Despite the better provision of first trimester antenatal screening tests, it is important not to assume that this means that all parents can opt for earlier terminations of pregnancy in the context of fetal anomaly and thus would not be affected by a reduction in the time limit for most abortions from 24 weeks.
A large proportion of fetal anomalies (probably around 40%) first become apparent at the mid-pregnancy fetal anomaly ultrasound scan which is scheduled between 18+0 to 20+6 weeks of pregnancy. It is not possible to offer this scan earlier without compromising its effectiveness and some hospitals book women in for the scan at 22 weeks as it is felt optimal views of the developing baby can be obtained at this stage.
We take calls every day on our national helpline from parents who are reeling from the shock of being told of something wrong with their baby at this mid-pregnancy scan, struggling to take in the news and to know how to proceed. They then almost always face further tests to try to establish the prognosis for their baby. They then have to make the painful decision about the future of what is most often a much-wanted pregnancy. Any encroachment on the current time limits will result in added pressure on them at a time when they can least withstand it.
Although post-24 week abortions are permitted under certain conditions by Clause E of the Abortion Act, there has always been professional caution around sanctioning terminations of pregnancy for fetal anomaly after 24 weeks. So when an anomaly is diagnosed after the mid-pregnancy scan, some parents are asked to make a final decision about ending their pregnancy before the end of the 24th week, without the time they may need.
In our three decades of supporting parents in the aftermath of a termination for fetal anomaly, a major factor in their coming to terms with their experience is that they can look back and feel confident that they had the opportunity to access and assimilate information about the diagnosis and the time they needed to work out the way forward that was right for them. In some cases, parents may discover over time that the outlook for their baby has improved and with the opportunity to delay the decision a pregnancy may be continued to term.
As the current 24-week abortion time limit appears to be seen by most clinicians as a 'line in the sand', it seems safe to assume that if there were to be a reduction then this gestation would become the new reference point. The knock-on effect on parents faced with fetal anomaly would be that they may have to make decisions very quickly after their scan, perhaps foregoing the opportunity to have further testing or monitoring because they fear the option of termination may be withdrawn if they delay. A reduction in the upper time limit would add an extra level of stress to an already traumatic situation.
From our contact with thousands of expectant parents, we can safely say that those who undertake antenatal screening and have to cope with its consequences are not seeking the perfect child, or looking to in any way denigrate those living with impairments. They simply want a healthy baby.
Parents who make the agonising choice to end the pregnancy do so after careful consideration of what the diagnosis may mean for their baby's quality of life and what it might mean for themselves and their family's future. In order to come to the best decision they can within their individual context they need good information, compassion, support and time. We owe it to these parents not to make a distressing situation any worse and so ARC will always defend the abortion law as it stands.