When Gabby Gingras was a baby, she nearly scratched out both of her eyes with her fingers. As a toddler she chewed her tongue, gnawed at her fingers until they bled, and snapped many teeth out of her gums by chewing too hard on her toys. Over the years, she has badly bumped, bruised and broken many parts of her body, including her jaw—which remained broken for weeks before a doctor noticed the injury. Gabby Gingras has a rare neurological condition called Congenital Insensitivity to pain with anhidrosis. She and the few others with this condition have the unique distinction of being unable to feel pain—a distinction she shares with countless embryos and early fetuses.
The 18th century British philosopher Jeremy Bentham proposed a moral ideal that has become the foundation of modern utilitarianism: “The question is not, Can they reason? nor, Can they talk? but, Can they suffer?” With this reasoning, ethicists like Peter Singer have argued that animals, who can suffer, are worthy of rights and legal protections, whereas fetuses, who arguably feel no pain, demand no such concern. And indeed, where there is opposition to late-term abortion, much of the discussion revolves around the possibility of fetal pain, as demonstrated in the recent debate over the United States' Pain-Capable Unborn Child Act (PCUCA), which passed in the House and was introduced to the Senate in November 2013. Few people want to be in a position of causing suffering, even if they are otherwise in favor of abortion.
Unfortunately, the exact gestational point at which fetuses can feel pain is still being debated by scientists and medical professionals. The PCUCA has been backed by physicians and scientists who make a persuasive case that the capacity for pain exists in the fetus by at least 20 weeks' gestation. Some have argued that pain can be felt even in the absence of the cerebral cortex, as evidenced by the recoil reflex to painful stimuli, and by the response to tickling that can be demonstrated in fetuses as early as 8 to 13 weeks' gestation. [See documents and affidavits at www.doctorsonfetalpain.com] On the other hand, scientists from the UK's Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists have argued that the fetus is in a state of sedation throughout most of pregnancy, and is unable to feel pain until at least 24 weeks (Coghlan). As the average lay person attempts to navigate through the "he said/she said" of the medical journals and scientific papers, the question remains: how is the abortion debate impacted if the fetus cannot feel the pain of abortion? Is it less wrong to kill a younger fetus—or any fetus—if he or she cannot feel pain?
Remember that Gabby Gingras can't feel pain either. If her parents decided they could no longer take on the challenges of her health condition and opted to cut her throat or dismember Gabby in her sleep, the little girl would likely never feel a thing. Would it be morally acceptable to dismember and kill her, simply on account of the fact that she would not suffer as her life was extinguished? If the answer is that no, denying Gabby her future would still be an injustice against her even if she were to die blissfully without ever having been aware of the future she was denied, it follows that one's capacity or incapacity to experience pain and suffering can likewise not be the deciding factor on the morality of abortion.
Gabby Gingras' right to not be dismembered is not based on what she can or cannot feel, but on the concept of an equal society, where those of us with better vision, better hearing, or a more acute pain threshold do not get to determine that those with less of these physical capacities have less value as human beings. If they are biological members of the human species, fetuses should enjoy the same access to equality, and should see their futures just as protected, regardless of what they can or cannot currently feel.
The truth of the matter is that pain and suffering don't exist in a vacuum. One never says to his friend “Whoah! Look out for that pain on the sidewalk!” or “Hey! A suffering just bumped into me!” Pain and suffering (along with their cousin “consciousness”) are merely states of being, and ones that fluctuate greatly, even within one's own lifetime. Even when a human function or attribute is not currently active (for example fertility), to ask whether that capacity is present yet is to nonetheless acknowledge the inherent capacity for that human function. Human functions, active or inactive, can only exist where a being capable of that human function exists. In other words, sensations of pain and suffering are simply capacities within something—or in this case, within someone—a developing member of the human family.
So when it comes to abortion and fetal pain, fans of Philosopher Bentham are guilty of asking the wrong question. The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” and it's not even “Can they suffer?” A more fundamental question must first be answered: “What are they?”
1. Coghlan, Andy. “24-week Fetuses Cannot Feel Pain.” New Scientist. 21 June 2010. Web.