- Published: November 22, 2012
In an October 28th New York Times article titled “Can Neuroscience Challenge Roe V. Wade?” Johns Hopkins University Professor William Egginton discuss an overarching topic of human rights and science: the use of scientific knowledge by the government to shape civil policies and subsequently the rights of citizens. Specifically pertaining to abortion, neuroscientific findings regarding fetal pain have been of interest due to their implications in legal matters, especially Roe V. Wade, which has regulated American women’s rights to an abortion (with contested emphasis on the timing of an abortion). As Egginton notes, Idaho’s “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” uses neuroscientific findings to argue that abortions should be prevented even prior to viability, which occurs around 24-28 weeks of development. One such journal article, written by Myers et al. in 2004, underscores that “The first essential requirement for nociception is the presence of sensory receptors, which first develop in the perioral area at approximately 7 weeks gestation and are diffusely located throughout the body by 14 weeks.” With numerous similar articles in their repertoire of evidence, many Republicans and pro-life advocates feel that neuroscience can play a significant role in overturning Roe V. Wade’s granting of abortion rights.
Egginton and many others point out that “pain sentience does not serve as a basis for legal prohibitions in general (or else mousetraps and deer hunting would be prohibited),” and thus the real debate rests on when personhood becomes a reality for fetuses. This turns the conversation to focus on the notion of consciousness, which places a significantly more demanding standard than mere viability. At what point does a fetus become a “fully actualized human life?” Although this would, in neuroscience and certain schools of philosophy, bring about notions of self-perception and perception of stimuli, in terms of the law it brings about a very explicit consideration: with or without the findings of neuroscience, it seems very challenging to enumerate the requisites for personhood. What emerges from this controversy is the concept that making scientific knowledge the deciding factor in policy-making can be troubling and unbalanced. Although the methods and findings of neuroscience’s investigation on fetal pain may have empirical validity, the interpretations that seek to define the boundaries of human consciousness are much less firm. Although more remains to be debated and discovered in this realm of Neurolaw, it would make sense that the role of scientific findings should remain advocatory rather than authoritative, and that lawmakers and lawyers alike should stray away from trying to create legal facts out of scientific findings.
Egginton, William. "Can Neuroscience Challenge Roe V. Wade?" The New York Times, 28 Oct. 2012. Web. 21 Nov. 2012. <http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/10/28/can-neuroscience-challenge-roe-v-wade/>.
“Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act” mhttp://www.legislature.idaho.gov/legislation/2011/S1165.pdf
Myers LB, Bulich LA, Hess, P, Miller, NM. Fetal endoscopic surgery: indications and anaesthetic management. Best Practice & Research Clinical Anaesthesiology. 18:2 (2004) 231-258.