The New York Times Magazine has a very interesting piece on fetal pain. While it was once common wisdom that newborn babies could not feel pain and the concept of fetal pain was laughable. However, science has progressed and now the concept of newborn pain is widely accepted and babies are routinely treated for pain when undergoing surgery. The acknowledgment of the recognition of pain in the unborn is coming more grudgingly. This is for obvious reasons.

Many of those who dismiss the possibility of pre-born pain, note that the babies do not have a cerebral cortex prior to about 2 1/2 months before birth. This is where they believe that consciousness resides. However, new evidence leads to the conclusion is that consciosness may be much more complex than previously thought and not limited to the cerebral cortex.

THE SAME MIGHT be said of the five children who were captured on video by a Swedish neuroscientist named Bjorn Merker on a trip to Disney World a few years ago. The youngsters, ages 1 to 5, are shown smiling, laughing, fussing, crying; they appear alert and aware of what is going on around them. Yet each of these children was born essentially without a cerebral cortex. The condition is called hydranencephaly, in which the brain stem is preserved but the upper hemispheres are largely missing and replaced by fluid.

The implications of this possibility are dramatic. Perhaps we don’t understand what we thought we understood. If some sort of consciousness and the the ability to feel pain could exist in the brain stem, babies as young as 17 weeks may be capable of sensing pain.

Merker included his observations of these children in an article, published last year in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, proposing that the brain stem is capable of supporting a preliminary kind of awareness on its own. “The tacit consensus concerning the cerebral cortex as the ‘organ of consciousness,’ ” Merker wrote, may “have been reached prematurely, and may in fact be seriously in error.”

Marshall Devor, a biologist at the Center for Research on Pain at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, understands what the implications of this research means. He is not concerned about the unborn, or the born for that matter. Devor sees the implications for those who were previously thought to have no consciousness due to damage of their cerebral cortices. We have to kill these useless people more quickly.

For example, the decision to end the life of a patient in a persistent vegetative state might be carried out with a fast-acting drug, suggested Marshall Devor… Devor wrote that such a course would be more humane than the weeks of potentially painful starvation that follows the disconnection of a feeding tube

Yes. Let us dispatch the unwanted in a way that is easiest on our consciences. Wouldn’t want to lose any sleep over it.

Beyond euthanasia, the obvious impact on this research is on the ‘acceptability’ of abortion. If the fetus feels pain, can we regulate abortion on those grounds? Is this an avenue to restrict abortion?

BUT THE QUESTION of fetal pain is not irrelevant when applied to abortion. On April 4, 2004, Sunny Anand took the stand in a courtroom in Lincoln, Neb., to testify as an expert witness in the case of Carhart v. Ashcroft. This was one of three federal trials held to determine the constitutionality of the ban on a procedure called intact dilation and extraction by doctors and partial-birth abortion by anti-abortion groups. Anand was asked whether a fetus would feel pain during such a procedure. “If the fetus is beyond 20 weeks of gestation, I would assume that there will be pain caused to the fetus,” he said. “And I believe it will be severe and excruciating pain.”

The court did not rule on the pain question, but we can expect to see more and more fetal pain legislation.

Another, perhaps intended, effect of fetal-pain laws may be to make abortions harder to obtain. Laura Myers, an anesthesia researcher at Children’s Hospital Boston and Harvard Medical School who analyzed the Unborn Child Protection Act for the abortion-rights organization Physicians for Reproductive Choice and Health, concluded that abortion clinics do not have the equipment or expertise to supply fetal anesthesia. “The handful of centers that perform fetal surgery are the only ones with any experience delivering anesthesia directly to the fetus,” Myers says. “The bill makes a promise that the medical community can’t fulfill.” Even these specialized centers have no experience providing fetal anesthesia during an abortion; such a procedure would be experimental and would inevitably carry risks for the woman, including infection and uncontrolled bleeding.

Read the entire article as it is very interesting. I think it is progress that an article such as this that tries to present the evidence as it is, is remarkable in its own right.