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Pro-life advocates dispute new fetal pain report, say authors have conflict of interest

WASHINGTON (BP)–Pro-life advocates have responded to a new report contending unborn children do not feel pain until the third trimester of pregnancy with at least three critiques:

— It is compromised.

— It is questionable.

— It is beside the point.

A team from the University of California-San Francisco reported in the latest issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association that a review of already existing studies suggests the ability of unborn babies to perceive pain “probably does not exist before 29 or 30 weeks.” The study’s conclusions conflict with the assertions of some specialists who believe the unborn can sense pain as early as 20 weeks into the pregnancy, which is only halfway through the second trimester.

The study was issued as pro-life members of Congress seek to gain support for legislation that would require a woman who is at least 20 weeks pregnant and considering abortion to hear the scientific evidence of the pain an unborn child experiences during the procedure. If the woman still decides to have an abortion, the doctor would have to offer anesthesia for the unborn baby in an attempt to reduce his pain.

After the study was published, it was reported two of the five authors have, or have had, connections to abortion rights organizations. Eleanor Drey, a UCSF obstetrician-gynecologist, is medical director at San Francisco General Hospital’s Women’s Options Center, which performs 2,000 abortions a year, about 600 between the 20th and 23rd weeks of pregnancy, according to the San Francisco Chronicle. Susan Lee, a lawyer and a UCSF medical student, formerly worked for NARAL Pro-choice America, one of the country’s leading abortion lobbies, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.

For Southern Baptist bioethicist C. Ben Mitchell, those connections to abortion are only part of the problem with the report.

“A respectable professional journal like JAMA should know better than to publish research from persons with such obvious conflicts of interest,” Mitchell told Baptist Press. “Furthermore, their findings are highly disputable, even among those who do not find abortion particularly troubling ethically.”

An associate professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in suburban Chicago and a consultant with the Ethics & Religion Liberty Commission, Mitchell also said the “argument against aborting a fetus is not, first and foremost, about whether the fetus feels pain, anymore than the argument against euthanasia is about whether or not the death is accomplished painlessly. The real question is: What are our moral obligations to our unborn offspring?”

Catherine D. DeAngelis, JAMA’s editor in chief, told the Inquirer she did not know of the authors’ connection to abortion advocacy. “We ask them to reveal any conflict of interest,” DeAngelis said, adding the information would have been published had she known of it.

Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee, said of the appearance of a conflict of interest, “If Congress wanted to know if calves feel pain, it wouldn’t ask the veal industry for an analysis of the scientific evidence.”

Some specialists disputed the authors’ conclusions.

Kanwaljeet Anand, a pediatrics professor at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, told the Associated Press, “They have literally stuck their hands into a hornet’s nest. This is going to inflame a lot of scientists who are very, very concerned and are far more knowledgeable in this area than the authors appear to be. This is not the last word -– definitely not.”

Anand, who says he is not an abortion opponent, testified last year in a trial involving the federal ban on partial-birth abortion that it “would be extremely painful” for an unborn baby at 20 weeks gestation, the Omaha (Neb.) World-Herald reported. Unborn children at 20 weeks have developed the sensory nerves, skin receptors and brain stem required to feel pain, he said, according to the newspaper. Anand also acknowledged no study proves his belief and some of his colleagues disagree with him, according to the World-Herald.

In a partial-birth abortion, a doctor delivers an intact baby, feet first, until only the head is left in the birth canal. The doctor pierces the base of the infant’s skull with surgical scissors, then inserts a catheter into the opening and suctions out the brain, killing the child. The procedure is normally used in the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy.

Jean Wright, executive director of the Backus Children’s Hospital in Savannah, Ga., and a member of the Focus on the Family Physician’s Resource Council, said of the study, “Anyone who has walked through a neonatal intensive care unit and seen a 25-, 26-, 28-weeker knows that’s not true. There’s our perfect place for studying in-utero pain to the fetus, because we have those babies every single day in our hospitals, essentially on the outside, where we can look at their grimace, see their reaction to pain and measure their stress hormones.

“When I look at the 20-week fetus, there are pain receptors that cover the entire body — starting at week six,” she told CitizenLink, an information service of Focus on the Family. “The nerves have progressed from the head down to the feet; they’ve connected with the spinal cord; there are little packets of protein that go from one nerve ending to another. When we measure the response to a painful stimulus — either by hormones or other tests we use — all those things are there.”

The University of California-San Francisco authors said in the Aug. 24-31 issue of JAMA there is little, if any, evidence on whether anesthesia is effective for the unborn child during an abortion or whether it is safe for women undergoing an abortion.

The legislation before Congress is the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act, S. 51 in the Senate and H.R. 356 in the House of Representatives. Sen. Sam Brownback, R.-Kan., and Rep. Chris Smith, R.-N.J., are the sponsors. They have 34 and 123 cosponsors, respectively.

Earlier this year, NARAL Pro-choice America withdrew its opposition to the bill.