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Health Care

‘Reconsidering Fetal Pain’

Ultrasound of fetus at 20 weeks. (Suzanne Tucker/Dreamstime)

Two researchers with “divergent views regarding the morality of abortion” have published a paper in the Journal of Medical Ethics concluding that unborn human beings likely are able to feel pain at an earlier point than previous research has suggested. The authors state that they “came together to write this paper through a shared sense that the neuroscientific data, especially more recent data, could not support a categorical rejection of fetal pain.”

Some neuroscience reports have suggested that “the cortex and intact thalamocortical tracts are necessary for pain experience,” and because both have been found to become functional in fetuses at about 24 weeks’ gestation, previous researchers have stated that fetal pain can only occur during the last three months of pregnancy. But this new report suggests otherwise.

“More recent evidence calling into question the necessity of the cortex for pain and demonstrating functional thalamic connectivity into the subplate is used to argue that the neuroscience cannot definitively rule out fetal pain before 24 weeks,” Stuart W. G. Derbyshire and John C. Bockmann write. They note that discussions of a fetus’s capacity for pain, regardless of his or her capacity for self-reflection, is morally significant and relevant to policy debates about limiting abortion.

“One of us believes that abortion is necessary for women’s health and autonomy, while the other believes that abortion violates the ethical principle of non-maleficence and ought to be restricted and discouraged,” they write. “Regardless of our stark differences on this question, we both believe that our moral views on abortion should not interfere with discussion of whether fetal pain is possible and whether the science of fetal development can rule out the possibility of fetal pain.”

As the researchers point out, lawmakers have relied on research suggesting the possibility of fetal pain as the basis for legislation attempting to restrict abortion later in pregnancy. The federal Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, for instance, would prohibit abortion after 20 weeks’ gestation, citing studies in which preterm, newborn infants showed a “clear cortical response” to painful stimuli.

But this new paper outlines reasons to believe that fetuses could be capable of feeling pain even earlier than that threshold. Here’s more from what the authors conclude:

current neuroscientific evidence undermines the necessity of the cortex for pain experience. Even if the cortex is deemed necessary for pain experience, there is now good evidence that thalamic projections into the subplate, which emerge around 12 weeks’ gestation, are functional and equivalent to thalamocortical projections that emerge around 24 weeks’ gestation. Thus, current neuroscientific evidence supports the possibility of fetal pain before the “consensus” cutoff of 24 weeks.

Finally, though the authors fundamentally disagree on the correct ethical approach to abortion in light of their conclusion — because one “essentially believes that abortion is inherently violent” and the other believes abortion to be justifiable — both “agree that it is reasonable to consider some form of fetal analgesia during later abortions.”

Though their work likely won’t receive much media attention, given how inconvenient its conclusion is for supporters of unlimited abortion rights, it’s a poignant reminder this week in particular. On Wednesday, we’ll mark the 46th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s decisions in Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton. On Friday, hundreds of thousands of Americans will come to Washington, D.C., for the March for Life — a demonstration that will almost surely be slandered as opposed to progress, as anti-woman, and as anti-science.

This report is a reminder not only of how scientific developments have continued to confirm the pro-life case since 1973 but also of the humanity of those for whom we march.


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