By Donald DeMarco

The Interim

In 1974, a fish processing plant employee by the name of Eleanor Donoghy was formally charged with “cruel treatment to prawns” (“Prawn-Frying Fracas Boils Over Into Court,”Midnight, March 18, 1974). Plant workers reported the 16-year-old British girl to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, which took her to court. During the trial, government agricultural experts testified that prawns – shrimp-like creatures – have low sensitivity and are almost incapable of feeling pain. The SPCA, however, charged that Ms. Donoghy was in violation of its “humane cooking” instructions that advised boiling the water first, in order to drive off the oxygen, and then immersing the prawns. It is believed that this procedure has the effect of anesthetizing the prawns before they die.

A disclaimer appeared in conjunction with the 1994 movie, The Shawshank Redemption,indicating that the worm-like morsel that was apparently fed to a bird during the film was really a plastic facsimile. Viewers were assured that no worms suffered or died in the making of the film. Such assurance meant little to those who realize that birds consume billions of worms throughout the world on a daily basis without the slightest trace of compunction.

Such exaggerated concern for what prawns, worms, and other lowly creatures feel is rather misguided. But it becomes disturbing, even startling, when juxtaposed against the utter callousness shown toward what the unborn human must feel during a late-term abortion.

A British doctor has caused a row because she has ventured to say that unborn babies who are scheduled for abortion after 17 weeks gestation should be anesthetized to mitigate their experience of pain. Dr. Vivette Glover contends that there is enough scientific evidence to indicate that the fetus feels pain at 17 weeks and beyond. She points out that painkillers are routinely dispensed to premature babies when certain procedures are carried out. She sees no difference, neurologically, between a 23-week-old fetus and a 23-week-old pre-term baby.

Dr.Glover is distressed by the disregard about fetal pain that is commonly expressed. “Why give the fetus pain relief if it is going to be destroyed?” is a typical attitude. Yet this attitude, if directed toward a dog or cat, would not be tolerated. Animal rights activists would see to it that each canine or feline would receive humane treatment.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, which is predominantly pro-abortion, has rejected Dr. Glover’s findings. In a position paper reflecting the mind of the RCOG, Maria Fitzpatrick of University College London, claims that little sensory input reaches the brain before 26 weeks gestation and therefore “reactions to noxious stimuli cannot be interpreted as feeling or perceiving pain.”

Ann Fitzgerald, representing the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, the United Kingdom’s largest independent abortion provider, also dismissed Glover’s work. She argues that the brain is insufficiently developed prior to 26 weeks for the fetus to feel or experience pain.

Dr. Glover’s research in the area of fetal pain is hardly groundbreaking. Sir Albert W. Liley, the pre-eminent fetologist from New Zealand, had no doubt, on the basis of objective evidence, that the fetus has a capacity to feel pain. In 1963, Dr. Liley, the founder of fetology, developed the first surgical technique for administering intrauterine blood transfusions to the fetus. According to Liley, the fetus feels pain as early as three months. In offering instructions for carrying out the surgical technique of fetal blood transfusions, he advised his colleagues to take into serious consideration this fact of fetal pain. During the actual surgical procedure, the child must be sedated and given pain-relieving medication. Dr. Margaret Liley, wife and assistant to her husband, and a distinguished fetologist and pediatrician in her own right, remarks in her well-known book, Modern Motherhood:

When doctors first began invading the sanctuary of the womb, they did not know that the unborn baby would react to pain in the same fashion as a child would. But they soon learned that he would. By no means a ‘vegetable’ as he has so often been pictured, the unborn knows perfectly well when he has been hurt, and he will protest it just as violently as would a baby in a crib.

In referring to aborting a 12-week-old fetus by dilatation and curettage, (in which the neck of the womb is dilated and the fetus removed in pieces after the womb has been scraped by a sharp instrument called a curette), Dr. Eugene Diamond stated in 1971: “When this procedure is done, there is little doubt that the fetus, in fact, feels what is done to it.” In a comprehensive treatment of fetal pain, published in 1985 in the New England Journal of Medicine, Dr. K. Annand, a Harvard physiologist, stated that the fetus first perceives pain as early as 12 weeks.

In a May 1975 piece in Atlantic, Willard Gaylin and Marc Lappe argue for fetal experimentation, which they contend is far less traumatic for the unborn than certain forms of abortion. If society allows a child in the womb to be subjected to “unimaginable acts of violence,” they write, such as “dismemberment, salt-induced osmotic shock, or surgical extirpation,” how can it balk at fetal experimentation, most forms of which are incomparably more benign.

Fetal pain, of course, is a matter of fact, not ideology. Science, of course, should be based on fact, not political correctness. We live in a Therapeutic Culture in which popping pills has become a national pastime. We are only too sensitive about pain, inconvenience, and possibly offending someone. Yet our own ultra-sensitivity to pain does not, in general, extend to the unborn. Are we inconsistent in our war against pain? Is there a blatant contradiction that runs through the very heart of our Therapeutic Culture?

The answer to this apparent dilemma lies in the fact that there are different levels of pain. Pain exists on a spiritual as well as on a physical level. Of the two, as many psychologists and psychiatrists have averred, the spiritual kind is more difficult to bear. The difference between the two is akin to the difference between pain and suffering. The suffering in one’s soul that can arise from humiliation, guilt, despair, and terror, are formidable. An athlete would rather risk breaking his neck driving for a fly ball than feel the humiliation of being called a wimp. A soldier would rather risk injury and even death, than suffer the shame of dishonor. A Christian would rather mortify himself than experience the disgrace that comes with mortal sin. Defeat, dishonor, disgrace, as a rule, are far more devastating than physical pain.

There is a pain that goes with being egregiously wrong (shame) or being recklessly immoral (disgrace) or being purposely obtuse (humiliation) that is more acute than physical pain. Our Therapeutic Culture is not inconsistent. Those who promote abortion want to spare themselves the pain that goes with suffering shame, disgrace, and humiliation. Because of that, they are willing to deny the pain that the aborted baby feels. To acknowledge what abortion really means is too painful for them. They would rather retreat into the presumed security of their comforting ideology.

Pain and birth go together in a mysterious way, like death and life, fall and redemption. The birth of a child or the rebirth of an adult requires a certain amount of pain. Birth and redemption both demand pain. Abortion was instituted in an attempt to avoid pain. But it has magnified the very thing it had sought to reduce. We are drowning in a sea of tranquilizers while we increase our suffering. We thought we could eliminate physical suffering, but brought about spiritual torment. The abortion issue, like an ellipse, has two foci: one is the birth of the child (which is accompanied by pain); the other, the rebirth of the pro-abortionist (which is accompanied by suffering). Part of the painful truth about the abortion issue is that it includes both the unborn and the unrepentant.

Dr. DeMarco is a professor of philosophy
at St. Jerome’s University in Waterloo, Ont.