- Published: October 31, 2012
In a recent New York Times opinion article, William Ellington discusses neuroscience's role in the abortion debate. In the past few years, individual states have attempted to "cite neuroscientific findings of pain sentience on the part of fetuses as a basis for prohibiting abortions even prior to viability", which is the line used in Roe v. Wade. In the neuroscientific community "opinions on whether and when fetal sensitivity to pain may develop vary widely" and this is Ellington's first argument against such laws, which I believe to be quite legitimate. At this point, we just don't know enough to say definitively. Ellington goes on to tell how "pain sentience does not serve as a basis for legal prohibitions in general", so attempting to determine that fetuses can feel pain is merely a means to indicate the presence of personhood. According to Justice Harry A. Blackmum's opinion in 1973, if "this suggestion of personhood is established, the appellant's case, of course, collapses, for the fetus' right to life would then be guaranteed specifically by the Amendment. [14th]" Ellington states that devolves into a discussion about consciousness, since the nociceptive capacity of an organism-the ability of its nervous system to detect and respond to potentially noxious stimuli is present in many organisms, and we are more concerned about the conscious awareness of the presence of such stimuli. As such, Ellington states "for a fetus to be conscious in a sense that would establish it as a fully actualized human life, according both to current neuroscientific standards and to the philosophical tradition" from which it steams, "it would have to be capable of self-perception as well as simple perception of stimuli", a view that I think is quite reasonable. Since the science is not definitive yet, Ellington ends the article with the idea that "while neuroscience may or may not be able to tell us something about eh development of fetal nociceptive capacity, it has nothing to say about the fundamental question of what counts as a full-fledged person deserving of the rights afforded by a society." His reasoning for this statement is that the rights that we have guaranteed by our Constitution have nothing to do with science, and as such as nonfalsifiable. Likewise, Ellington states that "the basic liberties of Americans should not be dependent on the changing opinions of science.", another belief that I tend to agree with. Science can be an invaluable tool in informing us about our possible choices, but it should not be used as the end all be all of in terms of determining what "constitutes the emergence of a human life."
Can Neuroscience Challenge Roe V. Wade?; NYTIMES; Willliam Ellington