On Fetal Pain and the Humanizing of the Abortion Debate

There was a good article in the Washington Post today By Marc Thiessen entitled   Bringing Humanity Back to the Abortion Debate. The article is an op-ed piece reflecting on the recent action of Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska in signing  into law the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.

Obviously the Nebraska law will be challenged by pro-choice forces in this country and likely  go all the way to the Supreme Court. But in the end as Mr. Thiessen also observes in his article, the increasing evidence that unborn children do feel pain early on in the pregnancy may be a significant factor in changing hearts across this land.

In the Church we have always held to the fact the unborn child is fully human from the moment of conception. Yet, outside pro-life circles it has always been necessary for them to dehumanize the “fetus” (in other words the baby) in order to make this heinous act more palatable. No amount of evidence for the humanity of the unborn child will ever convince hardened pro-choice advocates. But it remains true that not every one who is pro-choice is adamantly so. The evidence that unborn children feel pain may well move the hearts of the ambivalent toward deeper respect for life. If baby seals should not be clubbed to death because it is cruel, perhaps some will be convinced that abortion is cruel to the child as well if fetal pain can be clearly demonstrated.

It is clear that we face challenges even here. Some years ago the movie “Silent Scream” showed ultrasound images of an actual abortion. It was unmistakable to me that the unborn child was struggling to survive and frantically drawing away from the cutting instrument. But to many others it was not so clear. I thought at the time, “If this cannot convince people what will?” So even here I am aware that some hearts are very hardened. But  it is that the middle ground where the ambivalent pro-choice Americans reside that there may be response to the increasing evidence of fetal pain. We can only hope and pray.

I would like to provide excerpts from Mr. Thiessen’s article and add some comments of my own in RED.

Can an unborn child feel pain? That question will dominate the abortion debate in America for the next several years thanks to Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska. Last week, Heineman signed the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act into law, banning abortions in Nebraska at and after 20 weeks based on growing scientific evidence that an unborn child at that age can feel pain.

The legislation was enacted as a defensive measure. After the murder of late-term abortionist George Tiller, a physician named LeRoy Carhart declared his intention to carry on Tiller’s work at his Bellevue, Neb., clinic. State legislators did not want Nebraska to become the country’s late-term abortion capital — so they voted 44-5 to stop himGood for them and look at the size of the vote!. God bless the people of Nebraska.

The new law will probably spark a Supreme Court showdown, because it directly challenges one of the key tenets of Roe v. Wade — that “viability” (the point at which an unborn child can survive outside the womb, generally held to be at 22 to 24 weeks) is the threshold at which states can ban abortion. In defending the law, Nebraska will ask the high court to take into account scientific research since Roe and push the legal threshold back further. That’s the idea, moving the ball down field. We may not be able to score a touchdown just now but moving the ball, moving the threshold back wherein a State can legally ban abortion is important. If we cannot completely end abortion right now we can possibly erode its legality.

In 1973, when Roe was decided, it was believed that the nervous systems of even newborn babies were too immature to feel pain— so doctors generally did not provide anesthesia to infants before surgery. But 25 years ago, a young doctor at Oxford University named Kanwaljeet Anand noticed that babies coming to his neonatal intensive care unit from surgery suffered a massive stress response — indicating they had been through extreme pain. His research into this phenomenon shifted medical opinion, and today even the most premature newborns are given anesthesia to alleviate pain during surgery. It is incredible we would ever think that newborns couldn’t feel pain. Obviously they do. I remember being able to see that in my newborn baby brother. Once his hand got pinched in the stroller. He howled. Another time a little the corner of the car door nicked his head. Again he screamed and cried for quite some time, so much so we were getting ready to take him to the hospital. Of course newborns feel pain. They also experience anxiety. This is obvious. What were we thinking to presume they did not? Luckily common sense and research have prevailed and we now use anesthesia.  

Anand — now a professor at the University of Arkansas and a pediatrician at the Arkansas Children’s Hospital — continued his research into infant pain, which has led him to conclude that fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks, and possibly as early as 17 weeks when a portion of the brain called the “subplate zone” is formed. Indeed, according to a New York Times Magazine story on Anand’s research, a fetus’s “immature physiology may well make it more sensitive to pain, not less: The body’s mechanisms for inhibiting pain and making it more bearable do not become active until after birth.”  Anand clearly has credibility here and a track record of turning medical opinion. This is very good news,  not that infants feel pain but,  that we are finally paying attention to the evidence and demonstrating what we should have presumed all along. That there was even the possibility that unborn children feel pain and expereince anxiety should have been enough for us. But at least now we have a solid researcher and doctor on the job who is widely respected and  and affirming a  pro-life premise.

Mr. Theissen goes on to give some more good news on the pro-life front and reasons for hope. You are encouraged to read the remainder of his article here:  Bringing Humanity Back to the Abortion Debate.

We must continue to pray mightly for conversion of hearts in the matter of abortion. We must also not neglect to to pray for women who often face difficult circumstances in preganancy.

Pray too for those who have procured abortion (whether men or women) and who now suffer the emotional and psychological trauma that often comes from such a choice. As a Church we must be prophetic and speak clearly against abortion but we must also be a place where healing and mercy are found. As evidence for fetal pain grows there may be increasing need for the Church to help post abortive women and men find healing and reconcilation as what they have done becomes more clear to them. The less abstract abortion becomes all the better for rolling back the numbers of those who claim to be pro-choice but all the more the need for the Church to continue to be that place where grace and mercy can be found.

15 Replies to “On Fetal Pain and the Humanizing of the Abortion Debate”

  1. A good article. May your sense that the entire nation will have to grapple with the issue of inflicting pain on an unborn child change hearts. Prayer is indicated. __TeaPot562

  2. There is also evidence that the baby can start to suck its thumb at as young as 8 weeks old in the womb. I am glad that you take the view that the Church wants to help women who have had abortions, because I have met a few people that don’t feel that way. I am glad that someone medical is proving so many people wrong, because there are too many medical people that believe in abortion.

    It’s definitely hard on any woman who has had an abortion or miscarriage, and you are right: as this medical news of babies feeling pain is broadcast more, these women will be having a strong need to turn to the Church. And the Church is one of the few religions, if not the only religion, that has ministries like Project Rachel.

  3. My wife and I just saw a few weeks ago an ultrasound video of our girl (due in July). It was like those images, but a video. Incredible. She was 26 weeks at that point. We could already see she has her mother’s nose. And it would have been legal to kill her.

    I have never watched “Silent Scream” because I don’t want to watch a video of someone being murdered. I wouldn’t want to watch a video of a condemned criminal being murdered, a fortiori I don’t want to watch a member of the most innocent class of society being murdered.

    But when the murderer justifies his murder by claiming that he is not committing murder, isn’t it impossible to stop him (sans force) without first confronting him with the reality that he is denying?

    So my point is that, while I would never want to watch that particular murder, I still think that anyone who condones that type of murder ought to understand what he is condoning. This is also why I have mixed feelings about those abolitionists who hold large poster-photographs of mutilated fetal corpses. I acknowledge it for what it is, so naturally I do not want to see it. But those who pretend it is not what it is ought to be confronted with the reality they’re denying. I’m not saying I condone or condemn the use of those pictures: I’m saying I don’t think one could do either absolutely.

    Thanks, Monsignor!

    1. Ultrasound must have come a long way since I was pregnant with my daughter (who will be 9 next month).

      When we went for our appointment:

      Technician: Here’s the head…
      Me & husband: OK
      Technician: …and the nose, and the mouth…
      Me & husband: (squinting) OK.
      Technician: …and the hands…
      Me & husband: (squinting) OK…
      Technician: Do you want to know the sex?
      Me & husband: Yes.
      Technician: You’re having a girl. See, you can tell from the three lines.
      Me & husband: (squinting) Great!

      All WE could see was a vaguely baby-shaped ameoba.

  4. In 1973 my husband and I lost our son at 22 weeks. He was born alive and a nurse baptised him. I asked if I could hold him and was told no because it would cause him a great deal of pain. He lived three and a half hours before he went to God.

  5. Thank you for the informative article, Monsignor! I was talking about the baby’s ability to feel pain to my Congressman back in the nineties when I first became aware of abortion. Why it has taken so long for people to do something about it mystifies me. The fact that there is abortion itself mystifies me. To me, it is so obviously murder that I would stand up to anyone for the sake of the unborn and the newborn. I don’t really care what happens to me, just so long as I can continue fighting for them. Yes, I take a stand. Some may feel that since I am celibate I don’t understand; but if I can control my sexual urges, anyone could. Pregnancy must be seen not as an illness, but as a happy and blessed time of life. We must support mothers, especially those who are raped or pregnant by incest. We must glorify motherhood and fatherhood, giving it all the respect and dignity it deserves. But most of all, we must fight for the unborn. If they are killed for ridiculous reasons, anyone could be. Perhaps the next step of these murderers would be to kill the disabled. Can you imagine that? I can see it happening, if I can see abortion happening. Let us find a way to stop abortion before killing human life becomes too acceptable.

  6. You wrote, Pray too for those who have procured abortion (whether men or women) and who now suffer the emotional and psychological trauma that often comes from such a choice.

    Thank you, Monsignor. As someone who procured several abortions in my youth, I have long suffered with a feeling of unforgivability for these sins. I feel as if I have blasphemed the Holy Spirit by striking at innocence in the womb for the sake of my own convenience. I am a worm and no man, but the this post, the article, and the legislation limiting abortion on “pain-capable” unborns are a balm to my soul. The effort to recover our collective humanity will be a long one, but I sense that this research and legislation will advance our cause.

  7. And the expatriate from Omaha sings: “There is no place like Nebr-aaa-ska ….”

    I remark on the irony that there is so much press attention over Kim Kardashian holding her cat by the scruff of its neck, yet not many media types seem to be interested in the fact that Gov. Heineman and the Nebraska unicameral are directly asserting that the unborn feel pain too. Do they really think that fact is irrelevant, or are they simply disinterested in the latest of Nebraska’s repeated challenges to Roe v. Wade? I guess if humans are simply another kind of animal, then there’s no moral difference between treating animals like humans and treating humans like animals. No one can promote cruel abominations like a humanist.

  8. Good article. I wonder how painful abortion is for babies. It is obvious they react to it. Reminds me of “The Silent Scream.” This is why mothers who’ve had an abortion cannot listen to vacuum cleaners because then it brings back the memories. So really everyone experiences pain! It’s too bad really.

  9. Jan, I humbly thank Our Lord, The people of Nebraska, Mr. Thiessen, Dr. Anand, and you for promulgating this valuable information. We know God loves everyone involved in saving the life He has created and loves so dearly.

  10. Anyone who has ever seen babies in a neo-natal unit knows that babies born after 20 weeks feel pain. Their skin is much more sensitive to pain than that of a child who is born after a pregnancy has gone to full term. No child should be killed by abortion because it is wrong to sentence one so innocent to death because that child is not convenient or because that child may have a handicap. Abortion is the most violent thing that we can do to the most innocent among us. Let’s stop this insanity and start turning our hearts toward our children. We, as a nation have too much blood on our hands, the blood of the innocent ones. May God forgive us.

  11. ” It was like those images, but a video. Incredible. She was 26 weeks at that point. We could already see she has her mother’s nose. And it would have been legal to kill her.”
    You can out more?

  12. Great info. I like all your post. I will keep visiting this blog very often. It is good to see you verbalize from the heart and your clarity on this important subject can be easily observed.

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