Angela Fralish, MJLST Invited Blogger
On January 3, 2017 Congressman Trent Franks from Arizona suggested a major change in the law which could overturn precedent of more than 30 years. He introduced the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” which generally prohibits abortions after 20 weeks. Fueling this highly controversial legislation is a complex scientific and legal debate as to whether or not the fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks, and if that proof should result in a change in the law.
Advocates on both sides of the Act include physicians, legislators, constitutional law experts, policy interest groups, philosophers and neuroscientists. Supporters of non-interference prior to viability advocate that proof of fetal pain is not substantiated. One the other side, fetal pain protestors argue that a fetus can in fact feel pain at 20 weeks, and abortions should be proscribed between after that time.
The Supreme Court ruled in watershed cases Roe v. Wade (1973), and Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), that a woman’s right to elect an abortion prior to viability, which is usually 23 to 24 weeks, is a constitutionally protected “fundamental right.” Time and time again, the Supreme Court has upheld that precedent, and prevented the right to interfere with a woman’s choice prior to viability. However, new medical technology advances call the old law into question. As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor noted in Roe, medical science will reduce the point of viability and “Roe is clearly on a collision course with itself.”
Scientifically speaking, both parties have referenced the anatomical makeup for fetal pain to support their arguments. Studies show that the thalamus and pain sensor receptors, usually developed by 20 weeks, are used to process pain. The counter argument is that the anatomical capability to feel pain does not equate to actually feeling pain: fetuses at 20 weeks lack the necessary pain pathways, or physiological ability to communicate pain, even if the thalamus and receptors are available. Legislative findings of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act argue that fetuses at 20 weeks not only respond to touch, but also emit stress hormones and recoil at painful stimuli. Thus, some have concluded that fetuses are indeed “capable” of feeling pain and abortion should be proscribed at that time.
So where should the court draw the line? One past example of legislation related to medical uncertainty related to fetal pain was the Partial Birth Abortion Act of 2003. After much controversy, this act was upheld by Gonzalez v. Carhart (2007) noting that “medical uncertainty does not foreclose the exercise of legislative power in the abortion context any more than it does in other contexts.” In this sense, Congressman Trent Franks’ bill could potentially pass, despite long held precedent, because the courts retain legislative power within the abortion context when there is medical uncertainty. However, much like the Partial Birth Abortion Act, if Congress passes this legislation, it will be up to the state courts and modern day legal advocates to reinforce or discredit it on a case-by-case basis.
Only time will tell how this intricately webbed science-law issue will play out. Judith Munson quoted as early as 1975 in her article Fetal Research: A View from Right to Life to Wrongful Birth, “The controversy has become a contest between the state of the art and the state of the law.” Constitutional lawyers, physicians and the general public certainly have their work cut out for them in understanding how medical science impacts the law. As O.D. Jones remarks, “Law and neuroscience seem strange bedfellows. But the engagement of law with neuroscientific evidence was inevitable.” This holds especially true in relation to mother chicks and decisions regarding their “eggs.”