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The Purported Pain of the Unborn

Why the anti-choice movement's latest bill, the 'Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act,' is incomplete.
 
 
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Lurking in the anti-choice arsenal is a fascinating piece of legislation called the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act. Like its predecessors--the Unborn Victims of Violence Act and the Partial Birth Abortion Ban--it does not, on its face pose a direct challenge to the right to choose abortion. Yet, the anti-choice movement deserves credit for creatively proposing bills that put the pro-choice movement on the defensive. With titles that use such terms as "victims" and "awareness," and framed in the context of the need to inform the pregnant women, they are hard to oppose without seeming incredibly stupid or grossly insensitive.

This new bill informs us that at 20 weeks after fertilization an unborn child has the capacity to experience pain and that the abortion methods most commonly used in the second trimester of pregnancy "cause substantial pain to an 'unborn child.'" The bill therefore mandates that women must be informed of this before they can have such abortions (1.5% of all abortions occur after 20 weeks).

Now, the science the bill's authors rely on may be a wee tad speculative--they refer to unspecified experts and evidence--but the truth is that women who need such abortions aren't having them to cause fetuses pain. In fact, if there is even a possibility that this science is correct, these women will want to do anything they can to ensure that the procedure causes as little pain as possible. The premise may lack all scientific or medical justification, but it is hard to imagine any constituency that is going to be for causing pain to a fetus.

The bill has other rather bizarre features that I suppose I should mention. It defines a woman as "a female human being who is capable of becoming pregnant"--something that will come as a surprise to post-menopausal and infertile female Americans thus rendered somehow less than real women.

The statute also informs us that the "unborn child may experience substantial pain even if the woman herself has received local analgesic or general anesthesia." The idea that powerful anesthetics administered in labor might not also reach the fetus will astonish pregnant women who have been told for years that everything from cocaine to caffeine to a single glass of wine go immediately, directly and dangerously to the fetus. And--in a departure from medical ethics and principles of informed consent--the bill requires the health care provider first to inform the woman of the pain the fetus experiences; as an afterthought it says that doctors "may" (are permitted to, but not required to) inform the woman of additional medical risks to her as a result of anesthetic administered directly to and solely for the benefit of the fetus.

It must be admitted that--in addition to violating ethical principles of informed consent and lacking scientific foundation--the bill is disappointingly incomplete. It states that "there is a valid Federal Government interest in reducing the number of events in which great pain is inflicted on sentient creatures," yet covers only "unborn children." It leaves unprotected millions of born Americans who suffer chronic pain--including those blocked by draconian drug laws from obtaining medication to alleviate unrelenting suffering.

Putting aside the rather narrow definition of "sentient creatures"--and such shock-jock language used to describe abortions procedures as "dismemberment," "poisoning" and "sucks [out] the child's brain"--I will nevertheless consider supporting the bill with one caveat. It must be full and fair. Why limit its protections to only "unborn children" of women seeking abortions? Imagine the pain a fetus experiences with a forceps delivery, suffering extensive bruising during and after! And what about the pain experienced with internal monitoring in which a sharp metal wire is forced through fetal skin into their delicate scalps?

Or the extraordinary pain the fetus suffers when labor is induced and the fetus is subjected to repeated, violent maternal uterine contraction and then forced through the unimaginably narrow vaginal canal? Shouldn't these fetuses also be entitled to their own painkillers? Shouldn't the pregnant woman be fully informed of the indescribable pain she could be causing her soon to be, but yet unborn child by bearing it?

That is my modest proposal. We need a Full Unborn Child Awareness Act, one that includes all of the ways pregnant women and health care providers and birth may inflict pain on the fetus. Those who oppose the necessary amendments will be supporting what can only be understood as the Unborn Child Partial Pain Awareness Act. In good conscience, how could anyone support that?

Lynn M. Paltrow is executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women .