The Miraculous Survival Of A Baby Born At 22 Weeks Shouldn't Be Used To Shame Women Who Need To End Their Pregnancies

14/06/2017 10:59

"He's a miracle twice over," said the mother of Austin Douglas, one of the country's most premature babies to survive, born at just 22 weeks. Helen had PCOS, which can make it hard to conceive, and never expected to get pregnant in the first place.

"I love him so much and I'm so grateful for all the care he's had."

It's a shame that good news stories like this one - a celebration of the survival of this tiny infant and the joy he has bought his parents - sometimes go hand in hand with calls to reduce the abortion time limit of 24 weeks. Why do we need to play women's needs off against each other in this way?

Put sim‎ply, there is no contradiction between doing all we can so that babies born long before they are ready for the world, whose mothers have built their hopes and dreams upon, have a chance of living, and ensuring that the small number of women who need to end pregnancies in the final weeks of the second trimester can do so.

With intense interventions from specialist teams in dedicated units, more babies born at the cusp of viability may survive - although, sadly rates of long term disability among these babies appears stubbornly high, and there are appallingly difficult decisions about whether it is appropriate to intervene‎ or let nature take its course when babies are born this early, which have to be made.

But do these advances somehow make it right to compel a woman to continue a pregnancy which she does not want - and which she knows is not right to continue - to term?

The reasons for later abortion are complex. They may be young women who have taken time to confide in a parent, teacher or school nurse about a pregnancy. Sometimes they involve women with wanted pregnancies, whose circumstances have changed unimaginably since they planned that pregnancy. But late detection of pregnancy is common: many of the women we see were using contraception which caused irregular bleeding or suppressed their periods, and so had no reason to suspect they were pregnant when they did not get their monthly bleed. The reasons why these women need later abortions are no different to the reasons they would have needed an abortion if they had found earlier - they are not in the position to bring a new life into the world.

In fact, the problem today is not that there are "too many" abortions at a stage in pregnancy where - had the foetus been surgically removed from the womb and given intense, specialist support - it might have had some chance, however small, of survival. Rather it is that some women who need an abortion at this stage don't get one.

At bpas we regularly see women ‎with complex medical conditions who cannot be treated in stand alone clinics like those run by us but need to be seen within an NHS settings where there is instant emergency back-up in case something goes wrong as a result of their health during the procedure.

And often we cannot find them treatment - meaning they are compelled to continue a pregnancy which they do not want and which poses significant risks to their health.

Ensuring all women get the abortion services they need while providing the best possible care‎ for the most premature babies are not mutually exclusive. They are both part and parcel of the high quality, woman-centred reproductive healthcare services we should aspire to provide. We can celebrate the arrival and survival of Austin and congratulate his parents without using his wonderful story as a weapon to undermine pregnant women in the most challenging circumstances.

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