Foetuses 'may be conscious long
before abortion limit'
Derbyshire, Science Correspondent
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
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
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
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.
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