The Public Policy

The Silent Scream

Don't address fetal pain unless child may survive to remember it, abortionists argue.

By 11.3.05

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On Tuesday, the House Subcommittee on the Constitution began hearings on the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act (UCPAA). The legislation would require abortion providers to tell women who come to them for late-term abortions that the fetus might feel pain and that the woman has a right to ask that the fetus be anaesthetized for the procedure. Although evidence suggests that the unborn child feels pain by the age of 20 weeks (if not sooner), abortionists are not required to provide women with the information that the fetus might suffer pain during an abortion procedure, pain which could be eliminated by dispensing anesthesia directly to the fetus.

For over 30 years, significant advances have been made in palliative care, helping to treat patients who are dying so that they do not suffer needlessly. Without resorting to extremes like assisted suicide, palliative and hospice care have been able to provide care for patients so that they can live as comfortably as possible despite serious disease and illness.

The Journal of the American Medical Association recently published the results of a meta-study that surveyed over 2,000 studies on fetal pain. While the authors of the study concluded that fetal anesthesia should be administered during fetal surgeries, they did not recommend the same for fetal surgeries which will result in the intended demise of the fetus. They reasoned that the child being aborted wouldn't survive to experience or remember the effects of any possible pain, but the child who was intended to live might recall the extreme experience of pain and be seriously affected by it.

If we were to apply this same reasoning to the patient population at large, palliative and hospice care wouldn't exist. After all, why ease someone's pain if they're "just going to die?"

Science continues to confirm and reveal what every joyfully expectant parent already knows: although in its earliest stages of development, the unborn child is a member of the human species and has unique experiences within the womb.

It's telling that the JAMA article recommends only giving this information to the mothers of children who will not be aborted as the result of a surgical intervention. Regardless of the outcome, true informed consent would require that the woman be informed of the surgery as it relates to pain in the fetus. Yet the researchers evidently think that the women who choose abortion aren't owed all of the relevant information, as if women weren't capable of handling the truth.

Pain is a complicated matter. Those opposed to UCPAA would maintain that the fetus does not have a developed brain and therefore is not capable of memory or processing the sense experience of pain. At Tuesday's hearing, Dr. Sunny Anand, a leading expert on fetal pain, testified that human brains are well developed prior to birth so they are probably capable of processing the experience that causes pain. In addition, studies have shown that conscious perception can occur without the cerebral cortex. He concluded his testimony, "Based on the available scientific evidence, we cannot dismiss the high likelihood of fetal pain perception before the third trimester of human gestation."

As early as six weeks from conception, the fetus begins to develop sensory receptors on the face and the mouth. These spread to cover the entire body by 20 weeks. Dr. Jean Wright, a specialist in the care and anesthesia of critically ill infants and children, explained in her testimony that these sensors cover the body more densely than they do for an older child or adult. Hence, the fetus could actually have a heightened awareness of the pain.

Dr. Wright also noted that the care of premature and seriously ill infants has changed drastically over the past 25 years. These infants were once operated upon and treated without anesthesia; today standard procedures require that they receive anesthesia. But Dr. Wright explicitly stated that there was never the presumption that the child did not feel pain. Rather, they theorized that the administration of anesthesia would cause additional pain for the child. As studies revealed more about the unborn child, they changed their practices and found that administering anesthesia resulted in better outcomes and survival rates since the patient was not submitted to the unnecessary stress of pain that could be controlled by anesthesia.

These developments paralleled those that took place in the fields of palliative medicine and hospice care.

Law professor Teresa Collett, the author of one of only two existing legal papers on fetal pain, reminded hearing participants of the testimony of Dr. Katharine Sheehan, a medical director for Planned Parenthood of San Diego. Previously, Dr. Sheehan testified that her clinic offered to administer the drug digoxin to induce fetal demise prior to every abortion related to pregnancies that had progressed to twenty-two weeks of gestation or more. Every one of her patients had accepted the offer because it would instantaneously kill the fetus before the abortion procedure was completed and eliminate unnecessary pain.

In other words, even a doctor with a major abortion provider like Planned Parenthood acknowledges that women want to know some truth about their unborn child. Perhaps the day will dawn when Planned Parenthood provides the whole truth. In the meantime, this legislation would enforce a standard of care consistent with the development in palliative medicine, a standard which has already been recommended by major medical boards in Canada and Great Britain.

Passing this legislation helps to bring to light the scientific evidence that reveals the human face of the unborn child. That's why many abortion advocates don't want women to have complete and informed consent.

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