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BMJ. 2007 October 20; 335(7624): 789.
PMCID: PMC2034702

Experts clash as committee debates reducing 24 week abortion limit

Clare Dyer, legal correspondent

Health experts clashed this week over the long term health risks for women who have terminations as the House of Commons science and technology committee launched its inquiry into whether the abortion laws in England and Wales need updating in the light of current knowledge.

Doctors who gave evidence at the committee's first session agreed that the research showed that women who have induced abortions are more likely to have premature births in future—and the more terminations they have, the greater the risk.

But there was disagreement about whether abortion increases the risk of mental health problems in later life and whether women who have terminations are more prone to breast cancer.

The MPs are considering whether medical research indicates that the 24 week normal cut-off point for abortion should be reduced. They are looking at the impact of termination on the mother's health and the chances of survival for babies younger than 24 weeks' gestation.

The Pro-Life Alliance wants the upper limit cut to 20 weeks, but the BMA says that the number surviving at 24 weeks is still “extremely small” and argues that the limit should stay as it is.

There were 193 000 abortions in England and Wales last year, 89% of them performed in the first 13 weeks.

The MPs were told that a new study of the most premature babies, EPICure2, was expected to find no evidence of recent improvement in chances of survival. The British Association of Perinatal Medicine said that initial findings from the study did not support arguments for the upper limit to be reduced.

Rates of survival for babies born below 24 weeks' gestation in 2006 were 10-15%, the same as in 1995, the association said in a written submission. The evidence for the UK population did not support a conclusion that “quality survival has improved for infants below the present limit of 24 weeks.” The rates were similar in other countries, the association's president, Neil Marlow, told the committee.

But John Wyatt, professor of neonatal paediatrics at University College London, said “substantial numbers” now survived at 23 weeks at his specialist unit thanks to “significant and wide reaching improvements in the quality of care” since 1995.

Patricia Casey, professor of psychiatry at University College Dublin, said she was convinced of a causal link between abortion and the onset of mental illness. Other experts disputed that the research showed that abortion caused mental health problems.

The BMA and the Royal College of Nursing were due to give evidence after the BMJ went to press.


Articles from The BMJ are provided here courtesy of BMJ Publishing Group