This week, the House of Representatives is voting on a bill that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. The last time the House considered this bill, an expert on human embryonic development informed members of the committee that unborn babies have the capacity to feel pain as early as 8 weeks.
Maureen Condic, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Utah and obtained her Ph.D. from University of California, Berkeley. She is a widely-published scientist whose works have appeared in a wide variety of peer-reviewed journals.
“The earliest “rudiment” of the human nervous system forms by 28 days (four weeks) after sperm – egg fusion. At this stage, the primitive brain is already “patterned”; i.e. cells in different regions are specified to produce structures appropriate to their location in the nervous system as a whole,” she told lawmakers during the hearing on the bill in may 2013.
Dr. Condic explained, “Over the next several weeks, the brain will grow enormously and generate many complex connections, but the overall organization of the nervous system is established by four weeks. This is significant because it shows that even at this early stage, the brain is not anything like a mere collection of cells or a “blank slate” to be written upon by later developmental processes. Like all embryonic organs, the structure of the early brain “anticipates” the function of the mature system.”
When it comes to pain specifically, scientific evidence is very clear that pain can be experienced by 20 weeks of pregnancy. But Condic said unborn children have a capacity to feel pain much earlier.
“The neural circuitry responsible for the most primitive response to pain, the spinal reflex, is in place by 8 weeks of development,” she explained. “This is the earliest point at which the fetus experiences pain in any capacity.”
At that point, the scientist confirmed “a fetus responds just as humans at later stages of development respond; by with withdrawing from the painful stimulus.”
By 8-10 weeks, Dr. Condic says many of the neural connections are formed.
“This indicates that the brain is “wiring” itself in the first trimester, well before reaching the fetal stage of life. Early establishment of connections between neurons further indicates that brain formation is an active process of progressively building the structures and relationships required for mature brain function,” she confirmed.
“To experience pain, a noxious stimulus must be detected. The neural structures necessary to detect noxious stimuli are in place by 8-10 weeks of human development,” the researcher continued. “There is universal agreement that pain is detected by the fetus in the first trimester. The debate concerns how pain is experienced ; i.e., whether a fetus has the same pain experience a newborn or an adult would have. While every individual’s experience of pain is personal, a number of scientific observations address what brain structures are necessary for a mental or psychological experience of pain.”
Knowing the unborn child feels pain early in pregnancy, Condic says the question is what to do then.
“Imposing pain on any pain-capable living creature is cruelty. And ignoring the pain experienced by another human individual for any reason is barbaric. We don’t need to know if a human fetus is self- reflective or even self- aware to afford it the same consideration we currently afford other pain – capable species. We simply have to decide whether we will choose to ignore the pain of the fetus or not,” she concludes.
Read Dr. Condic’s full testimony at http://judiciary.house.gov/hearings/113th/05232013/Condic%2005232013.pdf
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