Late abortion and the ‘fetal pain’ fallacy

The USA's ban on 'partial-birth abortion' rests on flawed arguments about fetal development.

Stuart Derbyshire

Topics Politics

With George W Bush in the White House for another four years, many pro-choice activists fear that legislative interference into a woman’s ability to obtain an abortion is set to increase. Planned Parenthood Federation of America declared the Bush victory ‘disastrous for reproductive rights and health’ and Planned Parenthood president Gloria Feldt has described an ‘all-out assault on women and our reproductive freedoms’ by Congress, the courts and the Bush administration (1).

The National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL) has put out a booklet titled The Price of Four More Years: Eliminating the Right to Choose and Eroding Real Choices (2). As the title suggests, the booklet predicts a possible end to legal abortion, most likely via a Supreme Court challenge to the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling. This ruling declared most State laws, which then prohibited access to abortion, to be unconstitutional. The Court’s decision prevented all legislative interference in abortion during the first trimester, and allowed restrictions during the second trimester only to protect the health of the woman. In the third trimester, after viability, a state could create legal barriers to abortion, provided it made exceptions to preserve the life and health of the woman seeking abortion.

There is concern that if President Bush successfully nominates pro-life Justices, to replace three Justices expected to soon retire, the landmark Roe v Wade ruling could be overturned. However, Bush himself has stated that, while he would prefer to abolish abortion, he doesn’t believe that the American public is ready to have Roe overturned in entirety.

Meanwhile, at the annual anti-abortion march on 24 January, Bush addressed protesters by telephone, and spoke only indirectly about the goal of outlawing abortion, focusing instead upon his administration’s moves toward legislating a ‘culture of life’ through laws banning certain abortion procedures, and allowing prosecutors to charge criminals who harm or kill pregnant women with harming their unborn children. ‘I’m not sure he wants to have that battle…. It’s too contentious’, Shawn J Parry-Giles, a University of Maryland professor who studies presidential rhetoric, told the Washington Post.

Rather than facing an outright ban on abortion in the USA, it seems we are looking at a more subtle process of legislative restriction, in which a woman’s right to an abortion is gradually being encroached upon. This is taking place through debates about the particular methods used in late abortions, and the ongoing discussion about whether fetuses feel pain.

Abortion in the courts

In April 2004 I was asked by Planned Parenthood to testify before the Virginia State Senate on the question of fetal pain (3). At that time the Virginia Senate was considering a bill that would require fetal analgesia for all abortion procedures performed after three months’ gestation. The Bill was based upon several incorrect assumptions about the nature of pain and the development of the fetus, which was the basis of my testimony.

The Bill also assumed, however, that the Virginia Senate could and should make medical decisions that were previously the remit of medical professionals. Much of the physician testimony provided on the same day expressed concern at the outside interference into decisions that sometimes required specific judgements based upon many years of medical training. Regardless of whether the fetus feels pain or not, the use of an analgesic is a medical, not a political, decision and should be based upon the judgment of doctors and not senators.

Efforts to legislate medical procedure associated with abortion had already been made by Congress and are ongoing. Led by Congressional Republicans, pro-lifers have focused on a particular method of abortion as described by Dr. Martin Haskell at a National Abortion Foundation seminar in 1992. The technique, later called ‘partial-birth abortion’ by opponents and Congress, involves the physician delivering all but the head of the fetus from the womb, piercing the skull, suctioning out the brain, and then completing the delivery.

The US House of Representatives and the US Senate have considered several bills intended to make so-called ‘partial-birth’ abortions illegal. After debates, bills were passed on two occasions with large majorities, but both bills were vetoed by President Bill Clinton (in April 1996 and October 1997) on the grounds that they did not include health exceptions and undermined the freedom of doctors to use their best medical judgement.

Clinton recognised that doctors needed to be free to use their medical judgement and enact whatever procedures they felt were justified by the clinical imperatives in front of them, rather than according to legal imperatives decided by Congress. With the election of George W Bush in November 2000, however, this principle was finally abandoned. On 2 October 2003, with a vote of 281-142, the House again approved the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act (HR 760). Through this legislation, a doctor could face up to two years in prison and face civil lawsuits for performing such an abortion. On 21 October 2003, the United States Senate passed the same bill by a vote of 64-34, with a number of Democrats joining in support.

President Bush signed into law the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act on 5 November 2003, marking direct political and legislative action to criminalise an accepted medical procedure. The Act prohibited abortions performed anywhere in the USA according to the following definition:

‘an abortion in which the person performing the abortion (A) deliberately and intentionally vaginally delivers a living fetus until, in the case of a head-first presentation, the entire fetal head is outside the body of the mother, or, in the case of a breech presentation, any part of the fetal trunk past the navel is outside the body of the mother, for the purpose of performing an overt act that the person knows will kill the partially delivered fetus; and (B) performs the overt act, other than completion of delivery, that kills the partially delivered living fetus.’ (4)

Violation of the act carried a penalty of not more than two years’ imprisonment and/or a fine of not more than $250,000. The Act permitted the above procedures to save the life of the mother, but did not include an exception to protect the health of the mother. Consequently, the National Abortion Federation in New York, Planned Parenthood in California and a team of physicians led by Dr Leroy Carhart (5) in Nebraska all filed injunctions to prevent implementation of the Act.

The Act was challenged on the grounds that the US Constitution requires an exemption to permit the procedure when it is necessary to preserve maternal health; that the Act further imposed an undue burden on a woman’s right to choose an abortion; the Act was unconstitutionally vague; the Act failed to serve any legitimate state interest; the life exception was constitutionally insufficient; and the Act violated women’s right to equal protection of the law.

Parallel trials were held by Courts in the Northern District of California, the District of Nebraska and the Southern District of New York to challenge the constitutionality of the Act, naming John Ashcroft as the defendant and temporarily restraining enforcement of the Act. Each trial began in March 2004 and judgement was issued in June (California), August (New York) and September (Nebraska). As each trial essentially considered the exact same material, this article will focus predominantly on the trial in New York.

Three major questions were addressed during the course of each trial: 1) whether the definition of partial-birth abortion also threatened the legality of other abortion procedures, particularly the procedure of Dismemberment and Extraction (D&E – and also known as dilation and evacuation); 2) whether the use of intact Dilation and Extraction (intact D&X, also known as partial-birth abortion) provides a benefit or detriment to the health of the woman; and 3) whether the fetus might be able to experience pain during an intact D&X.

Abortion techniques and the ‘health exception’

All methods of abortion involve the use of drugs and instruments, and all involve killing a fetus. Methods used in late abortion, when the fetus is more developed, are necessarily brutal, carry a greater risk to the health of the mother, and take a greater emotional toll upon the clinician and the woman undergoing the abortion.

However, an understanding that women need access to abortion should mean that we can recognise the unpleasant nature of the various procedures while also recognising that they hold a necessary place in society. It is this perspective that is being eroded, through a focus on the ‘yuk factor’ of particular techniques, and spurious scientific arguments about fetal pain.

To understand the legal points at issue in the trials, a brief summary of abortion methods is necessary. Abortions early in the first trimester (typically up to 9 weeks) can be induced by administration of medications that induce uterine contractions. Alternatively, and also when the gestation is longer (up to around 14 weeks), a physician may use suction curettage (vacuum aspiration). After about 14 weeks, abortion is either by medical induction or dilation and evacuation (D&E). In medical induction, cervical dilation and uterine contractions are induced with drugs. In a D&E procedure, the physician first dilates and softens the woman’s cervix, which takes several hours, after which forceps are inserted into the uterine cavity and are used to dismember the fetus and to remove it. D&E accounts for approximately 95 percent of second-trimester abortions in the United States.

It is not standard procedure in the USA to perform feticide prior to the D&E, although this is routine before medical induction after about 20 to 22 weeks. Those physicians who were questioned in court about feticide before D&E said that they did not consider the procedure to be necessary to protect the health of the woman and that it involved additional risk of injury and psychological trauma for the woman.

The procedure of intact dilation and extraction (intact D&X) was developed by Cincinnati physician W Martin Haskell in 1992 for second trimester abortion up to 26 weeks. It is a modification of D&E, but involves the removal of an intact or nearly intact fetus from the uterus. It is not unreasonable to view D&X as a D&E procedure in which the removal of the fetus is completed in a single manouevre. This means that with D&E there is a possibility that, when cervical preparation has resulted in marked dilation, the procedure might violate the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act by resulting in the passage of ‘part of the fetal trunk past the navel’ before fetal demise has occurred.

This possibility was the basis of claims by the plaintiffs that the Act could outlaw the most commonly performed second-trimester abortion procedure and therefore be an undue burden on a woman’s right to choose an abortion.

Expert physicians testifying both for the plaintiff and defendant agreed that both induction and D&E procedures are safe, and that the use of D&E is generally safer than induction, especially before 18 weeks’ gestation. A number of witnesses noted that D&E is generally less emotionally traumatic for the patient and hospital staff when terminating a late pregnancy. Medical induction requires a hospital stay, generally in a delivery ward, whereas D&E can be performed on an outpatient basis. Interestingly, Dr Haskell has explained elsewhere that he turned to D&E procedures because he could not find a hospital willing to allow an induction procedure past 18 weeks (6).

The comparative risks and benefits of D&E and D&X were debated far more contentiously. Ultimately, Judge Casey of New York found in favour of the plaintiffs and overturned the partial-birth abortion ban, because the difference of opinion among medical practitioners as to the health benefits of D&X means that a health exception – where a prohibited procedure is allowed where the woman’s health is at risk – must be included in any ban. This was not the case with the Act, so the Act was duly ruled as unconstitutional in New York and also in Nebraska and California. The US government is not permitted to legislate in the face of medical uncertainty and this had already been decided in a Supreme Court judgment (Stenberg v Carhart) against attempts of Nebraska to outlaw D&X procedures.

Judge Casey’s decision, and Judge Kopf’s in Nebraska and Judge Hamilton’s in California, were essentially predetermined by the prior Supreme Court judgement. As Casey stated in his summary, ‘While Congress and lower courts may disagree with the Supreme Court’s constitutional decisions, that does not free them from their constitutional duty to obey the Supreme Court’s rulings.’ The Supreme Court was engineered and designed to provide the ultimate authority with regards to Constitutional issues and Casey, as well as Congress, was thereby bound to its earlier decision.

Nevertheless, the trials will have a lasting consequence because of multiple damaging testimonies from Dr Kanwaljeet (Sunny) Anand on the issue of fetal pain. The potential for fetal pain was already becoming a common part of the argument against abortion but it is now guaranteed to form a more central role.

Fetal pain

Dr Kanwaljeet Anand made a series of seminal discoveries during the late 1980s that led to a dramatic change in the treatment of neonates undergoing surgical and other types of care. Anand demonstrated that the major hormonal response to invasive practice could be significantly reduced when strong opioids, pain-killers, were added to the anesthetic regimen (7). Accompanying these reductions in the hormonal ‘stress response’ to injury were dramatic improvements in clinical outcome. Babies prepped for surgery with opioids required less post-surgical ventilatory support and had reduced circulatory or metabolic complications (8).

Anand and his colleagues advanced these impressive findings in a subsequent report indicating that neonates receiving deep anaesthesia during surgery had improved post-operative morbidity, they survived more frequently, compared with those neonates who received lighter anaesthesia (8). An accompanying editorial called on physicians to ‘Do the Right Thing’, concluding that ‘it is our responsibility to treat pain in neonates and infants as effectively as we do in other patients’ (9). In an earlier review for the New England Journal of Medicine, however, Anand was more measured, stating that: ‘None of the data cited [in this review] tell us whether neonatal nociceptive activity and associated responses are experienced subjectively by the neonate as pain similar to that experienced by older children and adults’ (10).

Since that time, Anand has moved further and further towards the view that neonates and late-term fetuses do not merely respond to noxious events but experience pain subjectively. Drawing on the research of other investigators, notably Professor Fitzgerald of University College London, Anand claims that the biological development of the neonate and fetus (especially after 20 weeks’ gestation) is sufficient to support an experience of pain. The group, led by Nick Fisk and Vivette Glover at Queen Charlotte’s Hospital in London, have also added to the evidence for a stress response to invasive procedures in the fetus (11).

Although the analogy is limited, it is reasonable to think of the pain system as being like a fire alarm with injury activating a pain pathway (the ‘cable’), which triggers a pain centre (the ‘alarm’) somewhere in the brain. Fetal skin contains free nerve endings (the ‘alarm buttons’) responsible for initial registration of noxious stimulation, from about seven weeks’ gestation. Projections from the spinal cord (the ‘electric cable’) also reach the thalamus (the lower ‘alarm’) of the brain at about seven weeks’ gestation. The very first projections from the thalamus towards the cortex (the higher ‘alarm’) are apparent from about 12-16 weeks’ gestation.

Behavioural responses to touch reflect the changing maturity of the fetal nervous system. At 7.5 weeks’ gestation, reflex responses to touch begin. At this point touching the peri-oral region results in a bending of the head. The palms of the hands become sensitive to stroking at 10.5 weeks, and the rest of the body and legs become sensitive at approximately 13.5 weeks. Shortly after the development of sensitivity, repeated skin stimulation results in hyperexcitability and a generalised movement of all limbs. These generalised movements give way to more refined and coordinated movements after about 26 weeks’ gestation.

Further evidence suggesting the maturity of the fetal pain system comes from a study of the hormonal and neurochemical response of the fetus to noxious stimulation. Giannakoulopoulos et al (1994) reported that blood sampling at 20-34 weeks’ gestation via the intrahepatic vein, which is innervated with free nerve endings, produced an increased cortisol and opioid response compared with the usual technique of taking blood from the placenta which is not innervated (11).

This is typical of a response to a noxious stimulus that might be expected of someone in pain. Cortisol release is known to prevent inflammation of a wound while opioids act to suppress the flow of noxious information and dampen pain experience. Moreover, the response is indicative of a developed brain mechanism (the hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal axis) for hormonal regulation.

It was this evidence that enabled Anand to make the following claim during the course of the trial in New York: ‘I can state my opinion to a degree of medical certainty that all fetuses beyond 20 weeks of gestational age will experience severe pain by the partial-birth abortion procedure.’

But the statement is pure hyperbole and nonsense, for many reasons (12). Firstly, while it is true that the biology of the fetus has advanced considerably by 20 weeks, it is equally true that there is vast development still to come. This development is critical to the ability to respond to and process noxious information.

The layered appearance of the thalamus, which is a sign of mature function, only begins to appear at 20 weeks (13). And although projections from the thalamus to the higher regions of the brain can be observed from 12 weeks, these projections are into the subplate of the cortex (14). The subplate is a sort of ‘waiting compartment’ where fibres accumulate and develop before penetrating the cortical plate developing above. The subplate ‘dissolves’ during the prolonged growth and maturation of the cortical plate.

Similar to waiting in a theatre lobby or making your way through a car-park to a stadium, interactions within the subplate are random and uncoordinated until direction towards a seat is provided. The thalamic connections do not penetrate the cortical plate, making it to their ‘seats’, until 26 weeks’ gestation.

From 28 weeks there is massive relocation of subplate fibres into the cortical plate. The cortical plate undergoes tremendous growth increasing in volume by 50 percent between 29 weeks and term, when the characteristic layers, the ‘seat organisation’, of the cortex becomes apparent.

Obviously development continues after birth, expressed fundamentally by the increasing size of the human brain, but actual neuronal activity in the neonate undergoes important maturation during the first year of life. The neuronal function of the cerebral cortex, especially the somatosensory cortex, the prefrontal cortex and the anterior cingulate cortex, increase by a third from birth to 18 months, and these are brain regions that have been consistently associated with pain experience (15, 16).

The most that can be said of biological development in the 20-week fetus is that the fetus has an incomplete ‘pain alarm’. Although this alarm allows for some defensive reactions it is highly unlikely to allow for an experience of pain; incomplete alarms tend not to ring.

Secondly, the suggestion of a functional pain system during fetal gestation ignores important differences between the womb and the outside world and ignores the developmental impact of birth and subsequent life. The environment of the womb consists of warmth, buoyancy and a cushion of fluid to prevent tactile stimulation. The placenta provides a chemical environment to encourage sleep and to suppress higher cortical activation in the presence of any intrusive outside stimulation.

Inside the womb there is little to be gained from alertness and motion, which can only cause the expenditure of energy with little possibility of escape or other advantage. In contrast to the buffered fetal environment, the intense tactile stimulation of birth triggers behavioural activity and wakefulness, and marks the transition from laying down brain tissue to also organising that tissue with regards to the world now rudely thrust upon it.

At birth and afterwards there is massive increase in sensory input, and this acts as a form of ‘neuronal crowd control’. Repeated sensory input during this critical period of development results in generation and stabilisation of functional brain circuits as unused pathways are eliminated. Changes in frontal cortex activity, for example, come at a time when cognitively related behaviours, such as the phenomenon of stranger anxiety and improvements in memory, begin to appear (17).

Similarly the first coordinated motor movements require the further development of specialised motor regions of the brain. Gradual improvements in motor, visual, spatial and sensory integration mark the disappearance of reflex neonatal behaviours and the emergence of higher conscious function, which will include pain.

Thirdly, Anand ignores the importance of psychological development for the ultimate conscious experience of pain. When a primary care-giver points to a spot and asks ‘does that hurt?’, he or she is beginning the process of enabling an internal discrimination and with it experience.

It is difficult to imagine the undifferentiated existence prior to any symbolic labelling, but it could be like looking at a vast TV screen with the entire world’s information upon it from a distance of one-inch. With no means of making the necessary discriminations all that will be observed is a great buzzing mass of meaningless sound and colour. Before a symbolic system such as language, an individual will not know that something in front of them is large or small, hot or cold, red or green and so on.

Language does not give voice to experiences already available and fully-formed inside our heads. It creates those subjective experiences by making the quality of those experiences apparent to us, by giving them a structure, by placing them within more abstract categories of thought and by linking them to external reference and social convention (18). Clearly our access to others’ pain is mediated through behaviour and language, but this is also true of our own pain experience.

Social development structures our behaviour and language so as to be meaningful to the outside world, but with the unnoticed side effect of rendering the child’s inner experience meaningful to him or her (19). While brain development is certainly a necessary precursor of conscious sensory awareness, merely peering inside the head will not reveal the source of awareness (20).

This is why we can be so positive that the fetus does not feel pain. Not only has the biological development not yet occurred but also the post-birth environment, so necessary to the development of experience, has not yet made itself felt. In short, fetal pain is a moral blunder based on the false equivalence between observer and observed that misses the whole point and process of development.

Anand has made this mistake again and again and again and has now done so to the detriment of women seeking abortion. Distressingly these points were never made at trial, and the Plaintiffs might even have made the situation worse by pointing out that if D&X is painful then D&E must be excruciating. Moreover, in his concluding decision, Judge Casey was able to state that Dr Anand’s testimony went unrebutted by the Plaintiff’s, and provided ‘credible evidence that D&X abortions subject fetuses to severe pain’.

While Anand has done much to advance the clinical treatment of neonates and to preserve early life, he has also done much to confuse the understanding of pain and has now damaged the credibility of medicine. His testimony in California, Nebraska and New York, for which he was paid $450 an hour, plus expenses, by the current US government, was based on an evidently dubious and shaky claim of ‘medical certainty’.

It is understandable and proper for physicians and medical experts to wield their expertise in defence of practices that they believe to enhance clinical care, but it is quite another to wield expertise against clinical care and in defence of hypothetical and unproven experiences. Unfortunately Anand has long interchanged what he believes with what he can prove and now he has done this in the service of reactionary political objectives.

Anand’s testimony has spawned the ‘Unborn Child Protection Act’, which is a Congressional-sponsored attempt to curtail late abortion on the basis of protecting the fetus from pain (21). Similar attempts to introduce fetal pain legislation have already occurred at the State level. In 2003, for example, Minnesota successfully introduced legislation requiring women to be informed of the possibility of fetal pain when seeking a second-trimester termination (22). The state of Virginia attempted to introduce similar legislation in 2004 but the proposal was defeated (23).

Sponsors of the Unborn Child Protection Act have cited Anand’s testimony and those on the pro-life side of the debate believe that this legislation will replace the Partial-Birth Abortion Act as the main focus of anti-abortion activity, especially now that George Bush has returned to the White House (24).

What will happen to abortion in the USA?

Although the Partial-Birth Abortion Act was struck down in each trial, the debate that occurred, and that which has followed, emphasise how marginalised women’s rights have become to the abortion debate. Judge Casey in New York directed his attention routinely towards the fetus, leading to some bizarre exchanges – such as this one, with Dr Frederiksen:

  • THE COURT: Do you tell [the woman] whether or not it will hurt the fetus?
  • THE WITNESS: The intent of [the procedure is] that the fetus will die during the process of uterine evacuation.
  • THE COURT: Ma’am, I didn’t ask you that…
  • THE COURT: Do you tell them whether or not that hurts the fetus?
  • THE WITNESS: I have never talked to a fetus about whether or not they experience pain.
  • THE COURT: I didn’t say that, Doctor. Do you tell the mother whether or not it hurts the fetus?
  • THE WITNESS: In a discussion of pain for the fetus it usually comes up in the context of how the fetus will die. I make an analogy between what we as human beings fear the most [ineligible] a long protracted painful death…
  • THE WITNESS: I feel that fetus dies quickly and it’s over quickly and I think from a standpoint of a human being our desire is that we have a quick death rather than a long protracted death.
  • THE COURT: That’s very interesting, Doctor but it’s not what I asked you. I asked you whether or not you tell them the fetus feels pain.
  • THE WITNESS: I don’t believe the fetus does feel pain at the gestational ages that we do but I have no evidence to say one way or the other so I can’t answer that question.

And this one, with Dr Westhoff:

  • THE COURT: Going back if I could with you a moment, Doctor, to your discussion with patients who say all of them you try and do an intact procedure?
  • THE WITNESS: Yes, your Honor.
  • THE COURT: Do you tell the mother that when you do that that you get to that stage that part of the body, that the fetus is outside her body you insert scissors in the base of the skull and insert them into the brain of the fetus?
  • THE WITNESS: I have not used those particular details but I do tell patients that my goal is to make the…
  • THE COURT: I’m not asking about goals, Doctor, I’m trying to find out what you really tell the mother what you are going to do when you do this procedure. I want to know whether that woman knows that you are going to take a pair of scissors and insert them into the base of the skull of her baby, of her fetus. Do you tell her?
  • THE WITNESS: I do not usually tell patients specific details of the operative approach. I’m completely…
  • THE COURT: Do you tell her that you are going to then, ultimately, suck the brain out of the skull?
  • THE WITNESS: In all of our D&Es the head is collapsed or crushed and the brains are definitely out of the skull but those are…
  • THE COURT: Do you tell them that?
  • THE WITNESS: Those are details that would be distressing to my patients and would not… information about that is not directly relevant to their safety.
  • THE COURT: Don’t… whether it’s relative to their safety or not don’t you think it’s since they’re giving authorisation to you to do this act that they should know precisely what you’re going to do?
  • THE WITNESS: That’s actually not the practice I have of discussing surgical cases with patients.
  • THE COURT: I didn’t ask you that. I said don’t you think they ought to know?
  • THE WITNESS: No, sir, I don’t. That’s not how I discuss C Sections with patients, it’s [not how] I discuss hysterectomy [with my patients] and not how I discuss D&Es.
  • THE COURT: Next question.

These exchanges, and several others, indicate how the political landscape has moved. The physicians work according to the principle that having agreed a termination should take place, the management of it must be in the interests of the woman who will have a life to lead after the event. As Dr Frederiksen pointedly observes, the object of the procedure is for the fetus to die. The judge’s demand to take the ‘fetal perspective’ is perverse, beside the point and wantonly dismissive of the woman’s state of mind.

During several exchanges, Judge Casey asked whether and how the physician described the process of tearing the fetus apart, sucking out its brains and so on. As Dr Westhoff explained, less dramatic language is used because this is a clinical procedure and the idea is to put the patient at ease – not to terrify her and send her running, screaming or sobbing, from the hospital.

The fetal-perspective, however, is encouraged by the legalese defense of abortion in the second-trimester, which is a battleground far removed from the principle of defending abortion as a means to protect women’s autonomy. This was brought home to me while I was preparing my testimony in opposition to the Virginia Legislation (23). I was advised by the lawyers working for the pro-choice cause not to argue that the fetus does not feel pain past 26 weeks, because it really doesn’t matter after 26 weeks as abortion is illegal then anyway.

The lack of access to third-trimester abortion in the USA, however, matters a great deal. The failure to defend abortion ‘as early as possible, as late as necessary’ as a matter of principle for the pregnant woman can only encourage those who oppose abortion as a matter of principle in defending fetal life.

President Bush grasps this well when he states that, despite his own views on abortion, he does not think the American public is ready to overturn Roe v Wade. That is why Bush uses rhetoric such as ‘supporting a culture of life’ and endorses legislation to create barriers against abortion and to enhance the legal status of the fetus but shies away from more severe restrictions on abortion access (25). The pro-choice opposition attacks these legislative manoeuvres as a covert ‘war on choice’ but fail to provide an effective argument in favour of abortion.

By not challenging the public ambivalence over abortion, and even caving into it, the pro-choice movement gives Bush a free hand to continue to chip away at abortion. The somewhat exaggerated concern that the Supreme Court may soon reverse Roe has purchase only because the argument in favour of abortion is already being lost.


In his concluding decision, Judge Casey stated:

‘The Court finds that the testimony at trial and before Congress establishes that D&X is a gruesome, brutal, barbaric, and uncivilized medical procedure.’

There is no question that both D&X and D&E are physically brutal procedures. Even as someone fully committed to abortion access ‘as late as necessary’, the thought of dangling an alive and healthy late-term fetus out of the womb before collapsing its skull, or tearing it apart with forceps and fingers, causes pause.

But unwanted pregnancy, including unwanted late pregnancy, is a fact of life. To deny women access to the abortions they need only swaps the brutality of abortion for the brutality of denying women’s autonomy and forcing them to become mothers. A focus upon the physical act of abortion maligns its higher purpose to allow women the possibility of leading the life they want rather than the life biology provides for them. As the Unborn Child Protection Act makes its way through Congress and the Partial-Birth Abortion Act makes its way to the Supreme Court, it seems highly unlikely that this principle will be heard.

Stuart WG Derbyshire is assistant professor of radiology and anaesthesiology at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, USA. Thanks to David Paintin and Ellie Lee for helpful comments on this article.

Read on:

spiked-issue: Abortion

(1) War on Choice

(2) This booklet is available from NARAL

(3) I gave evidence before the Virginia State Senate March 4, 2004, against House Bill 1315 at the request of Ben Greenberg, Director of Government Relations, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Virginia. I did not receive any payment for this service. I also advised several attorneys during the course of each partial-birth abortion trial on an ad-hoc basis and without payment.

(4) Transcripts of each trial and all the judgments can be found at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops site

(5) The other named plaintiffs were Dr. William G. Fitzhugh, Dr. William H. Knorr, and Dr. Jill L. Vibhakar

(6) Second trimester abortion: An interview with Dr W Martin Haskell, Cincinnati Medicine, Fall 1993

(7) Anand KJS, Sippel WG, Aynsley-Green A. Randomised trial of fentanyl anasthesia in preterm babies undergoing surgery: effects on the stress response. Lancet 1987; 1: 243-248

(8) Anand KJS, Hickey PR. Halothane-morphine compared with high dose sufentanil for anaesthesia and postoperative analgesia in neonatal cardiac surgery. New England Journal of Medicine 1992; 326: 1-9

(9) Rogers MC. Do the right thing: Pain relief in infants and children. New England Journal of Medicine 1992; 326: 55-56

(10) Anand KJS, Hickey PR. Pain and its effects in the human neonate and fetus. New England Journal of Medicine 1987; 317: 1321-1329

(11) Giannakoulopoulos X, Sepulveda W, Kourtis P, Glover V, Fisk NM. Fetal plasma cortisol and b-endorphin response to intrauterine needling. Lancet 1994; 344: 77-81

(12) Derbyshire SWG. Locating the beginnings of pain. Bioethics 1999; 13: 1-31

(13) Hevner RF. Development of connections in the human visual system during fetal mid-gestation: a DiI-tracing study. Journal of Neuropathology and Experimental Neurology 2000; 59: 385-92

(14) Ulfig N, Neudorfer F, Bohl J. Transient structures of the human fetal brain: Subplate, thalamic reticular complex, ganglionic eminence. Histology and Histopathology 2000; 15: 771-790

(15) Chugani HT, Phelps ME. Maturational changes in cerebral function in infants determined by 18FDG positron emission tomography. Science 1986; 231: 840-843

(16) Derbyshire SWG. Exploring the pain ‘neuromatrix.’ Current Review of Pain 2000; 6: 467-477

(17) Chugani HT. Biological basis of emotions: Brain systems and brain development. Pediatrics 1998; 102: 1225-1229

(18) Vygotsky LS. Mind in Society: The development of higher psychological processes. Harvard University Press, 1980

(19) Malik K. Man, Beast and Zombie: What science can and cannot tell us about human nature. Rutgers, University Press, 2002

(20) Hobson P. The cradle of thought: Exploring the origins of human thinking. Macmillan, 2002

(21) Introduced May 20, 2004. Senator Sam Brownback (R-Kansas) and Chris Smith (R-New Jersey) are the Bill’s main sponsors

(22) Minnesota Senate Bill 187 requires that at least 24 hours prior to an abortion, the woman must receive a state-mandated lecture by the physician or physician’s agent, by telephone or in person, that must include: (1) that medical assistance benefits may be available for prenatal care, childbirth, and neonatal care; (2) that the ‘father’ is liable for child support even if he has offered to pay for the abortion; and (3) that she has a right to review state-prepared materials that describe the ‘unborn child,’ list agencies that offer alternatives to abortion, and contain information on ‘fetal pain.’

(23) House Bill 1315 would have required anaesthesia to be administered to the fetus before abortion after three months gestation. The bill was defeated in the Senate Education and Health Committee on March 4 with five members in support and nine members of the committee voting against. I provided testimony against HB1315

(24) New bill in Congress requires abortion doctors to inform women of unborn’s pain, BP News, 21 May 2004

(25) President Bush, for example, signed into law the ‘Unborn Victims of Violence Act’, April 1, 2004, which allows for prosecution following acts against a fetus. This legislation follows other successful efforts at curtailing abortion, including restricting access to public monies and facilities for abortion, enforcing abortion providers to inform the parents of minors scheduling an abortion, and preventing second trimester abortion after viability.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today