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scientists react to Science and Technology Select Committee’s report into scientific developments and the Abortion Act

The STC report on abortion includes recommendations on the number of doctors required to approve an abortion, the length of time at which abortion can be safely carried out, and the question of whether the fetus has the ability to feel pain.

Maria Fitzgerald, Professor of Developmental Neurobiology, University College London, said:

“I was asked to give evidence to the select committee on the ability of the human fetus to feel pain. This is my area of expertise and I am recognised throughout the world as being in the forefront of research on developing pain pathways.

“The Committee chairman, Phil Willis, was excellent and kept all discussion focussed upon peer-reviewed, published scientific evidence related to fetal viability and sensation rather than personal reports. He dealt fairly with a number of medical practitioners who turned out to have strong links with anti-abortion groups and who were providing evidence outside of their expertise.

“The current available evidence on pain sensation is as follows: sensory inputs from the body are only known to activate the cortical areas of brain after 24 weeks. Before that time the brain is likely to be active, but this activity cannot be driven by sensory inputs, because the connections are not there. The fetus can show reflex movements to a noxious stimulus but will not process the information in the brain or be ‘aware’ of a sensation.

“Put more simply, until 24 weeks the foetus is effectively asleep, the connections in the brain aren’t fully formed.

“It is a bit like being heavily sedated. As early as 13 weeks the foetus will show a reflex action to pain. But I question the word pain. If you take an adult who is fast asleep and tweak his toe, they will show a strong reaction but they will not wake up and they will not remember.”

Dr Stuart Derbyshire, School of Psychology, University of Birmingham, said:

“There is much to applaud in the STC report on abortion. The recommendations that one doctor be sufficient to approve an abortion procedure, that nurses be allowed to play a more active role and that patients be allowed to complete the second stage of an abortion at home are all welcome recommendations that will lead to the abortion procedure being quicker and better for the women involved. There is, however, some concern at the role played by science. It is good that the STC have properly examined the science but it should always be remembered that the question of abortion is a moral and political one. Science will never create a ‘fetalometer’ to tell us when it is right and when it is wrong to take the life of the fetus or when it is right and when it is wrong to deny a woman control over her pregnancy.”

Professor John Harris, Sir David Alliance Professor of Bioethics, University of Manchester, said:

“The Select Committee’s report is to be welcomed for its continued protection of the health, the dignity and the wellbeing of women. It should also be welcomed for its reaffirmation of the fact that there is no scientific basis for changing the abortion limit.”

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