Fetal Pain is Grounded in Science

Arina Grossu is the Director of the Center for Human Dignity at Family Research Council. This article appeared in Townhall.com on January 21, 2015.

On Thursday, hundreds of thousands of people will march peacefully up Constitution Avenue to remind their fellow citizens of a silent tragedy that pierces the heart of a nation.

From all over the country, they will gather because in the 42 years since the Supreme Court’s ruling in Roe v. Wade, we have lost 57 million unborn babies. Countless mothers, fathers, siblings, grandparents, friends and abortion workers have been wounded by the shockwaves of abortion. This is the terrible legacy of legalized abortion in the United States.

On the day of the March for Life, the House is set to vote on the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act (H.R. 36) which will ban abortions after 20 weeks post-fertilization, the point at which a child can feel excruciating pain. Abortion at any stage is an atrocious act, but how much more inadmissible at the stage when the unborn baby can feel pain. The state has a compelling interest in protecting the lives of unborn children from the stage at which substantial medical evidence confirms that these children can experience pain.

The unborn child can feel pain by 20 weeks post-fertilization at the latest: This is matter of indisputable biology. Embryology text books teach that by 18 weeks post-fertilization, when the connection between the spinal cord and the thalamus (the pain-processing center) is complete, painful stimuli cause stress hormone levels to go up such that the child can perceive severe pain. That is why it is common medical practice is to administer fetal anesthesia to unborn babies before an in-utero surgery (e.g., the type performed to correct vertebrae problems prior to the child’s birth).

The cerebral cortex (the region of the brain associated with higher mental functions) has also acquired all of its neurons by 18 weeks post-fertilization, and within two more weeks, even greater development has taken place. Yet the evidence also shows that an unborn child can feel pain even without a mature cerebral cortex. Various scientific studies and observation of children and adults born with no or minimal cortex development show that they can experience pain. If these children and adults can feel pain, unborn babies can too by 20 weeks post-fertilization. (More documentation on fetal pain is available here.)

Unfortunately, almost 13,000 American pain-capable unborn children continue to die from late abortion each year. Most of them will die by a procedure called “Dilation and Evacuation” (D&E), in which the baby is ripped apart limb from limb before crushing her skull to remove it. In Justice Kennedy’s dissent in Stenberg v. Carhart, he relayed late term abortionist Dr. Carhart’s admission: “The fetus, in many cases, dies just as a human adult or child would: It bleeds to death as it is torn from limb from limb.”

An overwhelming majority of Americans are against late abortions and are in favor of supporting a law such as the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. A July 2013 Huffington Post poll found that by a two-to-one margin, respondents said they would favor a federal law banning abortion after 20 weeks of pregnancy [18 weeks post-fertilization].

The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act first passed the House in June 2013 (228-196) but didn’t make it past the then-Democratically controlled Senate. In this new Congress, we have a great opportunity to protect the lives of babies from the moment they can feel pain by 20 weeks post-fertilization. The bill exempts women from prosecution, but criminalizes the practice of abortionists from performing late abortions. This is one step in the right direction.

The fetal pain legislation Congress will consider is based on the clear scientific data and physical evidence that unborn babies can feel pain by 20 weeks post-fertilization. That evidence is clear and compelling.

The conscience of the nation is written in places large and small. It is evident in the masses marching to protect the unborn and their mothers from a predatory abortion industry. It is felt in the shock of horror we feel when we read about the grisly work of abortion doctors like Kermit Gosnell. And it is panged quietly when we pass by euphemistically-named “centers for women’s reproductive health,” knowing that what goes on within them is neither healthy nor for the good of women.

Is conscience in adequate supply in Congress? The vote on fetal pain will tell.