Fetal pain, religion, and science

Hysteria abounds, usually in the name of religion, that a fetus is a living person not only within the first eight weeks, but even at the point of conception–a view held and promulgated by the Roman Catholic church and extremist evangelical communities.

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) condemned abortion because it broke the connection between sex and procreation. However, in his Enchiridion, Augustine wrote:  “But who is not rather disposed to think that unformed fetuses perish like seeds which have not fructified”–clearly seeing hominization as beginning or occurring at some point after the fetus has begun to grow. Furthermore, Augustin argued that abortion was not an act of homicide–as most theologians of his era agreed. See: Augustine, De nuptiis et concupiscentia 1.15.17 (CSEL 42.229-230).

The Irish Canons held a similar view. They placed the penance for “destruction of the embryo of a child in the mother’s womb [at] three and one-half years,” while the “penance of one who has intercourse with a woman, seven years on bread and water.”  See: John T. McNeill and Helena M. Gamer, Medieval Handbooks of Penance (New York: Octagon Books, 1974), pp. 119-120.

In the Penitential Ascribed by Albers to Bede, the idea of delayed hominization is again supported. The woman’s circumstances are acknowledged: “A mother who kills her child before the fortieth day shall do penance for one year. If it is after the child has become alive, [she shall do penance] as a murderess.  But it makes a great difference whether a poor woman does it on account of the difficulty of supporting [the child] or a harlot for the sake of concealing her wickedness.” Ibid., p. 225.

In 1140, Gratian compiled the first collection of canon law that was accepted as authoritative within the Christian church. Gratian’s code included the canon Aliquando, which concluded that “abortion was homicide only when the fetus was formed.”  See: John T. Noonan, ed. The Morality of Abortion: Legal and Historical Perspectives (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1970), p. 20.  If the fetus was not yet a formed human being, abortion was not homicide.

The Council of Vienne, still very influential in Catholic hierarchical teaching, confirmed that the conception of man put forth by St. Thomas Aquinas. While Aquinas had opposed abortion as a form of contraception and a sin against marriage (but not against nature) he maintained that the sin in abortion was not homicide unless the fetus was ensouled, and thus, a human being. Aquinas said that the fetus was first endowed with a vegetative soul, then an animal soul,  and then–when its body was fully developed–a rational soul. This theory of “delayed hominization” is the most consistent threat throughout church history of abortion. See: Joseph F. Donceel, SJ, “Immediate Animation and Delayed Hominization, Theological Studies, vols. 1 & 2 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), pp. 86-88.

Those who misuse theology and what they assume to be sacred writings argue that: “an eight-week old fetus is a “tiny human [who is] perfectly developed, with long, tapering fingers, feet and toes” (originally at http://www.wpclinic.org/trimester1.phtml, but now removed; in its “FAQs” it claims it neither performs nor refers women for an abortion). It is also common to read misinformation on blogs that argue: “By this age the neuro-anatomic structures are present. What is needed is (1) a sensory nerve to feel the pain and send a message to (2) the thalamus, a part of the base of the brain, and (3) motor nerves that send a message to that area. These are present at 8 weeks. The pain impulse goes to the thalamus. It sends a signal down the motor nerves to pull away from the hurt.”  (http://www.abortionfacts.com/online_books/love_them_both/why_cant_we_love_them_both_14.asp)

Joshua Holland (January 25, 2006) argues in “He blinded me with science; ‘Fetal pain’ is just one more bit of propaganda for the forced childbirth set.” at http://www.alternet.org/story/31312/?page=entire) that the truth is far from what anti-abortionists say. No recognized medical authority supports the contention of fetal pain. See:  Rick Ruggles (February 14, 2010), “When can fetus feel pain?” Omaha [Nebraska] World Herald at http://www.omaha.com/article/20100214/NEWS01/702149910.

During the presidency of Ronald Reagan, the fetus took on “personhood” and became a part of political pandering. Disgusted with the politics of intimidation and fear, I wrote three separate volumes on abortion. I noted that Bernard Nathanson, a former abortion clinic who found religion and began a crusade to protect all fetuses, distorted medical science and scientific fact in his unique Silent Scream. To illustrate his erroneous points, he used a plastic doll, arguing that it was a twelve week old fetus (the typical time that most abortions take place), with the doll pulling away at a penetrating needle or pin. The Chair of Neuroanatomy at the Yale University School of Medicine detailed in a letter published in the Washington Post (February 9, 1985), denounced the sham, noting that a twelve-week-old fetus cannot move independently by will as if it were sensing an impending abortion. What medical research has shown is that a twelve-week-old fetus is incapable not only of moving voluntarily but that it cannot scream since it does not have the required synapses of the cortex in order to scream. Synapses of the cortex do not develop in a fetus until its last months (not in the first three months). Furthermore, no twelve-week-old fetus has cognitive reasoning powers to scream. It does not have this cognitive reasoning power since it does not have well-formed nerve endings/fibers that can transmit pain impulses along the spinal cord to the brain and chemical neurotransmitters capable of carrying the signal from neuron to neuron indicating pain or the presence of discomfort as there are no developed neural pathways to transmit pain impulses.

Dr. Michael Bennet, chair of the neuroscience department of the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York City reported, the brain does not exist at the time of conception, so the fetal tissues cannot and do not think. Without a brain, the fetus cannot be considered a human being, not even a cat, dog, fish, or other animal. All that conception does is bring together a union of cells with potential.

There are no brain  neurons before the first four weeks of fetal evolution. The cerebral cortex, that portion of the brain needed for thought, feelings, and conscious awareness is the last part of the brain to fully develop. It has never been found to have developed in any fetus of twelve-weeks.

Dr. Dominick Purpura, former dean of the Stanford University School of Medicine, and later dean at the Albert Einstein School of Medicine in New York, has gone on record testifying that the development of the cortex with sufficient axons, dendrites, and synapses to sustain the thought process, does not exist before the twenty-eighth week.

Ever since 1973, when abortions were made legal in the U.S.A., religious fanatics have tried to undermine the right of the woman to choose her own life and the destiny of her own body.  Impressionable young girls are shown exaggerated pictures of dolls smeared with blood that the anti-abortionists claim to be “murdered babies”, but even at six weeks LMP (when the embryo is about one month old), the tissue that is commonly called, erroneously, a fetus–it is but the size of a pea. Most of the tissue that is actually moving is the placenta that is developing to nourish the growing embryo.

By the end of the second month (10 weeks LMP), the embryo is about one inch long and is beginning to develop distinct physical characteristics that are external. The brain has not yet reached its evolutionary maturity.

By the third month (14 weeks LMP) the fetus is about three inches long. It is protected by a fluid filled sac (known as the amniotic sac). There is no fetal heartbeat–not until the 20th week, and then heard only with proper instruments. Most abortions take place before this materializes.

Prior to the twentieth week, the fetus is nothing more than a collection of cells that have the potential of becoming a human being. It is not until the twenty-fourth week at the earliest, and closer to the 28th week in reality, that the fetus reaches a point of viability–when it might live for a very brief time outside of the womb–but then only under intensive hospital care. (For additional information, consider my book: Arthur Frederick Ide, Abortion Handbook: the History, Legal Progress, Practice & Psychology of Abortion with an introduction by Charlotte Taft; Las Colinas: The Liberal Press, 1986).

In 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.” Few accept the theory that any pain can be felt before the 28th week or earlier.  Arthur Caplan, professor of medical ethics and director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, said that “on the whole, I don’t think science and medicine can be drawn in to support” legislation pending in Nebraska or in other states or nations that would limit or outlaw abortions.  Fetal pain is merely a propaganda ploy to gain supporters and needed currency to distort reality and give a bogus science to underage girls and boys.

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7 responses to “Fetal pain, religion, and science

  1. Pingback: Murder in the name of Christ « Arthur Frederick Ide's Blog

  2. One of the best blog i have seen recently..

  3. Would you mind enabling rss feeds, because this page is difficult to read on my phone. Don’t mean to be a complainer, but I figure if it would help me it would probably help others as well. Thanks 🙂

  4. Kerri

    I would pose a question to you regarding the citation of St Augustine. Were he alive today, instead of in the later part of the 4th century, do you think he would still make the same assertion? In reality you cite this example as a cause to justify a fetus as inhuman, curiously but left out the part where St. Augustine asserts is it a sin- just theorizing what kind and if there are others grave sins attached to the act (sexual and/or murder). Would it not be more genuine to think his ideas were based on what was known during his time and not at all on what we know today about the formation of a nervous system and other integral parts of the fetus during earlier periods than were known during St Augustine’s lifetime? Point of fact, St Augustine further argued that it was a sing, basing the facts presented in Biblical history and traditional teaching. If you present an argument using church leaders, why would you omit these fascists of their beliefs as well? Also, would it not be more reasonable to align each of your citation to a timeline of scientific discovery to show a direct correlation to the modified religious view and the scientific knowledge of that subject; particularly more so since the scientific studies were carried out within and closely aligned to the Church itself? I am thinking of those such as Lazzaro Spallanzani (priest), Gregor Mendel (priest), Albertus Magnus (priest), Henri Breuil (priest), Jean Baptiste Carnoy (priest) from all of whom we have the formation and basis for genetic and biologic study today. What do you think they would say for the case of abortion?

    In case you were wondering, I cam across your blog from a friend using your statement to support an argument as to why premarital sex and casual sex are no longer sins and should not be considered outside the norm within a religious context. Odd how a a purported statement of fact can so be stretch in a desperate attempt to justify what we want and how, isn’t it?

    • In my book, from which I took much of this information, I do give a time-line as you suggest. However, there is not that much space in a blog. It is true that scientific discoveries are made by priests, pastors, rabbis, and atheists–but to pidgeon-hole a discovery to any vocation (clerical or otherwise) does nothing, as there are many “educated” (degree-holder) people, such as Stephen C. Myer, who are more ignorant with a PhD than a high schooler who at least study and do not walk backward to a mystery lesson from a totally unreliable and unhistorical book (such as the Bible). My argument is that people should turn to what is current, and if it shows merit from antecedents, that the antecedents must be cited. But to cite mythology as fact (such as the lies that there were a Peter, a Paul, an Apostolic Succession, a Homer, a Jesus, etc) is silly at best, as there is no hard scientific evidence for any of that. While I despise the Third Reich, many great invention came from it (the people’s car: Volkswagen; missles, mass production of foods in hothouse condition, etc) as came from Stalinist Russia, etc. For scientific illiterates, such as the gaggle of US Senators who deny global warming, argue for “personhood” for a fertilized egg, etc–that goes beyond the point of idiocy to the point of destroying progress.

      As for Augustine–he was cited by Aquinas, even by Darwin, but Augustine was a testimony of personal faith and nothing that he wrote on about the human condition is worth considering. The earth does not stand still, the human being is not judged at conception, etc. Thank you for taking time to read the article. I hope you read my book.

  5. Pingback: If men could become pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament | Arthur Frederick Ide's Blog

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