A painless step forward in abortion policy: Column

Evidence is pretty strong that by 20 weeks, a child in utero feels pain.


Fr. Frank Pavone

  USA Today - McLean, VA

"It is therefore declared to be the policy of the United States that the slaughtering of livestock and the handling of livestock in connection with slaughter shall be carried out only by humane methods."

Those words come from the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act, a law that expresses our concern for the pain experienced by animals, but that more fundamentally expresses a dimension of our own humanity.

In the wake of the revelations of what happened in the abortion clinic of Dr. Kermit Gosnell, people are beginning to think about what actually happens to the baby in an abortion. Gosnell was convicted May 13 of murder in the deaths of three children he was aborting but who were born alive. Among many other convictions, he was also found guilty of 21 counts of performing abortions beyond 24 weeks, the legal limit in Pennsylvania. Not all states have limits.

As the unborn child becomes more real, in a society where photo albums now begin with our time in utero and surgery is performed on children in the womb, law is beginning to catch up with reality. In at least 10 states, laws have been introduced to protect unborn children from abortion, starting at 20 weeks of fetal development, because of the weight of scientific evidence that by that time, the child feels pain. Over the last two decades, courts, while keeping abortion legal, have given states more leeway to pass measures expressing concern for fetal life, based on interests the state is free to identify for itself. Protection from pain is one of those interests.

Of course, a baby in the womb cannot say "Ouch!" How, then, do we know whether such a child feels pain? Research in this arena asks three questions: Are physical mechanisms in place for the reception and transmission of pain? Are there behavioral responses to painful stimuli? Does the body have any chemical or other internal reactions indicative of pain? The more research is done, the earlier in fetal development, the answers to these questions become "yes." Evidence is pretty strong that by 20 weeks, a child in utero feels pain.

In 1994, an article in the British medical journal, The Lancet, revealed hormonal stress reactions in the fetus, and concluded with the recommendation that painkillers be used when surgery is done on the fetus. The authors wrote, "This applies not just to diagnostic and therapeutic procedures on the fetus, but possibly also to termination of pregnancy, especially by surgical techniques involving dismemberment."

Earlier, in 1991, scientific advisors to the Federal Medical Council in Germany made a similar recommendation. And in August 2001, Great Britain's Medical Research Council suggested that pain perception may be as early as 20 weeks; other studies place it as early as 10 weeks.

It should be noted that each year in the United States, more than 18,000 abortions take place at 21 or more weeks of pregnancy.

The legislative response to this has not been limited to the states. Previous Congresses have introduced the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, to inform women having abortions at 20 weeks or more that their baby may feel pain.

On May 17, Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) announced his intention to make nationwide a provision that would outlaw abortions after 20 weeks. Franks is the prime sponsor of H.R. 1797, the District of Columbia Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. He now wants that bill to apply nationwide. The bill, with 222 co-sponsors, gained majority support in a vote last year and enjoys the support of 64% of the public, as The Polling Company found in a nationwide poll in March.

This is a reasonable development in our national debate on abortion. When courts were considering the constitutionality of the ban on partial-birth abortion in the last decade, abortionist Dr. Timothy Johnson testified that the question of whether a child being dismembered by abortion felt any pain did not even cross his mind. As a nation, whatever our views on abortion, our sense of humanity is better than that.

Finding a more acceptable public policy on this contentious issue can obviously use a dose of the kind of humanity that brought us the Humane Methods of Slaughter Act.

Fr. Frank Pavone is the national director of Priests for Life.

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