Call for review of abortion time limits after new evidence reveals unborn babies could feel pain at just 13 weeks

New evidence has suggested unborn babies at 13 weeks gestation could be suffering pain as they are being aborted.

Currently, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists author all clinical guidelines for UK abortion providers. They rely on a 2010 review they undertook into fetal awareness when providing guidance to abortion providers on whether unborn children in an abortion can feel pain. 

They claim that the unborn baby is in an unconscious state and does not reach consciousness until birth. They have been criticised for this conclusion being based on the evidence from only one paper from 1986, an experiment on sheep foetuses exposed to low oxygen levels.

But two medical researchers, including a ‘pro-choice’ British pain expert who used to think there was no chance unborn babies could feel pain before 24-weeks, say recent studies strongly suggest the assumption is incorrect.

In an article, published in the influential Journal of Medical Ethics, the researchers say there is now “good evidence” that the brain and nervous system, which start developing at 12 weeks’ gestation, are sufficient enough for the baby to feel pain.

They argue that women considering an abortion at this stage of pregnancy should be told about the pain their unborn baby could experience while being terminated.

Noting the increased concerns of women over the pain unborn babies may experience, they say medical staff should ask if the woman wants the baby to be given pain relief.

To carry on regardless of new evidence “flirts with moral recklessness,” they add.

Currently, the use of pain relief in the UK is not required by law or suggested in official guidelines. This in itself is contradicted by the standard NHS practice of giving painkillers to unborn babies receiving surgery in the womb for spina bifida

The lead author of the article is British professor Stuart Derbyshire, who has acted as a consultant to the US’ largest abortion provider – Planned Parenthood – and the Pro-Choice Forum in the UK.

In 2006, he wrote in the British Medical Journal that not talking to women seeking abortions about pain experienced by unborn babies was “sound policy based on good evidence that foetuses cannot experience pain”.

However, due to recent studies, he says “it is now clear that the consensus is no longer tenable.”

Professor Derbyshire and Dr Bockmann advise: “Given the evidence that the foetus might be able to experience something like pain during later abortions, it seems reasonable that the clinical team and the pregnant woman are encouraged to consider foetal analgesia [pain relief].”

The two medics add that their own “stark differences” on the morality of abortion “should not interfere with discussion of whether foetal pain is possible”.

Pro-life groups and leading politicians have called for a parliamentary review on abortion time limits, noting that the last debate had on this issue was in 2008 before any new evidence had come to light.

Pro-life MP Fiona Bruce said: “Given developing views and research on foetal pain, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ guidance on this issue in relation to abortion – which is now nearly ten years old – should be reviewed.”

Cross-bench peer Lord Alton, who is part of a parliamentary inquiry into foetal pain, said: “This new evidence adds further pressure on Parliament to urgently review our current abortion time limit. We last had a proper debate on time limits in 2008.”

Calls for a review of time limits were quickly rejected by the UK’s largest abortion provider, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, who boldly told the Mail on Sunday: “There is nothing in this paper which would lead to a change in practice.” 

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists declined to comment. 

This is in contrast to the French College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists guidelines which state: 

[English translation]: “Fetal analgesia is justified by pain stimulation in case of an intracardiac puncture, but also because the injection of KCl [potassium chloride] or death itself can be painful.”

A national survey of French pre-natal diagnosis centers revealed that for late-term abortions 97% of abortion clinics or hospitals surveyed will always give unborn babies pain relief prior to administering a lethal injection that induces a heart attack (known as feticide). 

A spokesperson for Right to Life UK Catherine Robinson said:

“In light of this new evidence, we back the calls of Fiona Bruce and Lord Alton in calling for an urgent parliamentary review of time limits.

“17,913 women in the UK underwent an abortion at 13 weeks or later, in 2018, without any guidance mandating the use of pain relief for the unborn baby at any age. Yet, babies undergoing correctional surgery in the womb for Spinal Bifida, from 20 weeks gestation, will experience minimal pain as they’ll be administered pain relief. 

“Why is there this discrepancy? Perhaps it is because the provision of painkillers to a baby that is about to have their life ended would help bring home the reality of abortion. To recognise their pain would have a deeply humanising effect on unborn babies, which is something that abortion supporters are keen to avoid. It would acknowledge that there is another human being who is being denied their right to life, while they are at their weakest and most vulnerable.

Babies aborted late in pregnancy in France receive painkiller which is not provided in the UK

A national survey of French prenatal diagnosis centres has revealed that for late-term abortions 97% of abortion clinics or hospitals surveyed will always give unborn babies pain relief prior to administering a lethal injection that induces a heart attack (known as feticide). 

This is done in accordance with the guidelines of the French College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists which states: 

[English translation]: “Fetal analgesia is justified by pain stimulation in case of an intracardiac puncture, but also because the injection of KCl [potassium chloride] or death itself can be painful.”

The survey found that the vast majority of centres (82%) routinely administered pain relief injections directly into the umbilical cord, which has no nerve cells and therefore would not be painful, as opposed to directly into the unborn baby. 

The French survey also revealed that Xylocaine is used almost exclusively for the heart-attack-inducing lethal injection involved in ‘feticide’ rather than potassium chloride. Xylocaine has anaesthetic properties whereas dilute potassium chloride given intravenously to adult patients has been described as ‘excruciatingly painful’.

In contrast, the use of painkillers in the UK is not required by law or suggested in official guidelines. 

This in itself is contradicted by the standard NHS practice of giving painkillers to unborn babies receiving surgery in the womb for spina bifida

Estimates have predicted that 80 percent of unborn babies diagnosed with spina bifida, each year, are aborted. However, pro-life campaigners are hopeful that now the surgery has been made routinely available on the NHS the number of unborn babies terminated each year will fall.

A spokesperson for Right to Life UK Catherine Robinson said:

“There is a glaring inconsistency, here. Last year, in the UK, 3602 women underwent an abortion at 20 weeks or later without any guidance mandating the use of pain relief for the unborn baby; many of these will be following the diagnosis of a disability. Yet, in the very same hospitals, mothers are being assured that their babies of the same age will feel no pain while undergoing spinal surgery in the womb because pain relief is being administered.

“Why is there this discrepancy? Perhaps it is because the provision of painkillers to a baby that is about to have their life ended would help bring home the reality of abortion. To recognise their pain would have a deeply humanising effect on unborn babies, which is something that abortion supporters are keen to avoid. It would acknowledge that there is another human being who is being denied their right to life, while they are at their weakest and most vulnerable.” 

Abortion regulator, RCOG, looks into foetal pain… but who looks into them?

For months we have been aware of the discriminatory disparity in patient care: that unborn babies aged 20-24 weeks gestation undergoing spina bifida surgery receive foetal painkillers, but that babies of the same age being aborted are not given painkillers. 

MPs have been lobbying the Department of Health and Social Care who have finally raised the issue of the use of foetal painkillers in late term abortions with the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG). 

This would be welcome news because one would assume that the RCOG would recommend that all babies from a gestational age of 20 weeks onwards would receive painkillers prior to any invasive procedure.

However, RCOG’s track record suggests otherwise.

When they were first asked by the Department of Health to investigate foetal pain in 1997, they concluded that consultants should consider the need for the use of painkillers for ‘diagnostic or therapeutic procedures’ on foetuses in utero. Indeed, the Department of Health admitted that foetal painkillers are used in cases of in utero surgery from 20 weeks gestation. But what about in cases of abortion? If an unborn child needs painkillers for ‘diagnostic or therapeutic procedures’, surely they need them all the more in an abortion? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the RCOG omitted to raise or answer these awkward questions.

To do so would risk humanising the unborn baby our society has worked so hard to dehumanise, at least when it comes to abortion. This is why we witness this curious doublethink whereby unborn babies in need of ‘diagnostic or therapeutic procedures’ are given painkillers, but babies to be aborted are not. In the former case, the baby is (presumably) wanted, and therefore acknowledged to be a baby capable of feeling pain and entitled to pain relief. In the latter, the unwanted baby, destined to be aborted, amazingly enough, can feel no pain (according to RCOG at least).

How do we know that the baby destined to be aborted can feel no pain? Well, in 2010, the RCOG looked into this question confidently announcing that before a 24 week abortion,   “No, the fetus does not experience pain”.

In fact, the RCOG go even further than this. In their 2010 Guidelines on Fetal Awareness they assert that the unborn baby is in an unconscious state and does not reach consciousness until birth. This conclusion is based on, in the words of RCOG 2010 ‘good’, ‘increasing’ evidence, but this evidence was one paper from 1986: an experiment on sheep foetuses exposed to low oxygen levels. As a result, they concluded, and ever since have advised mothers accordingly, that there is no requirement for foetal painkillers prior to an abortion at any gestational age even up to the point of birth. 

Again though, this does not square with practice in relation to in utero corrective surgery on unborn babies.

Sadly this is not surprising given the varied lengths RCOG has gone to in dehumanising the unborn baby whose life will come to an end in abortion. For example, specifically using language which ignores the humanity of the child such as ‘products of conception’, a ‘pregnancy’ and, by the president of the RCOG, likened to a bunion

Moreover, the RCOG, who author all clinical guidelines for the UK abortion industry and have many members who benefit from this, are effectively unaccountable without checks or oversight. The Department of Health does not let the tobacco industry govern itself, but it does allow this freedom to the abortion industry, worth an estimated £118 million annually in 2011. They also use their position of unchecked authority to advise parliament and publish their version of abortion advice to schools.

RCOG clinical guidelines are more untouchable than the law itself. Our law is made by elected representatives in the open to serve the country; their clinical guidelines are made by an unaccountable body behind closed doors to serve themselves.

So, based on their past form and knowing that they can publish unaccountably, what advice will they come up with for these babies being aborted without painkiller? Unless their hand is forced, anything they wish.

Until RCOG say otherwise, around ten mothers a day* continue to proceed with a very late term abortion (post 20 weeks) under the assurance that their baby will feel no pain and so does not need painkiller. Yet in the same hospitals, mothers with babies of the same age are assured that their baby will feel no pain because foetal painkillers will be given.

*In 2018, there were 3,602 abortions after 20 weeks. Therefore, there were approximately 10 late term abortions (post 20 weeks) every day in 2018. (See Abortion statistics 2018: data tables T5)

All opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of Right To Life UK.

All opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of Right To Life UK.