Fetal viability

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Fetal viability or foetal viability is the ability of a fetus to survive outside the uterus.[1]


Viability, as the word has been used in United States constitutional law since Roe v. Wade, is the potential of the fetus to survive outside the uterus after birth, natural or induced, when supported by up-to-date medicine. Fetal viability depends largely on the fetal organ maturity, and environmental conditions.[2] Another definition for viability, as used in the medical phrase limit of viability, is the expectation that a fetus has an equal chance of surviving and not surviving outside his or her mother's womb.

According to Websters Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language, viability of a fetus means having reached such a stage of development as to be capable of living, under normal conditions, outside the uterus. Viability exists as a function of biomedical and technological capacities, which are different in different parts of the world. As a consequence, there is, at the present time, no worldwide, uniform gestational age that defines viability.[3]

Medical viability[edit]

There is no sharp limit of development, gestational age, or weight at which a human fetus automatically becomes viable.[1] According to studies between 2003 and 2005, 20 to 35 percent of babies born at 23 weeks of gestation survive, while 50 to 70 percent of babies born at 24 to 25 weeks, and more than 90 percent born at 26 to 27 weeks, survive.[4] It is rare for a baby weighing less than 500 g (17.6 ounces) to survive.[1] A baby's chances for survival increase 3-4% per day between 23 and 24 weeks of gestation and about 2-3% per day between 24 and 26 weeks of gestation. After 26 weeks the rate of survival increases at a much slower rate because survival is high already.[5][6][7][8]

Stages in prenatal development, showing viability and point of 50% chance of survival (limit of viability) at bottom. Weeks and months numbered by gestation.
Completed weeks of gestation at birth 21 and less 22 23 24 25 26 27 30 34
Chance of survival[5] 0% 0-10% 10-35% 40-70% 50-80% 80-90% >90% >95% >98%

Period of viability[edit]

The period of viability refers (traditionally) to the period after the twenty-eighth week,[9] or more recently the twenty-fourth week, of gestation when a human fetus is capable of living outside of the womb. Whether the fetus is in the period of viability has legal ramifications as far as the fetus' rights of protection are concerned.[10]

It sometimes incorporates weight as well as gestational age.[11][12][13]

United States Supreme Court[edit]

The United States Supreme Court stated in Roe v. Wade (1973) that viability (i.e., the "interim point at which the fetus becomes ... potentially able to live outside the mother's womb, albeit with artificial aid"[14]) "is usually placed at about seven months (28 weeks) but may occur earlier, even at 24 weeks."[14] The 28-week definition became part of the "trimester framework" marking the point at which the "compelling state interest" (under the doctrine of strict scrutiny) in preserving potential life became possibly controlling, permitting states to freely regulate and even ban abortion after the 28th week.[14] The subsequent Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) modified the "trimester framework," permitting the states to regulate abortion in ways not posing an "undue burden" on the right of the mother to an abortion at any point before viability; on account of technological developments between 1973 and 1992, viability itself was legally dissociated from the hard line of 28 weeks, leaving the point at which "undue burdens" were permissible variable depending on the technology of the time and the judgment of the state legislatures.

Born-Alive Infants Protection Act of 2002[edit]

In 2002, the U.S. Government enacted the Born-Alive Infants Protection Act. Whereas a fetus may be viable or not viable in utero, this law provides a legal definition for personal human life when not in utero. It defines "born alive" as "the complete expulsion or extraction from his or her mother of that member, at any stage of development, who after such expulsion or extraction breathes or has a beating heart, pulsation of the umbilical cord, or definite movement of voluntary muscles"[15] and specifies that any of these is the action of a living human person. While the implications of this law for defining viability in medicine may not be fully explored,[16] in practice doctors and nurses are advised not to resuscitate such persons with gestational age of 22 weeks or less, under 400 g weight, with anencephaly, or with a confirmed diagnosis of trisomy 13 or 18.[17][18]

U.S. State Law[edit]

Forty-three states have laws restricting post-viability abortions. Some allow doctors to decide for themselves if the fetus is viable. Some require doctors to perform tests to prove a fetus is pre-viable and require multiple doctors to certify the findings. The procedure intact dilation and extraction (IDX) became a focal point in the abortion debate,[19] based on the belief that it is used mainly post-viability.[20] IDX was made illegal in most circumstances by the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act in 2003, which the U.S. Supreme Court upheld in the case of Gonzales v. Carhart.

Limit of viability[edit]

The limit of viability is the gestational age at which a prematurely born fetus/infant has a 50% chance of long-term survival outside its mother's womb. With the support of neonatal intensive care units, the limit of viability in the developed world has declined since 50 years ago, but has remained unchanged since the late 90s.[21][22][needs update]

Currently, the limit of viability is considered to be around 24 weeks, although the incidence of major disabilities remains high at this point.[23][24] Neo-natologists generally would not provide intensive care at 23 weeks, but would from 26 weeks.[25][26][27]

As of 2006, the two youngest children to survive premature birth are thought to be James Elgin Gill (born on 20 May 1987 in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada, at 21 weeks and 5 days gestational age),[28][29] and Amillia Taylor (an IVF pregnancy, born on 24 October 2006 in Miami, Florida, at 21 weeks and 6 days gestational age).[30][31] Both children were born just under 20 weeks from fertilization (or 22 weeks' gestation). At birth, Taylor was 9 inches (22.86 cm) long and weighed 10 ounces (283 grams).[30] She suffered digestive and respiratory problems, together with a brain hemorrhage. She was discharged from the Baptist Children's Hospital on 20 February 2007.[30] As of 2013, Taylor was in kindergarten and at the small end of the normal growth curve with some developmental delays.[32]

A preterm birth, also known as premature birth, is defined as babies born alive before 37 weeks of pregnancy are completed.[33] There are three types of preterm births: extremely preterm (less than 28 weeks), very preterm (28 to 32 weeks) and moderate to late preterm (32 to 37 weeks).[33]

Factors that influence the chance of survival[edit]

There are several factors that affect the chance of survival of the baby. Two notable factors are age and weight. The baby's gestational age (number of completed weeks of pregnancy) at the time of birth and the baby's weight (also a measure of growth) influence whether the baby will survive. Other major factors include race and gender. For a given weight, Black babies have a slightly better chance of survival than White, while most other races have a rate between the two. Male infants are slightly less mature and have a slightly higher risk of dying than female infants.

Several types of health problems also influence fetal viability. For example, breathing problems, congenital abnormalities or malformations, and the presence of other severe diseases, especially infection, threaten the survival of the neonate.

Other factors may influence survival by altering the rate of organ maturation or by changing the supply of oxygen to the developing fetus.

The mother's health plays a significant role in the child's viability. Diabetes in the mother, if not well controlled, slows organ maturation; infants of such mothers have a higher mortality. Severe high blood pressure before the 8th month of pregnancy may cause changes in the placenta, decreasing the delivery of nutrients and/or oxygen to the developing fetus and leading to problems before and after delivery.

Rupture of the fetal membranes before 24 weeks of gestation with loss of amniotic fluid markedly decreases the baby's chances of survival, even if the baby is delivered much later.[5]

The quality of the facility- whether the hospital offers neonatal critical care services, whether it is a Level I pediatric trauma care facility, the availability of corticosteroids and other medications at the facility, the experience and number of physicians and nurses in neonatology and obstetrics and of the providers has a limited but still significant impact on fetal viability. Facilities that have obstetrical services and emergency rooms and operating facilities, even if smaller, can be used in areas where higher services are not available to stabilize the mother and fetus or neonate until they can be transferred to an appropriate facility.[34][35][36][37]

See also[edit]


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  7. ^ https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4438860/
  8. ^ https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM199311253292201
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  10. ^ "Attorney Catherine Christophillis Discusses The Reasoning Behind The Drug Testing Of Pregnant Women" (October 25, 2000) Legal News Chat Transcript http://news.findlaw.com/transcripts/s/christophillis20001025.html
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  14. ^ a b c Roe v. Wade, 410 U.S. 113, 160, 93 S.Ct. 705, 730 (1973).
  15. ^ "House Report 107-186 - BORN-ALIVE INFANTS PROTECTION ACT OF 2001". frwebgate.access.gpo.gov. Retrieved 3 April 2018.
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  20. ^ Franklin Foer (1997). Fetal Viability. [ONLINE] Available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/the_gist/1997/05/fetal_viability.html. [Last Accessed 14 November 2012].
  21. ^ Fergus Walsh (11 April 2008). "Prem baby survival rates revealed". BBC News. Retrieved 2008-05-11.
  22. ^ "Early baby survival 'unchanged'". BBC News. 9 May 2008. Retrieved 2008-05-11.
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  37. ^ Belluck, Pam (6 May 2015). "Premature Babies May Survive at 22 Weeks if Treated, Study Finds". Retrieved 3 April 2018 – via NYTimes.com.