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In our opinion: Feeling their pain: Science, abortion and fetal pain

Published: Sunday, Sept. 8 2013 1:51 p.m. MDT

The science of determining when a developing fetus feels pain is unsettled, but research is continually finding evidence that it may be earlier than previously imagined. (Shutterstock) The science of determining when a developing fetus feels pain is unsettled, but research is continually finding evidence that it may be earlier than previously imagined. (Shutterstock)

The science of determining when a developing fetus feels pain is unsettled, but research is continually finding evidence that it may be earlier than previously imagined.

This raises much larger ethical and political questions. For instance, should the nation's abortion laws err on any side other than the one that gives the unborn child the benefit of the doubt? Should it be legal to inflict fetal pain when there is abundant reason to fear that pain can be felt? For any society that wishes to hold life sacred, the answers should be clear.

In his exhaustive review of the science of fetal pain on today's front page, Deseret News reporter Eric Schulzke catalogs how doctors have changed the way they perform neonatal surgery in recent years. Not long ago, surgeons did not think of providing anesthesia to an unborn child during operations, or even to children who were newly born. The belief was they could not feel pain.

But thanks to groundbreaking research by Dr. Kawaljeet Anand, Dr. Ray Paschall and others, compelling evidence now exists to indicate fetuses at 20 weeks or younger feel pain intensely, even without any developed connection between the thalamus and the cortex, which has been thought necessary for pain to occur. This is detected by measuring the heart rate of a fetus and other external indications of discomfort.

Anand's research found that the mortality rate in newborns fell from 25 percent to 10 percent following surgeries in which anesthesia was used. He believes unborn children or premature babies may even feel pain more intensely than older humans because they lack the fibers that can "dampen and modulate the experience of pain."

Maureen Condic at the University of Utah believes research shows a fetus can feel pain as early as 8 weeks after conception, developing into a more mature perception by the 18th week.

These researchers have their detractors, as Schulzke's report notes. There are those who believe humans must have a high level of conscious awareness in order to experience pain. But even many of their findings have the distinctive ring of uncertainty to them.

The research ought to be important for public policy considerations. When it established a right to abortion in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court set the age of viability at 28 weeks, which conformed roughly to the scientific knowledge of that era. The court moved the age of viability to 24 weeks in 1992, thanks to advances that made it possible for babies to survive outside the womb at an earlier age.

Viability is one consideration, but the ability to feel pain ought to be just as important.

The nation sacrifices some of its humanity if it legally allows the inflicting of fetal pain on the most vulnerable of its people. And while the science remains indefinite on the subject, there is abundant evidence to suggest the courts ought to err on the side of caution. The nation cannot afford to do otherwise.

Earlier this year, on the 50th anniversary of the court's Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion, it was noted that the rate of abortions has been steadily declining for more than 10 years. This is good news. Unfortunately, however, the decline has not coincided with an increase in the marriage rate or a return to the values of chastity that are so necessary in order for society to thrive.

In the meantime, many couples in the United States are eager to adopt children but are finding it way more difficult than ever. An increase in foreign adoptions, so evident after the fall of communism, has all but closed down.

There are good reasons for this. The lack of checks and restrictions on adoption led to crimes, including human trafficking. But the many thousands of Americans who sought foreign adoptions back then, and the many who continue to do so today despite the difficulties, are evidence of a real need.

More restrictive laws on abortion (13 states already ban them after 20 weeks) would provide happy outcomes for more of these couples, strengthening the nation's core of traditional families in the process.

Science and public policy are not always on the same page. In this case, however, the only humane course would be for one to inform the other.

Copyright 2015, Deseret News Publishing Company