Public Discourse: The Ethics of Fetal Pain

>> Monday, November 8, 2010

Hello all,

As anybody who reads this blog knows, I am strongly pro-life and believe the abortion issues is far and away the single biggest moral and cultural crisis this country is currently facing.

One of the aspects of the abortion debate that doesn't get a whole lot of attention in the large media outlets but does get a good deal of attention in the front lines of the battle, where the rubber meets the road, is the issue of fetal pain. Specifically, whether or not, and when, fetuses feel the pain of the abortion process.

This is an important question for two relatively obvious reasons. 1) If the fetus feels pain it must be a life, and since it is comprised of distinctly human DNA, it would then be a human life and abortion would be murder. 2) If the fetus feels pain then the cruelty and injustice of abortion would be greatly exemplified and amplified by that pain.

A friend on Facebook linked an article today by E. Christian Brugger about the fetal pain issue. It is posted on Public Discourse, titled "The Ethics of Fetal Pain" and I believe it really cuts to the core of the matter. The author’s main/basic premise is that abortion should be unthinkable in the face of uncertainty. He argues that, regardless of where you stand on the issue, the fact that there is scientific uncertainty should dissuade us from condoning and/or allowing abortion.

The following is the portion of the article that is best sums up his larger point[s].

"Let us say for the sake of argument that rigorous data is inconclusive. I am then left with a doubt as to whether or not levonorgestrel might render the uterine lining inhospitable. According to my practical knowledge, informed, let’s say for the sake of argument, by the best available evidence, I might kill an embryo if I use this drug in such and such a way. The possibility that my action will cause a death gives rise to the duty, stemming from the requisites of fairness, to refrain from that action. I would need to be reasonably certain that it will not cause death before purposeful action is justifiable. This reasonable certitude can also be called moral certitude. And reasonable doubt and moral certitude about the same fact are mutually excluding.

Let me propose one more example. If reasonable doubt existed as to whether the new device known as the “Mosquito,” which emits a high-pitched noise to disperse loiterers, not only caused minor auditory discomfort but severe pain, the burden of proof would fall upon the manufacturer to give evidence that it does not before the device should be approved for general use. Proof, of course, would be simple to arrive at: ask those exposed to the “Mosquito.” Since fetuses cannot yet provide self-report in language we cannot simply ask them whether they feel pain.

Yet I think the principle still stands: the burden of proof would fall upon defenders of the “Mosquito” to rule out a reasonable doubt that the device causes severe pain before its common use was approved, or to take action to assure that this possibility is mitigated.

The burden falls on the one who might be doing wrongful harm to rule out reasonable doubt that they are. If you were hunting in the woods and saw something moving in the distance, but were unsure of whether it was a deer or another hunter, you would be bound not to shoot until reasonable doubt was dispelled that what was stirring in the distance was not another hunter. When a doubt of fact bears on settling whether an alternative under consideration is immoral (e.g., it would be immoral to shoot in the face of reasonable doubt), one should withhold choosing till the fact has been settled.

So the question to be settled is whether or not reasonable doubt exists concerning a fetus’s capacity to experience pain. Since empirical certitude is not available, I propose, in light of what I said above, the following principle: that the judgment that fetuses do feel pain need only be a reasonable explanatory hypothesis in light of the settled evidence. Whereas the judgment that they do not requires moral certitude before providing a speculative ground for normative judgments about how to act.

I think the author hits the nail on the head and would encourage my readers to read the rest of the article. Pro-choice advocates would be hard pressed to overcome that reasoning. It's actually very much in line with legal thinking/reasoning concerning standards/burdens of proof.

Hopefully this post was informative for you. Pro-life advocates need to give close attention to these questions of ethics and values. These are the issues that are contested in the trenches and upon which this battle will be decided.

God bless and veritas supra omnis!


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