Monday, February 11, 2008

What He Said

Here's a more articulate version of the foetal pain issue:

Fetal Pain: Another Sign of Personhood: "Here is the link to a fascinating article in the Sunday N.Y. Times Magazine entitled 'The First Ache.' The article starts with a pediatrician-researcher who asserts that the evidence indicates that the fetus feels pain at '20 weeks gestation (halfway through a full-term pregnancy) and possibly earlier.' The bottom-line is that no one really knows when the fetus first begins to experience pain, but the evidence is now very clear that the fetus does feel pain at least halfway through a full-term pregnancy.

The article is fascinating in the way science--common sense science--confirms the humanity of the fetus. After all, as one priest I admire put it, the word 'fetus' is merely Latin for 'offspring.' The pediatrician introduced in the beginning of the article is a pioneer in the field of infant and fetal pain and first began his inquiry into their experience of pain when he noticed years ago how infants who were routinely denied anesthesia during surgical operations were in 'terrible shape' after their operations. This particular pediatrician did what a good scientist does and tested if the poor post-surgical condition was due to the stress of being operated on without anesthesia. You guessed it: those infants given anesthesia during surgery came out in extraordinarily better shape. Yet, it was routine, accepted medical practice twenty-five years ago to deny anesthesia to newborn infants because doctors 'were convinced that newborns' nervous systems were too immature to sense pain, and that the dangers of anesthesia exceeded any potential benefits' (p. 46).

The old rationale for denying surgical anesthesia to newborns reminds me of the cavalier way in which neurologists averred that Terri Schiavo could not feel the pain of her lengthy, court-ordered starvation and dehydration. Doctors commonly make knee-jerk and off-the-cuff analyses that need to be tested by the more scientifically minded. If medicine is a science and not just a collection of customary, convenient practices at any given moment, then the off-the-cuff assumptions must be rigorously questioned.

The article is full of good quotes and insights. I will pick one to share here. The scientifically curious pediatrician described above is a Dr. Sunny Anand, whose work led to abandoning the assumption that newborns don't feel pain (by the way, how could anyone have bought into that assumption when newborn boys cry loudly when circumcised in the hospital?). Here is Dr. Anand's scientific view of the fetus:

The fetus is not 'a little adult,' Anand says, and we shouldn't expect it to look or act like one. Rather, it's a singular being with a life of the senses that is different, but no less real, than our own.

'The First Ache,' at p. 47.

Anand's statement gets to the crux of the primitive and unjust discrimination against the unborn: you are too different to merit personhood and its protections. Our society uses the same primitive reasoning to exclude people like Terri Schiavo from the protections given to persons. The same reasoning is extended to unborn children with Down's Syndrome who are being aborted at alarming rates. 'You are too different to merit personhood'--Hitler would have agreed with that sort of reasoning.

(Via Catholic Analysis.)

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