Can unborn children feel pain, and, if so, should they be protected from the painful experience of abortion?
On Tuesday afternoon, the House of Representatives passed the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, based on research showing that fetuses can probably feel pain about 20 weeks into pregnancy. The legislation would prohibit abortions after 20 weeks except for cases of rape, incest, or when the mother’s life is in danger.
This bill was first introduced in 2013 by Arizona congressman Trent Franks, who sponsored the iteration that passed the House earlier this week by a nearly party-line vote of 237–189. The House passed the bill in both 2013 and 2015 as well, but in 2013 the Senate failed to consider the legislation, and in 2015 it failed a cloture vote.
Most on the left oppose this legislation, frequently insisting that scientific studies haven’t proven that fetuses feel pain. Their purportedly evidence-based arguments often rest on the assessment that there is “no definitive way to experience pain.” In one article, to justify late-term abortions, one doctor notes that “pain is always a subjective experience.”
Basic embryology shows that the human nervous system is established by six weeks’ gestation. Sensory receptors for pain begin to develop around the child’s mouth as early as ten weeks’ gestation and are present in the skin and mucosal surfaces 20 weeks into pregnancy. Connections between the spinal cord and the thalamus — which facilitate pain perception in both fetuses and adults — are present at 20 weeks’ gestation as well.
As early as six weeks post-fertilization, fetuses exhibit reflex movement during invasive procedures and hormonal stress responses as early as 16 weeks into pregnancy, including “increases in cortisol, beta-endorphin, and decreases in the pulsatility index of the fetal middle cerebral artery.” Meanwhile, two independent studies in 2006 examined fetal brain scans and found a “clear cortical response” to painful stimuli, concluding that there was “the potential for both higher-level pain processing and pain-induced plasticity in the human brain from a very early age.”
Consider, too, that surgeons treat unborn children as human beings capable of pain, while perinatal surgery is expanding rapidly as a medical field. Over the past two decades, one leading children’s hospital performed almost 1,600 fetal surgeries, often on unborn children as young as 16 weeks. According to several medical journals, it is standard practice to administer pain medication before these procedures are performed.
According to several medical journals, it is standard practice to administer pain medication to unborn children as young as 16 weeks before performing surgery on them.
The leading textbook on clinical anesthesia states, “It is clear that the fetus is capable of mounting a physiochemical stress response to noxious stimuli as early as 18 weeks’ gestation.” And one prenatal-surgery group routinely informs mothers prior to surgery: “During the prenatal surgery, your unborn baby will be given an injection of pain medication and medication to ensure that the baby doesn’t move.”
These scientific assessments are completely ignored by the pro-abortion Left, because to acknowledge them would be to acknowledge the possibility that fetuses at least possess the necessary biological functions to experience pain. But supporters of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act insist that the bill is about more than simply preventing fetal pain.
“As technology continues to evolve, the more we can celebrate the ability we have to save the life of a baby at just 20 weeks after conception,” said Tennessee congresswoman Diane Black on the House floor this week. “I have seen how special care is given to reduce the pain of precious premature babies born at 20 weeks in the NICU.”
Here Black gets at an essential point. Technological advancements have made it ever more possible to save the lives of children born prematurely, pushing the so-called age of viability back steadily with each year that passes. Perhaps this is why abortion supporters are so quick to denounce any technology that might threaten “reproductive rights.” If these children are capable of surviving outside the womb, how likely is it that they are totally unable to feel pain?
Several polls have found that voters support legislation protecting pain-capable unborn children. A survey from last November found that just under two-thirds of Americans support legislation prohibiting abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy, including almost 80 percent of Millennials. A January Marist poll found that almost three-quarters of Americans want to place significant restrictions on abortion access, including 55 percent of voters who supported Hillary Clinton last November and almost 80 percent of both African-American and Latino voters.
The bill surely faces a steep battle in the Senate, with little likelihood of passing, especially given the Democratic party’s radical embrace of unlimited abortion rights. If it fails, the U.S. will remain one of only seven nations that allow abortion after 20 weeks, along with the dictatorships of North Korea and China. Any senator who opposes this legislation stands with those dictatorships in proclaiming that the defenseless human beings most deserving of government protection may instead be subjected to a painful death.
— Alexandra DeSanctis is a William F. Buckley Fellow in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute.