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Feeling Their Pain

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June 2012

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 about dogs that make us so crazy about them.  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 that dogs always seem willing to listen and not bark back. Whatever the reason, for many people a dog truly is their 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. In 2001, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals wrote about two Rottweilers sentenced to die for their neighborhood misdeeds.  Shadow died of cancer before its scheduled 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 with concern for all animals.  They are God’s creations, too.  But are we as concerned about the suffering of God’s most defenseless ones-the unborn?  In 1984, former abortionist Bernard Nathanson produced a video documentary, Silent Scream. Through ultrasound imaging, it shows the actual abortion of an eleven-week unborn baby.  As an abortionist’s tool made contact, the baby opened its mouth-a suggestion of pain.  The documentary caused uproar and introduced an new dimension to the abortion debate.  Does an unborn baby feel the pain of an abortion? And although there is no clear-cut consensus yet, medical research is showing that an unborn’s pain is very real.

Our body’s various systems develop in an unborn baby 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, 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 unborn babies 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.

Just a few years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a ban on the ghastly late-term partial birth abortion procedure.  The Court ruled that states have a substantial interest in protecting unborn life, even when scientific questions remain.  Today, efforts to protect the unborn from the pain caused by physical dismemberment or cardiac injection continue.  Seven states have enacted the Pain-Capable Child Protection Act, based on model legislation designed to ban abortions after 20 weeks.  An exception exists where needed to prevent a mother’s death or irreversible and substantial physical injury or to save the baby’s life.  Congress is currently considering whether to enact a similar ban in the District of Columbia.  A nationwide ban could save more than 18,000 lives annually.

We have all experienced physical pain, and that’s not likely to stop this side of Heaven. But pain can be a good thing.  It triggers our body’s defense system.  When we feel the burn of a fire, we immediately recoil.  Pain triggers more than our instinct for self-preservation.  It stirs our sense of compassion for the needs of others, and that often brings out the very best in us.  The push for fetal-pain legislation brings us face-to-face with the pain of others.  It challenges us to ask two fundamental questions: do we see the unborn as human beings who can suffer pain-at our hands?   And are we willing to give them the benefit of a doubt, to protect them from suffering even though all scientific questions about fetal pain have not been answered?

In his 1780 work, Introduction To The Principles Of Morals And Legislation, British philosopher Jeremy Bentham wrote, “The question is not, Can they reason?, nor, Can they talk?, but Can they suffer?”  He was writing about animals. Centuries later, we know that the unborn feel pain.  Our challenge is feel to their pain.  We can start by banning the abortion of those old enough to actually feel pain.

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 and have six children.

© Paul V. Esposito 2012.  Culture of Life.  Permission to copy and distribute for pro-life purposes is granted.  Comments?  Visit us at

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