King's Evangelical Divinity School

25 June 2010

"No pain? Well that's alright then"

Today the media details the findings of a report commissioned by the Department of Health which concludes an unborn child cannot feel pain before 24 weeks. The report maintains nerve endings in the brain are insufficiently developed for pain to be felt. Naturally, the report is being seized upon as justification for the current 24-week limit at which abortions can take place in this country.

Am I missing something here? We see those incredible three-dimensional images of fully-formed unborn children who move and grimace, while a pregnant mom will tell you how sudden sound and movement causes the baby to respond. Yet we are told an unborn child at 24 weeks cannot feel pain. But I dare say you prick a premature baby born at 22 weeks with a pin and he/she will feel it. You'd certainly be arrested for it. Or are the professionals in question suggesting the nerve endings in the brain miraculous appear at birth? Because if so I doubt it will be too long before even later-term abortion is justified on the basis it causes no suffering. You may think this is a ridiculous suggestion, but I once heard one well-known pro-abortion MP during a science committee hearing make the ludicrous statement that there was no scientific evidence a baby felt any pain until after birth.

But this is neither here nor there. What is relevant here is how the report challenges directly one of the key issues - pain and suffering of the unborn child - on which anti-abortion campaigners have challenged the current 24-week limit for some years and have secured considerable public support in the process. More importantly, there is evidence to suggest the current intake of MPs are are much more sympathetic to reducing the term at which abortions can take place while, significantly, new PM David Cameron has previously made clear he wants to look at this issue with a view to lowering the limit. Thus the Professor who chaired the review maintains we do not now need to revisit the upper limit, a position the Department of Health has strongly echoed this morning.

And here, in all its glory, is Stage 2 of the utilitarian argument for abortion. The first stage highlighted the suffering of women as a result of being denied an abortion, the social problems an unwanted baby might (might!) cause, and so on. Today's stage 2 goes one step further down the utilitarian route, denying abortion even causes pain or distress.Watch out for Stage 3: a challenge to the view that in the majority of cases abortion causes lasting psychological harm and depression among the vast majority of women involved. Watch how all the previous statistical and anecdotal evidence demonstrating this to be the case will gradually be reinterpreted and dismissed. I'm reminded of George Orwell's 1984 in which the leading character's day job was to censor and destroy all documents detailing a past history no longer convenient to the totalitarian state.

I know some of the issues surrounding abortion are complex, and I do not want to make light of very difficult situations and choices faced over choosing, say, between a mother or unborn child, aborting one twin to save another, genuine and horrendous physical handicap, incest, or even rape. Whatever one's views as Christians on some of these circumstances, such situations are traumatic and rarely reached on flippant grounds, and as Christians we do well to approach such issues compassionately and objectively rather than as reactionary zealots. But then there are the myriad of abortions which take place on the basis of nothing more than social convenience, with women all too often encouraged to have an abortion by some who are driven by purely ideological grounds. The problem, of course, is a population increasingly uneasy about the unnecessary pain and suffering of the unborn child. This report serves as a useful antedote to such sentiment.

I do not believe this report, the timing and nature of which are suspect and troubling. But that aside, purely utilitarian arguments do not justify abortion on the scale we see today anyway. There are strong moral reasons for condemning the holocaust of 200,000 unborn children every year in Britain for predominantly social reasons. That we have now reached the stage where it is denied such activity causes pain or suffering simply to salve our conscience is a travesty.


Dissenters said...

Hi Calvin - Thanks for this excellent article. I've placed a link on the Science and Values blog.


Stephen Kneale said...

I forget whether on your blog or in conversation, some time ago you alluded to the fact that many Christians on the left also have fundamental problems with abortion - I am one such.

I find this report difficult for two main reasons. As you highlight, I am unsure how one can prove absolutely that unborn children in the womb cannot feel pain. This seems to be based on some conjecture. As you rightly point out, premature children born at that age seem to respond to pain which would work against such a theory.

Even if we do concede the point (and I'm not sure we should), whether an unborn child in the womb can feel pain or not seems somewhat by the by. As I understood it, the basis of the pro-life position was never that the child could feel pain but that abortion was a termination of human life (whether it could feel pain or not). Indeed, there are painless ways to terminate adult life that are (largely) accepted to be wrong and so pain is not, and never has been, the issue. The question still revolves around where human life begins and it seems this report will do nothing to change that.