Pro-Lifers Pounce on Calls to Anesthetize Before Abortion

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:08 PM EDT

London ( - Pro-life organizations in Britain say leading medical specialists who believe pre-born babies may feel the pain of abortions and should thus be anaesthetized beforehand are missing the point.

By anaesthetizing a baby in the womb, abortionists are acknowledging they are killing "a living, growing human being," they argue.

An organization which carries out 50,000 abortions each year said in response to queries Friday it would not support the administration of anesthetic ahead of abortions, because it did not think it necessary.

The debate over when babies in the womb can feel pain was revived this week by Prof. Vivette Glover, a London-based specialist, who said all abortions at between 17 and 24 weeks gestation should be carried out under anesthetic, as it was possible the unborn child could feel pain at that stage of development.

Glover, who will chair a national conference on the issue in November, is herself pro-abortion, and said she did not want to upset women who had had abortions with the thought their babies may have suffered pain.

Her view on "fetal sentience" was echoed Wednesday by Oxford University neuroscientist Prof. Susan Greenfield, who also said pain relief should be used during abortions in the second trimester, to err on the side of safety.

Most abortions in the UK occur before 13 weeks, although some 20,000 each year take place after that. Abortion is legal after 24 weeks only where two doctors certify that there is a substantial risk of "fetal abnormality" or that abortion is necessary to
save the woman from death or permanent injury.

Glover's position contradicts a study by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in the UK, which examined the developing brain and concluded there was no "awareness" before 26 weeks after conception. Some pro-lifers say brain activity has been detected in a developing baby at 10 weeks.

Life, Britain's largest pro-life organization, said the proposal to anaesthetize babies before killing them was an attempt to sedate the consciences of those carrying out abortions.

"The doctors want to anaesthetize pre-born children before destroying them so that the victims will not suffer pain and the doctors who do the deed will not feel so bad about what they are doing," Life said in a statement.

"Anything which makes it easier for the medical profession to depart yet further from its basic commitment to healing and saving life, especially children's lives, is to be deplored."

The director of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, John Smeaton, said the concerns expressed reflected "our sense of guilt at killing a fellow human being."

Rather than calling for anesthetic or for the legal time-limit for abortions to be lowered, the logical response would be to "pass legislation which stops the current practice of abortion virtually on demand, and which gives mothers-to-be the practical support worthy of a civilized society," he said.

While it was critical of Glover, Life conceded the publication of her views may in the long term encourage more women to decide against abortions.

"And in the long run it may help to jerk society out of is complacency and face the fact that abortion kills real human beings."

The Women and Children's Welfare Fund, a charity whose aim is to alleviate pain in the pre-born, is raising funds for further scientific research in this field.

"The right to ban cruelty to animals is being established.," it said. "This right should apply equally to avoidable human suffering."

The charity noted that a 1986 law in Britain protects "pre-born vertebrate animals" such as rats and guinea-pigs from undue suffering, but that no comparable legislation existed to protected pre-born children.

'Respect and care'

Ann Furedi, spokesperson for the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, said Friday "no new evidence had been presented to suggest that the fetus is capable of experiencing pain."

"At BPAS, although the well-being of the woman is our primary concern, we take all possible measures to treat the fetus with respect and care, and we would not knowingly expose it to unnecessary suffering," Furedi said.

Of the 50,000 abortions carried out at BPAS centers each year, some 4,200 occur after 17 weeks gestation.

Asked whether the organization would support the use of anesthesia, Furedi said this was unnecessary.

"With the exception of a few clinicians such as Prof. Glover, most scientists who are cautious on this matter suggest that no pain could be felt before 21 weeks gestation - because the brain is insufficiently developed."

BPAS practitioners carrying out abortions after 20 week follow guidelines which "insist that the fetal heart is humanely stopped prior to any termination ... so an anesthetic would be unnecessary."

Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow