Laws based on fetal pain are being dressed with pseudoscience

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.

Jennifer Gunter is an obstetrician-gynecologist and author of The Preemie Primer. She blogs at her self-titled site, Dr. Jen Gunter.

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