An Open Challenge to those in Favour of Retaining 24 Weeks

This is nice and simple. I challenge absolutely anybody who is in favour of maintaining the limit on abortions to do the following:

  1. Read this piece from yesterday’s Telegraph
  2. Explain coherently why it would have been moral to inject Ellie-Suzanne’s heart with poison to kill her and then to dismember her before removing the body parts a day before her birth
  3. Explain coherently why you would or would not view it as moral to to inject Ellie-Suzanne’s heart with poison to kill her and then to dismember her before removing the body parts a day after her birth.
  4. If your answers to 2 and 3 are different, please explain the inconsistency

Watching as blood pulsed through tiny vessels made visible by the transparency of her daughter’s undeveloped skin, Beverley Fish knew the score. If she hadn’t, the medical and nursing staff would, with sympathy and gentleness, have made it clear to her.

Delivered at 23 weeks, one week under the legal limit for abortion, Ellie-Suzanne had a 10 to 15 per cent chance of survival. If she made it, a host of health problems – the legacy of her extreme prematurity – would, in all probability, overshadow her life and that of her family.

That bleak reality didn’t stop Mrs Fish and her husband, Dave, from clinging to hope. They had four healthy children already and, given the prognosis, it would have been entirely understandable had they hesitated in the face of a protracted battle for Ellie’s survival, which required them to consent to two brain operations.

But from the day she was born on September 3 last year, Ellie was part of their family and hope was all they had. While she has brain damage and "isn’t 100 per cent safe" according to her father, this week she was allowed home for the first time and the family is celebrating.

The human instinct to fight for and protect a life that has barely begun is not something that Health Minister Dawn Primarolo has much time for. She prefers the hard certainty of science in which statistics, rather than individual cases, dictate an outcome. Normally, I’d share this view. And yet, of all the many arguments ricocheting back and forth in the great abortion debate of 2008, Miss Primarolo’s contribution is among the least intelligent and helpful.

Amendments to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, to be voted on by MPs next week, call for the abortion limit to be cut to between 12 and 22 weeks on the grounds that improving survival rates in very premature babies, and growing evidence of foetal sentience – that the foetus feels pain – make the present threshold unacceptable.

But Miss Primarolo believes that any reduction in the legal limit from 24 weeks would give false hope to parents of very premature babies.

"There is a danger of giving hope to desperate parents, who are in difficult enough circumstances anyway, that may not be there for them," she said, in a statement I suspect was rather more aimed at reassuring the pro-choice sisterhood than those parents she was speaking of.

And how patronising – and utterly illogical – is her stance. The fact that a small percentage of very premature babies – born at 24, 23 and even 22 weeks – are viable is well-documented. So rare are these "survivors" that they frequently make the headlines, as is the case with the "world’s smallest surviving baby", Amillia Taylor, born at 21 weeks and six days in October 2006.

It is also well established that, while a lucky few will grow into healthy children, others will have to cope with varying degrees of physical and mental disability. The public knows and understands this, and I do not see how reducing the abortion limit will fuel or diminish hope, false or otherwise, for those coping with the challenge of caring for a very premature baby.

Hope is not something that can be legislated for. Spend time in any neo-natal or special care baby unit and you will see parents standing guard over the fragile occupants of cots and incubators, desperate not to miss the slightest twitch or a yawn. They are busy squaring the reality – of which they will be well aware – with hope. And that is what Ellie-Suzanne’s parents will continue to do.

In the meantime, Miss Primarolo’s argument detracts from what is important; the opportunity presented by the vote next week to deliver an abortion limit in keeping with the pace of expected advances in foetal and neo-natal medicine. How many more babies born at 24 weeks or less will be surviving in 10, 15, or 20 years, when artificial wombs will be a practical reality rather than something from the realms of science fiction?

This is the first Commons vote on abortion laws in almost two decades. MPs should make it count.

Can you believe that line by Dawn Primarolo? It amounts to "Don’t bother saving human lives – your baby doesn’t really count".

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