Abortion Debate Turns to Age at Which Fetuses Can Feel Pain

Mary Beth Nierengarten

Disclosures

May 28, 2015

In This Article

Fetal Pain: The Alternate Benchmark to Viability

Where will the argument over fetal pain lead? The bill seems unlikely to pass, as President Obama has pledged to veto it if it ever reaches his desk.[8]However, recent medical evidence reported in the May 7 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine may be interpreted to provide additional support to banning abortions earlier than the 24-week viability benchmark. Matthew A. Rysavy and colleagues reviewed data on 4987 infants born between April 2006 and March 2011 at 24 hospitals within the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development Neonatal Research Network. They reported that some fetuses born at 22, 23, or 24 weeks gestation survived when administered active treatment, defined as any potentially lifesaving intervention administered after birth.[9]

Dr Stevens says that in the late 1970s, when he finished his medical training, it was rare for infants born at 28 weeks to survive, but that this new study shows that the age of viability outside the womb improves as medical capabilities increase. For example, he cited data from the study reporting that, overall, 5.1% of infants born at 22 weeks survived.[9]

According to Dr Lawrence, however, the NEJM study was intended to help ob/gyns and neonatologists improve their understanding of the challenges and opportunities with early premature delivery, and was not meant to be used as fuel for abortion-rights opponents. He pointed out that in the study, only 23% of infants who received intensive medical care survived, and most had moderate to severe neurologic impairment.[9] "This is why the medical community refers to the 'threshold of viability,' because there is no point at which viability is clearly established," he said at the May 13 press conference.

Medical Professionals Weigh In

In December 2014, Medscape conducted a survey of 21,531 physicians across 25 specialties which included the question, "Should late-term abortions be legal?" Responses are shown in Tables 1 and 2.

Table 1. Overall Physicians' Response to "Should Late-Term Abortions Be Legal?"

  Answer
  Yes No It Depends
Total 23% 41% 36%
Male 23% 43% 34%
Female 21% 40% 37%

Source: Medscape Ethics Report 2014, Part 1: Life, Death, and Pain.

Table 2. Ob/Gyns' Response to "Should Late-Term Abortions Be Legal?"

  Answer
  Yes No It Depends
Total 39% 34% 28%

Source: Medscape Obstetricians/Gynecologists Ethics Report 2014.

Compared with other physicians, ob/gyns were more likely to say that late-term abortions should be legal. Ob/gyns cited clinical issues, such as the mother's health and fetal anomalies, as well as maintaining a woman's right to choose as reasons for supporting late-term abortions.

How do you feel about late-term abortions and the argument over fetal pain? Tell us in this article's comments section.

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