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The Junk Science of the Abortion Lobby

Fetuses not only experience pain but experience it more intensely than do adults

Much of pro-abortion advocacy is science denial — the deliberate misrepresentation of science to advance an ideological agenda. Mary Ziegler, a law professor at Florida State University, wrote a misleading essay on that theme in the New York Times, “Science won’t end this debate” (January 22, 2019):

It was perhaps, at first glance, an unusual feature of the 2019 March for Life that it downplayed what many have come to think of as the central claim of the anti-abortion movement: that the unborn have a constitutional right to life… Instead, march organizers focused on proclaiming that science was on their side. They circulated material on “when human life begins,” whether abortions are ever medically necessary, and when fetal life becomes viable. They praised legal restrictions based on what science supposedly says about fetal pain.

The pro-life movement has always been clear about its core argument: Human life begins at fertilization and all humans have a right to life. The legal and moral facts about early human life derive from this scientific fact: Life begins when the sperm fertilizes the egg. The facts of human conception — the facts of life — have been established scientifically since the mid-18th century. Lazzaro Spallanzani (1729–1799), 18th-century biologist and Catholic priest, was the first to note that the fertilization and thus the beginning of a new organism occurred with the union of the sperm with the egg. At fertilization, a new human life begins. There is no scientific debate about that; there are merely those who acknowledge the science and those who out of ignorance misunderstand or out of dishonesty deliberately misrepresent it. Zeigler, a well-educated woman, would be in the latter category.

The science of fetal pain is also well established. The core of the abortionists’ argument against the fact that young fetuses in the womb feel pain is the immaturity of the thalamocortical connections in the fetal nervous system. Because of this neurological immaturity, pro-abortionists claim, fetuses cannot feel pain. This claim is, however, a profound misrepresentation of neuroscience and embryology. Thalamocortical projections continue to mature throughout childhood and into early adult life—they are not fully mature until about 25 years of age. Yet children obviously feel pain, so the immaturity of thalamocortical projections does not in any way preclude the experience of pain.

In fact, pain is unlike any other sensory modality in that pain appears to enter consciousness awareness at subcortical (probably thalamic) levels. The cerebral cortex is not necessary to experience pain — it appears to modulate the experience of pain. Furthermore, cortical modulation of pain serves to diminish the severity of the pain. Decorticate animals (animals whose cerebral cortex has been removed) appear to experience pain more intensely than corticate animals do.

Babies obviously experience pain, and indeed appear to experience it more intensely than do adults. A bit of intestinal gas or a needle prick to draw blood can cause an infant to scream in agony. This extreme sensitivity to pain in young fetuses and babies is well-recognized in medical science1-3 and forms the basis for the anesthetic management of fetuses and young infants.

To summarize, the immature nervous system is exquisitely sensitive to pain. Mature cortical connections, such as in adults, diminish the experience of pain. Fetuses thus not only experience pain but experience it more intensely than do adults.

This is widely recognized in medical and scientific studies of fetal physiology. Pain medications for unborn children are routinely administered during fetal surgery and physiochemical stress is well-documented in fetuses as early as 18 weeks of gestation.4 There is evidence that extreme sensitivity to pain is evident not later than 15 weeks of gestation. Babies in the middle trimester of gestation cringe and try to escape painful surgical (and abortive) procedures, and often open their mouths, appearing to scream.

Ziegler, an abortion proponent, characteristically misrepresents embryology and neuroscience in an effort to buttress her ideology. Ironically, she quotes Jeanne Mancini, president of the March for Life, who observed that “The abortion debate isn’t settled, but the underlying science is.” Zeigler dismisses Mancini’s point, but Mancini is exactly right.

The scientific questions about the beginning of human life and the experience of pain in fetal life have long been answered. Human life begins at fertilization of the egg by the sperm, and fetuses beyond the first trimester experience pain intensely, probably more intensely than do adults. There is no actual scientific debate about these issues.

The debate is whether we, as a nation, should protect human life in the womb. That fetuses are fully human and fully alive, there is no honest public debate.

1 Badr LK et al., Determinants of Premature Infant Pain Responses to Heel Sticks, Pediatric Nursing 36, 129, 2010.

2 Brusseau R and Bulich LA, Anesthesia for fetal intervention, in Essential Clinical Anesthesia, Charles Vacanti, Pankaj Sikka, Richard Urman, Mark Dershwitz, B. Scott Segal, Eds., Cambridge University Press, NY; July 2011; 772-776.

3 Greco C and Khojasteh S, Pediatric, Infant and Fetal Pain, Case Studies in Pain Management, Alan David Kaye and Rinoo V. Shah, Eds., (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 379.

4 Sekulic S et al., Appearance of fetal pain could be associated with maturation of the mesodiencephalic structures. J Pain Res. 9, 1031, 2016

Michael Egnor is a neurosurgeon, professor of Neurological Surgery and Pediatrics and Director of Pediatric Neurosurgery, Neurological Surgery, Stonybrook School of Medicine

Also by Michael Egnor: Does brain stimulation research challenge free will?

Does your brain construct your conscious reality? Part I  A reply to computational neuroscientist Anil Seth’s recent TED talk


Does your brain construct your conscious reality? Part II In a word, no. Your brain doesn’t “think”; YOU think, using your brain

The Junk Science of the Abortion Lobby