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What REALLY happens during an abortion: One surgeon finally tells the truth ^ | 12th October 2007 | DEBORAH DAVIES

Posted on 10/15/2007 8:28:51 AM PDT by

The blonde teenager, waiting to go into the operating theatre, is 16 years old and nearly 16 weeks pregnant. She'll be one of up to 60 women having an abortion that day at the Marie Stopes clinic in south London.

She realised she was pregnant about eight weeks earlier, but couldn't pluck up the courage to tell her mother. The weeks ticked by. She agonised over what to do: she had plans to go to college; her boyfriend said he'd stand by her whatever she decided.

She had considered having an abortion in secret, but eventually her mum guessed and made the appointment for her.

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Silent scream: 'It's likely that foetuses can feel pain by 20 weeks' says Dr Sunny Anand

The abortion she's about to have would be illegal in many European countries, where the time limit is 12 weeks, unless the foetus is severely disabled or the mother's life is at risk.

But in Britain, abortions performed for those critical health reasons accounted for only 2 per cent of the 200,000 abortions carried out last year.

The overwhelming majority were carried out on the legal grounds that two doctors agreed that continuing the pregnancy would damage the mother's physical or mental well-being.

Small wonder, then, that some say the law is interpreted to allow abortion on demand. Very few doctors will refuse a woman who believes she can't cope with the pregnancy or an unwanted child. And she can make that decision right up to 24 weeks of pregnancy.

These facts are worth restating because 40 years ago this month abortion became legal in Britain. The heat has never gone out of the debate, but the issue has usually simmered on the political back-burner. That's all set to change in the next few weeks.

Dr Vincent Argent

Dr Vincent Argent: Believes the current law urgently needs changing A committee of MPs is already investigating whether new medical and scientific advances mean the law should be updated. And later in the year, backbenchers will table a series of amendments to try to change the law in both directions.

The pro-life lobby want to restrict the upper time limit on abortions, while the pro-choice side want to make early abortion even easier.

The debate has already boiled over into the headlines. This week the Science and Technology Select Committee published more than 300 pages of written evidence from doctors and campaign groups on each side of the argument.

One of the most controversial submissions - as revealed in yesterday's Daily Mail - comes from senior consultant obstetrician Dr Vincent Argent, who wants to see so-called social abortions (where the foetus is healthy and there is no serious risk to the mother's wellbeing) limited to 16 weeks.

And he's not alone in his unease about the current law. In next Wednesday's Dispatches programme on Channel 4 we reveal the deep concern among many doctors who, like Dr Argent, work within the abortion service and are passionate supporters of a woman's right to choose, yet who still believe the current law urgently needs changing.

They've been having this debate privately for a long time, but they don't talk about it in public - and one of the reasons is the very nature of the abortion procedure, especially in the later stages.

About 20,000 abortions a year are performed after 12 weeks - 10 per cent of the total. And among those statistics is the 16-year-old who is about to undergo the procedure.

Like many in her situation, she has looked on the internet to find out exactly what the operation involves. "It doesn't look very nice, but it's what has to be done," she says, "so I'm not really that bothered about it."

If she'd asked the surgeon, scrubbing up in the operating theatre, he would have given her his standard, brief answer: "The terminology I'd use would be that the foetus is removed and that the foetus dies as a result of that process," says Dr John Spencer, who is the senior clinical director for Marie Stopes and one of only a handful of doctors in the country who perform abortions right up to the legal limit of 24 weeks.

"Women hardly ever ask for any more details."

But in the Dispatches programme, Dr Spencer will break a huge medical taboo and spell out exactly what happens. Though we do not show the aborted foetus, what viewers will see and hear may very well shock them, but it is a vital contribution to the whole debate.

In the first 12 weeks or so of pregnancy, doctors can use a simple suction procedure. After that, the surgery becomes more complicated.

Dr Spencer opens a fresh pack of shiny instruments. He's an extremely calm, softly spoken man, which somehow makes his words all the more devastating. "The foetus can't come out in one go. We haven't dilated sufficiently for that. The foetal parts are soft enough to break apart as they are being removed..."

In other words, he has to dismember the foetus inside the uterus and pull it out, bit by bit. He uses an ultrasound scan to guide him. Even then, some body parts are too large to come out intact.

To illustrate what happens, Dr Spencer grips his thumb between the surgical forceps and squeezes gently. "Those parts are the skull and then the spine and pelvis, and in fact they are crushed..."

The operation on the 16-year-old is over in 12 minutes. The bowl with what they call "the products of conception" is quickly wheeled out of the theatre, covered in yellow plastic.

The surgical procedure is done under general anaesthetic. A couple of hours later the slightly groggy teenager is driven home by her mother, on her way to getting on with the rest of her life.

Everyone involved in providing abortions - the doctors, the nurses, those running the clinics - will stress that the women coming for abortions in the later stages of pregnancy are often those in the most difficult circumstances.

Although the teenager was typical - shocked and unsure what to do - the same applies to many older women who've already had children and feel their family is complete. Would they still feel the same way about a late-term abortion if they knew the full details of the procedure?

"When you get to the later stages," says Dr Spencer, "they're making a very difficult but important decision, putting their future first, as they're entitled to do."

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Dispatches promo

Dispatches: Wednesday's prgramme follows a 16-year-old having an abortion at the Marie Stopes clinic in South London

But that hides the fact that many doctors - including those who perform abortions - have deep concerns about the current law. So much so that the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) recently warned of a shortage of doctors willing to train to perform abortions.

Already many local NHS trusts don't have any staff who are willing to perform abortions much beyond 12 weeks of pregnancy. Women needing later abortions are often referred to Marie Stopes or the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

Dr Kate Guthrie is a senior member of the RCOG. She also runs the NHS abortion service in Hull, where she operates on patients who are up to 14 weeks pregnant.

She'd be willing to retrain for the more complicated later procedure, but she wouldn't operate beyond 20 weeks. "I think every individual has their cut-off point. It's not scientific, it's just personal, it's just foetal size."

When I press her to spell out whether she means if the foetus is just "too much of a baby", she says: "I suppose so."

But the debate goes beyond distaste for the procedure or the personal ethics of individual doctors. There are two key scientific issues that could shape the forthcoming parliamentary debate.

The first centres on the incredibly emotive topic of foetal pain.

One of the most powerful pieces of anti-abortion propaganda ever produced was a 1984 film called The Silent Scream, which purported to show the ultrasound image of a foetus being aborted - it's mouth apparently wide open in agony.

In the mid-Nineties, partly in response to growing public concern about such issues, the RCOG put together a panel of experts who came to the reassuring conclusion that the foetus couldn't feel pain until 26 weeks gestation - safely beyond the abortion time limit.

They said the part of the brain that responds to pain simply isn't developed at 26 weeks. In other words, any physical movements the foetus displays before then are purely reflex actions - the foetus is not aware and can't feel anything.

But we found disturbing research in America that directly contradicts this established view. It came from Dr Sunny Anand, who has a distinguished record in helping to prove that very young babies can feel pain. When he was based at Oxford University in the 1980s his work helped to ensure that newborn babies were routinely given pain relief for surgical procedures.

His latest research is extremely technical and covers two areas. First, he's been comparing how newborn babies and unborn foetuses react to any kind of stress, including pain.

He's found similar changes in their hormones and their blood flow, suggesting that foetuses can indeed respond to pain.

Secondly, he's been researching - using rats - exactly which parts of the developing brain are used to detect pain.

He says that while the adult uses the very top section of the brain, the foetus has the first flickerings of sensation in the area below that. Crucially, this part of the brain develops before 26 weeks.

His conclusions could have enormous consequences for the abortion debate. He told Dispatches: "I believe that foetuses can feel pain very likely by 20 weeks of gestation and possibly even earlier."

The other scientific evidence MPs will be hearing about concerns viability - the age at which premature babies can survive. Forty years ago, when the abortion law was first passed, babies under 28 weeks rarely survived. Things have changed dramatically since then.

Back in July, we filmed a newborn baby named Hope in the neo-natal intensive care unit of Liverpool Women's Hospital. In her incubator, Hope was almost invisible under a pink blanket, surrounded by wires and bleeping monitors.

She had been born at 23 weeks - one week before she could have still been legally aborted. And here she was, three weeks later, still clinging to life with the frailest of grips.

Hope lived for two months, with her parents constantly at her side, before she died. In Britain, modern drugs and high-tech treatment meant she had about a 25 per cent chance of survival - hich would have doubled if she'd been born a week later. The odds were against her from the outset.

But those statistics are changing all the time. In America the chances of her survival would have been better, and what happens over there will inevitably filter through to Britain.

At a specialist unit in Arkansas, we filmed Dr Whit Hall checking on his tiny patients. "The survival is as high as 75 to 80 per cent for 24-weekers and about 50 per cent for 23-weekers," he explained.

How relevant those statistics are to the whole abortion debate in Britain seems to depend on your views. Ann Furedi, who runs the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, strongly believes the two issues shouldn't be confused.

"The women we see at 23 weeks are the ones who have incredibly compelling grounds for abortion," she says.

The pro-life view is expressed by Dr Trevor Stammers, a GP from Wimbledon, south London: "I think it's totally barbaric that a 24-week foetus will be aborted on one floor of a hospital and in the intensive care unit they'll be trying to save the life of another one."

So where does this new scientific evidence take us? One thing is certain: the need for debate has never been more urgent. The last major parliamentary discussion on abortion was back in 1990. There have been huge advances in science and medicine since then.

It will be interesting to watch whether MPs can balance the hard and frequently difficult facts about abortion with the strongly held personal and moral views that have always driven this most emotive of subjects.

• Dispatches: Abortion - What We Need to Know, reported by Deborah Davies, is on Channel 4 on Wednesday at 10.40pm

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Comments (46)

46 people have commented on this story so far. Tell us what you think below.

Here's a sample of the latest comments published. You can click view all to read all comments that readers have sent in.

Please give equal time to the ALREADY BORN women whose lives are wrecked when they have to carry an unwanted foetus to full term, and the anguish of raising a child in poverty.

- Deek, NYC

Before I had my 3 children I was pro choice, now I'm even more pro choice as an unwanted baby should never be born. They need and deserve much love and attention. I do believe, however, that the cut off date should be lowered to 16 weeks.

- Mandy, Sheffield, UK

I had my first scan at 16 and a half weeks, and saw a real baby, I couldn't imagine killing it and dismembering it. I am all for abortions, but it should be performed early on. After that, you have a responsibility and you must face it, either realise you are going to be a mum, or have it adopted. My son was a complete surprise, I didn't want kids not for a long time, but here I am enjoying it and it wasn't the end of my world, just the beginning of a new one.

- Danielle Mccarthy, London

TOPICS: Constitution/Conservatism; Culture/Society; Government; Politics/Elections
KEYWORDS: abortion; expose; moralabsolutes; murder; prolife
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1 posted on 10/15/2007 8:28:58 AM PDT by
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To: Coleus; nickcarraway; narses; Mr. Silverback; Canticle_of_Deborah; TenthAmendmentChampion; ...

20 weeks from conception

Please Freepmail me if you want on or off my Pro-Life Ping List.
2 posted on 10/15/2007 8:30:05 AM PDT by (A Catholic Respect Life Curriculum is available at
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3 posted on 10/15/2007 8:31:50 AM PDT by (A Catholic Respect Life Curriculum is available at
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I have an idea.

Either don’t have sex, or use a condom.

Is that edgy? Am I keeping up with my younger constituents?

4 posted on 10/15/2007 8:35:00 AM PDT by wastedyears (I don't wanna grow up, help : /)
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To: wastedyears

“Either don’t have sex, or use a condom.”

It is amazing with all of the contraception methods, the awareness campaigns, the elimination of any social stigmas that if you get pregnant, you and your boyfriend are just incredibly dumb.

Now I know that in some cases people can get pregnant despite the contraception, but that’s negligible.

5 posted on 10/15/2007 8:39:55 AM PDT by Slapshot68
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The abortion she's about to have would be illegal in many European countries, where the time limit is 12 weeks, unless the foetus is severely disabled or the mother's life is at risk.

Americans are unaware that we have some of the worst abortion laws in the world.

World Abortion Law Map

Abortion never legal, or life-of-mother exception

Abortion legal in "hard cases", such as rape, incest, and/or deformed child.

Abortion legal for social reasons (e.g. mother says she can't afford a child), or to protect the mother's "mental health" (definitions and requirements vary).

Abortion legal at any time during pregnancy for any reason.

6 posted on 10/15/2007 8:46:39 AM PDT by Aquinasfan (When you find "Sola Scriptura" in the Bible, let me know)
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Please give equal time to the ALREADY BORN women whose lives are wrecked when they have to carry an unwanted foetus to full term, and the anguish of raising a child in poverty.

Perhaps the woman should havethought about that before sleeping with the man - and NOT after.

7 posted on 10/15/2007 8:48:17 AM PDT by MortMan (Have a pheasant plucking day!)
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To:; 230FMJ; 49th; 50mm; 69ConvertibleFirebird; Aleighanne; Alexander Rubin; ...
Moral Absolutes Ping!

Freepmail wagglebee or little jeremiah to subscribe or unsubscribe from the moral absolutes ping list.

FreeRepublic moral absolutes keyword search
[ Add keyword moral absolutes to flag FR articles to this ping list ]

8 posted on 10/15/2007 8:49:11 AM PDT by wagglebee ("A political party cannot be all things to all people." -- Ronald Reagan, 3/1/75)
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To: Aquinasfan

There ought to be a different color for China, representing “Abortion mandatory for women who already have one child.”

9 posted on 10/15/2007 8:58:54 AM PDT by DuncanWaring (The Lord uses the good ones; the bad ones use the Lord.)
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She had considered having an abortion in secret, but eventually her mum guessed and made the appointment for her.

For evil to suceed, it needs a willing host.
10 posted on 10/15/2007 9:00:05 AM PDT by reagan_fanatic (Ron Paul put the cuckoo in my Cocoa Puffs)
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To: wagglebee

How about a woman remains chaste until AFTER marriage. OH, OH, what a shocking idea! God help a society that encourages women to sleep around.

11 posted on 10/15/2007 9:01:06 AM PDT by kitkat (I refuse to let the DUers chase me off FR.)
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To:; Thinkin' Gal
I couldn't help thinking of something I had read in the bible, the Aprocrypha, Esdras. It was posted here on FR on January 29, 2001 by Thinkin' Gal:

2 Esdras 6

18 It said, "The days are coming when I draw near to visit the inhabitants of the earth, 19 and when I require from the doers of iniquity the penalty of their iniquity, and when the humiliation of Zion is complete. 20 When the seal is placed upon the age that is about to pass away, then I will show these signs: the books shall be opened before the face of the firmament, and all shall see my judgmentf together. 21 Children a year old shall speak with their voices, and pregnant women shall give birth to premature children at three and four months, and these shall live and leap about. 22 Sown places shall suddenly appear unsown, and full storehouses shall suddenly be found to be empty; 23 the trumpet shall sound aloud, and when all hear it, they shall suddenly be terrified. 24 At that time friends shall make war on friends like enemies, the earth and those who inhabit it shall be terrified, and the springs of the fountains shall stand still, so that for three hours they shall not flow. 25 "It shall be that whoever remains after all that I have foretold to you shall be saved and shall see my salvation and the end of my world. 26 And they shall see those who were taken up, who from their birth have not tasted death; and the heart of the earth'sg inhabitants shall be changed and converted to a different spirit. 27 For evil shall be blotted out, and deceit shall be quenched; 28 faithfulness shall flourish, and corruption shall be overcome, and the truth, which has been so long without fruit, shall be revealed."

Post 13

12 posted on 10/15/2007 9:01:15 AM PDT by Aliska
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To: Aquinasfan

It is a great irony that most of the countries where abortion is not allowed are Muslim.

13 posted on 10/15/2007 9:04:24 AM PDT by Aliska
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To: reagan_fanatic

...”For evil to suceed, it needs a willing host”.

Isn’t that the truth! As a mother of a soon to be 13 year old daughter, I can’t even imagine being a willing accomplice to the murder of my own grandchild. I would be very disappointed and heartsick if my young daughter ever became pregnant, but I would never counsel abortion over adoption.

14 posted on 10/15/2007 9:15:43 AM PDT by HanneyBean
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To: wastedyears
Am I keeping up with my younger constituents?

95,000 abortions in the US per year. That's a bit more than the number of forcible rapes and clearly no where near all of those result in a pregnancy.

Somehow we find ourselves with a consistent rate of about 1,250,000 abortions every single year despite decades of birth control, sex education and free condom programs. Almost half of abortions are performed on women over 25. I'm supposed to believe these grown women didn't know how pregnancy occurs?

Here's a stat: Forty-six percent of women having abortions did not use a contraceptive method during the month they became pregnant. Of these women... 26% had unexpected sex and 1% were forced to have sex.

If we accept that statistic, perhaps 6000 abortions fall under rape/incest which is drastically lower than the forcible-rape stat above. What's going on with the rest?

Bill Clinton, talked about it, but never did one single thing to make abortion rare. Instead we have an entire political party gleefully championing policy and practice that amounts to a 9/11 event every single day.

15 posted on 10/15/2007 9:28:39 AM PDT by newzjunkey (Pope to politicians: "(Do) not to allow children to be considered as a form of illness.")
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To: newzjunkey

Does “unexpected sex” fall into the category of “I was drunk and he was hot?”

16 posted on 10/15/2007 9:32:38 AM PDT by wastedyears (I don't wanna grow up, help : /)
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Society is beyond morally bankrupt. It's just a moral void. The cognitive dissonance of physicians who can draw an arbitrary line in the sand and pronounce death on any fetus on the wrong side of that line is positively satanic.

If morality were a house, the world would be invested in a guilt-free, negative amortizing loan that's about to reset to a level we can't pay off.

Foreclosure's coming.

17 posted on 10/15/2007 9:35:29 AM PDT by Rutles4Ever (Ubi Petrus, ibi ecclesia, et ubi ecclesia vita eterna)
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To: kitkat
Hubby and I were in line at the grocery store and I was flipping through a People magazine. The article was talking about the hardship that Tom Brady's ex-girlfriend was having because Tom had moved on before she knew she was preggers.

I read a piece of the article to my husband and then commented that if she had been married to Tom before she decided to have sex and a baby then she wouldn't be where she is today. The woman in front of me whipped around and gave me the "laser glare". It was as if I were Satan.
18 posted on 10/15/2007 9:38:09 AM PDT by ninergold3 (Don't like my attitude? Then get one of your own!)
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To: MortMan
I'm not surprised it's a New Yorker with that plea. It isn't as if the woman has no options. She's not exactly cursed to "raising a child in poverty."

How about giving the child up for adoption! The last one hardly wrecks her life. And in many places she could just drop the child off at a hospital or fire station within 72 hrs and walk away, no strings attached.

We cannot make it any easier!

19 posted on 10/15/2007 9:46:40 AM PDT by newzjunkey (Pope to politicians: "(Do) not to allow children to be considered as a form of illness.")
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To: Aquinasfan

IIRC - Some US money goes to China to fund their abortions. If not currently I’m fairly sure it was the case in the past.

20 posted on 10/15/2007 9:50:36 AM PDT by (A Catholic Respect Life Curriculum is available at
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