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Caroline Ansell MP makes the case to end the “contradiction” in our abortion law

Caroline Ansell, the lead MP behind an attempt to reduce the abortion limit to 22 weeks, has argued that there is a “contradiction” in the treatment of babies at 22 and 23 weeks gestation, who, perhaps in the same hospital, can legally have their lives ended by abortion but, at the same time, are also increasingly capable of survival outside of the womb.

Ansell, who is leading a group of MPs in support of the amendment to reduce the abortion limit from 24 to 22 weeks, drew attention to the improved survival rates for extremely premature babies who are increasingly capable of survival outside of the womb even when born at these very early gestations.

“In the decade to 2019 alone”, she writes, “the survival rate in the UK for extremely premature babies born at 23 weeks doubled, prompting new guidance from the British Association of Perinatal Medicine (BAPM) that enables doctors to intervene to save premature babies from 22 weeks gestation”.

Babies can be aborted at 22 weeks but also survive outside the womb at the same gestational age

It remains the case though, despite this huge improvement, that babies who can survive outside of the womb, can still be legally aborted. In 2021, as Ansell says, “755 abortions of babies at 22 or 23 weeks gestation were performed under ground C of the statutory grounds under which abortions are permitted, for which there is currently a 24-week time limit”.

The fact that these babies were aborted at this gestational age lies at the heart of the “contradiction” highlighted by Ansell – that these babies were aborted at this gestation, but other babies at the same gestation had a dedicated medical team caring for them. Ansell writes: “This is no theoretical occurrence: a study estimated that in 2020 and 2021, 261 babies born at 22 or 23 weeks gestation survived to be discharged from hospital. These babies are unquestionably human: according to the NHS website, at 12 weeks, the unborn baby is “fully formed”; by 18 weeks, babies can begin to respond to loud noises from the outside world; by 22 weeks, they enter a pattern of sleeping and waking, and by 23 weeks they are practising breathing movements to prepare for life outside the womb”.

The most common abortion time limit across the EU is half that of the UK

When compared to almost every European Union country, it is clear that the United Kingdom is an outlier.

“The average abortion time limit among EU countries is 12 weeks, the end of the first trimester of pregnancy. Germany, Ireland and Italy are among countries that have a 12-week limit; in France and Spain, the limit is 14 weeks and even liberal Sweden’s limit of 18 weeks falls less than halfway through the second trimester of pregnancy”, Ansell said.

“It is for all these reasons that I and a cross-party group of MPs have tabled an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill to reduce the abortion time limit from 24 to 22 weeks”.

The proposed change would not affect the abortion time limit in cases where an unborn baby is thought to have a disability or in cases where the mother’s life is thought to be at risk.

Ansell’s amendment has the support of former health minister Maggie Throup, ex-shadow cabinet Labour minister Rachael Maskell, ex-shadow Labour minister Marie Rimmer, ex-home office minister Sir John Hayes, ex-Cabinet Minister Sir Jacob Rees-Mogg and Miriam Cates.

Spokesperson for Right To Life UK, Catherine Robinson, said “At the moment, a baby at 22 or 23 weeks gestation could be born prematurely and have a dedicated medical team provide expert care to try to save his or her life, while another baby at the same age could have their life deliberately ended by abortion in the same hospital at the same time”.

“This is a contradiction in UK law. This contradiction must end, and Ansell’s amendment, which now has the support of 33 MPs, is seeking to solve this”.

Dear reader,

You may be surprised to learn that our 24-week abortion time limit is out of line with the majority of European Union countries, where the most common time limit for abortion on demand or on broad social grounds is 12 weeks gestation.

The latest guidance from the British Association of Perinatal Medicine enables doctors to intervene to save premature babies from 22 weeks. The latest research indicates that a significant number of babies born at 22 weeks gestation can survive outside the womb, and this number increases with proactive perinatal care.

This leaves a real contradiction in British law. In one room of a hospital, doctors could be working to save a baby born alive at 23 weeks whilst, in another room of that same hospital, a doctor could perform an abortion that would end the life of a baby at the same age.

The majority of the British population support reducing the time limit. Polling has shown that 70% of British women favour a reduction in the time limit from 24 weeks to 20 weeks or below.

Please click the button below to sign the petition to the Prime Minister, asking him to do everything in his power to reduce the abortion time limit.