The Nation's Pulse

The Politics of Pain

Democrats would never inflict pain on any living thing except…

By 6.26.13

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For many Democrats, the decision to support or oppose a particular policy or piece of legislation often hinges on a simple question: Does it alleviate pain and suffering?

This pain principle informs the party’s traditional opposition to torture and the death penalty. It is why President Obama cites empathy—the act of understanding and being sensitive to the feelings of others—more than past presidents.

The pain principle explains why, when the Humane Society published its most recent congressional score card, Democrats outnumbered Republicans among top performers 27-to-1.

It is why Democrats often talk about their economic policies in terms of the amount of suffering they will alleviate among those in need.

The pain principle determines much of the Democratic agenda. But there is one group whose pain most Democrats seem unable to feel: unborn babies.

This became clear last week when the House of Representatives passed the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would outlaw abortion after the 20th week of pregnancy (unless the mother’s life is at risk), based on evidence that fetuses can experience pain. The bill received the votes of 228 representatives, but only six of them are Democrats.

The science of in utero pain perception is far from settled. Until fairly recently, many physicians believed the fetal nervous system wasn’t developed enough to register pain. Some scientists still believe that though pain receptors form earlier than 20 weeks, fetuses cannot perceive pain until later because their brains are not developed enough to understand it.

But mounting evidence suggests otherwise. “The available scientific evidence makes it possible, even probable, that fetal pain perception occurs well before late gestation,” Kanwaljeet Anand, director of the Pain Neurobiology Laboratory at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, has written.

He has also said, “We cannot dismiss the high likelihood of fetal pain perception before the third trimester of human gestation.”

Many experts believe pain perception may begin in the first trimester. In congressional testimony, neuroscientist Maureen Condic said, “It is entirely uncontested in the scientific and medical literature that a fetus experiences pain in some capacity from as early as eight weeks.”

There is also evidence suggesting that unborn babies feel more intense pain than newborns because their skin is thinner and contains more pain receptors.

Whether babies perceive pain at 8 weeks, 20 weeks, or later, it is clear that at some point during pregnancy, babies are able to feel pain. There is absolutely no question about that. And yet, most Democrats support abortion well beyond the point at which pain perception becomes indisputable. By doing so, they subject unborn human beings to treatment they’d never inflict on livestock.  

Consider the Humane Society’s 112th Congress Scorecard leaders. Three senators and 25 representatives were labeled “champions,” members who were primary sponsors of pro-animal legislation and earned voting scores of 100%. All but one, Maine Senator Susan Collins, are Democrats.

To become a Human Society “champion,” a legislator must have voted for a variety of laws that aim to diminish the suffering of animals, including laws that ban cock-fighting, criminalize the sale of downed livestock, and bar the transport of horses on double-decker trucks.

The irony is that many, if not most, of those who champion the humane treatment of animals also aggressively advocate a right to abortion well beyond the point that fetuses can feel pain.

Consider California Senator Barbara Boxer, who last year won the Humane Society’s “Humane Legislator of the Year” award. Boxer routinely receives 100% ratings from NARAL Pro-Choice America. She is one of the Senate’s abortion champions. In 1999 she led Democratic opposition to a federal ban on partial-birth abortions, at one point arguing that a baby gets rights only “when you bring your baby home”

The introduction of fetal pain into the abortion debate requires us to look at abortion anew. It can make us feel better to believe that fetuses don’t feel pain, or that, if they do, any pain and suffering that is inflicted is in defense of some higher right or nobler cause, such as protecting women’s rights.

Acknowledging that fetuses feel pain humanizes them. It makes them seem more like persons. And if fetuses are persons, then they deserve constitutional rights. As Justice Harry Blackmun, author of the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision, said, once “personhood is established, the appellant’s case…collapses, for the fetus’ right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the [14th] Amendment.”

The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act has little chance of becoming law. It is a largely symbolic measure, but the symbolism is powerful. It exposes the Democratic Party’s shameful double standard in the application of a principle it claims guides its entire agenda.

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About the Author

Daniel Allott is a writer in Washington, D.C.