Yes, another touchy subject. Mostly because it seems that no matter how far-fetched, or outside of the intent of the research, some overzealous politician(s) grab onto the most esoteric of research, and claim it is conclusive and since it sounds like it supports their view, they then make legislation based on it.
First, I am pro-choice. That means even supporting a woman’s choice to carry a fetus to full term. I have published on here that I also believe that she is the only one who can make that decision, and she is responsible for it, alone. With many states having laws that make it almost impossible to change the legal paternity, and multiple scandals regarding DNA testing as contracted by the state, and now states have been making laws since 2010 regarding fetal pain, it is about time that some better information got out, not that there isn’t a ton of it out there debunking the fetal pain issue, in my mind, the more, the merrier.
Let’s get some history. There have been claims of studies showing that fetuses en-utero feel pain at about 22 weeks development. This is not the case. There were studies done that did NOT show pain was felt, just that there was an involuntary response to damage, which was increased stress hormones and blood flow to the area that is an underdeveloped brain. This is NOT the same as feeling pain. This shows that there is a damage response mechanism that develops before there is even full neurological wiring in place to have a response to those physical mechanisms. The heart is beating long before this. That does not mean the fetus “feels” its heart either. Surgeons routinely use anesthesia or painkillers when performing fetal surgery or operations, but it is to reduce the hormonal stress response, which inhibits healing, so the drugs true scientific use is to promote healing, in cases where the fetus will be carried to full term. Most Doctors do not know if a fetus can feel pain, mostly because there is no research that has shown that, and there is no research that CAN show that. Pain is both a physical and psychological response mechanism. Babies cry in response to pain because of a long evolutionary trait that has developed for a child to do so and an adult or other member of the species will come and help. At some point in time, it is quite possible that babies didn’t cry as much, as the ones that did attracted predators. Feeling pain is also not a distinctly human trait, as pretty much all animals feel pain, and there is a lot of evidence that plants even have a response to damage that would be similar to what is being called “pain” in developing fetuses. As long as we are talking about involuntary hormonal responses, which is what the fetal pain issue is actually discussing.
While the idea of crying fetuses in the womb is sure to produce a response, it does not happen. Even the videos of fetal movement being “purposeful” does not in any way indicate a known or conscious purpose.The purpose may be completely involuntary, such as random neuronal firing in order to test systems, to put it into a tech-speak. A brush of a hand by the face puts 2 of the most neuron-heavy and brain-use-heavy parts of the body close to each other, a perfect test. Even some fetal portraits of male fetuses with their hands between their legs (where are the female fetus videos of this? seems a little sexist…) would again be 2 parts with a lot of neuronal and brain wiring being randomly activated. It would be hard to differentiate between a fetus fondling itself, and the psychological pattern attachment a healthy, sexual, adult would attach to the movement.
Damage induced hormonal response is not new to fetal medicine. In fact, it used to be common for doctors to perform surgeries and other invasive procedures on newly born infants with the idea that they were not neurologically fully intact or formed yet. This is NOT the current consensus. In fact, it is the full trauma of childbirth that gives the new methodology weight. Broken bones, squeezed heads, and many other traumatic phenomena happen during natural childbirth, and have for as long as there have been humans. It is not easy to squeeze a watermelon through a bagel, and both the watermelon and bagel often suffer trauma. (side note: the watermelon is the baby, the bagel is the vaginal opening for any who missed the metaphor) While there are many in the pro-birth (I refuse to call it pro-life, because it isn’t, it is pro-birth) camp that say “there is something that is produced that prevents pain” in babies naturally born, there is absolutely no scientific evidence for this, and in fact directly contradicts what medical science now believes to be true. In fact, much research shows that the trauma of childbirth, and the related pain, activates many receptors and systems in the infant’s body, and also helps produce stress hormones that help the alveoli sacs that are filled with fluid to divest themselves of said fluid and to prepare for their first inflation with a breath of free air. (quote is attributed to Mary Spaulding Balch, a high-level member of the National Right To Life Committee. *it’s a title, I have to use it*)
Then there is the issue of neurological wiring and control center, or more prosaically, the stuff that the pain signals are sent to, and processed by. Cerebral Cortex, Thalamus, Hippocampus, spinal cord… all are necessary to truly “feel” pain. Very few, if not none, are developed enough to function by 20-24 weeks. There is some evidence to suggest that consciousness “resides” in some physical place, which really means if you turn that particular area off, a person becomes unconscious. This physical relation to consciousness being in a specific place is one I do not adhere to, mostly because, if it is the seat of consciousness, then take it out, and have it be “conscious”. Or, if it is the seat of consciousness, then repair it when someone dies, and make them conscious again, or, transplant the given area of the brain to a new one, perhaps in a younger body, and see if the consciousness follows it. I have not seen or heard of such events taking place, which tells me the correlation is shaky, at best. In fact, it isn’t until 27-30 weeks that the brain is developed enough to fully control some tasks, and this is after a spurt in development and growth of the brain and nervous systems. Let that sink in, after a spurt in growth. So prior to that, it isn’t fully functional, and only after that period in time do the full extent of nerves and their associated brain areas even remotely become fully developed. Pain is not a conscious level event, as there isn’t sufficient enough evidence to show that there is a holistic sort of functioning, which is necessary in most, if not all of these structures, as far as is known, for full signal transport and process. That means no pain. Or at the very least, not any kind of pain that would register in a conscious way. Pain is at least partially a psychological phenomenon, as there are plenty of people (myself included) who have trained themselves to psychologically separate a great deal of conscious pain response from involuntary reactions to pain (like grabbing the injured body part, or crying out, or even letting it affect your conscious awareness) in order to learn more, and in some cases (my own, and others) to find a way to handle chronic, heavy pain without medication, of any kind. This is a personal feat, and there are many cases of people mastering this to a greater level, such as the Buddhist monk that set himself on fire to protest the Viet Nam war. To say that “feeling” pain is simply to show an involuntary response to damage or stress is almost baseless, and neglects so many other factors that are intrinsic to pain and its effects.
To end this, I am going to once again reference the masterful work done by Carl Sagan and his wife Ann Druyan in 1990 in defense of abortion rights. The fact that its main argument premise and exultation is still at least as relevant and poignant today as it was 25 years a go is a testament to the power of a good scientific and logical argument. Even though the link is to a blog, it is a recent one with a similar view on the article (even though I disagree with the part that the author says he learned that fetal pain happens at 20 weeks). The profound idea that a potential human is not the same as an actual human is as true as ever, and the discernation between the two is always going to be the central key to any argument in the issue, as that is what the issue really is about. What is it that makes one a fully formed human being? When do we draw the line? The Supreme Court made this distinction quite some time ago, that is still valid and as good a definition as any: when the fetus is viable outside of the womb without technological intervention, and its development alone would allow it to live outside of the mother. Up to that point, the mother can choose to terminate the pregnancy because the embryo is not a fully formed, functional, and viable part of the human race. To this day, there is not an argument with enough strength of evidence to adjust that decision, much less overturn it.