Womb 'smile' fires abortion row
By Rebecca Urban, James Meikle

Images published for the first time yesterday suggesting unborn babies smile, blink and cry months before they leave the womb have renewed calls for abortion to be outlawed.

The pictures, published in London, show foetuses at 26 weeks exhibiting facial expressions. The images were captured by state-of-the-art scanning equipment.

Anti-abortion groups seized on the revelation, saying the images confirmed what they had argued all along: that a foetus was a human being with human characteristics.

The technology, known as a 3-D/4-D ultrasound, also reveals limb movements at eight weeks, leaping, turning and jumping at 11 to 12 weeks, intricate finger movements at 15 weeks and yawning at 20 weeks.

Whether the facial expressions are an emotional response or merely physical reflex is likely to be debated

An obstetrician who has been using the Austrian-developed equipment at a private London health clinic for two years, Stuart Campbell, said: "It is remarkable that a newborn baby does not smile for about six weeks after birth. But before birth, most babies smile frequently. This may indicate the baby's trouble-free existence in the womb and the relatively traumatic first few weeks after birth when the baby is reacting to a strange environment."

In Australia yesterday, anti-abortionist Senator Brian Harradine said governments had a responsibility to at least look at the new information to emerge from London. Similar evidence pointing to activity in the womb had existed for several years, but had largely been ignored, he said. "The photos show abortion is actually killing these unborn children. It really is time the massacre stopped."

A Victorian Government spokesman said abortion laws were based on years of scientific research and while the Government was interested in all new medical developments and theories, any major policy review on abortion was a long way off.

Pro-Life Victoria secretary Denise Cameron said she was not surprised by the photographs. The information would bolster the campaign for a review of abortion laws.

"It is very, very exciting news for us... that babies at 26 weeks are smiling and laughing in utero," said Ms Cameron, speaking from the Freedom To Be Born rally at Treasury Gardens yesterday.

"No longer can you deny that what is in the womb is a living being. We have always known that every abortion is killing a baby."

Australian Doctors Who Represent Human Life president Kevin Hume, said pro-life groups had believed for years that a foetus had human characteristics. The images would allow them to say, "I told you so."

"If evidence of human features, smiling and so forth, appear at an early age it means we should look again at... abortion that is carried out in the first and second trimesters," he said. "We're looking at recognisable human beings."

Melbourne's Catholic vicar-general, Monsignor Les Tomlinson, said he expected the images would ignite further debate on abortion. He backed a review of abortion laws.

"The Catholic Church's position has always been that we would regard human life from the moment of conception. So this would certainly be scientific evidence of the correctness of our belief," he said. "Any revisiting of the legislation would be welcomed by us."

Australian Birth Control Services medical director Geoff Brodie said he doubted the pictures would have much impact on the abortion laws.

"I think they are clutching at straws," he said. "No doubt it will be picked up by those groups that use anything and everything to stop terminations but ignore the fact that women have a right to choice."

The 3-D/4-D ultrasound reveals more detailed and life-like scans of a foetus than the common 2-D ultrasound that concentrates largely on the internal organs.

Obstetrician Professor Campbell said he believed the new technology meant there were many questions that could now be investigated. "Do babies with genetic problems such as Down syndrome have the same pattern of activity as normal babies? Does the foetus smile because it is happy or cry because it has been disturbed by some event in the womb? Why does a baby blink when we assume it is dark inside the uterus?" Professor Campbell said.

A spokeswoman for the Royal Women's Hospital in Melbourne said scientific evidence still maintained that babies in the womb did not smile.

Dr Brodie, of Australian Birth Control Services, said it was still unknown if smiles, or other facial movements, were the result of neurological reflexes or emotional development.

The $A290,000 scanner that makes the images possible costs two to three times more than conventional equipment. The machine develops ultrasound so that it can be transformed and shaded to produce detailed surface features from the foetus that move in real time. It is already improving diagnosis of abnormalities such as cleft lip and palate.

- with Guardian