Editorial: A confusion of science and politics

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So Maria Miller was wrong. The science has not "moved on". The minister for Women and Equality used the phrase to justify re-opening the debate on abortion in October, claiming that the current 24-week limit should be lowered because babies now survive at younger and younger gestational ages.

Both the Prime Minister and the Health Secretary were drawn into the debate, and battalions lined up on both sides to exchange fire on one of the most emotive issues in medicine. Now that the smoke has cleared, we can examine the latest evidence on the survival of premature babies. And it does not support Ms Miller's case.

The minister was right in one respect. Babies born after more than 24 weeks do have better chances now, thanks to medical advances. Of those that are admitted to intensive care, the proportion who went home – usually after months of treatment – up from 35 per cent in 1995 to 47 per cent in 2006. For those born at 25 weeks, it rose from 54 per cent to 70 per cent.

Regrettably, the same gains were not seen among babies born earlier than 24 weeks. Indeed, there has been no significant improvement in the survival rates of babies born before the threshold for abortion.

The EPICure studies that yielded these findings are among the best of their kind in the world. They are a solid foundation for policy makers, and the researchers argue powerfully that health and education authorities must plan for the increased risk of long-term disability that accompanies extreme prematurity.

The implications of the study do not end there, however. By pouring cold water on Ms Miller's claims, the figures also amply illustrate the danger of politicians co-opting half-baked science to bolster personal prejudices, however sincerely held. Those with the power to govern have a duty to establish the facts. Abortion is a tricky enough issue already without ministers adding to the confusion.

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