The unlikely story of the pro-life author of “Reconsidering Fetal Pain”

[This post is a transcription of a story I told verbally.]

Okay so I want to share this amazing story.

First the background. In the abortion debate there’s controversy over the fetal pain issue. For a long time the prevailing scientific wisdom (though not a consensus) was that fetuses probably couldn’t feel pain before 24 weeks, and maybe even later. And then recently—in January of this year, actually, 2020—an article came out in a well reputed journal—The Journal of Medical Ethics—called “Reconsidering Fetal Pain.” And there were two things about this article that I found remarkable. The first was that it basically argued that fetuses might experience pain as early as 12 or 13 weeks (so significantly sooner than was previously thought). This possibility has major implications for the abortion debate because something like 10% of abortions happen later than 12-13 weeks, and, you know, what does it mean ethically? So that’s the first major point of this article.

But the other thing about it that was interesting, and the thing that originally caught my eye, is that it was authored by two men who made a point of noting more than once during the article that they do not agree on the abortion debate. One of them is pro-life; one of them is pro-choice. And they were trying to say that their findings and conclusions regarding fetal pain should be considered apart from the politics of abortion, which should be axiomatic but unfortunately is not. Either fetuses can experience pain or they cannot, and we should explore that question regardless of the implications it has, rather than consider the implications and then only explore the question if it’s safe, basically. Anyway, it seems very rare for the two sides of the abortion debate to collaborate on anything, and so it was remarkable to me to see that these two authors who apparently are quite opposed to each other on the abortion issue are with each other on the fetal pain issue.

And I guess I should say: a third important point of the article (that I didn’t realize initially and learned later) is that the pro-choice author, Dr. Stuart Derbyshire, is actually the author of some of the most cited prior work on fetal pain. Specifically, he authored the 2006 British Medical Journal article “Can fetuses feel pain?” in which he argued pain experience may require both neural circuitry (which embryos and early term fetuses lack) and mindful experience (which even late term fetuses don’t yet have). Stuart also co-authored the 2010 Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ highly influential research overview “Fetal Awareness,” which argues fetuses can’t feel pain until at least 24 weeks, and possibly not at all during pregnancy, because they are always in a “sleep-like” state. And then in 2020 Stuart co-authored “Reconsidering Fetal Pain,” which directly contradicts some of his prior work.

So this article is remarkable both because it involves collaboration between pro-life and pro-choice researchers, and because it involves one of the researchers publishing an article that contradicts his prior work, which—even outside the abortion debate—is not very common. So I thought that was fascinating.

Oh, and a distant fourth: it was very well written. I know how difficult it is to communicate technical ideas in layman’s terms that are easy for people to access and read, and it was very well written in that sense too.

So four major takeaways of this article:

  1. It argues that fetuses might feel pain as early as 12 or 13 weeks instead of 24 weeks.
  2. It was coauthored by a pro-life researcher and pro-choice researcher.
  3. The pro-choice author was contradicting his own prior work. And
  4. It was just really well written.

So it definitely caught my attention.

A month later, maybe less, I was on the Secular Pro-Life account on Twitter. And the way I use the account is I mostly just send out original content and try not to spend too much time getting into comment threads and arguments. I just don’t think it’s a very productive use of time, usually. And I don’t usually look at other people’s profiles that much either.

But every now and then if I see someone tweet something I think is particularly clever or funny, I might skim their profile and see if they have more content like that. So I was on Twitter and I saw someone make a comment on a NARAL tweet, I think, that I thought was particularly funny. So I clicked on his profile to see if he had more like that, and the pinned tweet to the top of his profile was this article—”Reconsidering Fetal Pain”—and he had pinned it because he was one of the authors! He was the pro-life author. His name is John Bockmann. And I was a little astounded. I just didn’t think there’d be reason for my circle to cross with his. It never occurred to me to look for him on social media or anything.

But as soon as I saw that he was the pro-life author, I direct messaged him and basically said “I really liked your article. Great work. I would love to ask you some questions about it if you have time.” And he said “Yeah, that’s fine. Go ahead and email me and I’ll get back to you in the next few days because I’m busy with [whatever].” And so immediately, like in that moment, I emailed him I think a dozen questions off the top of my head about how this article came to be. He indulged me over the next few days and wrote me lengthy responses. Through that back and forth I got to hear more of his story, and I have to say it was fascinating. Very inspiring. And he gave me permission to retell it here.

So, according to John, he was not particularly involved in the abortion debate before. This is one of the remarkable things about this story. I work with pro-life activists all the time, and while I don’t think I know everybody, I know a lot of people or at least have heard of them, and I had never heard of him before. And it turns out he was not affiliated with any pro-life groups. He doesn’t really know a lot of people in the movement. He came at this, from my perspective, totally out of nowhere. He wasn’t especially pro-life—maybe personally pro-life, but hadn’t given it a lot of thought—and a couple things happened that made him change his mind and get more involved.

First, he had children. He got to witness his wife’s pregnancies and the love he felt for his children even before they were born, and that moved him. He felt more passionate and personal about this issue.

Second—and I think this is really important—he saw David Daleiden’s videos about Planned Parenthood’s late-term abortions and selling of fetal body parts. John was just thunderstruck. Horrified. And he really wanted to do something, to be involved somehow. It moved him to want to try to effect some kind of change.

At the time he was in his program to become a military physician assistant, and he had to do a master’s thesis. He was originally going to focus his thesis on obesity. But when the CMP videos came out, John decided he would like to change his project to fetal pain. His thought process was that if we can’t stop late-term abortion from happening, we at least have a responsibility to understand what it means, what it does, and to handle it as humanely as possible. So he started looking into fetal pain.

So that’s the first part of the story: he was moved by his own experiences of fatherhood and his own feelings of love for his preborn children, which I find is an extremely common reason for people to convert to being pro-life. And then also David Daleiden’s videos inspired John. I think this is very important because there’s no way to know how many effects those videos had. I don’t think that they had the effects that Daleiden was hoping for. Planned Parenthood has not disappeared, and if anything they have gone after him very aggressively. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be for him, both financially and in terms of the stress of fighting with them. And also the frustration of not seeing them taken down at least a few notches, much less entirely. That’s frustrating, but there’s no way to know who else has been influenced and in what ways, and I imagine that there are countless little interactions that have helped people move more towards our view on things. And you never know which of those interactions, which at the time may seem small, can lead to bigger changes, such as this story—where John was so moved by those videos that he decided to change his thesis and it resulted in a major journal article.

So John Bockmann decided to study fetal pain for his physician assistant program. And in the course of studying that, he read a lot of articles about fetal pain, including ones by Stuart basically saying that fetuses can’t feel pain until about 24 weeks. So John was really involved in that research and very familiar with it when he happened to read a New York Times article in which Stuart seemed to contradict his prior research. I don’t think most people would notice such a contradiction unless they happened to be following his work pretty closely.

And this brings us to the second part of the story that I find moving: I think there are a lot of pro-life people who would view Stuart and authors like him as “the enemy.” I mean he was one of the lead voices basically saying we shouldn’t worry about fetal pain. And if he was wrong, and if it’s true that fetuses feel pain, do you know how many thousands of late-term abortions we perform every year without regard to the suffering that happens before death? It’s of grave moral importance, in my opinion, and I can see how a pro-life person would view Stuart with anger.

But John read Stuart’s work and, instead of lashing out, he did what I would think of as sort of the Josh Brahm approach to the abortion debate: he reached out to Stuart. He emailed and essentially said (I’m paraphrasing), “I’ve been following your work and I noticed you said this in your interview and it seemed to contradict this aspect of your paper, and I was wondering how you reconcile that? What changed?” And so in May 2016 they started chatting over email. They got to know each other and became friends, which is hugely important. People change their minds through friendship as much as or more than through logic and debate. And in the course of them becoming friends and discussing the fetal pain issue, Stuart changed his mind, or at least thought there might be significant factors that he should address. In February 2018, Stuart was asked to write an article on the current state of fetal pain scholarship, and he reached out to John for input. After much debate and collaboration, they wrote and rewrote their ideas into the article “Reconsidering Fetal Pain.” And as of today, their paper is the 5th most downloaded paper for the Journal of Medical Ethics of all time and in the top 5% of 15M+ research articles scored by Altmetric.

In other words, John Bockmann, who was not particularly involved in the pro-life movement, was moved by fatherhood and the CMP videos to get involved, and when he did get involved he approached the opposition with respect in a spirit of friendship. He didn’t change Stuart’s mind entirely—Stuart is still pro-choice—but he changed Stuart’s mind on fetal pain, and who knows who’s reading that article now? And who knows how it influences their work? Who knows what influence it could have in the long term on the abortion debate? I think John did more than most people ever do, and he did it all because he was curious, respectful, and open. And I just thought it was a wonderful story.

Post script: I asked John to review this blog post for accuracy, and he added this note:

We can find important common ground with our ideological opposites, whether or not any minds change. This ability has huge implications for happiness and meaning, especially with how polarized our world is becoming. We must engage with curiosity, respect, and passion. I want everyone to know this!

John Bockmann

The unlikely story of the pro-life author of “Reconsidering Fetal Pain”

[This post is a transcription of a story I told verbally.]

Okay so I want to share this amazing story.

First the background. In the abortion debate there’s controversy over the fetal pain issue. For a long time the prevailing scientific wisdom (though not a consensus) was that fetuses probably couldn’t feel pain before 24 weeks, and maybe even later. And then recently—in January of this year, actually, 2020—an article came out in a well reputed journal—The Journal of Medical Ethics—called “Reconsidering Fetal Pain.” And there were two things about this article that I found remarkable. The first was that it basically argued that fetuses might experience pain as early as 12 or 13 weeks (so significantly sooner than was previously thought). This possibility has major implications for the abortion debate because something like 10% of abortions happen later than 12-13 weeks, and, you know, what does it mean ethically? So that’s the first major point of this article.

But the other thing about it that was interesting, and the thing that originally caught my eye, is that it was authored by two men who made a point of noting more than once during the article that they do not agree on the abortion debate. One of them is pro-life; one of them is pro-choice. And they were trying to say that their findings and conclusions regarding fetal pain should be considered apart from the politics of abortion, which should be axiomatic but unfortunately is not. Either fetuses can experience pain or they cannot, and we should explore that question regardless of the implications it has, rather than consider the implications and then only explore the question if it’s safe, basically. Anyway, it seems very rare for the two sides of the abortion debate to collaborate on anything, and so it was remarkable to me to see that these two authors who apparently are quite opposed to each other on the abortion issue are with each other on the fetal pain issue.

And I guess I should say: a third important point of the article (that I didn’t realize initially and learned later) is that the pro-choice author, Dr. Stuart Derbyshire, is actually the author of some of the most cited prior work on fetal pain. Specifically, he authored the 2006 British Medical Journal article “Can fetuses feel pain?” in which he argued pain experience may require both neural circuitry (which embryos and early term fetuses lack) and mindful experience (which even late term fetuses don’t yet have). Stuart also co-authored the 2010 Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists’ highly influential research overview “Fetal Awareness,” which argues fetuses can’t feel pain until at least 24 weeks, and possibly not at all during pregnancy, because they are always in a “sleep-like” state. And then in 2020 Stuart co-authored “Reconsidering Fetal Pain,” which directly contradicts some of his prior work.

So this article is remarkable both because it involves collaboration between pro-life and pro-choice researchers, and because it involves one of the researchers publishing an article that contradicts his prior work, which—even outside the abortion debate—is not very common. So I thought that was fascinating.

Oh, and a distant fourth: it was very well written. I know how difficult it is to communicate technical ideas in layman’s terms that are easy for people to access and read, and it was very well written in that sense too.

So four major takeaways of this article:

  1. It argues that fetuses might feel pain as early as 12 or 13 weeks instead of 24 weeks.
  2. It was coauthored by a pro-life researcher and pro-choice researcher.
  3. The pro-choice author was contradicting his own prior work. And
  4. It was just really well written.

So it definitely caught my attention.

A month later, maybe less, I was on the Secular Pro-Life account on Twitter. And the way I use the account is I mostly just send out original content and try not to spend too much time getting into comment threads and arguments. I just don’t think it’s a very productive use of time, usually. And I don’t usually look at other people’s profiles that much either.

But every now and then if I see someone tweet something I think is particularly clever or funny, I might skim their profile and see if they have more content like that. So I was on Twitter and I saw someone make a comment on a NARAL tweet, I think, that I thought was particularly funny. So I clicked on his profile to see if he had more like that, and the pinned tweet to the top of his profile was this article—”Reconsidering Fetal Pain”—and he had pinned it because he was one of the authors! He was the pro-life author. His name is John Bockmann. And I was a little astounded. I just didn’t think there’d be reason for my circle to cross with his. It never occurred to me to look for him on social media or anything.

But as soon as I saw that he was the pro-life author, I direct messaged him and basically said “I really liked your article. Great work. I would love to ask you some questions about it if you have time.” And he said “Yeah, that’s fine. Go ahead and email me and I’ll get back to you in the next few days because I’m busy with [whatever].” And so immediately, like in that moment, I emailed him I think a dozen questions off the top of my head about how this article came to be. He indulged me over the next few days and wrote me lengthy responses. Through that back and forth I got to hear more of his story, and I have to say it was fascinating. Very inspiring. And he gave me permission to retell it here.

So, according to John, he was not particularly involved in the abortion debate before. This is one of the remarkable things about this story. I work with pro-life activists all the time, and while I don’t think I know everybody, I know a lot of people or at least have heard of them, and I had never heard of him before. And it turns out he was not affiliated with any pro-life groups. He doesn’t really know a lot of people in the movement. He came at this, from my perspective, totally out of nowhere. He wasn’t especially pro-life—maybe personally pro-life, but hadn’t given it a lot of thought—and a couple things happened that made him change his mind and get more involved.

First, he had children. He got to witness his wife’s pregnancies and the love he felt for his children even before they were born, and that moved him. He felt more passionate and personal about this issue.

Second—and I think this is really important—he saw David Daleiden’s videos about Planned Parenthood’s late-term abortions and selling of fetal body parts. John was just thunderstruck. Horrified. And he really wanted to do something, to be involved somehow. It moved him to want to try to effect some kind of change.

At the time he was in his program to become a military physician assistant, and he had to do a master’s thesis. He was originally going to focus his thesis on obesity. But when the CMP videos came out, John decided he would like to change his project to fetal pain. His thought process was that if we can’t stop late-term abortion from happening, we at least have a responsibility to understand what it means, what it does, and to handle it as humanely as possible. So he started looking into fetal pain.

So that’s the first part of the story: he was moved by his own experiences of fatherhood and his own feelings of love for his preborn children, which I find is an extremely common reason for people to convert to being pro-life. And then also David Daleiden’s videos inspired John. I think this is very important because there’s no way to know how many effects those videos had. I don’t think that they had the effects that Daleiden was hoping for. Planned Parenthood has not disappeared, and if anything they have gone after him very aggressively. I can’t imagine how difficult that must be for him, both financially and in terms of the stress of fighting with them. And also the frustration of not seeing them taken down at least a few notches, much less entirely. That’s frustrating, but there’s no way to know who else has been influenced and in what ways, and I imagine that there are countless little interactions that have helped people move more towards our view on things. And you never know which of those interactions, which at the time may seem small, can lead to bigger changes, such as this story—where John was so moved by those videos that he decided to change his thesis and it resulted in a major journal article.

So John Bockmann decided to study fetal pain for his physician assistant program. And in the course of studying that, he read a lot of articles about fetal pain, including ones by Stuart basically saying that fetuses can’t feel pain until about 24 weeks. So John was really involved in that research and very familiar with it when he happened to read a New York Times article in which Stuart seemed to contradict his prior research. I don’t think most people would notice such a contradiction unless they happened to be following his work pretty closely.

And this brings us to the second part of the story that I find moving: I think there are a lot of pro-life people who would view Stuart and authors like him as “the enemy.” I mean he was one of the lead voices basically saying we shouldn’t worry about fetal pain. And if he was wrong, and if it’s true that fetuses feel pain, do you know how many thousands of late-term abortions we perform every year without regard to the suffering that happens before death? It’s of grave moral importance, in my opinion, and I can see how a pro-life person would view Stuart with anger.

But John read Stuart’s work and, instead of lashing out, he did what I would think of as sort of the Josh Brahm approach to the abortion debate: he reached out to Stuart. He emailed and essentially said (I’m paraphrasing), “I’ve been following your work and I noticed you said this in your interview and it seemed to contradict this aspect of your paper, and I was wondering how you reconcile that? What changed?” And so in May 2016 they started chatting over email. They got to know each other and became friends, which is hugely important. People change their minds through friendship as much as or more than through logic and debate. And in the course of them becoming friends and discussing the fetal pain issue, Stuart changed his mind, or at least thought there might be significant factors that he should address. In February 2018, Stuart was asked to write an article on the current state of fetal pain scholarship, and he reached out to John for input. After much debate and collaboration, they wrote and rewrote their ideas into the article “Reconsidering Fetal Pain.” And as of today, their paper is the 5th most downloaded paper for the Journal of Medical Ethics of all time and in the top 5% of 15M+ research articles scored by Altmetric.

In other words, John Bockmann, who was not particularly involved in the pro-life movement, was moved by fatherhood and the CMP videos to get involved, and when he did get involved he approached the opposition with respect in a spirit of friendship. He didn’t change Stuart’s mind entirely—Stuart is still pro-choice—but he changed Stuart’s mind on fetal pain, and who knows who’s reading that article now? And who knows how it influences their work? Who knows what influence it could have in the long term on the abortion debate? I think John did more than most people ever do, and he did it all because he was curious, respectful, and open. And I just thought it was a wonderful story.

Post script: I asked John to review this blog post for accuracy, and he added this note:

We can find important common ground with our ideological opposites, whether or not any minds change. This ability has huge implications for happiness and meaning, especially with how polarized our world is becoming. We must engage with curiosity, respect, and passion. I want everyone to know this!

John Bockmann

Baby Nielson and the humanity of the preborn child

Jaelyn Barnes had a miscarriage at eleven weeks. Baby Nielson, as you can see in this family photo, was a human being.

This being Jaelyn’s fifth child, she was an experienced mother and their entire family was ecstatic for the newest addition. Jaelyn’s husband was serving their community as police officer when they first discovered there wasn’t a heartbeat. They were urged not to worry and the midwife advised rechecking in a few days; however, her husband was injured badly on the job and the fetal heartbeat check was put on hold another few days. Nearly a week later, the heartbeat still could not be found. After an ultrasound, it was confirmed that the baby they looked forward to meeting had passed away a week prior.

At this gestation, many people believe that babies are a clump of cells and nothing more. Jaelyn bravely shared this photo of her miscarried baby to spread awareness about how human these children truly are, even at only eleven weeks. In addition, there is a common misconception that because these precious lives are “just a clump of cells,” they feel zero pain during abortion.

Dr. Maureen Condic is a professor of neurology at the University of Utah. She testified before Congress that a person’s experience of pain evolves over time, beginning in the first trimester:

The neural circuitry responsible for the most primitive response to pain, the spinal reflex, is in place by 8 weeks of development. … This is the earliest point at which the fetus experiences pain in any capacity. … A fetus responds just as humans at later stages of development respond; by withdrawing from the painful stimulus.

By 8 to 10 weeks, Dr. Condic says many of the neural connections are formed. How can any person who has the knowledge that a baby can feel the pain of abortion and see this beautiful and perfectly formed child, still think abortion is humane?

[Today’s guest post by Heather Hobbs is part of our paid blogging program. Heather is an editor and blogger at Life Defenders.]

Baby Nielson and the humanity of the preborn child

Jaelyn Barnes had a miscarriage at eleven weeks. Baby Nielson, as you can see in this family photo, was a human being.

This being Jaelyn’s fifth child, she was an experienced mother and their entire family was ecstatic for the newest addition. Jaelyn’s husband was serving their community as police officer when they first discovered there wasn’t a heartbeat. They were urged not to worry and the midwife advised rechecking in a few days; however, her husband was injured badly on the job and the fetal heartbeat check was put on hold another few days. Nearly a week later, the heartbeat still could not be found. After an ultrasound, it was confirmed that the baby they looked forward to meeting had passed away a week prior.

At this gestation, many people believe that babies are a clump of cells and nothing more. Jaelyn bravely shared this photo of her miscarried baby to spread awareness about how human these children truly are, even at only eleven weeks. In addition, there is a common misconception that because these precious lives are “just a clump of cells,” they feel zero pain during abortion.

Dr. Maureen Condic is a professor of neurology at the University of Utah. She testified before Congress that a person’s experience of pain evolves over time, beginning in the first trimester:

The neural circuitry responsible for the most primitive response to pain, the spinal reflex, is in place by 8 weeks of development. … This is the earliest point at which the fetus experiences pain in any capacity. … A fetus responds just as humans at later stages of development respond; by withdrawing from the painful stimulus.

By 8 to 10 weeks, Dr. Condic says many of the neural connections are formed. How can any person who has the knowledge that a baby can feel the pain of abortion and see this beautiful and perfectly formed child, still think abortion is humane?

[Today’s guest post by Heather Hobbs is part of our paid blogging program. Heather is an editor and blogger at Life Defenders.]

Senate vote on Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act expected today

The Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, commonly referred to as the “20-week ban” because supporters rely on evidence that children can feel pain 20 weeks after conception, is coming up for a vote in the Senate today. The House has already passed it.

I’ve noticed some confusion about whether this is related to the exploitation of late-term babies for organ harvesting and research, how this is connected to the ongoing Planned Parenthood scandal, and why pro-life leaders are pushing the issue when we all know President Obama will veto it anyway. So let’s get back to basics.

The 20-week ban is the bare minimum of human decency. Developmentally, babies at 20 weeks of gestation are not much different from preemies. They can hear, respond to touchkick, and yes, feel pain.

Above: A 21-week-old preborn baby smiles.

Even if you stubbornly believe in your heart of hearts that you become a person when you pass through the birth canal and not a second earlier, a 20-week ban is easily justified on pure animal welfare grounds. That may be why the majority of people who identify themselves as pro-choice reject such late-term abortions. Another important majority in favor of the 20-week ban: women.

Very few other nations allow elective abortions after 20 weeks. Among them are China and North Korea, not exactly the role models we want to follow on human rights.

We’ve been pursuing pain-capable legislation for a long time, at both the state and federal level. It was in the works for years before anyone had heard of the Center for Medical Progress, and it is not specific to Planned Parenthood. (In fact, the most notorious late-term abortionists are affiliated with independent abortion businesses; think Leroy Carhart and Kermit Gosnell.)

We are pushing forward despite opposition from the White House because this is an opportunity to hold Obama and his allies in Congress accountable for their extreme pro-abortion stance. Remember, President Clinton vetoed the partial-birth abortion ban twice before it finally passed under Bush, and it took several more years to get through the Supreme Court. The same persistence is needed here.

Senate vote on Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act expected today

The Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, commonly referred to as the “20-week ban” because supporters rely on evidence that children can feel pain 20 weeks after conception, is coming up for a vote in the Senate today. The House has already passed it.

I’ve noticed some confusion about whether this is related to the exploitation of late-term babies for organ harvesting and research, how this is connected to the ongoing Planned Parenthood scandal, and why pro-life leaders are pushing the issue when we all know President Obama will veto it anyway. So let’s get back to basics.

The 20-week ban is the bare minimum of human decency. Developmentally, babies at 20 weeks of gestation are not much different from preemies. They can hear, respond to touchkick, and yes, feel pain.

Above: A 21-week-old preborn baby smiles.

Even if you stubbornly believe in your heart of hearts that you become a person when you pass through the birth canal and not a second earlier, a 20-week ban is easily justified on pure animal welfare grounds. That may be why the majority of people who identify themselves as pro-choice reject such late-term abortions. Another important majority in favor of the 20-week ban: women.

Very few other nations allow elective abortions after 20 weeks. Among them are China and North Korea, not exactly the role models we want to follow on human rights.

We’ve been pursuing pain-capable legislation for a long time, at both the state and federal level. It was in the works for years before anyone had heard of the Center for Medical Progress, and it is not specific to Planned Parenthood. (In fact, the most notorious late-term abortionists are affiliated with independent abortion businesses; think Leroy Carhart and Kermit Gosnell.)

We are pushing forward despite opposition from the White House because this is an opportunity to hold Obama and his allies in Congress accountable for their extreme pro-abortion stance. Remember, President Clinton vetoed the partial-birth abortion ban twice before it finally passed under Bush, and it took several more years to get through the Supreme Court. The same persistence is needed here.

Supreme Court Abdicates Responsibility in Late-Term Abortion Case

[Today’s guest post by Roger McCormack is part of our paid blogging program.]

The tragedy that is late-term abortion recently received the approbation of the U.S. Supreme Court. A case pertaining to Arizona legislation banning abortion at 20 weeks, which the Ninth Circuit subsequently struck down as unconstitutional in Isaacson v. Horne, illustrates the increasingly empirical claims refuting orthodox pro-choice assumptions.

New insights in embryology exhaustively document the ability of a fetus to feel pain as early as 16 weeks, and offer evidence that the effects of late-term abortion on the health of the mother are adverse. The District Court that first heard the case ruled that a ban at 20 weeks was permissible due to “substantial and well-documented evidence that an unborn child has the capacity to feel pain during an abortion by at least 20 weeks gestational age,” as well as finding that “the instance of complications (to the health of the pregnant woman) is highest after 20 weeks of gestation.” Arizona’s legislation carved out exceptions for significant health risks or threat to the life of the mother. But the Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court, and only the intervention of the Supreme Court could restore the legislation.

The Supreme Court, in refusing to enter the fray, implicitly surrendered to prevailing abortion rights principles, irrespective of scientific claims. That late-term abortion entails sadism, the willful knowledge that a fetus undergoing the procedure will feel significant pain, further condemns the Court’s negligence. A disturbing corollary is the notion that Roe v. Wade is unassailable; an apogee of legal reasoning that belies any attempts of reform.

The inability of abortion rights advocates to grapple with the knowledge of what late-term abortion actually does further suggests a logical, moral, and philosophic weakness.
For example, Amy Davidson of the New Yorker wrote:

Some states have tried to justify early bans by pointing to a state interest in preventing fetal pain; the science is much disputed there, but this is a field that anti-choice activists and legislators are actively pursuing. (The appeals judge in the Arizona case noted that, were it an issue, it could be addressed with an anesthetic, but that is a logical answer to an emotional appeal.)

The callous admission that a fetus can merely be treated with an ‘anesthetic’ offers a incisive look into pro-choice logic. Failing to contend with fetuses that have suffered pain, or are currently suffering pain, Davidson places the burden of proof on pro-life advocates. Why should the onus be on those who seek to prevent an act of violence? Does not the inverse require an incontrovertible burden of proof? While the scientific evidence is far from nebulous, the slightest chance of pain being inflicted should require a Supreme Court hearing. The inexorable logic of this could easily lead to arguments advocating for the use of aesthetic before killing a newborn baby, but that would be to betray emotion, forbidden in the realms of cold “logic”. 

Furthermore, the stipulation of viability as the sole threshold for impermissible abortion, in Roe v. Wade, did not stop the court from deciding in Gonzales v. Carhart to uphold a ban on partial-birth abortion. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “The court has given state and federal legislatures wide discretion to pass legislation in areas where there is medical and scientific uncertainty.” The court should have decided to take up this mantle again, and refuse to let pro-choice obscurantism win the day.

Supreme Court Abdicates Responsibility in Late-Term Abortion Case

[Today’s guest post by Roger McCormack is part of our paid blogging program.]

The tragedy that is late-term abortion recently received the approbation of the U.S. Supreme Court. A case pertaining to Arizona legislation banning abortion at 20 weeks, which the Ninth Circuit subsequently struck down as unconstitutional in Isaacson v. Horne, illustrates the increasingly empirical claims refuting orthodox pro-choice assumptions.

New insights in embryology exhaustively document the ability of a fetus to feel pain as early as 16 weeks, and offer evidence that the effects of late-term abortion on the health of the mother are adverse. The District Court that first heard the case ruled that a ban at 20 weeks was permissible due to “substantial and well-documented evidence that an unborn child has the capacity to feel pain during an abortion by at least 20 weeks gestational age,” as well as finding that “the instance of complications (to the health of the pregnant woman) is highest after 20 weeks of gestation.” Arizona’s legislation carved out exceptions for significant health risks or threat to the life of the mother. But the Ninth Circuit reversed the District Court, and only the intervention of the Supreme Court could restore the legislation.

The Supreme Court, in refusing to enter the fray, implicitly surrendered to prevailing abortion rights principles, irrespective of scientific claims. That late-term abortion entails sadism, the willful knowledge that a fetus undergoing the procedure will feel significant pain, further condemns the Court’s negligence. A disturbing corollary is the notion that Roe v. Wade is unassailable; an apogee of legal reasoning that belies any attempts of reform.

The inability of abortion rights advocates to grapple with the knowledge of what late-term abortion actually does further suggests a logical, moral, and philosophic weakness.
For example, Amy Davidson of the New Yorker wrote:

Some states have tried to justify early bans by pointing to a state interest in preventing fetal pain; the science is much disputed there, but this is a field that anti-choice activists and legislators are actively pursuing. (The appeals judge in the Arizona case noted that, were it an issue, it could be addressed with an anesthetic, but that is a logical answer to an emotional appeal.)

The callous admission that a fetus can merely be treated with an ‘anesthetic’ offers a incisive look into pro-choice logic. Failing to contend with fetuses that have suffered pain, or are currently suffering pain, Davidson places the burden of proof on pro-life advocates. Why should the onus be on those who seek to prevent an act of violence? Does not the inverse require an incontrovertible burden of proof? While the scientific evidence is far from nebulous, the slightest chance of pain being inflicted should require a Supreme Court hearing. The inexorable logic of this could easily lead to arguments advocating for the use of aesthetic before killing a newborn baby, but that would be to betray emotion, forbidden in the realms of cold “logic”. 

Furthermore, the stipulation of viability as the sole threshold for impermissible abortion, in Roe v. Wade, did not stop the court from deciding in Gonzales v. Carhart to uphold a ban on partial-birth abortion. Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, “The court has given state and federal legislatures wide discretion to pass legislation in areas where there is medical and scientific uncertainty.” The court should have decided to take up this mantle again, and refuse to let pro-choice obscurantism win the day.

Fetal Pain & Arizona

I have no perspective on the subject of fetal pain because I’ve never looked into it myself.  I’ve never looked into it because fetal pain does not affect my position on abortion.  Even if we were certain fetuses felt no pain during abortion, I would still find abortion unethical and would seek to see it legally restricted.  There are, after all, already-born humans with congenital insensitivity to pain; it is still unethical to kill them.  (Plus, frankly, I’m still a bit researched-out after exploring the alleged abortion-breast cancer link.)

However, the idea of fetal pain does affect policy.  Arizona has created a ban on most abortions beginning at 20-weeks gestation under the theory that this is when the fetus begins to feel pain.  Just this week US District Judge James Tellborg upheld the ban only to have it temporarily prohibited by a federal appeals court days later.  Banning abortion at 20 weeks gestation is a relatively new approach, starting with Nebraska’s ban in 2010.  Arizona is now one of 10 states to attempt this type of legislation.

I’m interested to hear more about the rationale for these bans.  If it is legal to kill a fetus after 20-weeks gestation unless the fetus can feel pain, could doctors simply anesthetize the fetus and then continue?  Or is the ability to feel pain meant to imply that the fetus is now a “person”?  

I know this subject tends to revolve around whether the fetus can feel pain at a certain point, but I’m still stuck on “Why does that matter?”  Why would a human’s inability to feel pain imply less moral worth or legal consideration?

The Language Disconnect

[Today’s post is written by guest blogger KB.]
Let’s set the record straight. 

Pro-Choicers: When talking about abortion, the vast majority of pro-lifers do not hate women.  They do not think women should be subservient to men, should have no life outside of childrearing and most don’t even believe the government should stand in the way of women controlling their own bodies.  That isn’t the focus of the pro-life belief system at all.

Pro-lifers: When talking about abortion, the vast majority of pro-choicers do not simply want to kill babies.  They do not think it is okay for people to run around screwing everyone and avoiding consequences, and many recognize abortion as a hard, painful, and potentially terrible decision to make.  Murder isn’t the focus of the pro-choice belief system at all.
This national conversation we are having on the rights of a fetus versus the legalization of abortion is getting us nowhere.  Sure, some minor laws have been passed, some good, some bad,  but nobody is convincing anybody to switch teams.  People have selected their sides and cling more tightly to their opinions than their religion.  The result is a huge language disconnect that makes it difficult to have a rational conversation about the topic and actually make progress on what really matters for all parties: a system that gives respect to individual life and liberty.
The problem is not that pro-lifers and pro-choicers don’t believe in the sanctity of life and liberty, it is that they morally define these concepts differently.  We pro-lifers believe that “life” begins at conception, and the “liberty” to experience the opportunities of life should be well guarded for all people. 
Pro-choicers love life and liberty too.  However, most genuinely do not believe that life begins at conception.  To them, the liberty to live one’s life and all of its opportunities is something that should be protected for those they consider alive.  In that case, it is the mother, and only the mother.  People vary in their view as to when life begins, but ask any pro-choicer and they will tell you they cannot fathom how a 3-week-old embryo would be considered a human being.  It is outside of their classification system, but it doesn’t make them bad or unapproachable people.
Much like the word “god”, the definition of “the start of life” is ambiguous, and every human has their own version.  The lack of a standardized, provable definition is problematic; there is no rational way to convince someone who has already made their mind up on one definition or another.  Barring any 100% solid proof of god the way I define god, I don’t care what you say, I am not going to believe in god.  Similarly, I am not going to believe that a unique human DNA combination, never before seen in the world and never again to be seen, is not a brand new life.  The premise of unique DNA as life is a good one in my opinion, but I will admit it is one qualification out of many that people use to define life.  Others will say a soul, a beating heart, the ability to live independently.  (In the world of unclear and contested definitions, I’d make the argument that it is better to be safe, and save a non-life, than sorry, and destroy a life, but this is rarely a good sell.  They’d argue it is better to be safe and protect a woman’s freedom than sorry and condemn her to servitude.)
So where does that lead us?  How do we bridge that language barrier?  Well, this gives us a few major DON’Ts when talking to a pro-choicer.  Don’t call them a baby-killer; it is a conversation stopper.  Don’t oversimplify their argument to “the rights/life of a mother outweigh the rights/life of a baby”.  Many do not and cannot see a fetus as a baby, so they do not see this dichotomy.  Telling them a fetus has developed organs, that it appears to be able to feel pain, is likely not going to convince them.  
And on the other hand, if someone starts yelling at you, saying your motivations are secretly founded by right wing evangelical Christians who want to keep women forever pregnant (even as you say the only life we have is now, thus it must be protected), stop talking to that person.  At best you’ll walk away frustrated.  At worst you’ll end up becoming emotional and they’ll trot back to their friends, detailing how ignorant and angry pro-lifers are.
Don’t assume you know that in every situation the abortive-minded woman sees the issue as black and white.  In the world of the hypothetical, it is easy to say, “you protect or you kill life – there is no grey area.”  That is true of the result.  That is not true of the rationale.  Parents-to-be may be flooded with far more than rational thoughts when going through an unexpected pregnancy, “Are we doing the right thing?  Can we even afford this?  What will our friends, family, bosses, boyfriend think?   Would we be dooming the child to a horrible life?  Am I even healthy enough to have a child?”  Without understanding that background music, you may come off as callous, naïve and unrealistic.
Watch out for treating pro-life as a religion.  Not everything that goes on in the pro-life world is gold and we need to be prepared to call foul on people with whom we normally agree. For example, when I discuss abortion with my pro-choice friends, I make clear to them that I support non-abortive PP activities; I am not simply part of a club.  This helps demonstrate that I come to my various conclusions independently and we avoid a “my side/ your side” argument.
In the meantime, we need to develop a culture of life – one that takes great pains to help women never have to make that choice, even if it is legal.  One that, if a woman is in a position where she might consider that choice, she gets all the treatment, information and non-judgmental counseling she may need to lift she and her partner out of any emotional fog they may be experiencing.  Instead of protesting a clini (which will do nothing except maybe make staunch pro-choicers hate you more, and women who really feel unsure of what to do have more cause to avoid your perspective), work in your community to make adoption, or becoming a parent, more of a possibility, on both a financial and technical level, as well as a social level.  The stigma of out-of-wedlock children is not as strong as it once was, but it is still there.
Promote contraceptives to those who will listen, even if you personally do not believe contraceptives are a good thing in your moral code.  It is far better for others to to use them than abortion.  If even one abortion is prevented because a woman and her partner used contraception, I’d say it was worth it, wouldn’t you?
This may seem like a weak approach to the topic of abortion, but it is not.  It is the only way to effect real change in the long term and encourage a civil cultural shift, as opposed to more heated, useless arguments.  I don’t think abortion will be something this country truly and finally decides on in my lifetime, so in the meantime, let’s try to do what we can to reduce abortion and make child bearing easier for women who understand that they carry a life.