As of this week, Alabama became the sixth state to ban abortions past 20 weeks. The justification: fetuses can feel pain at 20 weeks. The scientific basis of this claim has been contested by doctors. A group of UCSF doctors read 2,000 medical journal articles on the subject and concluded, based on that research, that fetuses could not feel pain until at least 29 or 30 weeks. Now, whether that theoretical, vaguely possible, fetal pain outweighs the actual, real, physical pain of a grown woman is another matter. As is the idea that a fetus's rights outweigh those of his/her mother's. But I digress.
This in-depth article from The New York Times Magazine investigates the doctors and medical data behind the 20-weeks guideline, and provides some very good background information on the debate. There seems to be little doubt that giving fetuses (and very pre-term babies) anesthetic helps them recover better from surgeries. But there are very few medical doctors who will say that fetuses experience pain like full-grown adults, or even like children. After all, if they did, wouldn't the compression of their skull as it went through the birth canal be excruciating? And while you or I would not like to be confined to a very small, wet, hot place for months on end, swallowing our own urine, fetuses thrive in that environment. Fetuses experience a different reality, and a different consciousness, from adults. But since they can't tell us what it's like, it's left up to adults to interpret.
Link: "The First Ache," by Annie Murphy Paul (New York Times Magazine, February 10 2008)