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Feeling Their Pain

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September 2006

Even a casual observer of American culture knows that certain things rank high on our priority list. Golf and football are way up there. We eat pizza and ice cream like there’s no tomorrow. Cars have become an obsession, the faster the better. And we just love animals, especially dogs.

There’s something special about dogs. Could be their cute looks or their playfulness. Perhaps it’s their willingness to be hugged or to just keep us company. Maybe it’s the ways they serve. Guard dogs protect, seeing-eye dogs lead, and rescue dogs save. For many people, a dog is man’s best friend.

Dogs have been so much a part of our lives that we attribute human qualities and feelings to them. We even sense their pain. Not long ago, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals wrote about two mischievous dogs sentenced to die for their neighborhood misdeeds. Shadow died of cancer before the execution date. Misty languished in solitary confinement for five years. Noting Misty’s “sweet and docile” disposition, the court expressed concern for her “physical and psychological condition” during confinement. The court gave Misty a reprieve in belief that “justice would be affronted” if Misty was put down without a further hearing. Cullinane v. Board of Selectmen of Maynard, No. 99-P-53 (Mass. Ct. App. 2001).

There’s nothing wrong, and much good, with concern for animals. They are God’s creations, too. But are we as concerned about the suffering of God’s most defenseless ones—the unborn? Maybe because they are out of sight, we don’t stop and think of their pain. And although there is no clear-cut consensus yet, medical research is showing that an unborn’s pain is very real.

Our bodies are composed of various systems that develop in an unborn at different times. At seven weeks, sensory receptors start to appear, and at twenty weeks they cover the skin. Those receptors are connected to nerve fibers that transmit signals to the spinal cord, then up to the brain. As early as the sixteenth week (four months), the unborn show hormonal stress responses to painful stimuli. Studies have shown that an injection through the abdominal wall causes a significant increase in stress hormones. This response does not consistently occur when the injection was given into the umbilical cord, which has no nerves. The hormone response is reduced when a pain-killing drug is given directly to an unborn.

In fact, scientists have even found an unborn child’s pain sensitivity to be greater than expected. At 20-30 weeks, the pain receptors on the skin are at their highest density. During this period, nerve fibers are very close to the skin, even closer than for infants and adults. But the unborn’s pain-inhibiting mechanisms do not develop until the 32-34 week period. This means that from 20-32 weeks, an unborn experiences a much more intense pain than older infants, children, and even adults.

Are the unborn conscious of pain? Apparently, yes. Preterm infants from 23 weeks can respond to and organize experiences, which raises the question of whether a like-aged unborn can do the same. An EEG can pick up signals from an unborn’s brain cortex at 19-20 weeks. From 20 weeks, the unborn responds to light, sound, touch, and taste. All lines of evidence suggest that an unborn is conscious at 22-24 weeks.

So what does this mean in terms of, say, a partial birth abortion? The procedure is performed in the late stages of pregnancy, even up to the moment of natural birth. Consider its steps. A doctor squeezes the unborn baby’s leg hard enough to forcibly rotate her body within her mother. The body is then yanked feet first (babies normally deliver head first) through the birth canal until only the baby’s head remains within her mother. The doctor then sticks a scissors just below the base of the skull and opens a hole leading to the brain. The baby’s body stiffens from the assault. The doctor removes the scissors and inserts a vacuum tube into the opening, through which he sucks out the baby’s brains. A mother cannot be safely given enough anesthetic to numb the baby’s pain. Couple questions: If that happened to you, would you feel pain? And so, will you allow yourself to feel the pain of the baby?

This term, the United States Supreme Court again considers whether a civilized society may constitutionally ban this barbaric procedure, one rightly called infanticide. This is the second time that the issue comes before the Court. By a slim 5-4 margin, the Court previously refused to ban it. Wisdom and courage are never sure things. The Court needs both. Pray for the justices. Pray hard.

In 1780, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote, “The question is not, Can they reason?, nor, Can they talk?, but Can they suffer?” (Introduction To The Principles Of Morals And Legislation). He was writing about animals. Now, 226 years later, we know the answer applicable to the unborn. We must feel their pain. And we must end it. That starts by banning the partial birth abortion, a procedure that no human should suffer.

Quite frankly, we wouldn’t do it to a dog.

Paul V. Esposito is a Catholic lawyer who writes on a variety of pro-life topics. He and his wife Kathy live in Elmhurst, Illinois, where they raise their six kids.

© Paul V. Esposito 2006. Culture of Life. Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted. Visit us on the web at

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