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Ethics briefings
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  1. Veronica English,
  2. Rebecca Mussell,
  3. Julian Sheather,
  4. Ann Sommerville
  1. BMA Ethics Department

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    Abortion: England, Scotland, and Wales

    In mid-summer 2004, the moral debate surrounding abortion continued to gather momentum in the British media, centring on calls to review the 24 week limit currently set for most abortions (although it is lawful to terminate up to term in certain circumstances). It was proposed that the parliamentary science and technology committees should jointly review the Abortion Act 1967, as amended by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990.1 The act sets a 24 week limit for abortions carried out when “the continuance of the pregnancy would involve risk, greater than if the pregnancy were terminated, of injury to the physical or mental health of the pregnant woman or any existing children of her family”. Critics have frequently pointed out, however, that continuation of pregnancy invariably involves more risk than termination.

    Medicine has advanced in many ways since the act was passed nearly 40 years ago. In 1990, amendments were made changing the original limit of 28 weeks’ gestation to 24. Current calls for review—possibly to a 22 week limit—also focus on medical advances in monitoring fetal development and increasing survival rates of premature infants.2

    Discussion about late abortion (after 24 weeks’ gestation) was also the subject of debate at the British Medical Association’s (BMA) 2004 annual meeting. A resolution was passed calling upon the association “…to work with the General Medical Council, NHS [National Health Service] and appropriate royal colleges to ensure that babies born alive as a result of termination of pregnancy procedures receive the same full neonatal care as that available to other babies”. Proposers of the motion made clear that they were not calling for automatic transfer of all such babies to intensive care but rather that the same consideration be given to their treatment as for any other child born alive.

    Legally, late …

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