Ethics: June 2010 Archives

Fetal Pain

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Pro-choice activists are making a big deal about a new study claiming to show that human beings feel no pain until about 24 weeks into their fetal life. Lots of studies have appeared contradicting each other on this, so this is hardly news. There's been lots of debate on this for several decades now, and this doesn't seem to me to have acquired some special status above all the other studies yet. Science doesn't work that way. As Ken Miller is fond of stating, you need established confirmation by further studies by people with different methodology before you accept something as established science. You need consensus. This is one study among many, and they don't all agree with each other.

I'm still not sure how it's relevant, anyway. I know of no fully pro-life argument claiming that it's the consciousness of the fetus that makes abortion wrong. There are some moderate pro-choice arguments that restrict the period of abortion to early term that use this claim as part of their basis. But those who base their opposition to abortion on the fact that it's a human organism with its own DNA and thus a full human being with full moral status will be unmoved by this, and those who base their opposition to abortion on the fact that abortion robs the fetal human organism of a future life like our lives will also be untouched.

[cross-posted at Evangel]

Update: Several people have raised important points that are independent of mine, in comments both here and at Evangel and via email.

1. We shouldn't assume the physical structures involved in this study are the only ones that can give rise to pain. There is, after all, well-known ultrasound evidence of relatively early fetuses responding with painlike behavior. Those who question early fetal pain explain it as mere stimulus-response without anything internal, but such a claim is mere behaviorism (i.e. relying on an empirically false view) unless there's a strong argument that the painlike behavior can't be a result of actual pain. I've heard from someone who has carefully reviewed the study much more fully than I could, and from a strong medical background, that the argument in the article simply ignores other possible structures for pain.

2. All that can be observed if pain-behavior and neural activity in places in the brain believed to be associated with pain sensations. No one can empirically detect anyone else's pain-sensations. This argument cuts both ways, since it's possible (from my perspective) that no one else but me feels pain, including early fetuses. But it also undermines the argument that, assuming other people do feel pain, all brain activity leading to pain will be alike in all individuals. As a good substance dualist, I have to have some sympathy for this point.

3. I've heard indirectly from a scientist who does work close to this very area who questions the claims about sedation of fetuses. But, as I said (in my lack of understanding of the state of these questions), this article will need to be tested in the arena among others who have alternative claims to make that they also manage to publish to see if it has staying power. It's not a consensus, and it appears the alternative views have several things to differ with in the approach and arguments of this article. So there's no reason to jump the gun here and think this offers much strong evidence for anything, even if it were relevant to abortion (which it's not, at least if the intent is to undermine reasonably strong pro-life views rather than moderate pro-choice views).

Shelby Steele is often derided as a black opponent of affirmative action. One particular criticism of him is that he takes views that further white privilege by denying its significance for affirmative action. If affirmative action can be justified in part because of the white privilege that continues even when outright attitudinal racism is absent or enough removed to be less noticeable, then those who resist it because it discriminates against white people are ignoring racial realities. I've seen people make such a criticism of Steele. It occurred to me while reading him again on this for the ethics class I'm teaching this summer that the criticism is entirely inapt.

Steele's view does not ignore white privilege. In fact, he doesn't accept the argument that affirmative action is bad because of its effect on whites. There are black conservatives whose criticism of affirmative action is merely the claim that it's reverse racism. Steele himself counters such a claim. He doesn't think that's sufficient grounds for opposing affirmative action. While his most famous treatment of this (and the only thing I've read by him on the subject, or on any subject for that matter) does not go into much detail on why he sees such arguments as wrongheaded, I think it's got to be that he simply acknowledges the existence of white privilege.

His moral argument against affirmative action ignores (rightly, in my view) how affirmative action affects white people, something it can do only if the negative effect on white people simply counters some of the white privilege that he insists does exist. Before he can offer his moderated view against affirmative action that takes its start only from negative effects on the underrepresented groups affirmative action is supposed to help, he first needs to resist the argument against affirmative action based on its supposed unfairness to white people. His main point is that affirmative action has negative effects on the very people it's supposed to help. As time goes on and the negative effects of racism and white privilege that affirmative action is supposed to counter are getting somewhat less, the negative effects start to increase. At some point (and he thinks we've passed that point), affirmative action becomes no longer worth it.

So it's hardly true that Shelby Steele has isolated himself from his fellow blacks to the point where he simply no longer sees white privilege. It's part of his argument for his moderated critique of affirmative action, based on its effects on those it's intended to help rather than its reverse racism, that white privilege still operates and that the initial justification for affirmative action is still present. He just thinks the negatives for its beneficiaries are stronger than the positives. There may be other legitimate criticisms of Steele, but I don't think it's fair to him to claim that he's ignoring white privilege and thereby furthering it. He's fully taking it into account. It's part of his reason for not making the reverse racism charge, and it's what makes his argument a weighing of positives vs. negatives rather than an in-principle resistance based on absolute moral claims.

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