By Charles L. Rulon
Emeritus, Life & Health Sciences
Long Beach City College ([email protected])
No fetal pain until 28th week
By 8 weeks a fetus in utero will react to needle stimulation. But as with paraplegics, this is a reflex mediated by the spinal cord, not the brain. It’s not a conscious reaction and no pain can be experienced. Although fetuses have started to form pain receptors by 8 weeks, the thalamus (that part of the brain which routes information to other areas) doesn’t start to form until after the 20th week. Without the thalamus, no information can reach the cortex for processing. That includes the nerves from the skin and other pain-sensitive areas. Thus, no awareness of pain is possible.
Finally by the 28th week the necessary nerve pathways have formed so that the fetus might begin to experience pain. Even then, the myelin sheath (the insulating cover on nerves that is required for efficient conduction of pain signals) does not begin to form around neurons in the spinal chord until about the 24th week and is not found in most of the cerebral cortex until after birth.
On the other hand, the global suffering to women and girls with unwanted pregnancies due to medieval religious dogmas, entrenched patriarchal laws and customs, the desire to punish “loose” women, plus profound ignorance and grinding poverty is simply staggering.
Pregnancy can be extremely dangerous
Pregnancy constitutes a major biological invasion with potentially dangerous consequences. Pregnant women experience 7-9 months of symptoms of varying severity, often including nausea, vomiting, bloating, insomnia, varicose veins, hemorrhoids, back pain and indigestion. Their uteruses increase to over 500 times regular size. One out of four needs serious medical attention. Finally, pregnancies culminate in a physiological crisis that can be excruciatingly painful and occasionally fatal.
Pregnancy is particularly dangerous for the world’s poor. Every year throughout Africa, Asia and Central and South America 600,000 women and girls die worldwide every year from pregnancy and childbirth (140,000 bleed to death, 100,000 die from infection, 40,000 die from the agony of prolonged labor, 75,000 women die each year trying to end their pregnancies.) Most of these women are in their teens and early twenties. They have been coerced by their societies into bearing children at a young age and far too frequently.
Restrictive abortion laws have not stopped the large majority of abortions anywhere on Earth according to a 2007 study from the Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization. Every year on our planet some 20 million women with unwanted pregnancies are desperate enough to attempt a self-induced abortion or to seek out a dangerous illegal one. The U.N. estimates that 50,000 women and girls try to self-induce each day. Millions end up in hospitals hemorrhaging and badly infected. Over 70,000 die each year. UNICEF’s statistics show that for every woman who dies, 30 survive with gruesome injuries and disabilities. Many will face life-long, disabling pain. The seriously injured and dead often leave behind young, unattended children whose chances for survival are bleak.
Add to that the exhausting burden of repeated pregnancies and births, and you have a global picture of suffering on the part of women that demands a global response. Of the millions of women each year who are coerced into carrying unwanted pregnancies to term, hundreds of thousands will die from pregnancy-related complications.
These deaths and tragic injuries are almost entirely preventable. Yet, they go on year after year while powerful religious men and their male political allies (lackeys) continue to publicly revere the sanctity of mindless, senseless embryos and fetuses, buttressed by pseudo-science and pseudo-history, and attempt to outlaw abortions. In the meanwhile, U.S. support for family planning information and services has been slashed and a concerted effort to block emergency contraception and abortion has intensified.
Fetal idolaters and dishonest propaganda
When informed about all the above pain and suffering, the fetal idolaters and other anti-choice supporters respond that “murdering the innocent unborn” is a barbaric solution to unwanted pregnancies and continue to obsess over the imagined “excruciating pain” experienced by fetuses being aborted.
“It is unbearable to contemplate the excruciating pain the unborn must feel as their lives are torn asunder. It is a wrenching nightmare to see in the mind’s eye the delicate little hand of an unborn infant reaching out playfully to touch the very curette that is poised to rip him apart.”
— U.S. Senator Orrin Hatch
The Silent Scream
In order to more dramatically create the illusion that a tiny mindless senseless fetus is actually a conscious sentient baby aware of intense pain, the anti-choice/ pro-forced-pregnancy-continuation activists produced a 28-minute propaganda film entitled The Silent Scream. This film was viewed by former Presidents Reagan and Bush Sr. and by the entire U.S. Congress, each of whom reportedly received a personal copy. It has now been seen by over fifty million Americans in churches and in schools throughout the country and can quickly be found on the web.
The Silent Scream depicts a 2nd trimester abortion through the use of ultrasound visualization. Although all the audience really sees are black-and-white moving blobs, it’s the narrator’s voice-over that’s so chilling as he describes to the audience what they most feared, the tearing to shreds of a screaming defenseless tiny human being. Dishonest incendiary propaganda at its best.
“Who Killed Junior”
Another inflammatory propaganda publication to appear (and easily found on the web) was a 24-page cartoon book entitled “Who Killed Junior?” The cartoons trace the growth of a fertilized egg in the womb. By the 6th week “Junior” is depicted as a fully formed baby, standing up and smiling. By the 11th week he is running in place and has a decent command of English. By 12 weeks Junior has his hand cupped to his ear, listening in alarm. The caption says, “His mother and her doctor are discussing how to kill him.” Then follows several cartoon panels in which the basic methods of abortion are illustrated. In one, Junior screams as he is being sucked out of the womb. In another, he screams as a knife slices him to pieces. A later panel shows a fully formed baby with a knife through him and the caption, “If You’re a Teenage Girl, You Need to Know Abortion Means Killing a Human Being.”
Millions of copies of “Who Killed Junior?” were printed and distributed to high school students across the country. “Junior” didn’t stop high school students from having sex. But it did increase all of the physical, emotional and social problems that arose when, later, those teens with unwanted pregnancies now felt too guilty to abort and so carried to term.
Elevating a tiny, mindless, senseless, partially formed, human embryo or fetus to a helpless, innocent, unborn baby with awareness and feelings—a “conscious baby that will undergo excruciating pain as it is torn apart in an abortion”—is dishonest, incendiary propaganda. It is also fetal idolatry according to Rev. John Swomley, Emeritus Professor of Social Ethics, St. Paul School of Theology.
But even if the scientists are wrong and an embryo could feel pain, it doesn’t change the fact that a woman’s personal body integrity is being violated if she is forced to carry an unwanted pregnancy to term and to give birth. After all, since we all are legally protected from having our bodies invaded against our will (like being forced to donate blood or bone marrow), even if it means that someone else is then doomed to pain, suffering and even death, why aren’t women who discover they have an unwanted pregnancy given the same right? Yet, anti-choice legislators continue to try to pass laws based on medieval patriarchal theologies and pseudoscientific propaganda that demean and endanger women and, in effect, treat them as obligatory breeding machines.
 S.J. Lee et al., “Fetal pain: A systematic multidisciplinary review of the evidence,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 294(8), 947-954. In addition, see “Fetal Pain: A Red Herring in the Abortion Debate” by Joyce Arthur in Free Inquiry, Aug./Sept. 2005, an excellent summary article with current references.
 Time, March 14, 2011, p. 66. Planned Parenthood and other reproductive care facilities in the U.S. provide information and birth control to about 5 million women a year at over 4,600 health centers. Over one million unintended pregnancies a year are prevented, half of which would likely have ended in an abortion. The Guttmacher Institute estimates that for every $1 spent by our taxes for contraceptive care, taxpayers save around $4 in Medicaid costs for mother and baby in just the first year. Only about 3% of Planned Parenthood funds go toward legal abortions, none of which comes from taxes.