Friday, April 15, 2011

Three rationales for the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act

A bill now before the Minnesota state Legislature -- the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act -- would protect unborn children from the point at which they are capable of experiencing pain. Why should this legislation be supported? I know of three main approaches/rationales, which together should encompass almost everyone.

(1)  The first approach is the position held by pro-life advocates. The scientific facts of embryology tell us that the unborn (i.e., the human embryo or fetus) from conception is a distinct, living and whole human organism -- a member of the species Homo sapiens, like the rest of us, only at a much earlier stage of his or her development. Because every human being has an equal fundamental right to life, it is wrong to kill unborn human beings for the reasons that people have elective abortions, just as it is wrong to kill older human beings for those reasons. Moreover, it is surely among the most basic and necessary functions of government to protect innocent, rights-bearing human beings from unjust homicide. So elective abortion should not be permitted by law. It follows that elective abortions of pain-capable unborn children should not be permitted by law (the modest aim of the legislation).

Pain-capable unborn: May she be killed?
(2)  But one need not agree with the first approach to support the bill. Even those who believe most abortions are morally permissible may agree that once the developing unborn human being becomes capable of experiencing pain, she merits basic moral respect and protection and may no longer be dismembered by abortion.

(3)  Finally, one need not agree with either of the first two approaches to support the bill. One might deny (as the second rationale asserts) that the pain-capable unborn human being has acquired a moral status that merits serious respect. But while (on this view) she does not yet merit the sort of consideration we give to older human beings, we still must take into consideration the possibility of inflicting unnecessary pain and suffering. Consider, for example, that few people believe killing an animal is morally wrong, but we do seem to have an obligation to not cause animals needless pain and suffering. So just as we prohibit animal cruelty, we must consider prohibiting some abortions on the grounds that they are cruel and excruciatingly painful for the being who is dismembered and killed. (It is true, on this view, that a bill to simply require pain-relieving medication prior to abortion could be supported as an alternative; that possibility, however, does not preclude someone taking this third approach from supporting the legislation now under consideration, which might currently be the only or best option to guard against the suffering caused by abortion.)

To summarize, then, anyone who holds to the pro-life position should obviously support the Pain Capable legislation, and many pro-choice people should also support the legislation. Most pro-choice people do not support unlimited abortion at every stage up until birth; these people may well support the bill using the second rationale. And even those pro-choice advocates who support unfettered abortion on demand throughout all of pregnancy must consider supporting the bill according to the third rationale.

Some people object by questioning whether the unborn at this stage of pregnancy can really feel pain. But, first, this objection has no bearing on the first rationale for the Pain Capable legislation (above), which still must be addressed by critics. Second, denying fetal pain does not seem reasonable given the weight of the evidence (which you can read more about here and here). Third, if there is even a possibility the unborn at this stage can feel pain (as any reasonable observer of the facts must admit), the second and third rationales for the legislation (described above) would still be strong, for abortion would then pose a serious risk of either killing a valuable being deserving of respect or causing unjustified pain and suffering.

The Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act is a modest proposal that clearly reflects the views of a majority of Minnesotans. It is a bill that almost everyone -- given the views they already hold -- can and should support.