Is fetal pain proxy for legislating the concept of a soul?

10 years ago today my first son was born and 10 years ago today he died.

Born at 22 1/2 weeks he lived for three minutes, at least that’s what was written on the certificate that they gave me at the hospital. It seemed like both hours and seconds.

It was very anticlimactic in a way. I don’t say this to be trite, but it was as if his motor just stopped running. He was breathing, and then he took fewer breaths, and then he just wasn’t breathing anymore.

I think a lot about my son, mostly about what might have been. However, as more and more fetal pain laws are passed I find myself thinking about his actual death. How could I not?

Did he suffer?

What I know from embryology is that at 22 1/2 weeks gestational age the neural pathways for pain do not exist. This science is supported by what I’ve sadly seen as an OB/GYN witnessing deaths in the delivery room from extreme prematurity. This is also what I experienced first hand as a mother. There was no agony from extreme hypoxia and acidosis. No consciousness or awareness. Death just simply came.

So with the body of evidence indicating neural pathways for pain don’t exist at 22 1/2 weeks and comfort care for the extremely premature babies born to die being a blanket and much more about comforting the grieving parents than anything else, why this push for fetal pain?

I suppose there is good press to be had, but deep down I believe that fetal pain has become a proxy for the religious concept of a soul.

Most of the anti-choice legislation in the United States comes from the religious right, a very fire and brimstone set who seem to thrive on the concept of heaven and hell. If they’re going to get you to go to church, you have to be worried about eternal salvation not just living a good life. To be eligible for eternal salvation, you need a soul.

But there is no science behind the concept of a soul, it is a purely religious construct.

So then when does the soul appear? It seems somewhat awkward and rather unecclesiastic to pick a random gestational age, such as 22 weeks, so I see how many who are on the religious right default to the concept that “life” begins at conception. But that is a non secular definition and we are supposed to have separation of church and state.

I believe in freedom of religion, so anyone who believes in heaven or hell and a soul should go right on believing that. I truly do. But those are not my beliefs.

I believe in living a good life.

I believe in being kind and helpful.

I believe in wonderful memories and terribly painful ones.

I believe we are capable of making our own lives heavenly and hellish, but I don’t believe such a place exists as an afterlife.

I believe the rewards of living a good life are laughter, smiles, friendship, and love. These are things that are experienced in the here and now.

Laws based on fetal pain do nothing except impose the religious beliefs of the majority on the minority, and I take offense. Dressing up these laws with ribbons of pseudoscience only makes them more offensive.

My son did not suffer and for that I am thankful. Science tells me this and no amount of legislation can change that fact.

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  1. Dr. Jen Gunter…Your an OB/GYN which is your specialty. The Constitution and the Bible are obviously not. If your going to speak about factual information that you learned in med school and practice that is fine. The world is made up of many specialties not just your own. How about not stepping on the toes of others who have degrees in fields like I don’t know…Theology. I am not here questioning your medical knowledge but you feel free to speak on God, Souls, Heaven and Hell as if it’s part of your specialty. When a person with the title of “Dr” takes a stance on a subject your position and opinion has weight and impacts lives. I find that opinion is mostly incorrect most of the time. Here is a little factual info on the separation of CHURCH and STATE so your usage of the phrase is correct in the future.

    Separation of Church and State – The Metaphor and the Constitution
    “Separation of church and state” is a common metaphor that is well recognized. Equally well recognized is the metaphorical meaning of the church staying out of the state’s business and the state staying out of the church’s business. Because of the very common usage of the “separation of church and state phrase,” most people incorrectly think the phrase is in the constitution. The phrase “wall of separation between the church and the state” was originally coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptists on January 1, 1802. His purpose in this letter was to assuage the fears of the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists, and so he told them that this wall had been erected to protect them. The metaphor was used exclusively to keep the state out of the church’s business, not to keep the church out of the state’s business.

  2. When we are young and have our health, hair and a cup of coffee, we get so wrapped up in our own understandings of everything. There will be a day when we visit our past understandings and come to the conclusion that we were young, dumb and full of ourselves. Today with advances in every technology we become like a parakeet in mirror. There should be a rule that until a person reaches the age of fifty, loses a parent or two and has raised children they cannot be allowed to make any decisions that impact society as a whole.

  3. I also had a still-born daughter thirty years ago. It’s good to hear that she didn’t suffer pain.

    Far beyond believing that the unborn have a soul, the Christian Reconstructionists who have taken over the Republican party believe that the U.S. is and was founded as a “Christian” nation. Their version of Christianity is Old Testament and embraces a free-market Jesus. They want women to be submissive baby-making machines and for everyone in the country to be subject to “God’s law,” which always looks like the men’s laws.

  4. Beautifully said. Religion has no place in science, beliefs and facts do not mix.

  5. I was wondering if you have a source to recommend for this. I am afraid to search for fetal pain during stillbirth… you never know what you’re going to get.

    1. Sorry for your loss Anastasia.

      OK, to the main point, while you’re pregnant the foetus is not conscious like we are. To put it simply they’re in a sort of twilight sedation. Imagine being inside a uterus, if you can. You’re in this fluid filled bag inside an active person. This person walks, goes up and down stairs, gets up and sits down, exercises, does housework, has sex etc. If the foetus wasn’t sedated it would feel like it was on a rollercoaster ride every day!

      Then after 22 weeks it gets the ability to start to feel physical sensations like pain. During gestation they’re protected from pain, but can you imagine what Labour and delivery would feel like for a fully conscious little person? Days of powerful contractions, being forced through a really tight aperture (the cervix), being squished through the vagina, then previously untouched skin being handled, virgin eyes and ears hearing noise and seeing lights… If evolution hadn’t moved to keep foetuses sedated up to, through, and for a short while after birth, the consequences would be catastrophic.

      So, full term babies are p*ssed off. They’ve been wrenched from a snug, warm, quiet space and then thrust into a noisy and chaotic world. They fuss and cry, but they’re on automatic mode, not really feeling too much off anything. They’re programmed to eat and sleep in order to recover from birth and spark off the whole “conscious little human” process.

      So, a baby that’s stillborn or one so premature that they cannot survive, doesn’t suffer any pain or trauma. They’re not wired up to feel it. Like Doctor Jen says, they’re like little machines. I’ve often described them as being like one of those super-realistic baby dolls that cry, wiggle, make sucking motions and appear to be breathing. Everything’s working according to the programming. The dolls may be indistinguishable from a real human baby, but they can’t feel pain, don’t think.

      Babies born before their pain and consciousness circuits are fully formed are working according to their programming, on instinct. When they die they don’t know what’s happening, they aren’t in pain or suffering, they just wind down as if their batteries go flat.

      It’s heartbreaking when that much-wanted baby doesn’t leave the hospital with you. Both my wife and my mother, and my wife’s late mother, experienced stillbirth at or near term. My family history, and my wife’s past experience, is one of the reasons we decided that I shouldn’t try to conceive, because the fallout would be too traumatic for all of us. However, my wife and mum are both greatly comforted by the knowledge that their babies did not experience pain and suffering as we know it.

      I hope that your pain is some day less raw, less like a raging fire and more like a candle that burns, rather than flames burning out of control.

      You did nothing wrong, caused no suffering to that baby you wanted so much, their life just slipped away.

      Best of luck.

  6. We just lost our daughter at about 22 weeks – she was delivered at 23 weeks on June 30, but she passed away about a week before that from causes unknown. I am somewhat comforted to learn that she could not have suffered. That has been weighing heavy on my mind.

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