Bioethics: 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).



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