Why a New Study on Fetal Pain Matters

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Photo: Wikipedia

Late last week, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists issued a report concluding that fetuses of 24 weeks are unable to feel pain. Though it is not the first study to reach this conclusion, it is possibly the most politicized one, ordered up by the British Department of Health because certain members of Parliament wanted to reduce the legal time limit on abortion. These findings are bound to generate debate, and not just in the U.K.: This April, Nebraska became the first state in the union to make abortion illegal after twenty weeks, precisely on the theory that the fetus would be spared physical distress.

It is doubtful that this new report will change many American minds. National opinion on abortion has remained surprisingly constant since the Supreme Court first decided Roe v. Wade 37 years ago. (In 1975, according to Gallup, 21 percent of Americans thought abortion should be legal under all circumstances and 22 percent thought it should always be illegal; last May, those numbers were 22 and 23.) It may, however, ease the conscience and emotional distress of those who chose to terminate a pregnancy late in their second trimester. And that's of greater consequence than one might think.

To hear most public, pro-life discourse on the subject, one would think that second-trimester abortions are performed only in an emergency, when painful moral questions are easier to address. When Bill Clinton first vetoed the ban on so-called partial-birth abortions (the medical term is actually intact dilation and extraction) in 1996, for example, he focused the debate on women with poignant stories of life-threatening disorders during their pregnancies and terrible fetal anomalies. That suggested that second-trimester abortions are performed only out of medical necessity, but that simply isn't the case.

While it's true that they're extremely rare in the United States — according to the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit that compiles abortion statistics, only 12 percent of abortions take place after the first trimester, and only 1.5 percent take place after 21 weeks — there is no legal requirement that second-trimester abortions be performed for medical reasons. Teenagers, for instance, are more likely than older women to have abortions after the fifteen-week mark, according to the Guttmacher Institute, and this makes a sad amount of sense, considering that teenage girls have less birth-control literacy, a greater capacity for denial, and more irregular periods than older women — many don't even realize they're pregnant until the baby's kicking. Guttmacher also says that 60 percent of the women who "experienced a delay" in getting an abortion say they needed the time to scrape together the money and work out the logistics (87 percent of all U.S. counties lack abortion providers). In other words, it's often poor women living in remote areas who wind up terminating their pregnancies later.

Whatever the mother's reasons for it, one can safely assume that an abortion late in the second trimester is a far more complicated emotional affair than one in the early stages of pregnancy (which isn't uncomplicated for many women to begin with). At week 24, the fetus is a fully formed baby, weighing over a pound and measuring nearly a foot long. The mother has felt it kicking and seen it in lifelike detail on a screen; were she to go into labor, it would perhaps survive. The procedure to end her pregnancy at that stage takes days, not minutes, and its risks are much higher. Abortion providers who are willing to do it — indeed, who have the stomach for it — are quite rare.

But according to the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists' new study, an abortion at week 24 wouldn't hurt the fetus. The unique combination of chemicals in amniotic fluid keeps it in a state of suspended, "sleeplike unconsciousness," and its neural pathways are insufficiently developed to feel pain. And if that's what the mother is feeling as she heads into the operating room — the pain of grief, the pain of her mistakes, the pain of God's unmerciful design, or whatever form her pain may take — it may be of some relief to her to know that her unborn, at least, feels none.

Human foetus feels no pain before 24 weeks, study says [Guardian UK]
Nebraska to limit abortions over fetal pain [MSNBC]
The Abortion Distortion [NYM]
Facts on Induced Abortion in the United States [Guttmacher Institute]