Fetal Pain by American Life League

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When Ronald Reagan was president, he was known for seeing the big picture but sometimes slipping up on fine points. His friends said that he was "not a detail person." So when he said, in January 1984, that preborn children suffer "long and agonizing" pain when they are aborted, a list of experts lined up to denounce him. "Outright demagoguery!" screamed The Washington Post. But neither Reagan nor his pro-life friends backed down, and there ensued a brief battle of experts.

The expert quoted by the pro-abortion side was Ervin E. Nichols, director of practice activities for the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG). He pontificated: "We are unaware of any evidence of any kind that would substantiate the claim that pain is perceived by a fetus." Two former ACOG presidents fired back. "It can be clearly demonstrated," testified Dr. Richard T. F. Schmidt, "that fetuses seek to evade certain stimuli in a manner which in an adult would be interpreted as reaction to pain." Dr. Fred Hofmeister wrote that the data from electrocardiograms during saline abortions shows "that the fetus experiences discomfort as it dies."

Many other experts wrote or spoke out on the issue, including a specialist in pain control, Dr. Vincent J. Collins, a diplomate of the American Board of Anesthesiologists. He estimated the age at which a preborn child feels pain: "As early as eight to 10 weeks' gestation, and definitely by thirteen and a half weeks, the human fetus experiences organic pain."

To understand the debate, you must understand the distinction between organic pain and psychological pain, and the problem with detecting pain.

Organic pain is the body's response to some kind of attack, such as a burn or a bang. More technically, organic pain is a physiological or neurological response to noxious (harmful or damaging) stimuli. Psychological pain is more complex: If you can imagine harmful or unpleasant sensations, sense them coming, or remember them, that's psychological pain.

The distinction is interesting, but not relevant. A child may not have expected his parents and physician to hurt him, but that doesn't lessen the pain. And a dead child may tell no tales, but that too doesn't mean it didn't hurt. Saying that it doesn't hurt because the child neither foresaw nor remembers the pain is just mean, like pulling wings off of butterflies and saying it doesn't hurt because they're too small to feel it.

Generally, detecting pain is not complex: The patient complains. The physician doesn't see pain; he hears "Ow!" But a problem arises when your patient won't--or worse, can't--complain. In medical jargon, it is a challenge to detect pain in a "non-communicative subject." Preborn babies, for example, cannot tell you where it hurts, or how much.

It is possible to detect organic pain in a non-communicative subject. Dr. Thomas Sullivan, a pediatric neurologist, says that there are two criteria. First, the subject must have the proper equipment to sense noxious stimuli. For example, a chicken with its head cut off may run around for awhile, but it's missing some of the necessary structures to feel pain.

Dr. Sullivan says that the equipment that humans use to sense pain includes special pain receptors in nerve endings that connect nerve fibers to transmit signals from the receptor to the spinal cord; neurons within the spinal cord that carry the signal to the brain; the thalamus, which senses the pain; and the cortex, which supplies psychological responses to the pain and also directs a response. All of this complex equipment is in place, states Dr. Sullivan, "perhaps as early as eight weeks, but certainly by thirteen and a half weeks."

If the equipment is there, a neurologist can look for the second element: Does the subject "respond aversely"? There are different kinds of responses to stimuli, reflexive and aversive. When the doctor hits your knee with a hammer, you kick, but this is not evidence of pain or anger. This is a reflexive response. If you stick your fingers down your throat, a gagging reflex occurs without any consultation with your brain. An aversive response is far more complex; it engages the whole central nervous system and "[involves] the whole body's attempt to escape or avert noxious stimuli."

Dr. William Matviuw, an obstetrician/gynecologist, says that the nerves that sense pain reach the skin of the fetus by the ninth week of gestation. Electrical impulses pass through the neural fibers and through the spinal column between the eighth and ninth week of gestation. Detectable brain activity in response to noxious stimuli occurs between the eighth and tenth week.1

Using all this equipment and then responding may take a little longer, says Dr. Matviuw. At seven weeks, a child will pull his lips back if you tap on his mouth. By 10 weeks, the palms of the hands are sensitive to touch. By 11 weeks, the face will respond to touch. "By thirteen and a half weeks, organic response to noxious stimuli occurs at all levels of the nervous system, from the pain receptors to the thalamus."2

The information about the pain a child feels when an abortion does not kill instantly has been available for years. But the whole point of an abortion is to deny the humanity of preborn children. Abortionists won't let a little pain--or a lot of pain in a little person--get in the way of that fierce denial.

1 Stanislaw Reinis and Jerome M. Goldman, The Development of the Brain, 1980, pp. 223-235. Springfield, IL: Charles C Thomas Publishers. 2 V. J. Collins, Principles of Anesthesiology 1976, pp. 922-923. Philadelphia, PA: Lea & Fabiger.


The question that comes to mind regarding fetal pain is "Why doesn't the pro-abortion side want the public to know that fetal pain exists?" Surely the abortionist doesn't care whether the fetus feels pain. Like a paid assassin, the abortionist is interested only in receiving compensation for his service.

I believe the reason for hiding this information from the general public is the fact that parents naturally want to shield their children from any pain and suffering. If the pro-abortion crowd can persuade parents that the fetus is not truly a person, then there is no reason to protect the fetus from harm. If parents knew that they were causing pain and distress to their child they would not choose to abort.

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