- Published: October 31, 2012
Neuroscience’s interdisciplinary aspects have proved more pervasive than previously thought. It is not being brought to light with cases of abortion and Roe v. Wade. The issue centers around an illegal abortion performed late within the term. Some argue that if the fetus is able to feel pain (as supposedly only happens into the third-trimester), then it should be protected under the legal system with as much validity as a born person. This of course implies that pain leads to personhood, however, this too requires debate. Being able to understand the neurobiological markers for pain gives us insight into whether or not the fetus is objectively feeling pain. However, what implications does this have? We have not yet come to a consensus on the definition of personhood and whether or not that definition complies with an ability to feel pain. William Egginton mentions that when his input was requested on a case like this, he was surprised that he as a professional in the Humanities was called instead of a Neuroscience expert. Egginton states that, "In this case, neuroscience is being used to expand the rights of fetuses by contracting the rights of women to choose whether to continue or terminate their pregnancies" .
By equating pain with personhood, pro-life groups will benefit in pushing for 'Protection of Unborn Children' acts and similar legislations. Neuroscience can determine pain, but not personhood. As is statistically proven, if abortions become increasingly harder to obtain, more women will turn to illegal and more dangerous methods . As Egginton states, "For neuroscientific findings of fetal pain to serve as a basis for permitting states to prohibit abortion prior to viability, they must tell us something about the nature of a fetus that makes the state’s interest in protecting it more compelling than its interest in protecting a woman’s right to make basic decisions about her own body. As pain sentience does not serve as a basis for legal prohibitions in general (or else mousetraps and deer hunting would be prohibited), the statutes’ real purpose is to use potential evidence of pain sentience in fetuses to indicate the presence of something far more compelling — namely, personhood" . Essentially, the issue here is still personhood. Though neurological advancements give us amazing new insights, there still needs to be a legal definition of personhood. This may be a case where bright lines would be useful as creating subjectivity with personhood is where we are currently with our legal system. However, bright lines in the legal system are always ill advised because it allows for context to be dismissed. Ultimately, there needs to be a consensus about personhood. It is possible that further neuroscience research may assist in establishing such an idea, however, at this time personhood is so widely defined that to begin looking for neurobiological markers would prove difficult to say the least.
As always it is important to take into account science alongside various other things. Taking a reductionist approach has the potential to be very damaging, especially with sensitive issues like abortion. Definitions and legislations should make sure to take into account various things without creating great divides and leaving people in gray-areas to fend for themselves.