'No foetal pain' before 24 weeks
The human foetus cannot feel pain before the age of 24 weeks so there is no reason to change the current abortion limit, health experts have said.
Nerve connections in the brain are not sufficiently formed to allow pain perception until after the official 24-week limit for terminations, a Government-commissioned report found.
The study, carried out by members of the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, also said the foetus was in a state of "continuous sleep-like unconsciousness or sedation" even after 24 weeks.
This could mean that late abortions, which are permitted for serious abnormalities or risks to the mother's health, may not result in foetal suffering.
The landmark findings come amid efforts by some MPs - including Prime Minister David Cameron - to lower the abortion limit. A fresh analysis of evidence for foetal pain was recommended by MPs from the Commons Science and Technology committee during the last parliament.
On the issue of pain perception, the Royal College report concluded: "It was apparent that connections from the periphery to the cortex are not intact before 24 weeks of gestation and, as most neuroscientists believe that the cortex is necessary for pain perception, it can be concluded that the foetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior to this gestation."
It added: "There is increasing evidence that the foetus never experiences a state of true wakefulness in utero and is kept, by the presence of its chemical environment, in a continuous sleep-like unconsciousness or sedation."
Professor Allan Templeton, president of the Royal College and who chaired the inquiry, told a newspaper: "There's nothing in the report that suggests any need to review the upper limit."
A second report by the college, into abortion for foetal abnormalities, looked into what mental and physical abnormalities could result in a "serious handicap". Around 1% of abortions are carried out on these grounds, taking place after the 24-week limit.
Some campaigners have demanded greater clarity following reports of late abortions for correctable conditions such as cleft palate. But the Royal College said it was impractical to produce a list of conditions for serious handicap because it was too difficult to predict the long-term impact of an abnormality on a child or their family.