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Increased survival rate for premature babies born prompts calls to review current law

The survival rate for extremely premature babies has doubled over the past decade, prompting new guidance allowing doctors to try to save babies born as early as 22 weeks into a pregnancy.

The previous clinical guidance, drafted in 2008, included a presumption against attempting to provide life-saving treatment to a baby born before 23 weeks, on the basis it would not be in the child’s best interests.

However, there is now new evidence that those born at this age have a good chance of survival.

In 2008 only two out of ten babies born alive at 23 weeks went on to survive. Today it is four out of ten, according to a new analysis from the British Association of Perinatal Medicine (BAPM).

Once you get to over 22 weeks, the chances of survival increase week-by-week due to technical advances, better planning so pregnant mothers who go into preterm labour go straight to specialist units and the increased use of steroids.

In 2016, 38% of babies born at 23 weeks go on to survive – double the rate 10 years previously. Once a baby gets to 26 weeks, treatment is proceeded on in most cases and 82% survive.

The new guidance states that, after consulting the family, doctors should try to save the child if they judge it is in their best interest.

The findings have prompted calls to review the current law in order to help lower abortion numbers and save the lives of babies.

Right To Life UK spokesperson Catherine Robinson said:

“This is something that Parliament should urgently revisit. It has been over a decade since time limits were last debated fully in Parliament, in 2008. 

There is a real contradiction in British law. In one room of a hospital, doctors could be working to save a baby born alive before 24 weeks whilst in another room a doctor could perform an abortion which would end the life of a baby at the same age. Surely this contradiction needs to end?

Independent polling from ComRes shows that 70% of women in the UK want to see the time limit for abortion reduced to 20 weeks or below. Our current abortion time limit is way out of line with the rest of Europe where the most common abortion time limit is 12 weeks.

This change in guidance adds further evidence to the need for Parliament to urgently review our current abortion time limit. We support any change in law that would help lower abortion numbers and save the lives of babies in the womb. 

It’s time that our laws were brought into line with public opinion, modern science and the rest of Europe.”

About 60,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK each year, of which 3,148 are considered “extremely premature” — born before 27 weeks.

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