Fetal Pain: The Untouchable Subject

Author: A.L.L.


American Life League

It is overwhelmingly probable that the first-trimester fetus does experience pain. The burden of proof should be on those who assert otherwise.

                                                        Professor of Pediatrics Kathryn Moseley, M.D.[1]

Anti-Life Philosophy.

Back to the central issue of personhood and rights; other non-persons (pigs, cows) have toenails, heartbeats, and the capacity to feel pain (some say a fetus can only feel pressure, not pain, but we're not sure), yet these factors alone do not prevent the destruction of such entities.

                                                                 National Abortion Rights Action League.[2]

Fetuses can't feel pain their nervous systems aren't developed enough. Because of this, it is better to abort an unwanted child than it is to have it endure the pain of an unwanted childhood.


The question is not, "Can they reason?" Nor, "Can they think?" But, "Can they suffer?"

Philosopher Jeremy Bentham, 1748-1832, referring to animals.

We Really Don't Care ...

The pro-abortionist's general response to the issue of fetal pain is identical to their approach to the question of whether or not the fetus is alive: "We really don't know when pain begins!" What they are saying about the agony of the unborn is this: "We really don't care when pain begins!"

The idea is for the Neoliberal to avoid pain for him(her)self, no matter what the cost to anyone else.

No pro-abort has even attempted to prove that the unborn do not feel pain, because they know it is a hopeless proposition. Such proof would be relatively simple if the unborn did not feel pain.

As with the question of life, we must err on the side of safety when it comes to inflicting pain. Would an anesthesiologist give the go-ahead to a surgeon if he was not absolutely sure that the patient was entirely 'under?'

Of course not!

Extraordinary Inconsistency.

Pro-aborts are universally inconsistent on the subject fetal pain. For example, the Boston Women's Health Book Collective's famous manual Our Bodies, Ourselves agonizes over the pain that may be caused the wanted, near-term preborn by a fetal monitor, but is utterly indifferent to the horrible and agonizing death suffered by a late-term baby who has been killed by a salting-out or prostaglandin abortion (page 234).

According to page 216 of the same book, abortion is an "indispensable tool."

This means that the Boston Women's Health Book Collective believes that the fetus does or does not suffer pain depending upon whether or not the mother wants it.

Isn't this ridiculous?

Saline solution causes "exquisite and severe" pain when inadvertently injected subcutaneously (under the skin) of the aborting woman. The saline usually takes two hours to kill the baby, before his heart stops beating. Fetal monitors have shown that the preborn baby, while being scalded in the salt solution, will thrash about and will have a heartbeat that more than doubles.[3] In light of the fact that the heart is not physically touched or injured by the saline, it can be concluded that the child dies of pain.

In 1982, Congress voted 260-140 to prohibit the National Institutes of Health (NIH) from funding experimentation on preborn or aborted babies. Extreme pro-abortion Congressman Henry Waxman (D.-Ca.) opposed this Amendment bitterly, calling it an "ideological statement," even though he had earlier championed an amendment to protect laboratory animals from "... more than momentary minor pain or discomfort."[4]

It is very curious that those who say that the preborn do not feel pain are completely silent when considering the infanticide cases such as Baby Doe of Bloomington who was literally tortured to death by thirst and starvation.

Fatal Weaknesses of the Argument.

Standing alone, this pro-abortion indifference toward fetal pain has three fatal weaknesses;

(1) It basically asserts that killing a human being is perfectly fine as long as the victim feels no pain. Therefore, under this logic, we should be allowed to kill people who are dead drunk, and it is all right to gas entire civilian cities during wartime if the victims feel no pain. Curiously, many pro-aborts are staunchly opposed to the death penalty. Even if a criminal were executed by the painless method of lethal injection, they are opposed to the death penalty. They are thus being inconsistent, because they approve of exterminating one group of people (the preborn), but not another (criminals).

(2) The assertion that the preborn feel no pain is made in the logical vacuum that accompanies utter and profound ignorance, and is without support from or regard for medical facts. The pro-abortion denial of fetal pain is intended to dehumanize the unborn yet further. Imagine the public outcry against abortion if everyone tasted just a sample of the pain that the preborn experience as they were being rended limb from limb! Even if the pro-abortionist argues that "there is no proof that the fetus feels pain," the burden of proof is definitely upon them to show that the preborn do not feel pain. Once again, we must always err on the side of safety!

(3) This pro-abortion argument is incomplete in that it does not address the question of late-term abortions. It is obvious that very early premature infants (say, 24 weeks gestation) do feel pain. Any neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) can nurse testify that very premature newborns show discomfort and cry when an IV is started.[5]

Many surgeons, neonatologists, and pediatric anesthesiologists perform major surgery on premature newborns without the benefit of anesthesia. Those babies that die during surgery show extensive catabolism (a breakdown of tissue) due to stress and shock. Incredibly, some parents have been threatened with legal action unless they consent to their newborn's unanesthetized surgery. Although the medical community is becoming more enlightened regarding the pain endured by premature newborns, some neonatal physicians still vigorously resist anesthesia for them.[6]

What must the 24-week preborn feel as his arms and legs are torn from his body?

In our society, even stray dogs and cats are anesthetized before being killed but our own defenseless little babies do not qualify for this final mercy.

Why on earth not?

Because our society sees them as useless garbage, without rights, not as a creation of God.

Mercy for All But the Preborn.

It is curious (and vexing indeed) that our society goes to extraordinary lengths to spare animals unnecessary pain, but can't be bothered to give the preborn even the mercy of a painless death.

Perhaps this attitude is understandable in light of abortion's status as a "super right" which overshadows all other rights, including due process and free speech.

All states have a number of commendable laws on the books which are designed to spare animals unnecessary pain, discomfort, and fear. For example, the 1967 California Agricultural Code mandates that cattle be rendered insensible by any "rapid and effective" means before being "cut, shackled, hoisted, thrown or cast."

If the animals are being slaughtered, they must be rendered unconscious by "the simultaneous and instantaneous severance of the carotid arteries with a sharp instrument."

The California Penal Code states that stray and other animals must be euthanized by painless means. If a carbon monoxide or nitrogen chamber is used, the animal's death, which must not take more than sixty seconds, must be carefully monitored. No newborn cat or dog may be killed by any method other than painless drugs, chloroform, gasses, or decompression.[7]

Any number of anesthetics could breach the placental barrier without harm to the mother and at least spare the preborn the worst of his agony as he is literally dismembered in what is supposed to be the safest place on earth. But nobody seems to care. Nobody has bothered to even research such possibilities.

After all, the preborn can't scream in agony, and they are killed in secret, out of sight, so why bother?

When Does Fetal Pain Begin?

The Experts Speak.

The world's leading authorities on fetal pain have formulated opinions regarding the point at which fetal pain begins, but these results are universally ignored by the media for the reasons described above.

Dr. Vincent J. Collins, professor of anesthesiology at Northwestern University and the University of Illinois Medical Center, is a recognized world authority on pain. It is his opinion that fetal pain responses begin, at the latest, by 13-1/2 weeks gestation and probably as early as eight weeks, based upon the development of the preborn baby's nervous system.

His opinion has been confirmed by several other experts.[8]

Myelinization (development of nerve-sheath insulation) occurs long before birth. These myelinized fibers can transmit pain impulses to the spinal cord and thence to the brain, and nerve tracts do not have to be complete in order to function competently.

Dr. Collins' findings have been confirmed by several other parallel studies. Biologists have known since 1968 that the unborn's sensory pain transmitters are complete by 14 weeks. The cerebral cortex is about 30% to 40% complete by this time, which is a sufficient level of completion to allow the pain transmitters and receptors to function quite efficiently.[9]

In summary, there is no known "triggering process" that causes the nervous system to start up at birth. It is functioning long before birth.

The Blundering Pro-Abortion Response.

Dr. Vincent J. Collins stated his views on fetal pain (summarized above) at a February 13, 1984 press conference. The pro-abortion forces knew that this disclosure could be very damaging to their cause, so they prepared an immediate response and blundered badly.

They had no trouble at all convincing Dr. Ervin Nichols of the ardently pro-abortion American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ACOG) to attempt to refute Dr. Collins' claim to the New York Times. The virulently pro-abortion Times accepted without verification Nichol's claim that there is "no evidence" that the unborn feel pain.

After Dr. Collins objected that Nichols was "not competent in the field of pain mechanisms," Nichols admitted that he lacked "expertise" and "intimate knowledge" in the field.

So much for the half-baked effort by the pro-aborts to deny fetal pain! To this day, no reputable physician with expertise in the field of pain mechanics has yet refuted Dr. Collins' assertion that the unborn do, in fact, feel pain. Dr. Collin's statements were simply ignored and buried by the press.

The Abortionists Speak.

Perhaps the most chilling philosophy of all is held by those who can very eloquently describe the agony suffered by the preborn in their death throes and then can continue to kill them and support their killing.

Abortionist John Szenes shows us what happens during a "salting-out" abortion:

All of a sudden one noticed that at the time of the saline infusion there was a lot of activity in the uterus. That's not fluid currents. That's obviously the fetus being distressed by swallowing the concentrated salt solution and kicking violently and that's, to all intents and purposes, the death trauma.[10]

And Magda Denes, who supports prenatal killing wholeheartedly, seems to have completely separated herself from a touching description of one of the victims;

I look inside the bucket in front of me. There is a small naked person in there floating in a bloody liquid plainly the tragic victim of a drowning accident. But then perhaps this was no accident, because the body is purple with bruises and the face has the agonized tautness of one forced to die too soon. I have seen this face before, on a Russian soldier lying on a frozen snow-covered hill, stiff with death and cold ...[10]

Fetal Development: The Nervous System.

It is interesting to follow the development of those sensory entities that transmit pain in the unborn child. The pro-abortion assumption that pain cannot occur until the nervous system is complete is obviously fallacious.

By Day 56, the unborn child makes use of his nervous system to move and float freely in the uterus. The child would have no reason to move other than to become more comfortable.

By Day 60, the unborn child has spinal reflexes. This means that tactile (touching-type) stimulation will cause a response.

By Day 77, the unborn child is sensitive to touch in the genital region. The baby begins to swallow, and the rate of fluid intake will vary depending upon the sweetness of the amniotic fluid (which can be harmlessly manipulated by injection). His palms and footpads are extremely sensitive to touch. His eyelids will squint in order to exclude bright light.

The "general sense organs" begin to differentiate at about 13 to 17 weeks. These organs are described as "free nerve terminations [which respond to pain, temperature, and chemicals], lamelated corpuscles [responding to pointed pressure], tactile corpuscles, neuromuscular spindles, and neurotendinous end organs [which respond to light and pointed pressure]."[11]

The cerebral cortex is 30 to 40 percent developed by 12 to 16 weeks. But the baby's response to pain is at least proportional to this amount, which has been confirmed by A. William Liley, the "Father of Modern Fetology," and an American researcher, Mortimer Rosen.[12]

References: Fetal Pain.

[1] Kathryn Moseley, M.D., Professor of Pediatrics, St. Louis University School of Medicine. Quoted in David H. Andrusko. ""Silent No More" Or Nothing to Say?" National Right to Life News, May 30, 1985, page 2.

[2] Looseleaf booklet entitled "Organizing for Action." Prepared by Vicki Z. Kaplan for the National Abortion Rights Action League, 250 West 57th Street, New York, N.Y. 10019. 51 pages, no date.

[3] Selig Neubardt and Harold Schuelman. Techniques of Abortion. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1972, pages 46 and 47.

[4] Henry Waxman, quoted by Paul Fisher. "House Bans Fetal Experimentation." The Wanderer, October 14, 1982, page 1.

[5] Lucinda Brown. "Physiologic Responses to Cutaneous Pain in Neonates." Neonatal Network, December 1987, pages 18 to 22.

[6] K. Anand and A. Aynsley-Green. "Metabolic and Endocrine Effects of Surgical Ligation ..." Modern Problems in Pediatrics 23(1985): 143-157. Also see Nance Cunningham Butler. "Infants, Pain, and What Health Care Professionals Should Want to Know: An Issue of Epistemology and Ethics." Bioethics, July 1989, pages 181 to 199.

[7] California Penal Code. 597v (kittens), 597w (cats), and 19501 (cattle)

[8] Mortimer G. Rosen, Professor of Reproductive Biology at Case Western Reserve University. "The Secret Brain: Learning Before Birth." Harpers Magazine, April 1978, page 46.

[9] Geoffrey S. Dawes. Fetal and Neonatal Physiology. Chicago: Yearbook Medical Publishers, 1968. Page 126.

[10] Magda Denes. "Performing Abortions." Commentary, October 1976, pages 33 to 37. A truly frightening and profoudly sickening article by a doctor who observes and describes in graphic detail a number of saline abortions and their results. She acknowledges that abortion is killing, but a type of "necessary" killing.

[11] John T. Noonan, Jr. "The Experience of Pain By the Unborn." Human Life Review, Fall 1981, pages 7 to 19, and Spring 1984, pages 105 to 115.

[12] A. William Liley. "Experiments with Uterine and Fetal Experimentation." Australia and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 6:99, 1972. Also see Mortimer Rosen. "The Secret Brain: Learning Before Birth." Harper's, April 1978, page 46.

Further Reading: Fetal Pain.

Peter McCullagh. The Foetus As Transplant Donor: Scientific, Social and Ethical Perspectives
Allan Liss, Inc., Publishers. 1987, 215 pages. Reviewed by Joseph R. Stanton, M.D., on page 46 of the June-July 1988 ALL About Issues. Complicated issues addressed by the author include the establishment of fetal brain death, fetal sentience, fetal pain, and tissues used for culture and transplantation.

Bernard Nathanson, M.D. The Silent Scream
Order from: Life Issues Bookshelf, Sun Life, Thaxton, Virginia 24174, telephone: (703) 586-4898. This is the book form of the film that provoked an international anti-life scream of protest and a futile effort to discredit it. The book, like the film, describes a suction abortion from the baby's point of view. The book also includes pro-abortion rebuttals to the film "The Silent Scream" and the answers to those rebuttals.

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This is a chapter of the Pro-Life Activist’s Encyclopedia published by American Life League.