Fetal Pain Matters a Great Deal—and Not at All

20 week fetus in the womb 

Twenty week fetus in the womb [Photo courtesy of Life Issues Institute]

Today, Senator Lindsey Graham introduced the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which would ban abortion after 20 weeks gestation nationwide.

Sen. Graham acknowledges from the outset that the bill stands little chance of passing in the Senate at the moment, but stated that he believes it is important to promote debate on the topic among our nation’s leaders because, “the state, the government has a legitimate interest to protect the child at the 20-week period of development, because they can feel pain. That’s what a rational humane society should do.”

It’s great that Sen. Graham is kickstarting this debate, even if the bill’s passage is unlikely. One of the immediate fruits of the bill even being proposed is a face on the floor, kicking and screaming tantrum from pro-abortion forces. Always a good sign.

But some argue that using fetal pain as a benchmark for protecting babies is a bad idea, claiming if we protect babies on that basis, people will think that babies who can’t feel pain aren’t worth protecting. Is there anything to this? Does fetal pain matter?

Fetal Pain Matters a Great Deal, and Not at All

Fetal pain matters simultaneously a great deal, and not at all.

Morally speaking, fetal pain doesn’t matter at all. Capacity to feel pain is not what makes us human, and pain isn’t what makes murder wrong.

There are people born without the capacity to feel pain, as depicted in the heartbreaking documentary A Life Without Pain, which you can watch on YouTube. These people are still very much human despite their disability.

Likewise, if we sedate a person to the point where they would not feel it if we killed them, their inability to feel pain would not justify their murder.

Fetal Pain Can Awaken the Conscience

But at the same time, fetal pain matters a great deal because it produces empathy. Sometimes it’s not possible to show a person the entirety of the truth all at once. This is even more true when you’re trying to speak to an entire culture.

The pain experienced by babies aborted later in pregnancy can be used to grab the hearts of people who are on the fence about abortion but unwilling to admit that abortion is always wrong for any reason.

Fetal pain can awaken the consciences of most normal people to the truth. Most people don’t want to see fully-formed babies torn limb from limb, especially if they know it hurts.

If we can build consensus that these older babies are worth protecting, we can help our culture see the humanity in younger children in the womb. It’s a natural question, once we’ve protected one set of unborn babies, to ask why we aren’t protecting others. The tantrums on the pro-abortion side show that they know this is a serious threat.

As we talk in the coming months about fetal pain, let’s remember both sides of the coin. Fetal pain does not make abortion wrong, but it can make people see that abortion is wrong, at least some of the time.

From there we can help them see the more difficult truth, that even the zygote with no recognizable human features is a human being who deserves the same human rights that they enjoy.

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