Does a fetus feel pain? (And, if so, when?)

Across the United States, politicians are passing laws limiting abortion that are based on the idea that a fetus can feel pain after 20 weeks gestation. But the science underlying this assertion is a lot more complex than it's made out to be. Most scientists don't think fetuses have the neural circuitry to experience pain until later. And the scientists whose research is most often cited as evidence of fetal pain at 20 weeks don't think their work is saying what anti-abortion activists think it does.

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  1. It seems like (sincere intentions of actual scientists aside) the question 'do they feel pain, what kind, and when?' is so hopelessly being used as a proxy for "Can we call them Precious Babies yet?" as to be rendered almost irrelevant.

    If that were the real question, it'd just be a matter of 'Well, OK, at what point do we need to use anesthetics (or a captive-bolt stunner), and at what point is that unnecessary?' We, um, aren't exactly strangers to doing potentially painful things to moral nonpersons in the interests of moral persons (or to moral persons in their own interests, or in the suitably weighty interests of others), and have comparatively loose restrictions(more so in agriculture, less so in the sciences) that mostly boil down to 'you aren't supposed to be cruel for the sake of it; but we don't actually care enough to dedicate substantial resources to the problem'. It would be a fairly arcane matter for specialty anesthesiologists and people interested in developmental biology.

    As it is, of course, it's largely a proxy-war in the moral personhood fight, which is orthogonal to pain perception: Nobody says that people with 'Congenital Insensitivity to Pain' (despite that being what it says on the tin) are therefore not persons; and we similarly consider various organisms with significant pain responses to be non-persons, although they may enjoy limited protections in terms of what you need to do to avoid hurting them in the course of business.

  2. Assuming that fetuses do feel pain, and believing that abortion is killing a baby, are not viewpoints that preclude being strongly pro-choice.

  3. Without getting into a whole abortion argument here, I think it's pretty obvious that "they feel pain" is not the crux of the anti-abortion movement. Yes, they claim that, and I doubt either scientists or religious folks are going to be able to conclusively argue their point on this, but it's all irrelevant in terms of the moral question about ending a human life.

  4. That issue has (albeit without any terribly satisfying conclusions) been hashed around for ages with assorted non-human animals. Between the sheer variety, and the fact that most of them have their own stages of maturity, you can find almost any gradation of 'meh, rudimentary stimulus response' to 'disconcertingly possible that it experiences anguish in the first-porpoise'

  5. You really think the babies are the real issue? Wouldn't they be promoting easy access to contraception and well-baby exams and Head Start and school lunches? Culture of life, you gotta admire it.

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