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Last Updated: Thursday, 30 June, 2005, 07:59 GMT 08:59 UK
Doctors mull abortion time limits
By Nick Triggle
BBC News health reporter in Manchester

Pregnant woman
Doctors will discuss at what stage of pregnancy abortion should stop
Doctors are to reopen the abortion debate with a vote on whether to lower the legal limit for abortions.

Terminations are allowed up to 24 weeks, but the time limit has been questioned as medical progress improved premature baby survival rates.

This is the first time the British Medical Association conference has debated abortion limits since 1989.

It follows recent calls from some politicians for the limit to be lowered to 20 weeks.

1969 - 5.3
1979 - 12
1989 - 15.5
1999 - 16.2
2003 - 16.6

Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's head of science and ethics, said: "Medical advancements mean that some babies born before 24 weeks are surviving.

"The majority still die, but because more live than they used to - quite often with disabilities - it is time to have this debate."

A number of motions have been put forward by doctors, ranging from keeping the status quo to reducing the limit to 20 weeks in line with what some campaigners have been demanding.

However, it is planned delegates will only be asked to vote on a motion which calls for an unspecified reduction in the upper limit.

Less than 1% of the 190,000 abortions a year in England and Wales are carried out after 22 weeks with 87% before 13 weeks.

But the abortion rate has more than trebled since it was legalised in 1969.

Mixed views

Dr Andrew Roland, a paediatric specialist registrar, said: "This is not about anti-abortion, it is certainly not anti-choice, and it not about denying the rights of pregnant women.

France: 12 weeks
Germany: 12 weeks
Italy: 13 weeks
Sweden: 18 weeks
US: limits after 26 weeks
Australia: No limit

"There is a disparity between legislation and what happens in clinical practice at the moment.

"Babies are surviving below 24 weeks, and in the past they did not, so I think it is time for a review of this legislation."

However, Dr Kate Patterson, a consultant community gynaeocologist, said: "It is about ensuring that women are able to have a baby in circumstances where they feel they can to look after it.

"There are very few women who request late abortion, and those that do only do it circumstances where they really cannot countenance having a child."

Moral issues

Campaigners remain divided over whether the upper limit for abortion should be altered.

Pro-life group Life said it supported moves to lower the legal limit as long as it did not lead to abortions being made much easier to access early on.

A spokeswoman said: "Our message to doctors would be that it is a sensible proposal to reduce the time limit for abortion in line with advances that have been made."

But other campaign groups disagreed.

Paul Tully, general secretary of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children said he felt any review of the abortion laws by MPs could lead to a relaxation of the rules, and an increase, rather than a decrease, in abortions.

He said there needed to be a debate on the moral issues of terminating pregnancies.

And the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, which carried out 50,000 abortions last year, has sent an open letter to BMA members ahead of their vote urging them to reject a reduction.

Chief executive Ann Furedi said: "If the time limit is lowered some women will be forced to become unwilling mothers.

"Others will travel abroad for legal abortion in other countries."

How advances in premature baby care prompted rethink

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