Botched abortions mean that scores of babies are being born alive and left to die, an official report has revealed.
A total of 66 infants survived NHS termination attempts in one year alone, it emerged. Rather than dying at birth as was intended, they were able to breathe unaided. About half were alive for an hour, while one survived ten hours.
The figures are the first to give a national picture of the number of babies who survive abortion but are left to die. Experts previously believed the phenomenon was limited to a handful of cases a year. The babies were aborted using a drug to soften the cervix and induce labour. Once born no medical help is offered. The statistics are contained in the small print of an official report by the Confidential Enquiry into Maternal and Child Health, commissioned by the Government.
No data exists on aborted babies who survive into childhood and beyond but in rare cases this is known to have happened. Experts last night revealed that the sheer number of abortion survivors means new guidance for doctors will be drawn up, telling them how to cope. The findings also renewed calls for a lowering of the 24-week limit for "social" abortions, which end healthy pregnancies. The report said the terminations were "predominantly on account of congenital anomalies", which may be life-threatening but which can also include problems such as cleft palate and club feet.
Obstetricians say this raises the possibility that at least some cases were social terminations, legal under the Abortion Act up to 24 weeks. Doctors can also legally terminate a pregnancy up to birth if the baby is suffering serious deformities or the mother's life is at risk. Guidance from the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists recommends babies over 22 weeks which survive abortion should have their hearts stopped by lethal injection but this can be a difficult procedure for doctors.
Professor Stuart Campbell, an eminent obstetrician whose 3D scan images of babies "walking in the womb" have fuelled the debate over late abortions, said: "It is a distressing situation when these babies are being born alive. "Medical advances make it increasingly possible for even those born after just 22 weeks in the womb to survive. "There is also concern that babies with problems such as cleft palate or club feet are being terminated because they are not "perfect". "These deformities may be corrected during childhood."
The findings follow evidence to MPs this week that foetuses feel pain before 24 weeks. The figures for the CEMACH 2007 Perinatal Mortality report, gathered from hospitals in England and Wales during 2005, reveal 16 babies who survived abortion were born after 22 weeks in the womb or later in the pregnancy. The remaining 50 were under 22 weeks' gestation.
CEMACH chief executive Richard Congdon said lethal injection had not been given in the 16 abortions over 22 weeks' gestation because death was "inevitable". The 16 survived between one minute and four-and-a-half hours - half lived for just over an hour. The remaining 50 were under 22 weeks' gestation and half survived for longer than 55 minutes, with one breathing unaided for ten hours.
Latest Department of Health figures show that abortion is rising, with 193,700 terminations in 2006, and 2,948 carried out over 20 weeks. The majority of these - 2,036 - were for major abnormalities.
The British Association of Perinatal Medicine said new guidelines were being drawn up to cover babies born alive after abortion. Neonatologist Professor Neil Marlow, president of the association, said: "Parents may be told that the baby will not be viable but may still want to hold it until it dies, and this is probably what we are seeing in these statistics." Julia Millington, of the Pro-Life Alliance, said: "The fact that babies are being aborted so late in pregnancy that they are capable of survival will make many support the notion that the upper time limit should be reduced."
A baby born alive after a botched abortion at 21 weeks is among the worst cases reported in the UK. The little girl, who had Down's Syndrome, lived for three hours after being delivered. Her parents claim they were "coerced" into a termination by staff at Macclesfield District General Hospital. They were later told that their baby had not "really" been alive, even though she was clearly breathing.
The couple, who do not wish to be named, already had a toddler, a teenager and a 12-year-old with learning difficulties and felt unable to cope with another special needs child. The 44-year-old mother said: "If I had been given any idea that the baby would be born alive after an abortion I would never have gone through with it. They coerced me. "I have seen how society treats children with disabilities and it frightened me to bring another special needs child into the world, but somehow we would have coped with it." Two days before the abortion in March 2004, the woman was given tablets which she was told would kill the baby in the womb. But to their distress the baby was still clearly moving. They went back to hospital and were assured that the baby would die during labour.
Soon after birth, however, both parents saw her gasping for air.
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