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Premature Babies As Young As 22 Weeks Can Survive, Study Finds - Will This Charge Debate Over Abortion?

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Premature babies aged as little as 22 weeks could survive if properly treated, a new study reveals. This new finding could have an effect on the ever-divisive debate over abortion.

A new study reveals around 5.1 babies born at 22 weeks survived their birth, and 3.4 out of every 100 lived without serious defects from the experience.

Differences in survival rates between various hospitals were recorded in the study. These appear to be due to the level of care provided to premature babies when they are first born. The best results were seen in those health care centers that provided the newborns with intubation, ventilation and other treatments designed to improve breathing. Corticosteroids can also be provided to the mother before birth in an effort to protect the lungs and brain of the fetus prior to delivery.

The "point of viability," the level of development at which a fetus is said to be able to survive without its mother, is usually declared to be 24 weeks. This number is used in many laws that govern abortion regulations around the United States. If 22 weeks were to become the new scientific standard, political pressure could build to amend current laws, restricting when such procedures can be legally carried out.

The Supreme Court of the United States has ruled that states must allow abortion if the fetus is not viable outside the womb. If this finding translates into legal changes, pregnant women would have two weeks less time to end pregnancies in some states.

Each year in the United States, roughly 18,000 babies are born very premature, and 5,000 of these are seen between 22 and 23 weeks. Researchers examined records of 4,987 infants born between April 2006 and March 2011 at 24 hospitals and were able to follow up on more than 4,700 of the subjects when they were between 18 and 24 months old.

The latest report on premature births states that no known medical procedure can assist newborns who enter the world after less than 22 weeks of development in the womb. The decision on treatments for premature babies varies by health care centers as well as between doctors.

"[W]e go after the 24-weekers. If it's 23, we will talk to the family and explain to them that for us it's an unknown pathway. At 22 weeks, in my opinion, the outcomes are so dismal that I don't recommend any interventions," Jeffrey M. Perlman, medical director of neonatal intensive care at New York-Presbyterian Hospital Weill Cornell Medical Center, said.

Analysis of survival rates among premature babies between 22 and 23 weeks of development was profiled in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Photo: Harald Goven | Flickr

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