The 24 week legal abortion limit has been in the news again, with a couple calling for a review after their daughter was born alive at the same stage of pregnancy.
This issue is far more complex than how it has been reported. It is about more than the rights and wrongs of abortion and the legal limit. We need to look past the emotive headline to consider the reality of the challenges faced by babies born at 24 weeks. These challenges are rarely highlighted.
Baby Adelaide tragically lived for just an hour. Her parents have shared the only photo of Adelaide taken while she was alive, which shows that she was a fully-formed baby.
I send Adelaide’s parents my most sincere condolences. To lose a baby is devastating, and having also lost a baby who was born at 24 weeks I fully understand why they feel they way they do. It is difficult to look at the photo of Adelaide and not feel sadness at the thought of babies who look similar being aborted.
Yes, it is possible for babies born at 24 weeks to survive. However, their survival requires much more than inserting a breathing tube and waiting for the baby to grow big enough to go home with their grateful parents, as such reports imply by omitting details of the challenges these babies face.
If it were that simple, I would be bouncing my son Hugo on my knee, rather than writing this post.
My son, Hugo was born at 24 weeks because of the rare, life-threatening complications preeclampsia and HELLP syndrome. I was fully aware my baby was only just over the legal abortion limit, and the threshold where he would receive treatment.
We were told that our son had a 50/50 chance of surviving birth. If he was born alive, our baby was likely to suffer a brain bleed, have underdeveloped lungs, experience bowel problems and live a short, painful life. We were told that some parents of babies born at a similar gestation choose to have their baby placed on their chest to die, not wanting them to suffer. This was said without judgement: the choice was ours to make.
My partner and I did not hesitate to say that we wanted our baby to be given every chance to survive, to fight, to come home with us. Our baby was very much wanted, conceived after two years of trying and a round of fertility treatment.
We were fortunate that Hugo was born fighting, and that doctors were able to insert the line to help him breathe.
We were also fortunate that Hugo avoided the brain and bowel problems. Lungs are the last organ babies develop, and sadly Hugo’s lungs were his main problem.
Treatments were tried, and treatments failed. All options were exhausted. We were advised that it would be cruel for Hugo to remain on a ventilator with no hope of recovery, and cruel for us to live in false hope. Withdrawing treatment was recommended.
It was news we didn’t want to hear, and a decision we did not want to be part of, but it was the right one.
Hugo died peacefully in my arms, aged 35 days.
We are heartbroken, but I am also grateful for the time we had with Hugo.
Many babies born at such an early gestation do go home. However, problems relating to their premature delivery often result in a range of developmental delays, special educational needs and physical disabilities. These children are all precious, and I envy these parents their live children.
Any baby’s stay in a neonatal unit is fraught with the worst stress any parent can imagine. Even the parents who get to take their baby home are often faced with the possibility of having to make similar decisions to the one we had to make for Hugo.
Parenting in a neonatal unit is an issue that does not receive enough focus. These parents need more support, especially those whose children have special needs.
For the record, I always have been, and remain pro-choice. There will always be women who need access to an abortion, and it is better that it can be provided legally.
It is worth bearing in mind that because abortions can be carried out until 24 weeks of pregnancy, it doesn’t mean that many are.
In 2012, 90% of abortions were carried out before 12 weeks of pregnancy. Just 1% were carried out between 20 and 24 weeks. The reasons for the terminations are many and complex.
Women have the right to decide what they do with their own bodies. Hugo was my first and only pregnancy to date; I have never been faced with such a decision. I would hope that for most women, the decision to terminate a pregnancy is not taken lightly.
Being able to give babies born at 24 weeks’ gestation a fighting chance at survival is wonderful. But we must not imagine these babies’ survival is guaranteed, or straightforward – and always explore beyond the emotive headline.