London, Oct 11 (ANI): The scan of a 17 weeks old foetus appearing to give a smile implies that a baby can experience feelings such as happiness and pain much earlier in its development than previously thought.
It will prompt further calls from doctors and campaigners to lower the upper abortion limit from 24 weeks.
They claim that by his stage the unborn baby can already feel agonising pain and the procedure is therefore inhumane.
Many experts dispute these claims, however, and say that a foetus is naturally sedated and unconscious in the womb and cannot experience any senses.
Professor Stuart Campbell, who took the picture at his London clinic with 3-D and 4-D scanning equipment, said it did not necessarily show the unborn child had feelings - but it was certainly displaying human behaviour.
"This is a joyful expression of the humanity of the foetus. I have seen a foetus making a crying face at around 18 or 19 weeks, but not a nice smile," the Daily Mail quoted Campbell a saying.
"This is the earliest on record - it is just a delight."
Professor Campbell, former head of obstetrics and gynaecology at King's College and St George's hospitals in London, said he did not know what caused the smile.
"It is part of a sequence that involves yawning and making breathing movements and opening its eyelids and, of course, it makes a crying face."
The baby is due in January and its parents, Louise and Sam Henry from Swallowfield, Berkshire, admitted they were stunned to see the smiling face during a routine scan.
Eric Jauniaux, professor of obstetrics and foetal medicine at University College London said: "There is no emotion or feeling at this stage. The evidence of pain and feeling is from 24 or 28 weeks.
"At 17 weeks the connection between the brain and the rest of the body is very limited."
Dr Yehudi Gordon, who runs the private Viveka gynaecology clinic in London, said: "All the emotional centres that we will ever have during our lives are fully formed by the time we are born.
"At 17 weeks the baby could be smiling or it could be the facial muscles getting together in preparation for sucking and feeding," Gordon added. (ANI)