GUEST COMMENTARY - Catholic San Francisco
CATHOLICS INVOLVED IN efforts to end capital punishment long have noticed an inconsistency among some of their fellow death penalty opponents - namely an unwillingness to extend the argument for life to the unborn. This inconsistency is counter to Catholic Church teaching, which calls for respect for life from the moment of conception to the moment of natural death.
Nonetheless, many people of goodwill continue to exhibit disconnect when it comes to life issues. This sad situation was highlighted in December 2006 by an extraordinary set of contrasting developments.
In mid-December, death penalty opponents cheered the decision of a California judge who put a moratorium on executions in the state while the issue of execution protocols - whether pain was caused to the person undergoing execution - was resolved. Also, a judge in Maryland and the governor of Florida stopped pending executions in those states because of humanitarian concerns related to death by lethal injection. In California, U.S. District Judge Jeremy Fogel asked whether those executed suffered "unconscionable pain and suffering".
But just 10 days earlier, on Dec 6, the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act died in the House of Representatives when it failed to receive the two-thirds majority needed to break a procedural impasse. The legislation would have required that women undergoing an abortion 20 weeks into their pregnancy be informed that an abortion causes pain to the unborn child. The bill also would have given women the option of choosing anesthesia for their unborn child to lessen his or her pain during the abortion.
This proposed legislation - intended to provide greater information to women undergoing an abortion - was stopped, despite the testimony of objective medical experts, such as Dr Kanwaljeet Anand, a foetal pain researcher at the University of Arkansas, that foetuses as young as 20 weeks old feel pain.
In this contrast, the life-issue disconnect becomes obvious and cruelly ironic. On the one hand, executions of convicted murderers are put on hold out of concern that inmates may suffer pain during execution. On the other hand, the possibility that unborn children may feel pain is denied - and U.S. representatives demonstrate more concern for the treatment of research animals than they do for the pain felt by the unborn.
However, there will be an opportunity for U.S. senators and U.S. representatives to reconsider the issue of foetal pain in the current 110th Congress. Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., reintroduced the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act on Jan 22. He said, "It's a scientific, medical fact that unborn children feel pain. We know that unborn children can experience pain based upon anatomical, functional, psychological and behavioural indicators that are correlated with pain in children and adults. Mothers seeking an abortion have the right to know that their unborn children can feel pain."
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While women who have experienced pregnancy are keenly aware of the sensory capabilities of a baby in the womb, medical researchers are not of one mind on the question of foetal pain. Some researchers - those not willing to admit the possibility that an unborn child in the mother's womb can feel pain - describe a baby's withdrawal from a probing needle simply as "a neurological response".
It is a sad irony that defenders of capital punishment have used this same phrase in explaining the final, fitful death throes of inmates undergoing execution.
On the question of foetal pain, we should remember that a baby in the womb at four weeks has a heart that has begun to pump. At eight weeks, the unborn baby makes spontaneous movements. By the ninth week, the central nervous system has functional connections between the sensory and motor neurons; and the baby is able to contract large muscles. At 20 weeks gestation, the baby's muscles strengthen, nerve networks expand and the skeleton hardens.
The baby in the womb is active and coordinated, capable of gymnastic feats. Ears are well developed and can recognize sound. After six months in the womb, the baby's movements are even more coordinated, pedalling feet and pushing against the uterine wall. The baby has developed a strong grip and vocal cords are functioning. Eyes can open and close and react to light. A child born at this point (about 26 weeks) can survive with intensive care.
If courts, legislatures and governors are willing to suspend capital punishment out of concern that criminals might feel pain in the process of an execution, surely we - as a nation - ought to have the same consideration for unborn children capable of entering this life. The foetal pain legislation now in Congress gives women additional information at a crucial time. It is a modest step that can be supported by all those who are concerned about the value of human life.
("Moral aspects of pain" first appeared in the Feb 23 issue of Catholic San Francisco, newspaper of the Archdiocese of San Francisco.)