Finding That Babies Born at 22 Weeks Can Survive Could Change Abortion Debate

A premature baby waits in an incubator in hospital in Charleroi, Belgium, Oct. 18, 2014. Yves Herman/Reuters

Premature babies born at 22 weeks are more likely to survive outside the womb than previously thought, according to new research.

The study, published in The New England Journal of Medicine on Thursday, looked at nearly 5,000 babies born before 27 weeks of gestation. It found that a significant number of babies who were born at 22 weeks, just over five months of gestation, survived after being medically treated in a hospital. Previously, 22 weeks was considered too early to resuscitate a baby because survival rates were so low.

The study's finding could herald a seachange in the way abortion is viewed in the U.S. and the way hospitals care for premature babies. Currently, the standard age of viability—the age when the fetus is able to live outside of the womb—is 24 weeks in the U.S. and used by a number of states to determine at what point in a woman's pregnancy they will prohibit abortion. However, according to the study, babies born at 22 weeks had a nearly 25 percent survival rate if actively treated in a hospital.

Dr. Edward Bell, a pediatrics professor at the University of Iowa, told The New York Times that he considers 22 weeks the new standard of viability and that "these babies deserve a chance." Around 5,000 babies are born at 22 weeks in the U.S. each year.

In Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court decision that made unconstitutional any state laws banning abortion except to save the life of the mother, the court ruled that no restrictions could be placed on abortions before the 28th week of a pregnancy. At the time, this was believed to be the earliest age of viability, The Washington Post reports. The age of viability decreased as more babies began surviving earlier.

Different states have different laws on abortion limits, according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit organization that promotes reproductive health. Eighteen states prohibit abortion at "viability," which some define as 24 to 26 weeks of pregnancy, while others make the cut-off point 24 weeks. Seven states and the District of Columbia have no restrictions on the timing. Eleven states prohibit abortion at 20 weeks of pregnancy.

The latest NEJM study found that the different ways various hospitals treat extremely premature babies had a direct impact on the survival of babies born at 22, 23 and 24 weeks. Some offered little or no treatment while others used ventilation and intubation in an attempt to save babies' lives, The New York Times reports. Without medical intervention, babies born at 22 weeks did not survive, the study found.

Only 22 percent of the 22-week-old babies were given lifesaving treatment, compared to 72 percent of 23-week-old and 97 percent of 24-week-old babies, the study found. Babies born under 21 weeks did not survive, even in cases where medical treatment was provided.

The typical survival rate for premature babies born at 22 weeks ranges from 2 percent to 15 percent and is "an uncommon event," according the National Institutes of Health (NIH). The later the baby is born, the more chance he or she has of surviving and the less chance the baby has of developing a severe disability.

One in eight births in the U.S. is preterm, which contributes to the high U.S. infant mortality rate compared to other developed nations, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Preterm births are a leading cause of infant mortality rates in the U.S.; a recent study from Save the Children found the poor health of some U.S. mothers, limited access to health care during pregnancy and paid maternal leave were partly to blame. Half of all pregnancies in the U.S. are unintended.

The recent findings come at a time when abortion clinics in some U.S. states are already shutting down at lightning speed in the face of restrictive new laws and other legal hurdles. For example, more than half of Ohio's abortion providers have closed over the past four years and Texas has seen 17 out of 40 of the state's providers close since 2011, the Associated Press reports. Anti-abortion activists as well as lawmakers who deem themselves pro-life could use the study's findings to push for further restrictions, like lowering the standard age of viability across the U.S.