26 March 2024, The Tablet

Foetal sentience bill progresses in House of Lords

Foetal sentience bill progresses in House of Lords

Lord Moylan speaks to his Private Member’s Bill on foetal sentience in the House of Lords.
YouTube screenshot

A Bill that would require the secretary of state to establish a “foetal sentience” committee to provide evidence-based expertise on the sentience of the human foetus in light of scientific developments has progressed in the House of Lords.

The Foetal Sentience Committee Bill, a private member’s bill introduced by Lord Moylan, had its second reading in the House of Lords at the end of last week. 

Lord Moylan told The Tablet that although the bill had progressed to committee stage, normally it is private member’s bills that attract no opposition that go through, and he said he would be “surprised” if no amendments were tabled to his bill. He said the issue was important and the law needed to keep up to date with the science. 

According to a House of Lords Library research briefing on the bill, “There are ongoing scientific, medical and ethical debates about foetal sentience and foetal pain and the implications for issues such as pain relief for the foetus during in utero surgery and the law and practice around abortion. Expert views have differed regarding at what stage of development a foetus can feel pain.” 

Right to Life said in its comment on the debate, “While it is rare for Lords Private Members’ Bills to become law, this Bill is putting the humanity of the unborn child firmly on the radar in Parliament. It is helping raise the profile of this issue and build further momentum for changes to our abortion legislation that will save the lives of unborn children and provide more support for women facing unplanned pregnancies.”

In the debate, Lord Moylan said there are legal protections for dog foetuses from seven weeks but no equivalent legislation for unborn babies. He said there was inconsistency in current medical practice and that the understanding of foetal sentience was changing.

The British Association of Perinatal Medicine, in written evidence, said foetuses born as early as 22 weeks show responses to pain. Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists current guidance is thaat “there is no basis for considering the administration of analgesia or anaesthesia to a foetus before termination of pregnancy in the first or second trimester”. 

Both Lord Moylan and Lord Alton of Liverpool noted the inconsistency with which animal and human sentience are treated under the law. Lord Moylan said, “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.”

Meanwhile, Sir Liam Fox, former GP, cabinet minister and defence secretary, has tabled an amendment to the Government's Criminal Justice Bill, signed by 40 MPs, which will bring the abortion time limit for babies with Down’s syndrome in line with the time limit for babies that do not have disabilities.

The abortion time limit under the Abortion Act is set at 24 weeks, but for cases in which a baby is thought to have a disability, including Down’s syndrome, abortion is currently available up to birth. This amendment will equalise the time limit for babies with Down’s syndrome, meaning that it will be set at 24 weeks.

The amendment has cross-party support from MPs from the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP and the DUP. This includes former Conservative Party leader and cabinet minister, Sir Iain Duncan Smith, former Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron, former shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer John McDonnell, former cabinet minister Sir David Davis and former health minister Maggie Throup.

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