The New York Times reported that last Tuesday the House of Representatives approved a ban on abortion after 22 weeks of pregnancy. Thus fetuses are human after 22 weeks. The bill was passed in a 228-to-196 vote, split along party lines. The Times stated that the ban was based on the “medically disputed theory” that fetuses can experience pain at that time.
Whether or not the theory is disputed is itself disputable. There is much anatomical, behavioral and physiological evidence to support the assertion that a fetus growing in the womb is acutely sensitive to pain 20 weeks after conception. By that time, the unborn child reacts to stimuli in ways similar to those demonstrated by an adult—by recoiling, for example. See “Doctors on Fetal Pain” at http://www.doctorsonfetalpain.co. Some scientific studies of fetuses in the womb put the capacity to experience pain at 26 weeks. Many scientists maintain that there is insufficient data to draw these conclusions.
But this does not answer the question of when do babies become human beings so that they cannot be legally aborted?
We feel pain because when the body is injured, an area of the spinal cord called the dorsal horn transmits impulses to the brain and down the spinal cord to the site of the injury. A spinal reflex occurs at the dorsal horn inspires to withdraw from the offending object, such as a hot electric bulb or an inopportunely placed thumbtack. But the experience of pain extends beyond this stimulus and response. The pain signal continues to the thalamus to be directed to further areas to the brain for interpretation. The cortex determines where the pain came from and compares it to previous instances of pain. Signals also travel to the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain. There are feelings associated with every sensation we experience, and the limbic system decides the appropriate response, be it tears or curses. Pain affects everything happening in the nervous system. (About.com).
An article in The Journal of Maternal-Fetal & Neonatal Medicine reports that developmental neurobiologists have concluded that thalamocortical connections developed at that period may allow the fetus to perceive pain. The thalamus is the part that routes sensory impulses to the cerebral cortex. It appears that the fetus’s developing brain may to be able to record and interpret these sensations.
Fetuses also have the ability to hear while in the womb. There are studies in which loudspeakers were actually put on a mother’s abdomen and the fetus’s responses were recorded by ultrasound (Development of Fetal Hearing,” in the US National Library of Medicine, National Institutes of Health). An unborn child having such experiences in the womb would have no subsequent discomfort at a heavy-metal concert.
Responses to sound alone might classify a fetus as human being.
The House vote is not exactly precedential. In Roe v. Wade (1973), the United States Supreme Court held that and that a fetus acquired constitutional rights only after 24 weeks of gestation. The Court reduced it to 22 weeks in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992). The Court had exhaustively studied the available medical, psychological and sociological material in order to reach its conclusion in Roe Nevertheless, the case was decided in a 7 to 2 vote. Specifically, the Court held that the Court ruled 7–2 that the right to privacy under the due process clause of the 14th Amendment extended to a woman’s decision to have an abortion.
One of the two dissenting justices, Justice Byron R. White, declared that by this decision the Court had shown that it valued the convenience of the pregnant mother more than the continued existence of the potential life she carried in her womb.
Justice White did not go so far as to declare that the fetus was a human being, but objected to the Court’s apparent determination that the fetus had less of a right to live than the mother had to terminate the pregnancy.
The Court subsequently modified its ruling, rejecting the trimester framework of Roe, and finding that a woman had the right to have an abortion up until viability, the time during which the fetus could survive outside the womb. .
However the essence of the decision in Roe and subsequent cases included a limitation on the right to abortion, finding that this constitutional right to privacy had to be balanced against the state’s legitimate interests in regulating abortions in order to protect prenatal life and the mother’s health. This left unresolved the extent to which the “state” could go in safeguarding the life of unborn child and the mother’s well-being.
Thus the House of Representatives could vote to establish a fetus’s humanity at 22 weeks, and use “protection” as its legislative shield.
For now, the House has decreed that a fetus becomes human after 22 weeks. If the measure passes the Senate, the exact date of a fetus’s humanity will be established as the law of the land.