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What stood out most for me about the findings of the paper by Derbyshire and Bockmann is that whatever our moral stance on abortion, there appears to be neuroscientific evidence that supports the distinct possibility of fetal pain before 24 weeks gestation. These findings challenge the common assumption that pain is mostly a “reflective” experience by including unreflective pain as worthy of reasonable concern (as in the case of animal pain). That consideration is one relevant factor which needs to feed into our reflections on how or whether certain abortions will be carried out.
The RCOG in its latest report on fetal pain concluded that “The experience of pain needs cognitive, sensory and affective components, as well as the necessary anatomical and physiological neural connections.” (1) Years before, along the same lines, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee reported that “while the evidence suggests that foetuses have physiological reactions to noxious stimuli, it does not indicate that pain is consciously felt, especially not below the current upper gestational limit of abortion...these factors may be relevant to clinical practice but do not appear to be relevant to the question of abortion law.”(2) Professor Derbyshire was a member of the Working Party which put this document together and was a key witness before the STC Committee but now, in light of his researches, rejects these confident conclusions.
In the light...
In the light of the findings of the new paper by Derbyshire and Bockmann, the above conclusions, which reflect the current clinical and legal practice of most abortions in the UK, look outdated at best, and motivated and suspiciously convenient at worst. Derbyshire and Bokcmann point out that fetal analgesia and anaesthesia can serve as immediate answers to the possibility of fetal pain experienced during an abortion. This does not, of course, address the ethics of abortion in itself (or of particular abortions in themselves): inevitably if an abortion is itself wrong, it will also be wrong to instruct clinicians how to perform it. However, as a matter of fact, the legal and moral line currently drawn between a fetus and a newborn is looking increasingly tenuous, and the recognition of pain at an earlier stage, while in no way decisive morally, should be an important step in opening up further debates into the status of the entity experiencing pain.
1. Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Fetal Awareness. Review of Research and Recommendations for Practice, March 2010, p. 23.
2. House of Commons. Science and Technology Committee, Scientific Developments Relating to the Abortion Act 1967, Twelfth Report of Session 2006-07, Vol. I, p. 25.
Understanding the complexity of induced abortion in context of society, culture, health and religion is a domain that should be explored. Many studies have reported ethical consideration of this issue which may be related to parenthood, rights of the fetus and mother, harms/benefits to the fetus and mother involved in abortion of the fetus.
Fetal pain should always be put into consideration before deciding on fetal interventional procedures or deciding on aborting the fetus after 13 weeks of gestation and proper anaesthesia/analgesia should be given to the pregnant woman undergoing the procedure. The knowledge about the concept of fetal pain is important and the neurological aspects of the pain perception of the fetus should be known.
1. Bandewar S. Exploring the ethics of induced abortion. Indian journal of medical ethics. 2005 Jan;13(1):18-21.
2. Um YR. A study of the ethics of induced abortion in Korea. Nursing ethics. 1999 Nov;6(6):506-14.
3. Lee SJ, Ralston HJ, Drey EA, Partridge JC, Rosen MA. Fetal pain: a systematic multidisciplinary review of the evidence. Jama. 2005 Aug 24;294(8):947-54.