Published June 24, 2004
One of the most dramatic medical advances of recent years has been the use of surgery to correct birth defects--before birth. Surgeons can operate on fetuses in the womb for a variety of conditions, from life-threatening tumors to spina bifida. When they operate, it may surprise you to learn, they provide anesthesia not only to the mother but also to the fetus.
Or maybe it doesn't surprise you. Maybe it seems obvious that fetuses can feel pain long before they emerge into the world. But some people wish you wouldn't think about that fact.
The issue arises thanks to a proposal called the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, which is being denounced as "anti-choice" by abortion-rights supporters. In truth, it would have no effect whatsoever on a woman's right to end a pregnancy. All it would do is recognize that if a fetus is going to be destroyed, there's something to be said for doing it in the most humane way possible.
The bill's chief sponsors, Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) and Rep. Chris Smith (R-N.J.), think any woman contemplating an abortion should be fully informed before making a decision. Under their bill, a patient who is 20 or more weeks into a pregnancy would be advised of the scientific evidence that the fetus experiences pain during an abortion. Her doctor would have to offer anesthetics for the fetus. The doctor would also be free to state his or her views on the subject.
The legislation has a sound basis in medical opinion. It's impossible to know exactly what fetuses feel, but they respond to stimuli in a way that suggests they experience discomfort.
"It is my opinion that the human fetus possesses the ability to experience pain from 20 weeks of gestation, if not earlier," says Dr. Kanwaljeet Anand, a pediatrician who directs the Pain Neurobiology Laboratory at Arkansas Children's Hospital Research Institute. Dr. Jean Wright, head of the division on pediatric critical care at Emory University School of Medicine, says premature babies born at 23 weeks respond to pain just as full-term infants do. Fetuses at earlier stages, she says, may be even more sensitive.
Not everyone agrees. But this is one instance where it makes perfect sense to err on the side of caution by assuming that the capacity for pain develops earlier rather than later--just as surgeons do when they operate on fetuses, something typically done as early as 20 weeks.
Why is it controversial to suggest that a woman may benefit from having sound information about her fetus? No one objects to laws against cruelty to animals. There, we figure, the least we can do is minimize the pain inflicted on a helpless creature. Even if a fetus has no rights of its own, what's the harm in confronting its capacity to suffer?
The answer is simple. Abortion-rights advocates know this measure would not impede any woman who wants an abortion. But the bill does something that they understand is terribly dangerous to their cause: It recognizes that the "choice" to have an abortion involves not only a woman and her doctor, but also the fetus--a living entity with unmistakable human characteristics. And that way lies trouble.
Gloria Feldt, president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, the nation's biggest abortion provider, accuses supporters of "trying to elevate the status of the fetus above that of the woman." But it doesn't elevate dogs above people to say that canines may not be destroyed in an inhumane manner.
Planned Parenthood's problem is that the bill gives the fetus any consideration at all, because it reminds people that abortion is not just another medical procedure. Abortion-rights supporters know the real reason many Americans have reservations about abortion is not that they want to force women into traditional roles, deny them choices or stamp out birth control. It's because they think killing a fetus is uncomfortably close to killing an infant. Talk about fetuses experiencing pain only encourages that sort of thinking, and there is no telling where it might lead.
The Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice says the bill "second-guesses the intelligence and moral integrity of women." But in a recent poll by Zogby International that asked Americans whether they favor a law "requiring that women who are 20 weeks or more along in their pregnancy be given information about fetal pain before having an abortion," 75 percent of the men said yes--along with 78 percent of the women. Most women don't regard medical information as a personal affront.
But abortion-rights activists think the best approach to fetal pain is to ignore it. That doesn't hurt them a bit.