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Constitutional Law

Neuroscience Shouldn’t Determine Abortion Right, Humanities Expert Argues

Posted Nov 1, 2012 6:15 AM CDT
By Debra Cassens Weiss

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Brain science is a useful tool to improve understanding and better the world, but it should not be used to determine constitutional rights, according to a humanities scholar asked to serve as an expert witness in an appeal involving the reach of Roe v. Wade.

Writing for the New York Times' Opinionator blog, Johns Hopkins University humanities professor William Egginton says his writings on overblown scientific claims led to the contact by a lawyer challenging a fetal pain law. The lawyer, Rick Hearn, is challenging an Idaho law that bars abortions after 20 weeks because of the premise that the fetus can feel pain at that point. He also represented a woman arrested for taking pills to induce an abortion, but that prosecution was dropped

According to Egginton, Hearn’s suit “challenges the government’s use of results from the natural sciences, including neuroscience, as a basis for expanding or contracting the rights of its citizens.” Egginton thinks such use of neuroscience is a bad idea.

“While neuroscience may or may not be able to tell us something about the development of fetal nociceptive capacity,” Egginton writes, “it has nothing to say about the fundamental question of what counts as a full-fledged person deserving of the rights afforded by a society. Science can no more decide that question than it can determine the existence or nonexistence of God. Indeed, I doubt that members of the Idaho State Legislature would approve of using scientific evidence of the nonexistence of God to write a law depriving citizens of the right to worship as they choose; in the same way, they should avoid turning to neuroscience for evidence concerning the limits of personhood.”

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