The British government does not believe there is enough evidence to back changing the law on abortion, a health minister said today.
Dawn Primarolo told MPs that the government studied a range of research to formulate its opinion.
While the issue over a 24-week upper limit on abortion should be debated in the House of Commons, a foetus’s chance of surviving at early gestational ages had not improved despite advances in care, she said.
Ms Primarolo was giving evidence to the Science and Technology Committee’s inquiry, which follows medical advances and widespread public interest after the release of 3D images showing foetuses apparently “walking in the womb” at 12 weeks.
Ms Primarolo insisted today that the chance of survival to discharge from hospital was 0% for babies born at 21 weeks, 1% at 22 weeks and 11% at 23 weeks.
She told MPs that lowering the age definition for viability would imply that survival rates had improved, and “they have not in the consensus of evidence we have”.
One set of figures submitted to the committee shows no improvements between 1995 and 2006 in the number of babies born under 26 weeks who survive to go home.
Ms Primarolo said: “Certainly the evidence with regard to the British Association of Perinatal Medicine is pointing quite clearly to the point that viability, whatever the vast improvements, and there are significant improvements, cannot be continually pushed back in terms of a date.”
She continued: “The consensus of the scientific information is still clear and that medical advice is still clear with regard to survival rates under 24 weeks.
“I would absolutely acknowledge there are improvements in care but the advice is still the same in terms of survival rates.”
She added that the Department of Health’s current position was that the Abortion Act “worked as Parliament intended”.
Ms Primarolo came in for tough questioning during the hearing, including being asked her opinions on foetal pain and whether two doctors should be needed to sign consent forms for abortions.
She said there were no plans to change regulations to allow nurses to perform abortions or to change rules that require the signatures of two doctors.
Mid Bedfordshire Tory MP Nadine Dorries, who last night said the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) may have deliberately submitted misleading evidence to the inquiry, disputed the reliability of the evidence used by the Government, which she said averaged out survival rates.
She said some units had much higher survival rates, citing figures of 40% at 23 weeks and 66% at 24 weeks.
She asked Ms Primarolo: “If you look at individual units where there are good neonatal units, the rates are much higher. Do you still feel 24 weeks is the right limit?”
Ms Primarolo said the Department of Health was informed by evidence from a range of organisations, including the British Medical Association (BMA), the RCOG and international research.
She added: “I do not have to discuss my personal views. I am here as a minister to answer questions that the committee puts to me about the information the department has.”
Ms Primarolo told MPs that 89% of abortions were carried out within 13 weeks and 68% of those were under 10 weeks.
She added: “It’s agreed that the strategy should be to ensure, because it’s safer, that abortions are conducted as quickly as possible.”
Abortions after 24 weeks are allowed if there is grave risk to the woman or evidence of severe foetal abnormality.
According to the most recent figures, the number of abortions in England and Wales stood at 193,700 in 2006, compared with 186,400 in 2005.
A breakdown of the statistics for 2006 showed that 136 abortions were performed at 24 weeks and over.
There were 17,917 abortions performed between 13 and 19 weeks, and between 20 and 23 weeks there were 2,812.
Lord Steel, the architect of the 1967 Abortion Act, has stepped into the row, saying too many abortions now take place.
The procedure was being used as a contraceptive because an “irresponsible” mood had emerged in which women felt they could turn to abortion “if things go wrong”, he said.
In a letter on Monday, the heads of the Roman Catholic Churches in England and Wales and Scotland also insisted abortion “robbed everyone of their future” - while accepting that it would never be abolished altogether.
The Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams warned at the weekend that the public was in danger of losing its “moral focus” on the issue, and treating the procedure as normal rather than a last resort.
The last time the Abortion Act was amended was in 1990, when the time limit was reduced from 28 to 24 weeks.
Researchers differ over whether they believe foetuses can feel pain at early to mid stages of pregnancy, with some suggesting they can feel pain at 20 weeks and others saying it is more like 29 weeks.
Anne Quesney, director of Abortion Rights, said at a press briefing that later abortions were rare and were needed by women facing “extraordinarily difficult circumstances”.
She said the tactic of focusing on later abortions was part of the anti-choice lobby’s “step by step” approach to their ultimate goal of making all abortion illegal.
“Everyone recognises that women need safe access to legal abortion. I think 40 years on it is surely time to look at how to make abortion access easier for women,” she said.
But Julia Millington, political director of the ProLife Alliance, said: “The minister’s failure to consider evidence of the vast improvement in the survival rates of babies born before the 24-week abortion time limit is staggering.”
She added: “It would appear that they have cherry-picked their evidence to support their pro-choice ideological position.”