Magazine article The Human Life Review

Fetal Pain: Real or Relative?

Magazine article The Human Life Review

Fetal Pain: Real or Relative?

Article excerpt

The worlds of philosophy and humor often intersect so that philosophers can sometimes be mistaken for comedians and vice versa. To the age-old question "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?" one might not be certain whether to respond with a frown or a smile. A contemporary variant of the question leaves no doubt about the appropriate response: "If a husband says something and his wife is not there to correct him, is he still wrong?"

But there is decidedly nothing humorous about the question, "Does a human fetus feel pain during an abortion if no one is there to verify the pain scientifically?" We like to think that we citizens of the 21st century are compassionate people. And we place this most humane disposition, if not at the top, surely near the top of all human virtues. Being sensitive to the pain of another seems to be a clear sign of one's humanness. Not to feel the pain of another is considered cold, distant, and callously impersonal.

It is rather curious, then, that the subject of fetal pain, rather than activating the springs of compassion that exist in all of us, is often politicized, depersonalized, trivialized, and relativized. If a person is truly compassionate, it would seem that his sensitivity to another's pain would not be subject to ideological compromise. It appears disingenuous to say, "I will feel your pain as long as it is politically correct to do so."

President Ronald Reagan, in a 1984 address to the National Religious Broadcasters, made a most provocative as well as politically incorrect statement in saying, "When the lives of the unborn are snuffed out, they often feel pain, pain that is long and agonizing." The president's statement was reported by the New York Times (Jan. 31, 1984).

In response to Mr. Reagan's remark, a group of professors, including pain specialists and two past presidents of the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, wrote him a letter in support of his statement:

We state categorically that no finding of modern fetology invalidates the remarkable conclusion drawn after a lifetime of research by the late Professor Arnold Gesell of Yale University. In The Embryology of Behavior: The Beginnings of the Human Mind (1945, Harper Bros.), Dr. Gesell wrote, "and so by the close of the first trimester, the fetus is a sentient, moving being. We need not speculate as to the nature of his psychic attributes, but we may assert that the organization of his psychosomatic self is well underway."

The word "sentient" is key here, for it includes the capacity to experience pain as well as other sensations that are transmitted through the nervous system.

In the year 2000, the House of Lords in Britain conducted an inquiry into "fetal sentience" that included researching the ability of the fetus to feel pain. The inquiry concluded that "after 23 weeks of growth, higher areas of the brain are active and starting to form connections with nerves that will convey pain signals to the cortex." It also concluded that "the capacity for an experience of pain comparable to that in a newborn baby is certainly present by 24 weeks after conception."

Researchers into fetal pain explain that three neuro-anatomic factors are necessary for the experience of pain: 1) sensory nerves that convey the message of pain to the brain; 2) the part of the brain called the thalamus, that receives this message; 3) the motor nerves that transmit the message of pain to the site of the pain stimulus. These three factors are present at 8 weeks of gestation.

Ultrasound imaging of the fetus, together with the observations of heart and brain changes (using electrocardiograms and electroencephalograms) have demonstrated how the human fetus does, indeed, respond to pain, touch and sound. Dr. Bernard Nathanson's video, The Silent Scream, shows a 12-week-old fetus dodging the instrument employed in a suction abortion time and again as its heartbeat doubles in rate. …

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