A study released this week in the United Kingdom suggests that a fetus might feel pain as early as 20 weeks, sparking concerns over medical procedures on premature infants and emboldening the opponents of late-term abortion.

"This study underscores the gruesome nature of abortion," charges Kristi Hamrick of The Center for Reclaiming America, which is joining with other pro-life groups next week to launch a campaign to bring a ban on late-term abortions back in front of Congress this session.

According to reports, the head the government-appointed Medical Research Council at Edinburgh University in the United Kingdom said a fetus was absolutely aware of pain by 24 weeks and perhaps as early as 20 weeks — earlier than the previously accepted 26 weeks.

The findings indicate a need for more research on ways to treat neonatal pre-term infants, who may experience pain from a number of medical procedures that could affect them in long-term development. And the study raises questions over whether and which pre-term babies ought to be given anesthetics in the womb during birth.

But the study also provides new fuel for the debate over abortion rights, in particular late-term abortions.

Hamrick says she believes life occurs at conception and must be protected thereafter, but claims that the Edinburgh study can only help her cause.

"It does not change the fact that (anywhere) along the pendulum swing (from conception to birth) this is still a human being," she said. "But this information is helpful to bringing our country to a consensus on where we should draw some lines."

Abortion during any trimester is legal in the United States under federal law. Several states have attempted to ban so-called partial birth abortions – a procedure where the baby is partially delivered down the birth canal before the abortion is performed. Those bans have been successfully challenged in the Supreme Court.

A federal ban on partial birth abortions has passed the House and Senate twice, but was short the votes to override a presidential veto. President Clinton vetoed the measure both times.

Confident that President Bush, who said he would sign the ban on late-term abortions during the 2000 campaign, would sign the bill if it gets to his desk, pro-life activists are gearing up for their latest fight.

Abortion rights groups, including the National Organization for Women, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood, say that any move to advance a ban on late-term abortions is one step closer to reversing the landmark Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision which restricted individual states' abilities to regulate or ban abortions.

Dr. Susan Dudley, deputy director of the National Abortion Federation, a network for physicians who perform abortions, said fetal pain is a complex issue that is far from fully understood.

But whether or not the fetus can feel pain — at 26 weeks, 20 weeks or earlier — the vast majority of abortions today are conducted in the first trimester and groups like NAF will continue to support that right, she said.

"The obvious and most important thing to say is most abortions take place before 20 weeks," Dudley said. Even if the Edinburgh study is accurate, she said, "it would have very little impact on people who are contemplating an abortion."

According to the latest numbers from the National Center for Health Statistics, 1.3 million abortions took place in the U.S. during 1997.