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Foetuses 'may be conscious long before abortion limit'
By David Derbyshire, Science Correspondent
(Filed: 10/03/2003)

Foetuses may develop consciousness long before the legal age limit for abortions, one of Britain's leading brain scientists has said.

Baroness Greenfield, a professor of neurology at Oxford University and the director of the Royal Institution, said there was evidence to suggest the conscious mind could develop before 24 weeks, the upper age where terminations are permitted.

Although she fell short of calling for changes in the abortion laws, she urged doctors and society to be cautious when assuming unborn babies lacked consciousness. "Is the foetus conscious? The answer is yes, but up to a point," she said.

"Given that we can't prove consciousness or not, we should be very cautious about being too gung ho and assuming something is not conscious. We should err on the side of caution."

Last year, a Daily Telegraph straw poll found many neurologists were concerned that foetuses could feel pain in the womb before 24 weeks after conception.

Many believed foetuses should be given anaesthetics during a late abortion, after 20 weeks. Some also believe pain relief should be given for keyhole surgery in the womb.

Abortions are allowed up to 24 weeks in Britain, but are rarely given so late. Around 90 per cent of the 175,000 planned terminations that take place each year in England and Wales are in the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Around 1.5 per cent - or 2,600 - take place after the 20th week.

Terminations after 24 weeks are only allowed in exceptional circumstances if, for instance, the mother's life is threatened.

Lady Greenfield is sceptical of philosophers and doctors who argue that consciousness is "switched on" at some point during the brain's development.

She believes instead that there is a sliding scale of consciousness and that it develops gradually as neurons, or brain cells, make more and more connections with each other.

She told the British Fertility Society in London last week that she had serious concerns about foetal consciousness.

"The Home Office has legislation that applies to a mammal and they have now extended it to the octopus, a mollusc, because it can learn," she said. "If a mollusc can be attributed with being sentient, and now has Home Office protection, then my own view is that we should be very cautious after making assumptions."

In 2001 a Medical Research Council expert group said unborn babies might feel pain as early as 20 weeks and almost certainly by 24. They called for more sensitive treatment of very premature babies, who often had to undergo painful procedures like heel pricks and injections.

2 October 2002: Call for a ban on designer babies chosen for IQ
26 November 2001: Pro-lifers face fresh challenge on embryo research
30 August 2000: Brain scientist backs abortion pain relief call

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External links  
Baroness Greenfield - British Council
British Fertility Society
Medical Research Council
Human Genetics Commission
Press releases - Life UK
Society for the Protection of the Unborn Child