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Babies Left to Die

Debate Over Abortion Is Rekindled in Britain

LONDON, JULY 17, 2004 ( Abortion laws are at the center of a controversy in Britain after the Sunday Times published a series of articles on late-term abortions. The newspaper reported June 20 on a number of cases where babies had been left to die unattended after having survived abortions.

The article quoted an unnamed midwife who claimed that her hospital had an unwritten rule of not aiding babies who survived abortions. Another case involved a baby who survived for three days. The infant received nourishment, but no medical help. British law allows abortion up to 24 weeks, but permits them right up to the end of pregnancy in cases of handicaps.

On June 27 the Sunday Times reported on the case of a healthy baby born after 25 weeks of pregnancy. The baby was only hours away from being aborted, but the mother gave birth prematurely. The baby survived.

Shortly after these revelations the British Medical Association held its annual conference. According to information presented at the meeting by Dr. Michael Wilks, chairman of the BMA ethics committee, 114 pregnancies were terminated after 24 weeks in 2002, the Telegraph reported July 2. Other data from 2002, published by the Sunday Times on July 4, revealed that 1,354 babies of 22 weeks or more gestation, who may have been capable of surviving, were aborted.

The conference subsequently debated a resolution calling for babies surviving abortions to be given “the same full neonatal care as that available to other babies.” The motion was approved by 65.3% of the doctors.

A July 4 editorial in the Sunday Times said there were nearly 185,000 abortions in Britain in 2002, the latest year for which data are available. This means that nearly a quarter of conceptions ended in abortion. This is one of the highest levels in Europe, and the number of abortions is rising.

Even the Sunday Times editorial, which argued in favor of maintaining legal abortion, admitted that matters have gotten out of hand. It cited an investigation by one pro-life activist, who asked schoolgirls what they would do if they found they were pregnant just before a skiing holiday. “The answer was that they would have an abortion and go on holiday.”

“This was not what the drafters of the 1967 act had in mind when specifying the conditions for abortion,” noted the editorial. The 1967 law allowed abortions when a baby would “harm the woman’s physical or mental health,” or if it would harm other children the woman already had.

Change proposed to time limit

David Steel, who introduced the bill into the House of Commons that led to the 1967 abortion law, stepped into the debate with an opinion article in the Guardian newspaper of July 6. He explained that originally the law’s time limit for abortions was set at 28 weeks. Following medical improvements on the viability of premature births, in 1990 this was reduced to 24 weeks.

Steel still defends abortions, and even late abortions in the case of handicaps. But he admitted the need to rethink the question of later-term abortions, saying he tended toward the idea of lowering the limit to 22 weeks and of generally trying to restrict abortions to the first 12 weeks.

Questioned in Parliament, Prime Minister Tony Blair said the matter of the time limit on abortions could be reviewed, BBC reported July 7. But the prime minister’s office explained that there was no formal government plan to change the law.

Pro-life groups have had mixed reactions to the idea of lowering the time limit for abortions. The Society for the Protection of Unborn Children opposed Steel’s proposal. In a July 5 press release, Anthony Ozimic of SPUC commented: “Lord Steel’s proposal is not aimed at reducing the numbers of abortions, as his call for a general ban on abortions after 12 weeks was accompanied with a promotion of abortion on demand before 12 weeks.”

In contrast, the organization Life, according to the Times of July 8, said: “Of course we welcome any measure which reduces the amount of destruction of unborn children.”

Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, archbishop of Westminster, said he welcomed Blair’s support for a review of the law, according to a July 8 press release from the offices of the Catholic Church in England and Wales.

And Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff noted: “Advances in fetal medicine reveal more and more clearly the humanity of the unborn child. Faced with this evidence, it is not surprising that so many people now call for a change in the abortion law.” He added: “Tragically, our present law has been used to sanction killing the unborn on a massive scale. I hope that people of all faiths and none will mobilize the political will to curb the practice of abortion which undermines the very foundation of a civilized society.”

Womb walking

Two other recent events have contributed to the rethinking of abortion in Britain. On June 28, BBC reported on new ultrasound scans that produce vivid pictures of unborn children. The scans are being used by Stuart Campbell at London’s Create Health Clinic. He showed pictures of a 12-week-old fetus seemingly walking in the womb, as well as images of unborn babies appearing to smile.

Campbell has developed a way to show three-dimensional images of the unborn, as well as fetal movement. The scans have revealed, for example, that from 12 weeks unborn babies can stretch, kick and leap around the womb — well before the mother can feel movement. Campbell said this shows that the unborn baby engages in complex behavior from an early stage of its development.

The scans have led Campbell to rethink his own position on abortion, the Guardian reported June 29. He is now opposed to aborting babies after the 14th week of pregnancy. “The more I study fetuses the more I find it quite distressing to terminate babies who are so advanced in terms of human behavior,” he said.

Another event causing widespread debate over abortion was the television broadcast of a film depicting an abortion. The Telegraph on April 5 said it was the first time that an abortion had been televised in Britain. The woman undergoing the abortion was 4 weeks pregnant. The program also included pictures of fetuses aborted at 10, 11 and 21 weeks.

The program, “My Fetus,” was made by Julia Black, whose father founded an abortion clinic in London. She admitted having had an abortion herself when she was 21. Even though she declared her support for abortion, Black told the Telegraph: “I think the pro-choice movement can no longer rely on just arguing abortion is a woman’s right. They have to start engaging with the reality.”

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor, commenting in the Telegraph on April 11, admitted the provocative nature of the film, but hoped the event would cause people to think seriously about what abortion means. “Many, perhaps for the first time, will realize that abortion involves the deliberate destruction of human life,” he said.

It may be too optimistic to expect any immediate changes to abortion laws in Britain. But recent events are forcing people to seriously reflect about the humanity of the unborn.

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