Foetal sentience bill progresses in House of Lords

Big Ben in London. (Photo: Unsplash/Marcin Nowak)

UK: A bill proposing the creation of a scientific committee to investigate the experience of pain by unborn babies has progressed in the House of Lords. 

Lord Moylan's Foetal Sentience Committee Bill received its second reading in the Lords on Friday and will now progress to Committee Stage. 

At the start of the debate, Lord Moylan said there were "inconsistencies" with attitudes towards sentient animals, noting the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill 2022, which required the government to set up and maintain a committee to advise on policy in relation to animal sentience.

He said, "That Act, noble Lords may recall, declares mammals and certain categories of shellfish to be sentient. I would be surprised if my noble friend the Minister wanted to say that a human foetus should be denied the same esteem as a lobster, but in fact that is the current position.

"We have legal protections for lobsters and decapod crustaceans—I remember the discussions during the passage of that Bill about those animals—as well as all mammals, but we have no view, let alone protection, for the human foetus.

"There is also an inconsistency with the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, which defines protected animals and protects their foetuses from a point two-thirds through the gestation period. We have legal protection for canine foetuses from seven weeks onwards, but we do not even have informal policy advice for the human foetus and its own sentience.

"This bill would open a path to correcting that, by allowing scientists to come together and reach an agreed view and a developing view, in the light of new discoveries."

He also pointed to disagreements among various medical bodies about the point at which unborn babies can experience pain. 

Lord Alton pointed to another contradiction raised several times during the debate, that the NHS recommends the use of analgesics during surgery on unborn babies with spina bifida after 20 weeks "but pain relief is not mandatory for foeticide abortions". 

"Why should we care? First, this is a human rights issue. The preamble to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, to which the UK is a signatory, states that the child 'needs special safeguards and care, including appropriate legal protection, before' — please note that word — 'as well as after birth'," he said. 

"We have obligations that must be honoured, and how will we do that without expert research or guidance policy?"

Lord Alton added that being pro-life and believing in the right to life as a human right "does not make people misogynist bigots, and they should not be caricatured as such".

Baroness Smith of Newnham argued that there was a need for greater consensus and clarity.

"Surely, if a foetus of 24, 25 or 26 weeks' gestation is sentient—whether the proposal is for a medical intervention or for abortion—no one would want the foetus to suffer, including the woman carrying the foetus, whether they intend to carry it to term or they do not wish it to live," she said.

"Surely nobody wants to inflict pain. If we understand at what point foetal sentience really comes into play, appropriate decisions and recommendations can be made.

"At the moment, arrangements for medical interventions are in place only for spina bifida, but there are other cases of in utero interventions that should be explored." 

Lord Robathan linked the question of foetal sentience to the current debate about decriminalising late-term abortions. 

"The reason why I am putting down a marker today is that there is talk of decriminalising late abortions, after one or two very high-profile cases of a mother being prosecuted. In the particular case I am thinking of, a mother aborted at home, through drugs, a 36-week-old foetus," he said. 

"Of course, that child could have lived perfectly happily, so we have to ask ourselves not about women's rights, but about where murder begins and murder ends. A child that could have been born perfectly happily—that is being born in the ward next door—being aborted when it could have lived, seems to me to be a very, very serious matter.

"I put this down as a marker because I hope that nobody will pursue the idea that we decriminalise late abortions, which may take place at home. This is not about women's rights, but about a decent, humane society."

Republished from Christian Today UK.