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The Abortion Debate Heats Up in the UK

John on October 13, 2007 at 12:36 am

As Parliament is about to reconsider the abortion law in the UK, both sides are gearing up for the conflict. The Daily Mail has an interesting story about pro-choice individuals — including some abortionists — who feel the abortion laws are too liberal:

This week the Science and Technology Select Committee published more than 300 pages of written evidence from doctors and campaign groups on each side of the argument.

One of the most controversial submissions – as revealed in yesterday’s Daily Mail – comes from senior consultant obstetrician Dr Vincent Argent, who wants to see so-called social abortions (where the foetus is healthy and there is no serious risk to the mother’s wellbeing) limited to 16 weeks.

And he’s not alone in his unease about the current law. In next Wednesday’s Dispatches programme on Channel 4 we reveal the deep concern among many doctors who, like Dr Argent, work within the abortion service and are passionate supporters of a woman’s right to choose, yet who still believe the current law urgently needs changing.

They’ve been having this debate privately for a long time, but they don’t talk about it in public – and one of the reasons is the very nature of the abortion procedure, especially in the later stages.

Where are the reasonable pro-choicers in this country? I’ve never met one. Here’s where the article gets appropriately graphic:

Dr Spencer opens a fresh pack of shiny instruments. He’s an extremely calm, softly spoken man, which somehow makes his words all the more devastating. “The foetus can’t come out in one go. We haven’t dilated sufficiently for that. The foetal parts are soft enough to break apart as they are being removed…”

In other words, he has to dismember the foetus inside the uterus and pull it out, bit by bit. He uses an ultrasound scan to guide him. Even then, some body parts are too large to come out intact.

To illustrate what happens, Dr Spencer grips his thumb between the surgical forceps and squeezes gently. “Those parts are the skull and then the spine and pelvis, and in fact they are crushed…”

Dr. Spencer is set to appear on British television describing the procedure in graphic detail. It’s almost unbelievable to me. In fact, I’m still in shock that a major daily is able to find pro-choice doctors willing to go on record as having moral qualms about their work. I’ve certainly never heard about such people from the NY Times or LA Times? We haven’t ever seen an abortion doctor talking about dismembering live fetuses on 60 Minutes. So I just assumed such people didn’t exist. Yet this one article seems to have uncovered a whole bunch of them:

Already many local NHS trusts don’t have any staff who are willing to perform abortions much beyond 12 weeks of pregnancy. Women needing later abortions are often referred to Marie Stopes or the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

Dr Kate Guthrie is a senior member of the RCOG. She also runs the NHS abortion service in Hull, where she operates on patients who are up to 14 weeks pregnant.

She’d be willing to retrain for the more complicated later procedure, but she wouldn’t operate beyond 20 weeks. “I think every individual has their cut-off point. It’s not scientific, it’s just personal, it’s just foetal size.”

When I press her to spell out whether she means if the foetus is just “too much of a baby”, she says: “I suppose so.”

Finally, the article touches on medical developments that have changed the abortion landscape, in particular new research on fetal pain:

In the mid-Nineties, partly in response to growing public concern about such issues, the RCOG put together a panel of experts who came to the reassuring conclusion that the foetus couldn’t feel pain until 26 weeks gestation – safely beyond the abortion time limit.

They said the part of the brain that responds to pain simply isn’t developed at 26 weeks. In other words, any physical movements the foetus displays before then are purely reflex actions – the foetus is not aware and can’t feel anything.

But we found disturbing research in America that directly contradicts this established view. It came from Dr Sunny Anand, who has a distinguished record in helping to prove that very young babies can feel pain. When he was based at Oxford University in the 1980s his work helped to ensure that newborn babies were routinely given pain relief for surgical procedures.

His latest research is extremely technical and covers two areas. First, he’s been comparing how newborn babies and unborn foetuses react to any kind of stress, including pain.

He’s found similar changes in their hormones and their blood flow, suggesting that foetuses can indeed respond to pain.

Secondly, he’s been researching – using rats – exactly which parts of the developing brain are used to detect pain.

He says that while the adult uses the very top section of the brain, the foetus has the first flickerings of sensation in the area below that. Crucially, this part of the brain develops before 26 weeks.

His conclusions could have enormous consequences for the abortion debate. He told Dispatches: “I believe that foetuses can feel pain very likely by 20 weeks of gestation and possibly even earlier.

Unfortunately, in this country we can’t have our elected officials make a reasoned judgment about abortion based on the best medical information. That possibility has been taken out of our hands by a series of Supreme Court decisions which make abortion all but untouchable by law.

The next time I hear someone saying that Europe has a more enlightened view of abortion, I’ll just nod my head in agreement. More enlightened and therefore far more restrictive.

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Category: Pro-Life |

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