From The L.A. Times:
A review of about 1,500 scientific studies concludes that it is highly unlikely that fetuses can feel pain before the 29th week of pregnancy — a finding that contradicts several pieces of proposed abortion legislation.
The review, published today in the Journal of the American Medical Assn., comes as Congress and state legislatures are considering bills that would require physicians to tell pregnant women considering abortions that fetuses feel pain and to offer the women anesthesia for the fetuses.
Georgia and Arkansas have implemented such laws and several other states, including California, have considered them.
The federal bill, introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) with 33 co-sponsors, includes a script that physicians would have to read to women seeking an abortion in the fifth month or later. It says: "The Congress of the United States has determined [!!!] that at this stage of development, an unborn child has the physical structures necessary to experience pain."
A similar bill has been introduced in the House.
The study concludes that, "based on the available evidence, the fetus does not have the functional capacity to experience pain," said Dr. Eleanor A. Drey . . . [an OB/GYN whose practice at UC San Francisco includes abortion], one of the study's authors.
"That relies on consciousness, and the cortex of those infants is not well enough developed to allow for conscious processing of stimuli" like pain. . . .
Critics of the study, including Brian Johnston, head of the western regional chapter of the National Right to Life Committee, said that the review was biased because it was conducted by abortion providers.
Johnston said the physiological responses of premature infants indicated reactions to stimuli.
About 18,000 American women have abortions in the fifth month of pregnancy or later each year.
Dr. Thomas Murphy Goodwin, chief of maternal-fetal medicine at USC, agreed with Johnston.
Premature infants, he said, "appear to be having all the physiological reactions of someone that feels pain later in life."
Their heart rate increases, they release adrenal steroid hormones and they show other effects, he said.
"It's true that it can't be exactly like the pain we [adults] feel, and maybe it is inappropriate to call it pain … but my gut instinct is that it must be something like pain," Goodwin said.
The problem, both sides agree, is that there is no objective way to measure pain. There is no specific brain wave pattern that indicates pain and no specific chemical marker. . . .
Studies in the medical literature, [Drey's] team found, indicate that the responses mentioned by Goodwin, as well as the movement of a fetus away from a probing stimulus, are physiological responses like the jerking of a leg when a physician taps the knee with a rubber mallet.
I don't even know where to begin to talk about this.
Since we can't ask a fetus if it feels pain, and we can't remember being a fetus, we will decide for the fetus that it feels pain or it doesn't feel pain, based on our own agenda.
I find incredible the statement, "The Congress of the United States has determined" that a fetus feels pain. If ever there were a body less qualified to "determine" such a thing! With this proclamation solemnly read to her, even a woman contemplating the anguish of a late-term abortion might burst out laughing.
On the other hand, scientists, with their preference for the material, observable, and measurable, have long been skeptical of the "subjective" dimension in any creature -- infant or animal -- that cannot report on its own experience. According to this article on changing notions of pain, "Until the early 1980s, doctors routinely performed surgery on newborns without anesthesia under the assumption that babies couldn't feel pain. . . . Now, they know better. Many biomedical researchers once operated under a similar notion that animals couldn't feel pain until a rash of studies suggested otherwise, from primates to rodents." Experimental animals' flinching and cries were -- and in some circles still are -- regarded as merely mechanistic reflexes, "like the jerking of a leg when a physician taps the knee with a rubber mallet." A behavioral psychologist whose 2004 book is reviewed here still "expresses heavy skepticism about whether animals feel pain and whether that should influence how we treat them."
I'm not suggesting that a lab animal with a fully formed brain is necessarily comparable to a fetal human being (or animal) whose brain is still forming; what I'm comparing is the rather cavalier assumptions of scientists in both cases. On the other hand, note that when you touch a hot stove, your reflex to jerk back is swift and painless; the sensation of pain doesn't flood in until the signal reaches your cortex.
Here's what the abstract of the original JAMA article says about fetuses. Note the caution of the language I've highlighted:
Pain perception requires conscious recognition or awareness of a noxious stimulus. Neither withdrawal reflexes nor hormonal stress responses to invasive procedures prove the existence of fetal pain, because they can be elicited by nonpainful stimuli and occur without conscious cortical processing. Fetal awareness of noxious stimuli requires functional thalamocortical connections. Thalamocortical fibers begin appearing between 23 to 30 weeks’ gestational age, while electroencephalography suggests the capacity for functional pain perception in preterm neonates probably does not exist before 29 or 30 weeks.
So can you confidently believe either side of this debate? Or are you just going to believe whichever side you'd rather? I think we have to face the fact that we really don't know and can scarcely imagine what a fetus feels, even though each of us was one. When they smile in the womb -- and we now know they do -- is that just a reflex, or do they already experience, at some level, the humming cellular pleasure of being alive?
I am willing to say I don't know. I think the debate over abortion has to be based on other grounds. Maybe it's an example of "the wisdom of crowds" that the majority of Americans instinctively find abortion more abhorrent the later it is performed, unless it is necessary to save the mother's life.
UPDATE: In case you wondered if there was any scientific evidence and argument on the other side of the debate -- supporting the contention that fetuses can feel pain earlier than the 29th week -- the National Right to Life Committee presents some here. Note particularly this article from the British Journal of Obstetrics and Gynaecology. Thanks to commenter Swissknife at The Yellow Line for the NRLC link. Now you have two contradictory bodies of scientific argument that can be either described as "objective" or dismissed as "biased" (as discussed here, one of the authors of the JAMA article is an abortion provider, and another previously worked for NARAL).