks. Survival rates for babies born at 22 and 23 weeks gestation have improved from 0% between 1981 and 1985 to 19% in the period 1986-1990, and up to 54% in the years 1996-2000, according to a study from a neonatal intensive care unit in London. As evidence from Sweden suggests, as neonatal hospital staff take a more proactive approach in the care of premature babies, this figure will only go upwards.
Just these past few weeks, we’ve seen the extraordinary story from the US state of Alabama of the birth of a baby boy last year at just 21 weeks. Weighing just 14.8 ounces, baby Curtis Means needs oxygen support and a feeding tube, but is in good health.
Surely no compassionate, humane society can continue to support the position whereby a viable human being could have his or her life ended up to the point of birth within the law, and yet a day later similar actions against a baby outside the womb would constitute murder?
It is only right that people from all sides of this debate should agree that upper gestational limits on abortion must be driven by the latest science. As evidence on fetal viability changes, so should the law.
For this reason, I urge support for the amendment tabled by Fiona Bruce MP, with cross-party support, to the Health and Care Bill, which is set to be debated on Tuesday 23rd November and which would reduce the upper gestational limit for abortion in most cases from 24 to 22 weeks on the grounds where there is a greater risk of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any of her children, under section 1(1)(a) of the Abortion Act 1967.
Our current abortion limits are out of time and out of touch; today, MPs will have the chance to bring our abortion law into the 21st century.