This is the first guest post I’ve hosted! Please welcome Cait McKnelly.
A number of state legislatures are passing legislation outlawing abortion after the twentieth week on the basis of “fetal pain”. This is just one of many, unscientifically founded assertions regarding abortion that are being codified into our laws in different states; laws that are not only founded on mistruths and misunderstandings but, in the end, may actually run counter to their stated purpose. (I’ll get into their actual purpose later in this article.)
Part of the misunderstanding of “fetal pain” has to do with the idea that a developing fetus feels pain the way an adult feels pain. This is an impossibility.
The ability to feel pain is dependent on a functioning neocortex in the brain. It is a part of the cerebrum, or “gray matter” of the brain. This part of the brain doesn’t even begin to develop until midway through the third trimester of pregnancy (approximately 29-30 weeks gestation) and is still not complete at birth. In fact, the neocortex continues to develop after birth until well into adolescence. Because of this, it’s an impossibility for a fetus to feel pain as we feel pain.
This doesn’t mean that a fetus doesn’t react to trauma. Hard coded into a part of the brain called the limbic system, one of the first parts of the brain to develop, are reflexes; crude reactions that are independent of actual sensory stimuli. This means if you poke a fetus in the womb, it will reflexively move away. But does it even “feel” the poke? No. Some of these reflexes stay with us all of our lives; others recede and eventually fade entirely away as the neocortex develops and assumes the jobs those reflexes used to do.
In an odd way, what these laws do is “anthropomorphize” a fetus. I use that term deliberately because, technically, a fetus isn’t a human. It’s a potential human and most fetuses have the ability to eventually become human but they lack all of the defining characteristics of an actual “human”.
Because of these neurological FACTS, anesthesiologists (at least those trained at reputable medical schools) are taught that fetal anesthesia for surgeries and therapeutic abortions isn’t needed prior to the thirtieth week of gestation. Indeed, these facts have often been used to comfort women who have had stillbirths or needed a late term abortion to save their own life or because their fetus had gross abnormalities. It means a great deal to a woman to know that her baby didn’t suffer. Because here is a fact that most anti-abortionists don’t want you to know; any woman that has a late term abortion does so because she has to, not because she wants to do so. Let me repeat that; any woman that has a late term abortion does so because she has to, not because she wants to do so. And the very fact that her fetus can’t feel pain is one of the things that, frequently, keeps these women from suffering more than they have to.
Now, here’s the thing; these laws, ostensibly to “save the fetus pain”, forces a woman to carry to term a fetus that may very well have severe anomalies and gross congenital malformations and will die at birth. This may very well put that fetus into a position of suffering due to it’s deformities. This runs directly counter to the law’s stated “compassionate” purpose. Additionally, a handful of states are actually passing legislation to permit physicians to actively lie to and withhold information from women about the health of their fetus to prevent them from aborting. Other states are passing legislation that deny the right of a physician to declare a fetus unviable.
So why do legislators pass these cruel and inhumane laws? Because they are cruel and they are inhumane. A handful of legislators just might be that naive. But I fully believe that the majority of them know exactly what they are doing. They pass these laws for one of two reasons; either they believe it’s what their constituency wants and they are playing to the lowest common, ignorant denominator for the sake of getting elected; or else their own anti-abortion beliefs are so radically and deeply rooted in their religious beliefs that they will let any woman and any fetus go through incalculable suffering to satisfy that belief. Part of that belief is the need to subject women and to refuse them control of their bodies. They simply cannot trust women to make the “right decision” and they will wrest that control from her no matter the cost.
So what’s the answer?
EDUCATION! The more women (and men too, for that matter) know what lies and mistruths, misconceptions and misinformation are being presented to them by their legislators, the more ammunition there is to fight back and challenge them. LEARN what these people are saying and LEARN whether or not it’s the truth. Wrap yourself in the righteousness of fact as much as they wrap themselves in the righteousness of religion.
Cait McKnelly is a wife of many years, mother of three women and grandmother to four “women someday.” She is a retired RN and for many years nurtured, healed, soothed and accompanied many people on their life journeys, some to that journey’s end. She is now a gardner, computer gamer, crazy cat lady and happy retiree. Currently in her croneship she leads a small group of women called Brighid’s Voice, dedicated to exploring the role of women in the world.