Mary Ann Sieghart: Ideology pretending to be science

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The Independent Online

How wonderful to have a feminist as minister for Women! It's a comfort to know that Maria Miller has our interests at heart. She doesn't want to reduce the abortion limit from 24 to 20 weeks because she disapproves of abortion. Oh, no. She's "driven by the practical impact that late-term abortion has on women". And she says that medical advances allow more premature babies to survive. She's even a "very modern feminist".

Odd, that. You'd think a very modern feminist would take more care with the facts. For it turns out that medical advances have had no effect on babies' survival rates below 24 weeks. A study in the BMJ showed that, while many more babies now survive at 24 and 25 weeks, survival rates haven't risen at all for those born at 23 weeks or less.

Moreover, these very premature babies have an extremely high risk of disability. Only 1 per cent born at 22 weeks survive and 70 per cent of them are severely disabled. Of those born between 23 and 24 weeks, two-thirds have moderate or severe disabilities. By the time the baby is 25 or 26 weeks, it has only a one-third chance of being disabled. So, from the point of view of the baby's viability, the current 24-week limit looks just about right. What about the effect on the mother, though?

No woman would choose to have an abortion that late. It involves inducing a stillbirth and it must be distressing. These late abortions are very rare: they account for less than 2 per cent of the total. Some happen because babies have severe abnormalities that only show up on the 20-week scan. Reducing the limit to 20 weeks would force those mothers to carry the baby to term with the prospect of it dying at, or shortly after birth, or living a horribly damaged and dependent life.

When medical science advances enough to make a 22-week foetus genuinely viable, it may make sense to lower the abortion limit. Until then, it's not for Maria Miller to decide whether individual women will suffer more from having an abortion or from giving birth.