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Why the foetus has no right to life

by Sirocco 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.

[snip]

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.

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While I am firmly pro-choice, I am not sure that from the fact that a being cannot feel pain or have experiences or even interests, it follows that it is ethical to kill that being.  I see your point and personally agree with it.  But it is a philosophical argument.  And half the people in this debate frankly are not swayed by philosophy.  Much in the same way that I am not swayed by the Bible.

So I don't think this finding will effect much of the debate since the 2 sides prefer to rest their arguments on Faith and Philosophy rather than Science.

The real reason this finding is important is that there has been federal legislation proposed in the U.S. which would make it mandatory for providers to tell women considering abortions that the foetus will feel pain.  The idea is that this will make her less likely to go through with the operation.  Which, to my mind, is another example of politics butting in where it does not belong...  The Pro-Life faction knows that it cannot win the debate outright.  It simply does not have the support.  So its strategy is to weasel its way into our lives via legislation like this.  

Anyway ... since we are here at ET, what's the scene in Europe?  I keep hearing the Pro-Lifers are gaining support there.  True?  Is this just a Catholic thing or is it more mainstream?

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Wed Aug 24th, 2005 at 01:01:59 PM EST
While I am firmly pro-choice, I am not sure that from the fact that a being cannot feel pain or have experiences or even interests, it follows that it is ethical to kill that being.

Well, like I said there are other arguments for outlawing abortion, notably that 'human life has intrinsic value' whether or not it has rights. So the argument above is insufficient by itself to justify a pro-choice position. But it's absolutely necessary. Indeed, if not for it I'm not sure I would be pro-choice in the first place.

But it is a philosophical argument.  And half the people in this debate frankly are not swayed by philosophy.  Much in the same way that I am not swayed by the Bible.

Philosophical argument is what I do, though not so much here on ET (philosophy is no spectator sport). Such argument may or may not make for good propaganda, but that, to me, is a side concern.

since we are here at ET, what's the scene in Europe?  I keep hearing the Pro-Lifers are gaining support there.  True?  Is this just a Catholic thing or is it more mainstream?

I can only speak for Scandinavia, where pro-lifers have given up long ago with respect to swaying the mainstream. The demographic in question seem much more  preoccupied with writing LTEs about Israel.

The world's northernmost desert wind.

by Sirocco (sirocco2005ATgmail.com) on Wed Aug 24th, 2005 at 01:31:52 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Perhaps, and I am just speculating, the fact that you are in Scandinavia where pro-lifers have given up long ago with respect to swaying the mainstream affords you the luxury to discuss this topic philosophically?  Whereas in America the pro-lifers are in the process of attempting a coup on our government and therefore everyone, on both sides, is more concerned about winning in the court of public opinion, and er, in the Supreme Court, than ruminating on the essence of being or concerning themselves with proper reason and logic.

And even if they were, in order to have a philosophical debate on the subject, those participating should be versed familiar with the basic rules of the game, which they are not.  At some point, the statement "Cuz that's what I believe," came to pass as a valid proof here in America.  

I'm just saying that while your argument might be spot on, and I am inclined to think it is, I don't see it being an effective tool for protecting American women's rights from being steamrolled by the Christian Right.  That's all.  It seems that the most vocal on both sides have given up on tring to win "hearts and minds" and are just going for the hearts now...

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Wed Aug 24th, 2005 at 02:14:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Again, I never claimed it to be 'an effective tool,' and I'm speaking in the abstract, not about the US specifically.

The world's northernmost desert wind.
by Sirocco (sirocco2005ATgmail.com) on Wed Aug 24th, 2005 at 02:48:59 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I know.

Appologies all around.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire

by p------- on Wed Aug 24th, 2005 at 03:14:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
No reason to! Sorry if I sounded a bit grumpy. Having trouble with morons on another site. :-)

The world's northernmost desert wind.
by Sirocco (sirocco2005ATgmail.com) on Wed Aug 24th, 2005 at 03:29:23 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Aahhh....  Thought I sensed something.

Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. -Voltaire
by p------- on Wed Aug 24th, 2005 at 03:52:16 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Here you go...known to soothe those beastly grumpies :)

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by caldonia on Wed Aug 24th, 2005 at 04:01:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Merlot, my favorite. You're the best!

The world's northernmost desert wind.
by Sirocco (sirocco2005ATgmail.com) on Wed Aug 24th, 2005 at 04:11:40 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I'm giving you a pain in the arse.
by BooMan on Wed Aug 24th, 2005 at 05:45:29 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Oh, that's OK. I love the sport.

The world's northernmost desert wind.
by Sirocco (sirocco2005ATgmail.com) on Wed Aug 24th, 2005 at 05:48:47 PM EST
[ Parent ]
In Germany, abortion is legal in the first trimester, provided that the woman seeks counselling from a recognized emergency pregnancy counselling service.

The law requires that the counselling service encourages here to continue the pregnancy. If, however, at the conclusion of the counselling she still wishes an abortion, she is entitled to one. (German Penal Code, Art. 218a/219).

Three guesses as to which antiquated Roman organization (run by old guys in long dresses yet!) fought hard to insert this language in the counselling provision...

The fact is that what we're experiencing right now is a top-down disaster. -Paul Krugman

by dvx (dvx.clt št gmail dotcom) on Wed Aug 24th, 2005 at 02:11:35 PM EST
[ Parent ]
It has to be added though that these "recognized emergency pregnancy counselling service" can be run by churches, charities, unions, ao. And the guys in the long dresses got it in, but there is now a growing body of lay catholics "Donum vitae"  that offer the service - despite the fact that those guys did withdraw from it completely.  There are now over 181 places were you can get pregnancy advice from catholics, if you so felt inclinded to do. This charity is therefore in direct conflict with the teaching of the roman-catholic church.
I think it is important to stress that even though they are Pro-live, your attendance and meeting with them is sufficent to get the piece of paper to get the abortion. - What would be interesting to know is: what is the percentage of change with these advice centres.

Abortion increased by 4% in the last quarter of 2004 compared with the previous year. Reasons given are mostly financial and insecurity about the future.

by PeWi on Thu Aug 25th, 2005 at 01:20:43 PM EST
[ Parent ]
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.

Sorry lads, these statements are a false premise. Pain does not require the "conscious recognition" of anything. Our responses to pain occur in the central nervous system at the level of the brainstem, not via the cerebral cortex. Put your hand on a hot stove and your body will move your hand before you can even think about what is happening. After the fact, your cerebral cortex will say: "oh I put my hand on a hot stove, now where's the aloe vera gel?"

by US Blues on Wed Aug 24th, 2005 at 03:26:36 PM EST
That's not pain, just a reflex. But let's not haggle about words. Even if you insist on calling that pain, what the researchers - and I - talk about is the experience of pain.

The world's northernmost desert wind.
by Sirocco (sirocco2005ATgmail.com) on Wed Aug 24th, 2005 at 04:14:13 PM EST
[ Parent ]
This just supports the original argument.

You're referring to a pain response within the sympathetic nervous system.  Since a SNS pain impulse happens outside the central nervous system there is no perception of the pain; no perception... no conscious experience of the pain.

The SNS is a fast bypass of the CNS to make things like your example (the hot stove) instant reflexes.  If the impulse had to travel the relatively long journey up the spinal cord, and then be "contemplated" by the CNS the damage being done by the hot stove would be much worse.

by pinion on Wed Aug 24th, 2005 at 04:20:53 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Thought provoking diary!
You scooped CNN, I'm just preparing to go to work and here came the story "Can foetuses feel pain?" with Dr. Sanjay Gupta.  In his attempt to give 'balanced' coverage he stated that one of the authors of the study is the administrator of an abortion clinic (implying a conflict of interest).  
Got to go!
by ask on Thu Aug 25th, 2005 at 08:55:14 AM EST


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