On the Question of Fetal Pain

Planned Parenthood has had some bad publicity of late. Doctors who work for Planned Parenthood have been videotaped discussing the selling of aborted fetuses for medical research. There seem to be several aspects of this that people find objectionable.

The first is that what the doctors did or were offering to do was illegal. If it was illegal, then that is a matter for prosecutors to pursue, not me. Apart from the legalities, it would not bother me if the doctors were trying to make a profit for their organization by selling the fetuses. I realize that Planned Parenthood is a nonprofit organization, but you get the idea. Call it “fund-raising” if you like. Whatever words we use, if selling the fetuses would help Planned Parenthood with its finances, and the fetuses that were sold would benefit medical research, I’m all for it. After all, if they make enough money selling fetuses, then maybe the government will no longer have to fund Planned Parenthood, which should make Republicans happy.

Moreover, it wouldn’t bother me if the women who have the abortion get a cut of the take. If it were sufficiently remunerative, some women might purposely get pregnant in order to sell their fetuses. That might strike some as being venal, but if it would be useful for medical research, then it’s all right with me.

The second problem that some people have with this is that what the doctors were describing was gruesome, what with all that talk about crunching and crushing the fetuses, which reminded me of some of the Grand Guignol lines in the movie Re-Animator (1985), as when Dr. Hill demonstrates the removal of the scalp while comparing it to peeling a large orange. This is mostly a matter of being squeamish, analogous to the way we feel about corpses. Most people will treat the dead body of a loved one with tenderness and respect until they get it buried. We know it will soon rot, but we don’t want to even think about that, let alone see it happen. One reason a person might be reticent about donating his body to science is the thought of that body being hacked to pieces by a bunch of callous medical students.

But even if we are squeamish about how our own body or that of a loved one will be treated after death, it is none of our business if someone else is willing to let his body be used for medical research after he dies, however much we might be repulsed by a description of what happens to that body when he does. And so, if the woman who has the abortion is willing to let her fetus be crunched and crushed for the greater good of mankind, that is no different from allowing her own body to be subject to its own form of gruesomeness for similar reasons.

Some people further objected to the fact that one of the doctors was seen enjoying a hearty meal while discussing the manner in which the fetus would be handled. There are those who are sensitive to disturbing thoughts while they are eating. In The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer tells of what a pity it was that the cook had an ulcer on his shin, because cream pudding was his best dish. But others would not be bothered at all by the similarity in color and texture of the pus from sore and pudding in the bowl. Furthermore, long experience had probably inured the doctor to the crunching and crushing, which was probably for the best, because if she could eat while discussing such matters, she could probably perform abortions without flinching, which would be better for her patients.

Third, there is the question of the pain that might be felt by the fetus during an abortion. And let me pause here, by way of parenthesis, to comment on a somewhat paradoxical fact about human nature. The feeling of sympathy that we experience when someone is in pain is part of our social nature, its primary function being to motivate us to tend to his needs, to alleviate his pain if we can. But there are some people who care only about eliminating the disturbing feeling of sympathy, and care not one whit about the other person’s suffering as such.

I knew a woman once who was bothered by mice and had set out mousetraps. One night while she was home, the trap sprung. As so often is the case, the trap did not kill the mouse immediately, and it started squealing in pain. She couldn’t stand it. She said she became hysterical and started screaming, so much so that her neighbors came running over, thinking she was being assaulted. As far as she was concerned, that was the end of the story. “What happened to the mouse?” I asked. “Oh, the guy from next door threw the mouse in the trash can in the backyard,” she answered with indifference.

Out of sight, out of mind. It reminded me of my parents. We had mice in the house where I lived as a teenager. I suggested they get one of those traps that does not kill the mouse, but only captures him in a cage. Then he could be released in a distant field the next day. But that was too much trouble, my parents averred, and so they put out the usual sort of traps. Whenever a trap caught a mouse, however, they would hear it squealing and go berserk, running out of the room while yelling at me to get rid of it. Their idea of getting rid of the mouse was for me to put it in the trash can, just like the woman in the story above. But that would mean the mouse would still be in pain for who knows how long. Rather than allow for that, I would cut off its head. My parents not only did not understand why I did that, but they even thought it was cold-hearted of me to do such a thing. In short, there are people who do not mind if a person or animal suffers, just as long as they do not have to see it or hear about it.

Recently, the possibility of fetal pain during an abortion has become an issue. In general, those who are pro-life want to use the possibility of fetal pain to make abortions illegal after, say, twenty weeks of pregnancy. They could argue in favor of mandatory anesthesia, but I figured that they did not want to simply require that fetuses be anesthetized during the procedure, because that would be conceding too much to the pro-choice camp. They would rather use the pain of the fetus to make late-term abortions illegal than have such abortions become more palatable by making them painless. However, I was perplexed that people who were pro-choice were not advocating anesthesia themselves.

Now I know why. Montana considered a bill that would have required anesthesia for fetuses after twenty weeks, which sounds good to me, but a lot of people who were pro-choice objected to this becoming law. They saw it as another instance of politicians coming between a patient and her doctor, of unnecessarily adding to the cost of the procedure, and as based on the unscientific notion that a fetus can feel pain.

As for the part about the existence of fetal pain after twenty weeks being unscientific, that is partly true, but partly beside the point. There is something intrinsically unscientific about pain or any subjective state, because we cannot observe such states directly, save in our own individual case. This fact was the basis for behaviorism: since consciousness could not be observed, it was reasoned, it should be left out of psychology altogether, if that discipline had any hope of being scientific.

We can reason by analogy, of course. If my pain correlates with certain neurophysiological states, then if those same neurophysiological states occur in someone else, we may infer that he is in pain too, especially if he says, “Ouch!” But the more difference there is between me and some other organism, the less confidence I have in the analogy. For a long time, it was thought that babies did not feel pain and thus did not require anesthesia for surgery, only a paralytic to keep them still. It has only been since the mid-1980s that anesthesia for infants has become universally standard practice in America. In centuries past, vivisectionists experimented on animals by cutting them open without any kind of anesthesia either. No matter how much that animal struggled or cried, many vivisectionists maintained that animals did not feel pain, that their responses were merely reflexive. In other words, if you cannot utter the words, “I am in pain,” you may be in for a rough time.

Ernst Mach once noted that in studying physics, one ingests a lot of metaphysics. He could have said that about science in general. Many a metaphysical belief has been mistaken for a scientific fact, and claims about whether an animal, a baby, or a fetus can feel pain is just such an example. In some cases, assumptions of convenience may play a role. People tend to assume as true whatever suits their purposes. When Congress was considering the banning of incandescent bulbs, to be replaced by CFLs, which contain mercury, the question arose as to whether the disposal of CFLs would result in a harmful accumulation of mercury in landfills. The answer given to this concern was that people would take the burned out bulbs to a recycling center. Oh sure! Some people may do that, but most do not. The only reason anyone would believe something so unrealistic is that it was convenient to assume as much.

I fear that many people who are pro-choice believe that fetuses feel no pain during an abortion because it is a convenient assumption. Just as pro-life people don’t want to say that abortions are all right if fetuses are anesthetized, pro-choice people are afraid that certain abortions will become illegal if they concede that fetuses can feel pain. What we are likely to end up with is a standoff, in which neither side gives way. The losers may be the fetuses that are denied the anesthesia they deserve.

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