Fetal Pain PDF Print E-mail

by Rev. James A. DeCamp
Common Ground - Occasional papers from Presbyterians Pro-Life
No. 3 - May 1988

The unborn are gaining visibility
Members of the Presbyterian Church (USA) continue to think hard thoughts about their denomination's pro-abortion advocacy which has been around for almost two decades now (1).

Discomfort has grown as such publications as Life, Newsweek, and Families feature cover photographs of perfectly formed unborn children (2) and articles run under headlines like "Surgery in the Womb" (3).

The unborn child enjoys a greater visibility in our society. For instance, Williams Obstetrics, a standard textbook, remarks in its preface, "Happily, we have entered an era in which the fetus can be rightly considered and treated as our second patient" (4) (emphasis added). Objective, scientific data continue to bear eloquent witness to the citizenship held by these little ones in the human family.

Unborn babies experience pain in abortion
One subject which has been the center of a long and volatile discussion carries within it the potential for changing our most basic commitments in this issue of abortion: the subject of pain.

Vincent J. Collins, Professor of Anesthesiology at the University of Illinois College of Medicine, writes:

The prospect of fetal pain--pain that results from abortion--cuts through philosophical abstractions and scientific nomenclature, proceeding directly to the heart. A being that feels pain makes an urgent demand for recognition (5).

The issue of fetal pain received national exposure first when President Ronald Reagan gave a speech to the National Religious Broadcasters on January 30, 1984. President Reagan said, "...doctors confirm that when the lives of the unborn are snuffed out, they often feel pain, pain that is long and agonizing" (6).

This statement raised a storm of protest from pro-abortion activists who claimed that the President's comments about fetal pain were unfounded scientifically, and were an inexcusable form of emotional blackmail. Yet, it became clear to all who watched the debate that the President had done his homework; fetal pain is real.

Dr. Collins writes that the unborn child's ability to feel pain comes quite early in pregnancy:

Functioning neurological structures necessary for pain sensation are in place as early as 8 weeks, but certainly by 13-1/2 weeks...By 13-1/2 weeks, the entire sensory nervous system functions as a whole in all parts of the body (except in the skin or the back of the head) (7).

Fetal experiments performed on 12 to 16 week in utero subjects indicate the ability of the unborn child to experience acute pain (8).

The clearest and strongest support for the President came from a group of 26 physicians, including pain specialists and two past presidents of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology, who released this statement on February 13, 1984: "Mr. President, in drawing attention to the capability of the human fetus to feel pain, you stand on firmly established ground" (9).

What implications are there here for the current debate over abortion in our denomination? Can we continue to support abortion when we read of the suffering and pain which different abortion techniques cause?

Fetal pain associated with methods of abortion
John T. Noonan, Jr., professor in the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley, and a judge on the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, points out that,

...as soon as a pain mechanism is present in the fetus--possibly as early as day 56--the methods used will cause pain. The pain is more substantial and lasts longer the later the abortion is...Whatever the method used, the unborn...are undergoing the death agony (10).

Dilatation and evacuation abortions (D & E) are performed after the 12th week when fetal bones are too large and brittle to be removed by earlier procedures. Pioneer embryologist Landrum Shettles describes a D & E: "Death and dismemberment do not come in a `moment,' but over a matter of minutes. Limbs may be torn off and the body lacerated well before the brain itself is crushed" (11).

Doctors performing a saline abortion inject a highly concentrated salt solution into the amniotic sac. During the death agony of these children their upper skin layers are burned, and internal poisoning is caused by the child swallowing the solution. It is well-known that the fetus reacts with aversive responses when saline is introduced into amniotic fluid. The aborting mother can feel her baby thrashing in the uterus..." (12).

Saline abortions are employed from the 14th week of pregnancy through the time of fetal viability (13).

Abortions induced by prostaglandin drugs kill the child by reducing blood circulation and/or restricting the function of the heart. "Pain analogous to that of a person experiencing a heart attack can be assumed" (14).

Even the youngest babies aren't safe from suffering. "To the extent that the fetus between eight and 13-1/2 weeks of gestations feels pain, the suction curettage method of abortion--the usual method of abortion used during that time, which tears the fetus from the womb, often part by part, by vacuum aspiration--is certainly capable of causing pain in a manner analogous to D & E abortion" (15).

No symbol has so dramatically captured this specter of fetal pain as the real-time ultrasound "The Silent Scream," released in 1984. This film depicts a twelve-week unborn baby undergoing death by dismemberment in a suction abortion. The doctor who performed the abortion recorded for this film, Dr. Jay Kelinson, reviewed the film and commented afterwards, "There was no manipulation of that tape, there was no misrepresentation. I was horrified at what I had seen...That was the last time I walked into an abortion clinic" (16).

Informed consent: pain and the "right to know"
Thinking of the pain caused to these little ones is enough to convince a reasonable person that abortion should be illegal, and surely, at the least, those mothers who are aborting their unborn children should know the suffering they are putting their babies through. Shouldn't the woman's "right to choose" carry with it a "right to know" about this pain her child will feel?

On November 30, 1982, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments concerning an Akron, Ohio city ordinance requiring the attending physician of a mother seeking an abortion to inform her of, among other things, "the development of her fetus." This ordinance was intended "to insure that the consent for an abortion is truly informed consent" (17).

Yet, apparently this is one place where ignorance is bliss, since measures requiring informed consent to abortion have been consistently opposed. The 195th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (USA), meeting in 1983, adopted a major abortion policy paper which referred to "Akron-type ordinances" as "harassment legislation" (18).

What are we to make of this response to the evidence?

Objective, scientific data pertaining to the humanity of the unborn including their capacity to feel pain is, apparently, so damning to the pro-choice position that its proponents are willing to attack such data at the peril of their own intellectual standing and conscience.

The protection from pain provided for animals is not extended to the unborn human
Empathy for pain in animals has produced responses that have no counterpart in the treatment of unborn babies by abortionists. In 1986, United Action for Animals, Inc. (UAA) publicized 62 experiments allegedly in violation of the Animal Welfare Act of 1966 because "the institutions involved did not justify withholding anesthetics, analgesics, and tranquilizers." UAA is also seeking to expand the number of species covered by this act (19). The youngest members of our own species, however, are not counted worthy of the same respect.

The Christian call for mercy
The Bible tells us that all members of the human family have intrinsic worth since we are "made in the image of God" (20). The unborn's capacity to feel pain does not add to their worth, but their pain does provide us with a point of common experience and it should lead us to feel empathy for their plight. Our goal, however, should be to stop the killing, not merely to institute prenatal euthanasia through pain-deadening drugs administered shortly before the abortion.

Syndicated columnist Joseph Sobran has written,

Abortion advocates are going to have to make up their minds whether a fetus suffers or whether they just don't care. Until now they have had it both ways. But now they must either face the evidence or say stoutly that the evidence doesn't move them. The evidence itself is clear enough (21).

Abortion is a social justice issue, a human rights issue, and a flesh and blood issue. The pro-choice myth that the unborn are merely products of conception who can be kept at a safe scientific and emotional distance is collapsing under the weight of the evidence.

Adrian Lee, a columnist for the Philadelphia Daily News, wrote on March 6, 1984,

Since pain, the abortion debate has changed. The Pro-Choicers can refuse to debate photographs of unborn fetuses--apparently, the pictures are too lifelike...but they can't shut out that cry from the womb. They can hold their ears until the only thing they hear is the singing of their own pulses and the thudding of their own hearts but they'll never escape it (22).

Meanwhile, the command of God's Word, for those of us who claim Jesus Christ as our Savior and Lord, is clear:

Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute.
(Proverbs 31:8)

The Presbyterian Church (USA) must choose between two paths: one of darkness and one of light. The path of light is the path of repentance for our complicity, direct and indirect, in the silent screams from mothers' wombs which have surrounded us at the rate of 1,500,000 per year since 1973. The path of darkness is the path our denomination has walked with respect to abortion for close to two decades, now, as we continue to advocate a woman's right to choose a painful death for her unborn baby.


    1. Both former denominations departed from their historic sanctity of life positions in 1970. See the Minutes of the 110th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the United States, Part I (Atlanta: The Office of the General Assembly, 1970), pp.124-126; and the Minutes of the 182nd General Assembly of the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, Part I (New York: The Office of the General Assembly, 1970) pp.888-926.
    2. "Life Before Birth," reprinted from Life, April 30,1965 (Pinebluff, North Carolina: Life Education Reprints, 1979), p.1. Newsweek, January 11, 1982. Families, February, 1982.
    3. Newsweek, October 31, 1983.
    4. Jack A. Pritchard and Paul C. MacDonald, Williams Obstetrics, 16th ed. (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1980), p.vii.
    5. Vincent J. Collins, Steven R. Zielinski, and Thomas J. Marzen, Fetal Pain and Abortion: The Medical Evidence, Studies in Law and Medicine, no. 18 (Chicago: American United for Life, Inc., 1984),p.3.
    6. Ibid., p. i.
    7. Ibid., p. 7.
    8. B. Westin, R. Nyberg and G. Enhoring, "A Technique for the Perfusion of the Previable Fetus," Acta Paediatrica, 47 (1958):339, quoted in Collins, Zielinski, and Marzen, Fetal Pain, p. 7.
    9. Ibid., p. 1.
    10. John T. Noonan, Jr., "The Experience of Pain by the Unborn," in New Perspectives on Human Abortion, ed. Thomas Hilgers, Dennis Horan and David Mall (Frederick, Maryland: University Publications of America, 1981), p.213.
    11. Landrum Shettles and David Rorvik, Rites of Life: The Scientific Evidence for Life Before Birth (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1983), p.69.
    12. W. Edminson, "A Report on the Abortion Capital of the Country": The New York Times Magazine, March 11, 1971, quoted in Collins, Zielinski, and Marzen, Fetal Pain, p.9.
    13. "Second Trimester Abortion: A Symposium by Correspondence," Journal of Reproductive Medicine 16 (1976): 47 ,56, quoted in Collins, Zielinski, and Marzen, Fetal Pain, p.8.
    14. A.I. Caspo, "Termination of Pregnancy with Double Prostaglandin Input," American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology 124 (1976): 1, quoted in Collins, Zielinski, and Marzen, Fetal Pain, p.9.
    15. Collins, Zielinski, and Marzen, Fetal Pain, p.9.
    16. Taken from the film, "The Answer," released in 1987 by Bernadell, Inc., P.O. Box 1897, Old Chelsea Station, New York, NY 10011.
    17. The United States LAW WEEK, June 14, 1983, pp. 4767, 4769.
    18. Advisory Council on Church and Society, Presbyterian Church (USA), "The Covenant of Life and the Caring Community: Theological Reflections on Contraception and Abortion" (New York and Atlanta: The Office of the General Assembly, 1983), p.57.
    19. Animal Welfare Act: Unreported Crimes? (New York: United Action for Animals, Inc., 1986), p.2.
    20. Genesis 1:26.
    21. Dallas Times Herald, June 14, 1984.
    22. As quoted in the Human Life Review, 10 (Spring, 1984):117.


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