Behind a Movement, a Question: Can a Fetus Feel Pain?

Anti-abortion activist delivered a signed declaration and a plastic fetus to Mick Krieger, chief of staff for House Minority Leader John Boeher.
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
Oct. 10, 2013, 5 p.m.

Can a fetus feel pain?

That ques­tion is at the heart of a wave of state laws ban­ning abor­tion after 20 weeks of preg­nancy, known as the Pain-Cap­able, Un­born Child Pro­tec­tion Act. A pain-based, 20-week abor­tion ban also passed the House of Rep­res­ent­at­ives in June.

The de­bate goes at least as far back as a 1984 speech by Pres­id­ent Re­agan to the an­nu­al con­ven­tion of the Na­tion­al Re­li­gious Broad­casters. “Med­ic­al-sci­ence doc­tors con­firm that when the lives of the un­born are snuffed out, they of­ten feel pain, pain that is long and ag­on­iz­ing,” Re­agan said.

An­ti­abor­tion act­iv­ists claim sci­ence is on their side. But in a brief sup­port­ing a law­suit against the 20-week ban in Ari­zona, the Amer­ic­an Con­gress of Ob­stet­ri­cians and Gyneco­lo­gists re­jects the idea of a cred­ible body of sci­entif­ic evid­ence that proves fetuses can feel pain be­fore they can live out­side the womb, gen­er­ally around 24 weeks.

In Arkan­sas, a key hear­ing on the 20-week ban raised more ques­tions than it answered about wheth­er the pain threshold is a sol­id basis for abor­tion policy.

Wear­ing a white lab coat, Dr. Emi­dio Novembre spoke at the state House’s Pub­lic Health, Wel­fare, and Labor Com­mit­tee on Jan. 31, 2013. “The fetus is not in a coma-like state and does in fact feel pain and is aware of what it’s feel­ing and when it’s be­ing dis­membered or burnt with hy­per­ton­ic sa­line by 20-weeks gest­a­tion,” he said. “The fetus can per­ceive the pain, feels the pain, and tries to avoid the pain. The fetus is a per­son, and this per­son wants to live.”

Novembre is not an ob­stet­ri­cian or a gyneco­lo­gist. He’s not even a med­ic­al doc­tor. He’s an os­teo­path and an an­es­thesi­olo­gist who runs a pain clin­ic in Elkin, N.C. An in­vest­ig­a­tion in­to Medi­care pre­scrip­tion rates by the non­profit news or­gan­iz­a­tion ProP­ub­lica found that he was the second biggest dis­penser in his state.

The spon­sor of Novembre’s trip to Little Rock: a lead­ing an­ti­abor­tion group, Na­tion­al Right to Life, which con­firmed that it paid for his travel ex­penses. He did not re­turn calls and emails to his of­fice from Na­tion­al Journ­al.

The bill’s spon­sor, Rep. Andy May­berry, vouched for Novembre’s cre­den­tials and said the bill was based on re­search con­duc­ted by Dr. Kan­waljeet Anand, a pro­fess­or of pe­di­at­rics, an­es­thesi­ology, ana­tomy, and neuro­bi­o­logy at the Uni­versity of Ten­ness­ee’s Health Sci­ence Cen­ter.

In a tele­phone in­ter­view, Anand said it’s pos­sible for a fetus to feel pain at some point between 18 and 24 weeks. However, he said that is not an ap­pro­pri­ate reas­on to re­strict abor­tion and that he has de­clined to testi­fy in a num­ber of states that passed 20-week bans, in­clud­ing Arkan­sas. In the minor­ity of cases in which abor­tions are done after 20 weeks of preg­nancy, he said, there are ways to make sure the fetus does not feel pain.

“I’m not com­fort­able with the way my re­search is be­ing used, simply be­cause it’s be­ing politi­cized,” Anand said. “This whole is­sue is be­ing blown out of pro­por­tion by le­gis­lat­ors tak­ing fetal-pain is­sue as a for­cing device, as a crow­bar to close clin­ics and make abor­tion less avail­able. I’m not pro-life. I’m not pro-choice. There are nu­ances that need to be ex­amined by the pa­tient and her phys­i­cian, not by le­gis­lat­ors who are op­er­at­ing on ideo­lo­gic­al prin­ciples.”

A dif­fer­ent ap­proach to fetal pain was raised by a phys­i­cian who test­i­fied against the bill at the House hear­ing. Janet Cathey, a pro­fess­or of ob­stet­rics and gyneco­logy at the Uni­versity of Arkan­sas for Med­ic­al Sci­ences, de­scribed the severely de­formed fetuses she has seen in her 23 years of private prac­tice.

One wo­man who came in for a routine ul­tra­sound at 20 weeks was found to have a child with ren­al agen­es­is, in which the kid­neys fail to form. The con­di­tion means that am­ni­ot­ic flu­id will not be pro­duced, caus­ing the uter­us to con­tract. “The baby will not sur­vive,” Cathey told the com­mit­tee. “If it’s not squeezed to death in utero, it will slowly suf­foc­ate at birth.” An­oth­er pa­tient had a baby with severe spina bi­fida. “This is a child that will nev­er move. It will prob­ably nev­er cry, and it will die soon after birth. If not, it may live few weeks, a few months, and that will be time spent in in­vas­ive med­ic­al pro­ced­ures, no doubt, and this child will en­dure much more pain and suf­fer­ing.”

She ad­ded, “No one knows what they’ll do when faced with these de­cisions, and these are wo­men who de­cided that the pain and suf­fer­ing for their child would be less if they did not con­tin­ue the preg­nancy.”

What We're Following See More »
STAFF PICKS
What the Current Crop of Candidates Could Learn from JFK
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

Much has been made of David Brooks’s recent New York Times column, in which confesses to missing already the civility and humanity of Barack Obama, compared to who might take his place. In NewYorker.com, Jeffrey Frank reminds us how critical such attributes are to foreign policy. “It’s hard to imagine Kennedy so casually referring to the leader of Russia as a gangster or a thug. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine any president comparing the Russian leader to Hitler [as] Hillary Clinton did at a private fund-raiser. … Kennedy, who always worried that miscalculation could lead to war, paid close attention to the language of diplomacy.”

Source:
STAFF PICKS
Maher Weighs in on Bernie, Trump and Palin
1 days ago
WHY WE CARE

“We haven’t seen a true leftist since FDR, so many millions are coming out of the woodwork to vote for Bernie Sanders; he is the Occupy movement now come to life in the political arena.” So says Bill Maher in his Hollywood Reporter cover story (more a stream-of-consciousness riff than an essay, actually). Conservative states may never vote for a socialist in the general election, but “this stuff has never been on the table, and these voters have never been activated.” Maher saves most of his bile for Donald Trump and Sarah Palin, writing that by nominating Palin as vice president “John McCain is the one who opened the Book of the Dead and let the monsters out.” And Trump is picking up where Palin left off.

Source:
×