Dita De Boni 's Opinion

Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Foetal pain and 24 weeks

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The Labour Party's Steve Chadwick is proposing abortions on request be legalised for women up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy. Photo / Supplied
The Labour Party's Steve Chadwick is proposing abortions on request be legalised for women up to 24 weeks into a pregnancy. Photo / Supplied

It is a brave woman to take on a complacent nation and demand that abortions are removed from the Crimes Act and become their own domain under a piece of legalisation currently called the Abortion Reform bill.

So, well done the Labour Party's Steve Chadwick. This is a long overdue development, and finally removes the hypocrisy that the majority of women referred for abortions must adopt in claiming they are "mentally unfit" for motherhood - as I have written in this blog before.

But there was one part of Steve's bill that had me stumped. Why is she proposing that the timeframe for abortions be moved to 24 weeks, when currently it is stated in law that no abortions can be performed on women after the 20th week of pregnancy, except to save a woman's life?

After all, as many as one fifth of all abortions performed in New Zealand happen around the 9th week of pregnancy, according to official statistics, with only 5.5 per cent happening any time after 14 weeks.

Around half a per cent of abortions are performed after 20 weeks, presumably as a result of a direct - and very rare - threat to the mother.

There must be a reason behind a push to change this part of the law. But not only does 24 weeks seem a rather well entrenched pregnancy, the idea of an abortion at this late stage (six months) will surely stir up the kids of passions associated with late term abortion in the US (if you want to see how controversial it still is, look at how it's almost derailed the supreme court aspirations of Barack Obama's new pick Elena Kagan).

One reason that appears to be behind upping the abortion "age" of the of foetus is a report from the UK Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists that before 24 weeks, and arguably after, the foetus is still in a "state of sleep-like unconsciousness or sedation". In other words, it feels no pain - and so, the argument goes, abortion is less barbaric.

The argument about foetal pain is raging in the UK, where anti-abortionists are moving to lower the 24 week limit in that territory's Abortion Act 1967 to nearer New Zealand's limit of, say, 20 weeks. Before he became Prime Minister, they even had the support of Conservative Party leader David Cameron.

What his position would now be is up for debate. Neither, according to the Herald, do we know what Prime Minister John Key or Labour leader Phil Goff have to say on Steve Chadwick's proposals.

What makes this debate all the more topical is the fact more babies are being born earlier than ever before - there are babies that have remained alive in the US after being born at 22 and 23 weeks for example.

This may appear to lend weight to the argument to lower the limit of legal abortion to the 20 - 22 week timeframe, but it's not that simple.

Although the prospects for babies born at 24 - 25 weeks is getting better, the prospects for those below the 24 week mark are not good, according to a study from the University of Leicester in 2008, which concluded that the limits at which premature babies could survive outside the womb had been reached.

Over the course of that study, none of the 150 babies born at 22 weeks survived to leave hospital - and that statistic didn't budge for 12 years.

As the mother of a child born at 29 weeks, I find the debate to be a difficult one.

My son was ready to come into the world at about 22 weeks and it was only stringent bed-rest that kept him in there until week 29. At 1.4 kilos when he was born, he looked a lot healthier than many of the other babies at NICU, but even then, I cried long and hard after he was born and I finally got to see a picture of him. The photo was not a reflection of the baby I thought I was carrying, and many of my relatives wondered if we would be taking him out alive.

Even so, I remember clearly that parents of the most tiny, 600 gram babies would smile with pride and happiness when showing their babies to visitors. They were not pumped full of false optimism by medical professionals - instead, they were just happy to have a baby that was still living.

The point of all this is that I believe someone who really wants to have a baby will take whatever the fates hand out, while someone who needs to abort at this late stage must surely generally be doing it against their own wishes.

I would have to believe that an abortion at that late stage of pregnancy is done for the best of reasons: the best reason there is - saving the life of the mother - rather than sheer expediency.

Twenty four weeks would have allowed an entire family to form a real bond with that new addition, no one more so than the mother.

It will be interesting to see what Steve Chadwick says to support her contention that 24 weeks is an important cut-off date for abortion on demand - and whether New Zealanders will support the bill, or not.

Dita De Boni

Business columnist, with a political twist, for NZ Herald

Dita De Boni is a columnist, commentator and TV producer/journalist. She first wrote columns for the NZ Herald in 1995, moving to daily business news in 1999 for four years, and then to TVNZ in Business, News and Current Affairs. After tiring of the parenting/blogging beat for the Herald Online she moved back to her first love, business (with a politics chaser), writing a column for Friday Business since 2012.

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