Dr. Carter Snead, director of Notre Dames Center for Ethics and Culture and a leading expert in Public Bioethics, gave a compelling lecture entitled, “Fetal Pain, the Moral Imagination, and Our Common Humanity”, during the first day of the 44th annual National Right to Life Convention.
He began by asking a simple question, “Who is the law supposed to protect?” Snead explained that the purpose of the law is to protect the most vulnerable of society, and when the law is doing this properly, it teaches, encourages and sometimes punishes the wrongdoings of others. For better or for worse, the world looks at the law to know whom a society should care for, which ultimately gives it the power to shape justice.
If this is so, then why did the Supreme Court justices of 1973 fail to recognize that unborn children were in desperate need of the law’s protection? Dr. Snead said that this was because they decided that the law was agnostic on the problem of membership in the human family became a matter of interpretation. Unborn children weren’t considered a part of the biological or moral community because the justices didn’t see them as one of us.
As cruel as that decision was, Snead pointed out that this isn’t the only context in which the world has failed to protect the vulnerable. While one could argue that abortion is the most radical example of injustice, there are injustices all around us, from starving children in Africa, to prisoners of war in Iraq. And oftentimes, society abandons them in their suffering. However, abortion does differ from other injustices around the world because the massacre of unborn children is based on the denial of their humanity.
But now, we have a new insight into a way in which we are connected; unborn children have the capacity to feel pain. Explaining this scientific fact to the public is how we stimulate the “moral imagination” of our culture. The emotion that moves us toward justice when we see children dying from starvation in Africa, and the compassion that surfaces in us when we walk with a loved one through a painful surgery, is similar to that of the “tug” we feel in our heart when we learn that unborn babies can feel the knife of an abortionist dismember them piece by piece. Such a stark reality humanizes the issue.
As the lecture continued, Dr. Snead began explaining the science behind fetal pain. The biological equipment necessary for a human person to feel pain is present no later than 20 weeks after fertilization, and nerves link receptors to the brain’s thalamus and sub-cortical plate around that same time.
Researchers also found that unborn children react to pain by recoiling, which is the same way adult humans react to pain. In fact, during surgery on these little humans, fetal surgeons found that anesthesia was necessary to decrease their reaction to stress hormones.
When discussing the constitutionality of our new pain-pain capable bills, Dr. Snead stated that there is nothing in the text, history, or tradition of the U.S. Constitution that precludes extending the most basic protections of the law to twenty week-old (or older) unborn children who are capable of experiencing pain. Protecting pain-capable babies from abortion is what a reasonable, compassionate society would do.
He concluded by emphasizing that fetal pain does not mark the existence of a human person nor is it intended to simply restrict abortion in certain phases of pregnancy. Instead, it draws attention to the reality that unborn children are one of us.
Snead said, “The pain of the unborn child bind us to her, and her to us. She is a part of our family, and she deserves our protection. Doesn’t justice require the same thing to be said and done for her younger sister or brother, all the way back from the moment of conception?”
This is our hope: Humanity will awaken to the suffering of unborn children, and realize that they too are just like us, deserving of the law’s utmost protection.