A Closer Look at Nebraska’s Proposed ‘Fetal Pain’ Ban

Nebraska considers a ban on abortions "after the fetus feels pain" based on assumptions that rely on ideology and political calculation, not science.

By introducing the “Abortion Pain Prevention Act,” Nebraska Senator Mike Flood has stepped away from his role as legislator and has instead positioned himself as a health authority … despite having no medical background.

But when it comes to determining when a fetus can feel pain, apparently your own anti-choice views have as as much influence on your opinion as actual medical science.

In Nebraska, the debate between science and ideology could help determine the fate of the “Abortion Pain Prevention Act,” which would ban all abortions in the state performed after 20 weeks conception, except in cases of potential maternal death.

According to state Sen. Flood, 20 weeks conception (or 22 weeks as most people track a pregnancy), is the point at which the fetus can feel pain, according to the senator and based on conversations he has had with doctors.

Of course, the doctors with whom he conferred are on the record as being anti-choice.

As Dr. Jean Wright, Chair of Pediatrics at Mercer University School of
Medicine has observed, 35 years ago neonatology was in its infancy:
“The understanding of the physiology of the pre-term infant, the
equipment, medications, physicians, and specialized units available to
care for them were present, but limited. By contrast, today there are
thousands of neonatologists, hundreds of Neonatoal Intensive Care
units, and breaking discoveries in the world and womb of the developing
fetus.” As an example, what was at one time unthinkable, today children
are born and survive at just 23 weeks gestation, as medical science
continues to push the frontier of fetal viability.

Dr. Jean Wright was a featured speaker at the Focus on the Family Conference of Medical Professionals and Spouses in 2008.

The Omaha World Herald interviewed numerous doctors to try and get a consensus from the medical community on exactly when a fetus feels pain.  No recognized medical authority supports the contention of fetal pain.

The article also, interestingly enough, stated which of the doctors it questioned consider themselves to be anti-choice.  Four out of five of the doctors who stated that a fetus can feel pain before the typically assumed 27-week point in development told the reporter that they are anti-abortion or at least support restrictions on women’s rights to choose abortion (the fifth, Dr. Roland Brusseau, a pediatric anesthesiologist, did not offer his position one way or the other).

The contention that fetuses can feel pain is based on the response to needles, indicating the fetus may feel the stimuli. But, as the Herald article points out, the reflex doesn’t mean that the needle can actually be “felt.” Indeed there is no evidence a fetus can feel pain earlier than the third trimester.  According to the article:

[I]n a review of fetal pain literature, University of California-San Francisco physicians reported in 2005 that “fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester,” or about 27 weeks into the pregnancy.

The review, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, said reflex movement isn’t proof of pain, because it can occur without the brain being developed enough for conscious pain recognition.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists’ position is that it “knows of no legitimate scientific information that supports the statement that a fetus experiences pain at 20 weeks’ gestation.”

It’s a good thing anti-choice advocates don’t let things like “scientific facts” or “studies” get in the way when creating legislation that affects women’s human rights, their health and lives.