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Over 700 medical professionals urge MPs to lower abortion time limit to 22 weeks

Over 700 medical professionals have called on MPs to back an amendment to the Government’s Criminal Justice Bill in what would be the biggest change to abortion law for a generation.

In a letter to MPs, the medical professionals have urged MPs to vote in support of the landmark amendment tabled by a cross-party group of over 30 MPs, led by Caroline Ansell MP, that would lower the abortion time limit from 24 to 22 weeks in line with advances in medical science.

In their open letter, the medics cite the fact that “in the decade to 2019 alone, the survival rate for 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”.

They describe the amendment as “long overdue” given the “increased numbers of babies born at 22 or 23 weeks who are now able to survive”.

In their letter, the medical professionals also mention how the abortion limit was reduced from 28 to 24 weeks in 1990 “in reflection of medical and technological advancements that had resulted in improving survival rates for babies born before 28 weeks gestation”. Given the medical and technological advances since then, they argue that a “reduction in the upper time limit to 22 weeks would be appropriate”.

One of the signatories of the medical professionals’ letter Dr John Wyatt, Emeritus Professor of Neonatal Paediatrics, Ethics & Perinatology at University College London, has worked as a neonatologist for almost 30 years. He said

“I have first hand experience that on the one hand we are able to keep babies alive from 22 to 23 weeks gestation and many of them survive and live normal and healthy lives, yet at the same time the current abortion act allows abortion to be carried out effectively at maternal request at 24 weeks gestation”.

24-week abortion limit is double the most common time limit in the EU

The group of MPs backing the amendment includes 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.

A 24-week abortion limit is now beyond the point when many babies survive, and is in fact double that of the most common time limit among European Union countries and represents a contradiction at the heart of our abortion law.

Mischa, a mum from Surrey who gave birth to her daughter Amaya at 23 weeks and five days said “Our beautiful Amaya was born at 23 weeks and 5 days. She’ll be turning 3 years old in the summer and has come such a long way. She’s the most expressive baby and it is so fun to see what silly face she may pull next, always showing her emotions!”

She continued “She has brought so much light to so many lives … It’s not easy to raise our premature baby. Every day was a fight; she has been fighting so hard. But we wouldn’t change it for the world. My little one was born at 23 weeks – why does she get to live while a 24-week baby in the womb could still be aborted?”

“The UK abortion law is out of date with medical science – my daughter is living proof of that. She’s a baby, just like others in the womb at 22 or 23 weeks. We hope to see this law changed to bring it in line with modern science so babies in the womb, the same age as my little fighter when she was born, are treated the same”.

24 to 22 weeks, the case for change

Research published in November 2023 by academics at the University of Leicester and Imperial College London indicates that a significant number of babies born at 22 and 23 weeks gestation can now survive outside the womb. According to this research, there were a total of 261 babies born alive at 22 and 23 weeks, before the abortion limit, who survived to discharge from hospital in 2020 and 2021.

This is compared to the Government abortion statistics, which show that in 2021 alone, 755 ‘ground C’ abortions were performed when the baby was at 22 or 23 weeks gestation (ground C is the statutory ground under which the vast majority of abortions are permitted and there is currently a 24-week time limit for abortions performed under this statutory ground).

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.

Our 24-week time limit is also out of step 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. 

Countries with 12-week limits for abortion on demand or on broad social grounds include Germany, Italy and Belgium as well as the more “liberal” Nordic countries Denmark and Finland. Even Sweden has a time limit for abortion on demand or on broad social grounds that is much lower than the United Kingdom at 18 weeks.

Spokesperson for Right To Life UK, Catherine Robinson, said “The UK abortion time limit is double the average among EU countries, which is 12 weeks gestation, a point in pregnancy when the NHS website describes the unborn baby as ‘fully formed’”.

“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”.

“That’s why we need to support Caroline Ansell’s amendment to lower the abortion time limit from 24 to 22 weeks in line with advances in medical science”.

Dear reader,

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