Wed Aug 24th, 2005 at 11:57:43 AM EST
According to a paper published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), foetuses cannot feel pain until the last few weeks of a pregnancy, reports the BBC.
The researchers say there is only limited data available on this issue.
But, writing in JAMA, they say pain requires the conscious recognition of an unpleasant stimulus.
This cannot happen until certain brain structures connecting the thalamus and the cerebral cortex develop during the third trimester of pregnancy.
These connections are not usually apparent until the 23rd week of pregnancy and may not begin to be made until the 30th week.
But Julia Millington of the UK's Pro Life Alliance said: "It is not the ability of the victim to feel pain that makes killing objectionable but rather the violation of that individual's most basic human right, the right to life."
I find the latter assertion untenable. In philosophy, there are two rival conceptions of what a 'right' is. On one analysis it is a norm protecting some rational agent's opportunity to choose in some specific respect. Clearly, this is out as far as foetuses are concerned, inasmuch as they are not yet rational agents. On the other, more inclusive analysis, a right is a norm protecting a certain interest of some being, whether a rational agent or not. This is more promising for a rights-based pro-life position, since it could be argued that a foetus does have interests worth protecting.
But which are the minimum conditions for having an interest? One such, it seems to me, must be the capacity to have experiences. There must be a way in which events in the world can impinge on your consciousness for better or for worse. Thus a cat, for instance, has interests, but a tree does not, because only the former (as far as we know) has any mental states at all.
Now, the most primitive experience conceivable is the experience of pain. If a nervous system can't even support that, it's reasonable to infer that it can't support any experience. And since having experiences is a necessary condition for having interests, which in turn is a necessary condition for having rights, the foetus cannot have any rights, including the right to life, until its brain is more developed. If the current findings hold up, that is not until the 23rd week of pregnancy.
To be sure, it is wise to err on the side of caution, so one might want to subtract a few weeks from that. But this is incidental to my point.
Also note that, in my view, it will not do to argue that the foetus, if left alone in the womb, would later develop the neural wiring for sustaining experiences. Rights are not assigned retroactively. Suppose you learn that some tree in your garden will develop mental states within three weeks if you don't cut it down. Does that imply that the plant has a 'right to life' now? Surely not.
There are of course other ways than the rights-based one to argue for a ban on abortion. I believe they fail too; but that is for another day.