THE human foetus cannot feel pain before the age of 24 weeks, says an expert review that undermines calls to cut the time limit for abortion. Nerve connections in the foetal brain do not form fully enough to allow perception of pain until after the 24-week limit for terminating pregnancies, an expert report commissioned by Britain’s Department of Health concluded.The finding, by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, rebuts claims by anti-abortion activists that legal terminations can inflict pain on foetuses. It will undermine the efforts of MPs in Britain who have tried unsuccessfully to reduce the limit in the last parliament, to force another vote.
Professor Allan Templeton, president of the Royal College, who chaired the inquiry, said: “There’s nothing in the report that suggests any need to review the upper limit.”
The Royal College was asked by the Labour government to review the evidence for foetal pain and awareness after the Commons Science and Technology Committee criticised its last report into the issue, published in 1997, as out of date. The conclusions of a working party of doctors, scientists, midwives and ethicists were peer-reviewed by independent experts.
It found that nerve connections to the cortex, the part of the brain that deals with pain and higher mental functions, do not form properly before 24 weeks. “It can be concluded that the foetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior to this gestation,” the report said.
Research claimed by anti-abortion campaigners to show that foetuses feel pain was based on evidence from premature babies that did not apply in the womb, Professor Templeton said.
Another finding was that even after 24 weeks, the foetus is naturally sedated and unconscious in the womb. This suggests that even late abortions, which are permitted for serious abnormalities or risks to the mother’s health, are unlikely to result in suffering. The panel also advised that this sedation meant that anaesthetics, which can be risky, are not required when a foetus undergoes surgery.
A second Royal College report, into abortion for foetal abnormalities, advised that it would be impractical to draw up a list of “serious handicaps” for which late abortions can be permitted.
Some campaigners had demanded greater clarity following reports of late abortions for correctable conditions such as cleft palate. Ann Furedi, chief executive of the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said the issue of foetal pain had been politicised: “Women and doctors need to be able to make informed decisions based on what science says, not what advocates (whether pro-choice or anti-choice) wish it said.”
Anti-abortion groups said the report did not challenge other arguments for a lower limit. “Performing abortion humanely does not justify the fact that you are terminating a human life,” said Josephine Quintavalle, of Comment on Reproductive Ethics.
Posted on June 29, 2010 by Bento