Monday, November 22, 2010

Fetal pain as common ground

Even those bioethicists and philosophers who deny the right to life of every human being (and thus think it is permissible to kill some humans, such as the unborn) agree that pain is generally a bad thing. Some bioethicists even think that pain and suffering is the sole criterion for determining right and wrong.

E. Christian Brugger writes:
Everyone can agree that we have a duty not to cause pain to others without a just cause. Bioethicists endorse the relieving of pain as an expression of the "principle of beneficence." And international bodies concur that access to pain relief without discrimination is a fundamental right. As a society we even take efforts to eliminate pain from the process of executing capital offenders whose guilt is manifestly established.
If evidence shows that unborn human beings at later stages of development feel pain during abortion procedures, then there should be common ground that both pro-life and pro-choice advocates agree on:
First, pro-lifers and pro-choicers should be able to agree on the principle of full disclosure. If fetuses feel pain, then where abortion is legal, abortion providers should disclose to the gestational mother the effects of her choice on the fetus. We may disagree about whether abortion is wrong, but we should be able to agree that withholding information relevant to making an informed abortion decision would be unfair to women.

Second, if fetuses feel pain, then where abortion is legal, abortion providers should also take reasonable measures to suppress the pain. We should be able to agree that it would be wrong not to try to remove the pain, just as it is when political authority fails to take reasonable measures to remove the pain from the process of legal execution.
So, do the unborn feel pain? Very powerful (arguably decisive) evidence indicates that they do. But let's suppose there is some doubt. Brugger writes:
The burden falls on the one who might be doing wrongful harm to rule out reasonable doubt that they are. If you were hunting in the woods and saw something moving in the distance, but were unsure of whether it was a deer or another hunter, you would be bound not to shoot until reasonable doubt was dispelled that what was stirring in the distance was not another hunter. When a doubt of fact bears on settling whether an alternative under consideration is immoral (e.g., it would be immoral to shoot in the face of reasonable doubt), one should withhold choosing till the fact has been settled.
Thus, if we are unsure whether the unborn feel pain, we must act as if they do. Only reasonable certainty that the unborn do not feel pain can justify not taking that possibility into account during an abortion. Can anyone claim such certainty?
Coming from one who is not a scientific expert on the question, but who has read considerably over the past four months on most all dimensions of the question, I conclude strongly that moral certitude that fetuses do not feel pain presently cannot be reached. In other words, fetal pain experience is a reasonable conclusion from the settled evidence. This evidence includes an appeal to fetal anatomical, neurochemical, physiological, and behavioral features, as well as responses to noxious stimuli (behaviors such as facial grimacing, the withdrawing of limbs, clenching of fists, opening of mouth and even crying).

Although we are not warranted in moving from these features and responses to a certain conclusion that fetuses do experience pain [emphasis added]—I realize that fetal consciousness is a central factor in the equation—we are justified in concluding from the evidence—in fact, we are rationally required to conclude—that moral certitude does not exist that fetuses do not feel pain.
What this means is that those who support abortion and think pain is bad (i.e., all "pro-choice" advocates) are rationally compelled to join pro-lifers in support of certain measures (such as Minnesota's Unborn Child Pain Prevention Act). Brugger concludes:
Unless and until contrary evidence is presented, we have a duty to act with the presumption that [the unborn by at least 20 weeks feel pain]. In a territory such as our own where abortion is legal, we have a duty: 1) to inform women considering second- and third-trimester abortions that their actions may cause their babies pain; and 2) to guarantee that suitable analgesics and anesthesia be administered to fetuses during second- and third-trimester abortions.