- Published: November 8, 2012
The advances that we have made in the field of neuroscience have made its use in courtrooms an increasingly tricky question. With more sophisticated brain imaging techniques, neuroscientists have been able to determine the causal factor of someone committing a crime – factors such as brain tumors, brain damage, and other brain abnormalities. However, it is intuitively uncomfortable to let a murderer “go free” because their brains “made them” commit the crime –many people still want to hold the criminal culpable. Therefore many leading scholars, including neuroscientist David Eagleman, have proposed reforming the criminal justice system to become more “forward thinking.” With a forward looking legal system, neuroscience can be used as a tool to help juries decide the appropriate punishment based on the criminal’s probability of recidivism, not on some of the measures we use today.
The importance of the law’s interpretation of new facts unveiled using the tools of neuroscience can be seen in other examples as well. As in the previous case where a criminal must still be held culpable even though his brain “made him” commit the crime, neuroscience can challenge the law in other ways such as abortion. According to a 2005 review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, “[e]vidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.” According to William Egginton, this has led to different acts such as Idaho’s Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act which prohibits “abortions even prior to viability.” It should be noted that in this case neuroscience evidence (i.e. that a fetus can feel pain) is being used to argue that this “indicate[s] the presence of something far more compelling – namely, personhood.” When using neuroscience evidence in either policy making or courtroom, it is important that the people involved understand the meaning of the science – exactly what the science says and what it doesn’t say – and the implications that this has for the rest of the case. Does feeling pain mean that the fetus is conscious, and does that mean it makes it a person? These are difficult questions that neuroscience poses and will continue to pose as the technology continues to advance.
Egginton, William. "Can Neuroscience Challenge Roe V. Wade?" Opinionator. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Nov. 2012. <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/28/can-neuroscience-challenge-roe-v-wade/>.