Abortion reform call as record number of babies survive birth at 23 weeks

Sarah-Kate Templeton, Health Editor Published: 31 August 2014

AT LEAST 120 babies born during week 23 of a pregnancy — the last week when abortions on demand are legal — have survived in the past four years, The Sunday Times can reveal.

New figures show the number of babies who are born before the 24-week legal abortion limit and survive is rising at large hospitals with specialist doctors. The real number of week 23 babies who survived is likely to be higher, as it is based on a sample of 25 hospitals that replied to a request under freedom of information laws.

The disclosure will revive the debate over the legal limit for abortion. In 2008, MPs voted against moves to reduce the limit to 22 or 20 weeks. Healthy babies can be aborted legally on demand up to 24 weeks into the pregnancy.

The new figures show that at Central Manchester University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, six of eight babies born at 23 weeks and admitted to the neonatal unit for treatment last year survived.

Six of seven babies born at 23 weeks at University College London Hospitals (UCLH) and given treatment to save them survived. All five born at 23 weeks at North Bristol NHS Trust last year also lived.

In 2011, 565 babies were aborted at 23 weeks’ gestation when they would have had a chance of survival.

Nationally, however, and particularly in smaller hospitals, the survival figures are lower. The EPICure study, published in 2012 and based on births in 2006, found that just 19% of babies born at 23 weeks survived. The research also found high levels of disability among babies born at 23 weeks.

These statistics are used by some to defend the abortion limit, arguing the survival rate remains poor. The figures obtained by The Sunday Times show that, even in the past four years, at some trusts where up to eight babies have been born at 23 weeks, none has lived.

Some leading neonatologists argue, however, that where treatment is centralised in large hospitals with specialist expertise, the survival rate is high and increasing.

Dr Ngozi Edi-Osagie, clinical director of neonatal services at Central Manchester University Hospitals, said: “It is a concentration of expertise, both in medical and nursing, that contribute to making a difference in survival at this very low gestation.” She fears a pessimistic view harms such babies’ prospects. “If you say that they don’t survive, they won’t,” she said.

At UCLH, 20 of the 26 babies born at 23 weeks between 2010 and 2013 and given active treatment to keep them alive survived. At North Bristol NHS Trust, 15 of the 19 babies born at 23 weeks between 2011 and July this year survived; and at Central Manchester University Hospitals, the figure was 10 of 16 over the same period. Six of the 11 babies born at 23 weeks at Barts Health NHS Trust in London and admitted to the neonatal units in the two years between 2012 and 2014 also survived.

Fiona Bruce, Conservative MP and member of the all-party pro-life group, said: “I do not understand why there is not more outcry about the fact that we allow viable babies to be aborted.

“The new figures support what we have known for a while: that advances in pre-natal care make a mockery of our 24-week abortion limit.”

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