BABIES WITH CLUB FEET ABORTED
The Sunday Times - Britain The Sunday Times May 28, 2006
Babies with club feet aborted, Lois Rogers
MORE than 20 babies have been aborted in advanced pregnancy because scans showed that they had club feet, a deformity readily corrected by surgery or physiotherapy.
According to figures from the Office for National Statistics covering the years from 1996 to 2004, a further four babies were aborted because they had webbed fingers or extra digits, which are also corrected by simple surgery. All the terminations took place late in pregnancy, after 20 weeks.
Last year, according to campaigners, a healthy baby was aborted in the sixth month at a hospital in southeast England after ultrasound images indicated part of its foot was missing.
News of the terminations has reignited the debate over how scanning and gene technology may enable the creation of “designer babies”. In 2002 it emerged that a baby had been aborted late — at 28 weeks — after scans found that it had a cleft palate, another readily corrected condition.
Some parents, doctors and charities are increasingly worried by what they see as a tendency to widen the definition of “serious handicap”. The handicap provision, which does not exist in most other countries, permits abortions to be carried out until birth. It was intended to save women from the trauma of giving birth to babies likely to die in infancy.
Club foot is one of the most common birth defects in Britain. About one in 1,000 babies is affected, meaning that 600 to 700 infants are born with the condition every year. It results in the feet pointing downwards and inwards, and in severe cases can cause foot deformity and a limp.
However, it is relatively easy to correct and in recent years techniques of splints, plaster casts and boots to set the foot into the correct position have replaced the need for surgery.Club foot is occasionally connected with serious but rare chromosomal defects, although specialists point out that these can also be screened out before birth with additional tests.
Despite the ease with which it can be treated, the perception that club foot is a serious birth defect has remained among some parents and doctors.
“It was strongly suggested that we consider abortion after they found our baby had a club foot,” said David Wildgrove, 41, a computer programmer from Sheffield, whose son Alexander was born in 1996. “I was appalled. We resisted, the problem was treated and he now runs around and plays football with everyone else.”
Pippa Spriggs from Cambridge, whose son Isaac will celebrate his second birthday in July, was also dismayed when a scan halfway through the pregnancy revealed that her baby had the defect.
“Abortion certainly was not openly advised, but it was made clear to me it was available,” she said. “In fact he has been treated and the condition has not slowed him down at all.”
Others take a different view and decide not to accept the risk of an imperfect baby. Sue Banton, who founded the group Steps for parents of children with foot disorders, was troubled that a home counties couple last year decided to terminate their baby, despite counselling to reassure them it would have a worthwhile life even with a section of foot missing.
“We gave them other families to talk to, but they just didn’t want to know. The baby was aborted just before the 25th week,” she said.
“It is terrible. I know lots of perfectly nice people with this condition, and you just can’t imagine them not being here.”
One doctor in the north of England who did not want to be named, said a recent case in his hospital had involved the discovery of a hand missing from a foetus scanned at 20 weeks. “The father did not want the pregnancy to proceed because of his perception that the child would not be able to do all the usual things like sport,” said the doctor.
Naomi Davis, a leading paediatric surgeon at Manchester children’s hospital who specialises in correcting club feet, said: “I think it’s reasonable to be totally shocked that abortion is being offered for this. It is entirely treatable. I can only think it is lack of information.”
Jane Fisher, director of the charity Antenatal Results and Choices, defended the right of parents to terminate pregnancies when defects were found.
“This is not part of a move towards designer babies,” she said. “These are difficult and painful issues.”
Club foot has been no bar to high achievement. Eminent sufferers have included:
Lord Byron, the poet, who swam the mile across the Hellespont and wrote a verse about it
Dudley Moore, the actor and musician oDavid Starkey, the television historian and political critic
Toyah Willcox, the former chart-topping singer, who was born with a twisted spine as well as a club foot
Kristi Yamaguchi, an American figure skater who won an Olympic gold medal in 1992