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(This article was taken from the National Post, 29/08/2000)


-Some say abortions done after 17 weeks require anesthesia

by Roger Highfield, The Daily Telegraph, with files from the National Post

LONDON - British doctors are preparing to debate whether late-term abortions cause pain to the fetus, a development one Canadian doctor says may force this country's medical association to deal with the contentious issue of "fetal awareness."

Dr. Vivette Glover of London is calling for all abortions performed in Britain between 17 and 24 weeks to be done with anesthetic for the fetus.

Dr. Glover, of Queen Charlotte's and Chelsea Hospital in London, is to head a conference on the issue at the prestigious Royal Institution in November.

She said yesterday that many questions remain about when the fetus becomes sentient. "It is incredibly unlikely that the fetus could feel anything before 13 weeks because there is no linking to the brain at all," she said.

"After 26 weeks it is quite probable. But between 17 and 26 it is increasingly possible that it starts to feel something and that abortions done in that period ought to use anesthesia."

Although the vast majority of terminations take place before 13 weeks, when most medical opinion agrees a fetus cannot feel pain, concern has resurfaced about those carried out during the next 11 weeks. At present, some abortions in Britain performed during the period of 13 to 24 weeks are carried out without anesthetic.

The Canadian Medical Association does not require anesthesia for fetuses during abortions.

Dr. Will Johnston, of the anti-abortion group Canadian Physicians for Life, says the issue should be discussed in this country.

"It's been raised by pro-lifers for years but to say it's been ignored would be an understatement," Dr. Johnston said.

"It will be a frosty Friday when the Canadian Medical Association convenes a panel on fetal pain."

But he said the British examination of the issue could change that. "I think it is going to be impossible to ignore, the longer this goes on."

Dr. Glover acknowledged that by raising the matter she could be providing ammunition for anti-abortionists.

"I am pro-choice, but one should not muddle the two," she said. "One should think about how one is doing it in the most pain-free way."

According to one study, aborted fetuses have been heard to cry from 21 weeks and some doctors believe that distress can be felt as early as 13 weeks. Others question whether the fetus can feel pain before 26 weeks.

Under British law, abortions can be carried out only until the 24th week of pregnancy unless there are exceptional circumstances, such as a threat to the life of the mother.

A study by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists said it was not easy to define or evaluate fetal awareness, particularly their awareness of pain. It concluded that the fetus was not "aware" before 26 weeks.

"The fetus would not be capable of experiencing what we would perceive as pain," said Dr. Gillian Penney, chairwoman of the Royal College's induced abortion guideline group.

The evidence that underpinned the Royal College's conclusion focused on nerve connections between two crucial areas of the developing brain, the cortex and the thalamus.

The study concluded that until those sections develop, after 26 weeks, sensations of pain cannot be experienced.

Dr. Peter Hepper, of the fetal behaviour research centre at Queen's University in Belfast, said there was not enough evidence that the fetus experienced pain before 26 weeks. But he believed it was "better to be safe than sorry."

The Women and Children's Welfare Fund charity says the fetus is less well-protected from pain in Britain than animals.

There is no legislation to protect the fetus, it said, but a 1986 law for "pre-born vertebrate animals" such as rats, guinea pigs and hedgehogs ensures they are not subjected to undue suffering.

ã The National Post

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