By Roger Highfield, Science Editor
The Electronic Telegraph, August 29, 2000
Link to original location of article
THOUSANDS of abortions may cause pain to the unborn child, say doctors preparing to debate the contentious issue of "foetal awareness".
Prof Vivette Glover, of London, is calling for all terminations between 17 and 24 weeks to be performed under anaesthetic. Although 90 per cent of terminations take place before 13 weeks, when most medical opinion agrees that a foetus cannot feel pain, concern has resurfaced about those carried out during the next 11 weeks. At present, some abortions during the period of 13 to 24 weeks are carried out without anaesthesia.
Prof Glover, of Queen Charlotte's and Chelsea Hospital, who is to chair a conference on the issue at the Royal Institution in November, said yesterday that many questions remained about when the foetus became sentient. She said: "It is incredibly unlikely that the foetus could feel anything before 13 weeks because there is no linking to the brain at all. After 26 weeks it is quite probable.
"But between 17 and 26 it is increasingly possible that it starts to feel something and that abortions done in that period ought to use anaesthesia." Prof Glover acknowledged that by raising the matter she could be providing ammunition for anti-abortionists. She said: "I am pro-choice, but one should not muddle the two. One should think about how one is doing it in the most pain-free way."
According to one study, aborted foetuses have been heard to cry from 21 weeks and some doctors believe that distress can be felt as early as 13 weeks. Others question whether the foetus can feel pain before 26 weeks. Under present law, abortion can be carried out only until the 24th week of pregnancy unless there are exceptional circumstances, such as a threat to the life of the mother.
A study by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said that it was not easy to define or evaluate foetal awareness, in particular awareness of pain. It concluded that the foetus was not "aware" before 26 weeks.
Dr Gillian Penney, of the Aberdeen Maternity Hospital and chairman of the Royal College's induced abortion guideline group, said: "The foetus would not be capable of experiencing what we would perceive as pain." The evidence that underpinned the Royal College's conclusion focused on nerve connections between two crucial areas of the developing brain, the cortex and the thalamus. Until they develop after 26 weeks, sensations of pain cannot be experienced.
Prof Peter Hepper, of the foetal behaviour research centre at Queen's University, Belfast, said there was not enough evidence to say that the foetus experienced pain before 26 weeks. But he believed it was "better to be safe than sorry".
The Women and Children's Welfare Fund charity says that the foetus is less well protected from pain in Britain than animals. There was no legislation to protect the foetus, it said. But the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986 for "pre-born vertebrate animals" such as rats, guinea pigs and hedgehogs, ensured that they were not subjected to undue suffering.
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