Earlier this year, Utah passed a fetal pain bill that requires the use of general anesthesia on women seeking abortions at 20 weeks gestation or later. This bill, which relies on a controversial claim that fetuses may feel pain as early as 20 weeks, has been heavily criticized as an attempt to abrogate abortion rights rather than serving a legitimate protective purpose.
The issue of fetal pain has long been a source of contention in the scientific community, and the dispute has led to several states restricting or prohibiting abortions 20 weeks or later on the basis of potential fetal pain. While many argue that this law is just one of many across the country aimed not at protecting health, but at restricting or eliminating abortion rights, this law, in fact, seems to be justified in its goal of minimizing the possible experience of suffering by the fetus.
While studies have not proven that a fetus can feel pain prior to the third trimester, reasonable doubt about the possibility of fetal experience of pain exists. As E. Christian Brugger argues in his article entitled “The Problem of Fetal Pain and Abortion: Toward an Ethical Consensus for Appropriate Behavior,” there is no moral certitude that fetuses do not feel pain after 20 weeks, and “a preponderance of evidence supports the conclusion that fetal-pain experience beginning in the second trimester of pregnancy is a real possibility.” Brugger makes the argument, drawing from several researchers of fetal neuroanatomy that all the neural structures for both pain perception and consciousness are in place by 18-20 weeks. Furthermore, he argues that those who deny fetal consciousness until much later in pregnancy may be relying on outdated assumptions which place the seat of consciousness in the cerebral cortex, despite growing evidence that the upper brainstem and subcortical tissues may actually play a greater role.
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