Leading doctors and scientists warned yesterday that hi-tech ultrasound scans that show 12-week fetuses sucking their thumbs and walking in the womb are dangerously misleading and will have a bad influence on the public debate over abortion.
According to experts on foetal development, the controversial images, taken with the help of a new 4-D imaging technology, have produced a false impression that foetuses develop into viable and potentially self-aware beings at a much earlier stage than they actually do
Abortion has again become a political issue since these images were first published 2 years back. Stuart Campbell, of the Create Health Clinic in London, developed this scanning method.
The images showed 12-week foetuses to be bouncing and kicking in the womb before the mother is aware of such movements. After 16 weeks of gestation, activities like thumb sucking and yawning are seen and at 18 weeks, the foetuses seem to open their eyes.
According to Professor Campbell these images do not imply that the foetal brain was consciously controlling these movements. However, the anti-abortion campaigners made use of these photographs to bring down the time limit on terminations from the current 24 weeks.
Dr Donald Peebles, a consultant in foetal medicine at University College London, said, "The temptation to associate foetal movements with adult movements is incredibly dangerous and they contribute nothing to the debate over whether the legal time limit for abortion should be lowered. "
Dr Huseyin Mehmet, a reader in developmental neurobiology at Imperial College London, said, "A foetal brain at 23 and 24 weeks is extremely immature and it is like an orange that has been sliced in half. "
But Julia Millington, of the Pro-Life Alliance, said, "It is irrelevant whether someone looking at the images fully understands the science behind it or not. "
She said, "People respond to the humanity of the images rather than the science behind them. It is accepted generally that although a foetus appears to be smiling, it is not doing so in the way we smile."
"When the ultrasound images were first made public we were told it could just be a reflex response. But that doesn't change the reality that we can see how well developed an unborn baby is."
Ms Millington said, "I do not believe the comments made by the scientists will significantly alter the debate over when abortions should take place.
She said: "I do not think they will diminish the impact of the images because the thing that people respond to is what they see as the humanity of the unborn child.
"Most people will recognise that a very early foetus is incapable of surviving outside the womb without being told by a scientist."