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British Parliament Launches Inquiry on Age Limit

By Father John Flynn, LC

ROME, OCT. 29, 2007 (Zenit) - A long-running debate over age limits for abortions was renewed last week in England. Current law allows abortions up to the 24th week of pregnancy, but improvements in survival rates for babies born prematurely have led to pressure for the limit to be lowered.

The Abortion Act of 1967 originally set at 28 weeks the legal limit for abortions. Then, in 1990, Parliament agreed to lower the time limit to 24 weeks.

An inquiry into the age limits commenced Oct. 15 by the House of Commons committee on science and technology. The committee Web page noted that the terms of reference for the inquiry do not include the ethical or moral questions related to the debate, but will concentrate on scientific and medical evidence about fetal viability.

One of those backing a reduction in the age limit is obstetrician Stuart Campbell, reported the Telegraph newspaper on Oct. 15. Campbell pioneered three-dimensional scans of fetuses sucking their thumbs and walking in the womb.

Campbell used to perform abortions at 20 weeks, the Telegraph reported. "I feel pretty appalled at the idea that we abort normal babies and most of them are born alive and most of them are allowed to die," he said during a BBC radio program.

The committee's Web site contains several hundred pages of evidence submitted to the inquiry.

A submission from the Department of Health to the committee provided information about abortions in England and Wales. In 2006, there were 193,700 abortions. Of these, 89% were carried out at under 13 weeks of pregnancy.

Out of the total number, 2,948 abortions were performed at 20 weeks and over. Of these, 1,262 were performed at 22 weeks and over, and 136 at 24 weeks and over.

Christian opposition

The Christian Medical Fellowship, an interdenominational Christian organization with more than 4,500 British doctor members, is in favor of a reduction. In its submission to the committee, it outlined a number of concerns related to abortion.

For a start, it argued that maternal mortality after abortion is higher than currently recognized. Moreover, the fellowship noted, strong evidence exists that induced abortion increases risk of premature birth in subsequent pregnancies. Such premature births not only cause neonatal mortality and ongoing disability, but also imply significant economic costs.

There is overwhelming recent evidence that abortion causes significant rates of serious mental health problems, the submission continued. Several studies have demonstrated higher levels of depression, suicidal tendencies, and problems with drug and alcohol use among women who have undergone abortion.

The fellowship also called for Parliament to reconsider the norms for abortions for reasons of fetal abnormality. The upper limit for abortion for disabled babies should not be higher than that for able-bodied babies.

Handicapped

The question of disabled babies being aborted was also raised by the London-based Lejeune Clinic for Children With Down Syndrome. In its submission to the parliamentary committee they said that in 2005 alone, 429 abortions were carried out on babies with Down syndrome. The law sets no time limits for abortions on babies that are held to be disabled.

The clinic also commented that after Down syndrome is detected, some women feel pressured to abort their babies. As well, very few women are offered information on help available to raise a child with the chromosomal disorder.

The submission argued that most children with Down syndrome are happy, sociable and enjoy friendships. Around 80% attend mainstream primary school, either full or part time, and nearly all integrate in a loving fashion into their families. Behavioral problems can occur, but this can be helped, the clinic pointed out.

In its conclusions, the clinic argued: "It is hard to see how the majority of children with Down syndrome fulfill the criteria for abortion on the ground of serious untreatable disability." In fact, the majority suffer from only moderate learning difficulties and treatable physical health problems.

A written submission to the parliamentary committee was also made by the Pro-life Alliance (PLA). It started by noting its objection to any form of intentional abortion, at whatever age limit of the fetus.

Benefit of the doubt

Nevertheless, within the context of the current debate the PLA observed, "At the very least one would expect consensus in the country against the abortion of a viable baby, with the benefit of the doubt always on the side of the baby."

Another pro-life group, also opposed to any form of abortion, which made a submission was the nonprofit organization Comment on Reproductive Ethics (CORE). Opinions over abortion vary widely, it observed, but there is common concern over the rising abortion rates in Britain.

The CORE submission also called for greater transparency about abortions. Currently 97% of all abortions are justified under Ground C of the Abortion Act, which groups together both the medical or psychological health of the mother as a justification. It would be much better, CORE argued, for the two to be separated as they are quite diverse conditions.

It also called for greater transparency for abortions performed on the grounds of fetal abnormality. The submission mentioned the 2001 case of a baby aborted at 7 months for cleft palate, which caused a major public reaction.

After the outcry over this case the government's statistics became notably less specific in identifying details of the abnormalities for which abortions have been performed.

Defending life

A petition for changes in the abortion law also came from Scotland, in the form of an article published in the Scotsman newspaper July 6 by Cardinal Keith O'Brien, archbishop of Saint Andrews and Edinburgh. The Catholic leader called on Prime Minister Gordon Brown to review the law and thus ensure greater respect for human life.

The Scotsman reported that the latest data show that 13,081 abortions were carried out in Scotland in 2006, compared with 12,603 the year before -- the fourth consecutive annual increase.

"Abortion is neither political nor medical, though clearly it has implications in these spheres," the cardinal stated. "It is about morality and the destruction of human life."

Cardinal O'Brien praised Brown for being "a man of principle and deeply held moral convictions," and noted his efforts to reduce poverty in developing nations. He then called on the prime minister to support human life for those who are unborn.

"What exists in the womb is not 'a potential human being,' but rather 'a human being with potential,'" the cardinal argued.

Not a right

Benedict XVI also had strong words to say recently on protecting unborn life. During his trip to Austria, he addressed the members of government and diplomatic corps Sept. 7.

During his speech, given in the reception hall of Vienna's Hofburg Palace, the Pontiff recalled that Europe is the place where the notion of human rights was first formulated.

"The fundamental human right, the presupposition of every other right, is the right to life itself," the Pope pointed out. "Abortion, consequently, cannot be a human right -- it is the very opposite."

Benedict XVI acknowledged the difficulties women experience in going ahead with difficult pregnancies, but at the same time, expressed his concern for the unborn children who have no voice.

He called upon political leaders to help bring about a society that welcomes children and encourages young married couples to start new families. Doing so, the Pope added, requires creating "a climate of joy and confidence in life, a climate in which children are not seen as a burden, but rather as a gift for all." A gift unfortunately too often rejected by society today.

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