The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) released new guidelines this week (30.06.10), finding that foetuses cannot feel pain in the womb before 24 weeks. The evidence strikes a blow to anti-choice campaigners who wish to reduce abortion term limits on the grounds of foetal pain, offering fresh evidence that current term limits remain scientifically sound.
The reports on foetal awareness and abnormality – the first published since 1997 – were commissioned by the Department of Health, following recommendations by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee in 2008.
Examining at what stage in development a foetus has experience of pain, the RCOG concluded that due to lack of neural connection development, a foetus “cannot feel pain in any sense prior to this gestation”, remaining naturally sedated in a “continuous, sleep-like unconsciousness” until after 24 weeks.
Ann Quesney, international policy and parliamentary advisor at Marie Stopes said, “The RCOG’s findings should give comfort and reassurance to any woman who finds herself in the extremely distressing position of having to make the decision to terminate a pregnancy at a later gestation.”
The report also found that even after 24 weeks, it is difficult to conclude when and how a foetus experiences pain – strengthening the case for late-term abortions, which are currently permitted for risks to the mother’s health, or serious abnormality.
However, in the second of the two reports, which looked at foetal abnormality, the RCOG declined to produce a definitive list of conditions which could legally constitute a “serious handicap”, finding it “unrealistic” to make such judgements due to diagnostic limitations. Instead, they recommended further study, and stressed the importance of non-directive, non-judgemental support and advice to women considering termination due to foetal abnormality.
Professor Allan Templeton, chair of the Foetal Awareness working party, said, “These two reports represent an extensive review of the scientific and clinical literature… I believe we now have robust and updated guidance for healthcare professionals.”
During the General Election campaign David Cameron voiced his support for a cut in the time limit to 20 or 22 weeks, on the grounds of medical evidence. Following the publication of the RCOG report however, a Downing Street spokeswoman said:
“The Prime Minister’s view is that he will be led by the science.”
She added: “At the moment there are no plans to change the policy.”