Legislation

Does science support fetal-pain bills? Doc wasn't aware his research was being cited


Large reviews of fetal pain studies published in 2005 and 2010 concluded that fetal pain is unlikely to take place as early as 20 weeks after conception—the timing of new abortion bans in dozen states that are based on the premise that a fetus can feel pain.

The 20-week period equates to a gestational age of about 22 weeks, which measures age from the last menstrual period and is commonly used by scientists, the New York Times reports in its story on the “highly complex” science of fetal pain.

The two major reviews, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association and Britain’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, concluded pain is felt in the cortex, which isn’t developed at 20 weeks.

Those who support fetal-pain laws, however, say pain is detected in the thalamus, developed around 20 weeks. They have cited the work of Swedish neuroscientist Bjorn Merker, who observed five children whose cortexes were mostly or entirely missing. The children appeared to smile and cry, Merker said, leading him to theorize that the theory of cerebral consciousness could be seriously in error.

When contacted by the New York Times, Merker said his research did not deal with pain specifically and it had only marginal bearing on fetal pain. He was not aware his study had been cited in the abortion debate and he didn’t want to elaborate because politics had “infected” the issue.

Another scientist who says the cortex isn’t needed to feel pain is Dr. Kanwaljeet Anand, who researched premature infants who did not receive anesthesia before surgery, the story says. The infants had hormonal stress responses and more difficult recoveries. He believes fetal pain may be felt at 18 to 24 weeks. He has testified in challenges to bans on so-called partial birth abortions and before a congressional committee, but he says he has turned down testimony requests since 2005.

“I feel it’s just gotten completely out of hand,” he said.

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