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25 NHS staff perform pioneering spina bifida operation in womb

A baby has received ‘trail-blazing’ surgery in the womb to fix her spina bifida. At only 23 weeks gestation, baby Mila – short for Milagro, or miracle, in Spanish – underwent a complex operation by a team of 25 clinicians to repair her exposed spinal cord and close the hole in her back.

Her mother, Helena, found out that she had spina bifida at her 20-week scan.

“It was a very large lesion on her back and half of her spine was exposed. They said that it was likely she will be paralysed, incontinent, and will need a shunt to drain the fluid from her brain later on”, she said.

“I was beside myself when they told me all the possible outcomes for having this condition and I couldn’t stop crying”

“They told me the probability of her walking or moving her legs was very, very low – and that was absolutely devastating”.

However, within days of hearing this news, Helena was told that she and her daughter were eligible for surgery whilst her daughter was still in the womb. At 23 weeks, she was referred to a specialist hospital in Belgium, which works in partnership with the NHS, where she had the surgery.

“I’m just so grateful”

Spina bifida affects about 1,500 babies every year. Often part of the spinal cord is exposed and is prevented from developing properly. It can lead to paralysis, bowel, bladder, and kidney problems. But if surgeons can operate at between 22 and 26 weeks of pregnancy, instead of after birth, it means a much better outcome for the baby.

“I knew if I didn’t get the operation the quality of her life would be very different”, her mother said.

Fetal medicine consultant at University College Hospital in London, Professor Anna David, said: “Previously the baby would have the repair to the defect after birth – but now that we can do the surgery in the womb, the defect is closed a lot earlier so it means there’s less damage to the spine”.

“That increases the chances of the child being able to walk and have more control over their bladder and bowel”.

Three months after the surgery, Mila was born and can move her legs and toes.

Helena said: “I’m just so grateful to the surgeons who’ve done this operation because her life would look very different without it”.

Fetal pain

Babies at 22-26 weeks in the womb can receive surgery to repair spina bifida. These babies receive painkillers before they undergo the operation. However, babies at the same gestation who are undergoing abortion do not receive painkillers. In 2019, Sir Edward Leigh MP asked the Health Secretary if babies being aborted would receive pain relief in light of this contradiction. The Department of Health answered that these babies would not.

Two years later, babies being aborted still do not receive any pain relief.

Right To Life UK spokesperson, Catherine Robinson said: “Babies undergoing surgery for spina bifida receive painkillers but babies being aborted at the same gestation do not. This contradiction is a direct consequence of an abortion ideology that dehumanises the child in the womb.

“At the same time, through this amazing surgery, the humanity of the child is more evident than ever. But for the Department of Health and Social Care to admit the obvious might lead to the collapse of the whole abortion”.

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