Fetal Pain: A Red Herring in the Abortion Debate

While searching for something else, I ran across a good article discussing fetal pain. Here’s a sample:

What of the claim by anti-choicers that even very early fetuses can feel pain? In fetal development, most major organs exist in rudimentary form by about 8 to 9 weeks. It takes several months for these organs to grow in size, complexity, and organization to the point they can function. For example, the myelin sheath—the insulating cover on nerve pathways that is required for efficient conduction of pain signals—does not begin forming around nervous system cells (neurons) in the spinal cord until about 24 weeks, and not till after birth in most of the cerebral cortex. Although sporadic brain waves can be detected by about 21 weeks gestation, genuine continuous brain waves do not begin until about 28 weeks, indicating that the nerve circuits needed to carry pain impulses to the brain are not fully connected till then. This also marks the beginnings of conscious awareness, which is generally considered a requirement for experiencing pain.

Anti-choicers believe early fetuses feel pain because 8 week-old fetuses already have some peripheral nerve endings that are connected to the spinal cord, allowing them to react to touch and other stimuli. However, this is a simple reflex response that has no conscious awareness associated with it, such as when your lower leg jerks up when your knee is tapped. [...] There is no necessary connection between fetal movement and mental awareness, as we know from the famous example of headless running chickens.

The article comes from a Canadian online pro-choice magazine, Pro-Choice Press, which seems to have a lot of good material. In particular, I thought the Summer 2003 edition, a special issue focused on “Where is the Anti-Choice Movement Headed?“, was quite interesting.

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16 Responses to Fetal Pain: A Red Herring in the Abortion Debate

  1. 1
    Don P says:

    Jon:

    “Sure, I know abortion is bad, but it isn’t murder”, to which I normally respond, “than in what respect exactly is it bad – i.e. morally?” after which I have yet to hear a coherent answer, honestly – not being condescending, this is the truth.

    Murder is the intentional killing of an innocent human person. Obviously, one can consider abortion to be morally bad on the grounds that it causes the unjust death of a form of human life, even if one also believes the form of human life involved (a fertilized egg, an embryo or a fetus) is not a human person. I have no idea why would think this view incoherent.

    It is not my view, by the way. Although I think that some abortions are immoral, I do not think that all abortions are immoral, and I do not think that abortion in general is immoral.

  2. 2
    Individ-ewe-al says:

    Jon, thanks for your questions about my view.

    Let me start by making one thing clear: by singling out Americans, I did not in the least mean to imply that Americans are stupid. My point was that Americans seem to me to be more polarized about the pro-life versus pro-choice debate than Europeans. That makes it harder for them to understand that someone can be in neither camp.

    Abortion is morally bad, yes, but it is not murder. Murder is not the only thing which can be morally condemned. Lying is morally bad; I don’t think anyone would claim that lying is murder, and I personally would have a lot of problems with attempting to make lying illegal.

    Or, to take a closer analogy, killing animals is morally bad, but it is not murder, and (although I am a vegetarian myself) I do not believe it should be illegal. Killing someone in self-defence, or killing someone who wants to die, or killing someone accidentally through negligence, or legal execution are all morally bad, but none of them is the same thing as murder, and it is possible to debate whether any or all of them should be illegal without being an evil person who condones murder.

    I don’t believe that abortion is murder, because I don’t think that a foetus is a person. It is something that is important and precious and alive that should be protected from unnecessary suffering, but I just don’t give it equivalent moral status with a person. This is an arguable position, and a large part of the reason I’m not in the pro-life camp is precisely that the pro-life movement does often regard a foetus as exactly a person.

    Making abortion illegal does not prevent abortion, in the same way that making drug-taking illegal does not prevent people taking drugs. (Even making murder illegal does not prevent all murders!) Decent access to contraception, and educating people properly about the realities of sex, pregnancy and abortion, and improving the adoption system, and changing in society’s attitudes towards unmarried mothers are all things which I believe will have more effect in reducing abortion than simply making abortion illegal. These are all causes that I support whole-heartedly.

    See also Amp’s post here on the subject: http://amptoons.poliblog.com/blog/001206.html

  3. 3
    Jon says:

    a few more things:

    karpad – no, as far as I know, fetuses aren’t anesthesized before abortion. I’m not sure there is a way to do that.

    individ-ewe-al – I’m not sure what to make of your post, honestly. I have heard the line of argument you advance many times before – “Sure, I know abortion is bad, but it isn’t murder”, to which I normally respond, “than in what respect exactly is it bad – i.e. morally?” after which I have yet to hear a coherent answer, honestly – not being condescending, this is the truth.

    “Particularly when talking to Americans, I’ve found it very difficult to make people hear me when I say I’m neither pro-life nor pro-choice. I’m not pro-life: I believe abortion should be legal and available, because sometimes it is the least bad option. I’m not pro-choice: I don’t believe women have a ‘right’ to abortion, and I will always support policies that I believe will prevent or avoid abortions rather than increasing them. I don’t believe that making abortion illegal is the best way to prevent abortion, though.”

    I would first warn you – I am an American. Perhaps if you respond to this you’ll oblige me with minuscule words and big, colorful font. And when I say that I cannot make one scintilla of sense out of this passage, I hope you won’t mind forgiving another dimwitted Yank. But I am just having a very hard time understanding how you manage to conclude that “abortion should be legal and available”, in light of your concurrent proposition confessing you “don’t believe women have a ‘right’ to abortion, and I will always support policies that I believe will prevent or avoid abortions rather than increasing them.” Such as, say, banning abortions? Oh, you answer that: “I don’t believe that making abortion illegal is the best way to prevent abortion, though.”

    Not sure how the above logic coheres. I’m sure you’ll respond with something that includes the words “gray area”. Some gray areas are just plain murky. Again, many apologies for being so American.

  4. 4
    Jon says:

    Without circumlocution, this argument, insofar as it’s an argument in moral defense of abortion, is the very thing it accuses the anti-abortion/fetal pain argument of being – a red herring. There are medical disorders (rare but increasing in frequency) in which a fully developed, “viable” human being can go through life with normal neural physiology yet unable to experience any pain. That only certain fetuses can experience pain hardly accomplishes the task of arguing that fetuses cannot lay claim to a right to life. Regarding this, to Twig – while you are surely not the only person who thinks a mother has the right to abort yet simultaneously thinks that a fetus has a right to life, that doesn’t make the opinion any less absurd. For a right to be a right it must have force enough behind it to coercively prevent its negation. You can’t say a fetus has a right to life (which I understand to mean “a right not to be killed”) and then support another person’s right to do that very thing. If you do, whatever obtains cannot be propertly called a “right” in the case of either party.

  5. 5
    Joan says:

    Speaking from a pro-life point of view, I also feel that arguments about fetal pain are a red herring and really, IMO, detrimental to the pro-life cause. For one thing, it does tend to make pro-lifers look like they will trot out anything to try to score points in an argument or demonize their opposition.

    Also, if a method of abortion is developed that is guaranteed to be painless to the fetus (probably some of them are already) does that change the basic principles of right to life?

    Also, the fact that the partial-birth abortion ban doesn’t have a health exception is really heinous and sends a message that women are a bunch of liars. Those of you who know — would the ban also prohibit the removal of a baby abdominally (C-section style)?

  6. 6
    Ampersand says:

    Actually, no doctor would do it that way (waiting until the head is outside before puncturing the skull); the reason for removing the contents of the skull is to compress the skull, so the head can be removed without damaging the mother.

    Pro-lifers – at least, those pro-lifers who think trying for a cheap gross-out, like you just did, is a substitute for reasoned argument – don’t tend to know that because knowing that requires actual concern for the welfare of the mother.

    I’m certain that in VERY late-term abortions – those after 26 or more weeks – there is some pain for the fetus. I doubt it’s more pain than the pain of being born, frankly; and abortions done that late are usually done to prevent a very serious threat to the life or health of the mother. It can be a very tragic situation (many late-term abortions involve women who very much wanted to have a baby), with no clear right answer. Becuase there is no simplistic one-size-fits-all answer, I think it’s essential that women be free to make the decision, rather than pro-lifers making the decision for her.

  7. 7
    Molly says:

    I have been wondering if the baby feels it when, in the late term abortion, when the head is brought out of the womb and the scull is punctured and the brain is vacuumed out. It seems that it would feel something in this situation.

  8. 8
    Alex Fradera says:

    Don’t know a lot about this, but some of my friends research pain (chronic pain and other conditions) and sent me a paper a while back which tuned me in to the current level of understanding
    Bioethics 13, 1 (1999)
    from the abstract:
    “Pain experience is placed at approximately 12 months of age, though this is within the context of a continuum of awareness rather than a straight ‘on-off’ switch.!

    Abstract is here
    http://www.blackwell-synergy.com/links/doi/10.1111/1467-8519.00129/abs/

    but I think you need a permission to get in – sorry.

  9. 9
    Individ-ewe-al says:

    Twig, I agree with you entirely. I think abortion is a bad thing, but I don’t think that abortion is murder, or that abortion should be illegal.

    Particularly when talking to Americans, I’ve found it very difficult to make people hear me when I say I’m neither pro-life nor pro-choice. I’m not pro-life: I believe abortion should be legal and available, because sometimes it is the least bad option. I’m not pro-choice: I don’t believe women have a ‘right’ to abortion, and I will always support policies that I believe will prevent or avoid abortions rather than increasing them. I don’t believe that making abortion illegal is the best way to prevent abortion, though.

    Likewise, I’m not particularly sentimental about fetuses, but I also want to give them more moral value than inconvenient garbage. Arguing about whether fetuses are ‘cute’ enough to be worth protecting leads in directions that to my mind are morally dubious.

  10. 10
    Amanda says:

    Hell, as long as we remember that women don’t feel pain when forced to have babies they don’t want, I don’t see what the problem is.

  11. Talking about the brain makes more sense to me than talking about viability. If we see no evidence of “sporadic brain waves”, the state has no business asking if the collection of cells can survive on its own. I’d prefer to keep the fetus alive myself*, but I don’t consider it my decision to make. If we do detect brain activity, we might reasonably require some medical reason for an abortion.

    *Of course I called it “alive”. Life does not begin. It began once, a long time ago, but now we care more about consciousness and self-consciousness.

  12. 12
    Ampersand says:

    Twig: Of course it’s okay.

    I just haven’t heard anyone else out there who supports the right to abortion but also believes that fetuses have a right to life, and I wondered if I was the only one.

    Naomi Wolf, who is a well-known feminist writer, feels very much as you do, I think (although she might avoid the phrase “right to life”). I think it’s possible to combine respect for preborn life with feminism and women’s rights, by supporting poliices which reduce the need for abortion without limiting women’s freedoms.

  13. 13
    Ampersand says:

    Karpad: Well, obviously the author I quoted doesn’t feel it’s relevant – hence the phrase “red herring.” :-) But, like it or not, this is part of the abortion debate – in the recent New York trial of the partial-birth abortion ban, the pro-life forces spent a very significant amount of their time talking about fetal pain. (And the judge, who was pro-life, took them seriously).

    David, I don’t know what you mean by “mainstream,” but abortionfacts.com – certainly one of the biggest and most popular pro-life websites – suggests that fetuses feel pain by 8 weeks. So does Catholic.net, which is owned by a sub-organization of the Vatican. I leave it up to the reader to decide if the Catholic Church is a mainstream group or not.

    But just because a human being can’t feel pain that doesn’t mean that it should be legal to kill that human being.

    You’re right. Of course, absolutely no one argues that it’s okay to kill any human being that doesn’t feel pain.

  14. 14
    karpad says:

    how is this even close to relevant? we kill plauge spreading rodents and insects, and THOSE are capible of feeling pain.
    we also kill human beings, not “viable” human beings, but actual ones, for reasons varying from “they harmed someone in the past” “they’re trying to harm someone else right now” or just “they live in the wrong country.”
    there are also actual human beings who, being abnormal, are simply unable to feel pain.

    the capacity to feel pain isn’t, nor should it be, the standard of value in a life.

    don’t misunderstand. I believe in minimizing pain all around.
    I’m willing to bet general anestetic is used during an abortion procedure (if anyone knows otherwise, feel free to tell me). I’m pretty sure that if there’s enough there to knock out the matron, there’s enough to knock out the growing spawn too, and the fetus wouldn’t feel anything anyway.

  15. 15
    david says:

    Amp,
    Gosh – 8 weeks – please provide a mainstream prolife organization that says at 8 weeks a fetus feels pain? This is an obvious strawman by Joyce Arthurs. I also like how she lumps all “anti-choicers” together – because of course we all believe the same things about fetal pain.

    She says “For example, they cite Anand’s finding that the stress response of premature babies is 3 to 5 times greater than for adults who undergo similar types of surgery—but that’s simply because the adults received pain medication and the premature babies did not![15]”

    And her point is? Pain medication brought down the stress levels in adults yet premature infants with no pain medication had higher levels of stress response. Why did the premature infants have high levels of stress? Maybe they were in pain?

    At National Right to Life Committee’s web site they have information on fetal pain which gives 20 weeks as the time of when the unborn can feel pain

    http://www.nrlc.org/abortion/fetal_pain/index.html

    Plus a study in 2001 by researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that the unborn feel pain at 24 weeks and possibly as early as 20.

    http://www.foxnews.com/story/0%2C2933%2C33437%2C00.html

    I found this from the researchers on their paper http://www.mrc.ac.uk/prn/pdf-fetal.pdf

    An unbiased source is always nice once in a while.

    An article by the Anand in the New England Medical Journal can be found here

    http://www.cirp.org/library/pain/anand/

    But just because a human being can’t feel pain that doesn’t mean that it should be legal to kill that human being.

    However, many women considering abortions after 20 weeks might like to make an informed decision about whether or not their abortion would cause pain to the unborn.

  16. 16
    twig says:

    Is it all right if I’m pro-choice but somewhat disturbed by arguments such as this one? Is it really necessary to diminish the fetus in such ways in order to win the political point? Note: that’s not a rhetorical question, I really am curious if judging abortion based on the ‘existence’ or ‘not quite yet’ existence of a fetus as a viable, feeling person is a necessary argument for justifying abortion or just another angle by which to argue.

    I think abortion is an important choice simply because people won’t stop having them if it’s outlawed, they’ll just have more dangerous ones, or throw the babies away, or raise children they don’t love and perhaps can’t or won’t take good care of.

    I just can’t think of the fetus as something with so little meaning until it is born. It’s a living thing, and would become a human being like me in time, and abortion is not a good thing but sometimes it’s necessary and sometimes it’s just what happens, like all not good things in life.

    I really do love your blog and comic and you write some of the most in-depth posting, so I’m sorry if this seems a bit juvenile in comparison, I just haven’t heard anyone else out there who supports the right to abortion but also believes that fetuses have a right to life, and I wondered if I was the only one.