What can science add to the abortion debate?

Few topics generate such a passionate division in opinion as abortion and ultimately there is no easy answer when choosing between an unborn child’s right to life and a woman’s right to freedom over her own body. However, after reading about the uproar caused by the tragic death of Savita Halappanavar, I knew I wanted to add my own voice to this debate. Which left me pondering the following question: what can a science blog bring to the table when tackling a heated moral debate like this?

The answer, I believe, is something few mainstream sources address: the development of the brain and consciousness (as we understand it) in the growing fetus.

Of course if you are of the opinion that ‘life begins at the moment of conception’ the emergence of consciousness is probably a moot point. However, according to recent statistics more than 60% of UK adults and 18-35 year-olds in the republic of Ireland are pro-choice. This means that, under certain circumstances, they accept abortion as a viable option, raising a particularly difficult question. Assuming abortion, in theory, is acceptable, is there a point during the pregnancy when it becomes unacceptable and how do we decide where to draw this line?

Current UK legislation states that an abortion must be carried out during the first 24 weeks of pregnancy. However, guidelines also state that the procedure should ideally be performed before 12 weeks. Current legislation bases its ‘upper limit’ on the survival rate of premature babies, which is significantly reduced prior to 24 weeks (Percentage of babies successfully discharged from hospital after premature birth at 24 weeks: 33.6%, 23 weeks: 19.9%, 22 weeks:9.1%).

Almost 90% of UK abortions are performed within the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. During this time there is no scientific doubt that the developing fetus is incapable of  any form of conscious awareness. The fetal brain does not begin to develop until 3-4 weeks into the pregnancy, at which point it is little more than a hollow tube filled with dividing neurons. Between weeks 4 and 8 this neural tissue grows forming the major divisions of the adult brain (forebrain, midbrain, hindbrain and spinal cord). By 8 weeks recognisable facial features have developed and the cerebral cortex separates into two distinct hemispheres. By the end of the first trimester (12 weeks) nerve cells are beginning to form rudimentary connections between different areas of the brain. However, these connections are sparse and incapable of performing the same functions as an adult brain. So by 12 weeks, although the fetus is certainly starting to look like a little human, the neural circuits responsible for conscious awareness are yet to develop.

The first trimester is also the time when around three quarters of spontaneous miscarriages occur. Miscarriages are possible throughout the pregnancy and are much more common than most people realise. One in eight women who are aware of their pregnancy experience a miscarriage, with many more occurring before the woman is even aware she has fallen pregnant.

As the complexity of the fetal brain grows, forming structures similar to those we recognise in the adult, so the does the fetus’ ability to experience and respond to its environment. Indeed, studies have shown that from 16 weeks the fetus can respond to low frequency sound and by 19 weeks will withdraw a limb or flinch in response to pain. An observer would certainly think these responses look very much like the start of conscious awareness. However, during these early days the neural pathways responsible for converting senses to conscious experiences have yet to develop. This means what we are seeing are just reflexes, probably controlled entirely by the developing brainstem and spinal cord.

In fact, we know that the brain structures necessary for conscious experience of pain do not develop until 29-30 weeks, while the conscious processing of sounds is only made possible after the 26th week. Even when the fetal brain possesses all its adult structures, scientists are cautious to assume it posesses what we refer to as ‘consciousness’. This is mainly because the low oxygen levels and a constant barrage of sleep-inducing chemicals from the placenta ensure that, until birth, the foetus remains heavily sedated.

Ultimately, although science cannot and should not try and answer the moral questions behind abortion, it can give us some amazing insights into how the brain develops. It seems that, in the womb, a fetus is unlikely to ever experience traditional consciousness. However, we do know that from the time neural pathways are in place (the last weeks before birth) the fetus can form rudimentary memories. Meaning that after birth it can show a preference for its mother’s voice and other sounds and smells experienced in the womb – yes, newborn babies show a liking for the smell of amniotic fluid.

Therefore, although the ‘upper limit’ on abortion remains relatively arbitrary. Its current position at 24 weeks appears to fit well with both premature birth survival rates and, in terms of neural development, a time before any major connections are in place. Making it, in my eyes, as pretty good point at which to draw this line.

Post by: Sarah Fox

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33 Responses to What can science add to the abortion debate?

  1. THEMAYAN says:

    If you were wrong concerning your use of the statement “This means what we are seeing are just reflexes, probably controlled entirely by the developing brainstem”
    if you were speak to the parents of these unborn babies who read this article and took you at your word. What would you say to them? Would it be something sorry, my bad?

    Unborn babies can feel pain
    Scientific evidence reveals that unborn babies do, indeed, feel pain
    Robert J. White, M.D., PhD., professor of neurosurgery, Case Western University

    The evidence of fetal pain
    With the advent of sonograms and live-action ultrasound images, neonatologists and nurses are able to see unborn babies at 20 weeks gestation react physically to outside stimuli such as sound, light and touch. The sense of touch is so acute that even a single human hair drawn across an unborn baby’s palm causes the baby to make a fist.

    Did you know that this 20-week-old unborn child can feel pain?
    Surgeons entering the womb to perform corrective procedures on tiny unborn babies have seen those babies flinch, jerk and recoil from sharp objects and incisions.

    “The neural pathways are present for pain to be experienced quite early by unborn babies,” explains Steven Calvin, M.D., perinatologist, chair of the Program in Human Rights Medicine, University of Minnesota, where he teaches obstetrics.

    Medical facts of fetal pain
    Anatomical studies have documented that the body’s pain network—the spino-thalamic pathway—is established by 20 weeks gestation.

    • “At 20 weeks, the fetal brain has the full complement of brain cells present in adulthood, ready and waiting to receive pain signals from the body, and their electrical activity can be recorded by standard electroencephalography (EEG).”
    — Dr. Paul Ranalli, neurologist, University of Toronto

    • An unborn baby at 20 weeks gestation “is fully capable of experiencing pain. … Without question, [abortion] is a dreadfully painful experience for any infant subjected to such a surgical procedure.”

    • thebrainbank says:

      Hi THEMAYAN, thanks for your comment, it’s always nice to see people doing their research before commenting!

      So a couple of brief points:

      The physical response you see to a painful stimuli such as a pin prick to a limb can be mediated entirely by lower brain structures. Interestingly, infants born with birth defects meaning that they never develop a cortex will respond to pain in largely the same manner as intact infants, this includes withdrawal of the limb and in some cases displaying facial expressions indicative of pain (similar responses can also be seen in some brain dead adults). However given their defect it is highly unlikely that their conscious experience of pain is equivalent to ours (indeed experience is probably not even the correct word).

      My research always comes from peer reviewed papers, however I do not always link back to these since unfortunately many are not available for public access. (My assertion that a infant under 24 weeks is unlikely to experience pain as we know it is taken from this review article (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19112406) which states ‘Cortical processes occur only after thalamocortical connections and pathways have been completed at the 26th gestational week’).

      However I’m quite certain that this is a work in progress, as is the beauty of scientific research we are constantly learning more and broadening our understanding.

      The Doctor you quote has written his own interesting review article, which unfortunately I cannot fully access. However in the abstract he does not assert that the fetus feels pain, just that it is capable of responding to painful stimuli, which is not the same thing. (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15171500) This is an important issue in his field (fetal surgery), since even without a conscious experience of pain, the neurotransmitters released in response to a ‘painful’ stimuli (released by lower brain structures), could still influence future brain development.

      Also to note that ‘having a full compliment of brain cells’ is irrelevant to the ability to perceive pain, indeed perception is linked better with how these are connected and how they communicate (interestingly the manner by which fetal neurons communicate is different from that of an adult, they actually rely heavily on different neurotransmitters than those used in the adult brain).

      The final point I will make, which was something which I found particularly interesting and did not know before I began researching this article, is that the fetus remains under heavy sedation in the womb, therefore even if structures were in place to form a conscious awareness of pain, it is likely that these are numbed and will not respond in the same manner as an awake adult.

      However I agree that this is very important research, and something we cannot afford to be complacent with. So certainly further studies are necessary in the future to give us more information.

      I hope you found researching this topic as interesting as I did! Many thanks again for your comment.


      • The child may not be able to feel pain as we do, but that doesn’t tell us it cannot experience pain at all.

        Why are we taking chances on that?

        Your comments about spontaneous abortion don’t seem to follow. To say that a child can die doesn’t tell us anything about how it is living.

        To say that a child is heavily sedated also doesn’t tell us anything. Is it morally acceptable to kill those under sedation, whether heavy or light, simply because they are both sedated and inconvenient?

        Scientific facts about development are lovely, but they tell us nothing about moral decisions.

        • thebrainbank says:

          Hi Steve, thanks for your comment

          Does it not? It depends on your definition of ‘experience’ a creature with only a couple of neurons can respond to pain by moving away, but there is little doubt that it is not consciously aware of this experience, even a single cell can move away from ‘danger’. I don’t dent that we must tread carefully when discussing ‘upper time limits’, however we also do not want to deny the rights of and perhaps ruin the life of a sentient human being over something which may be little more than a red herring? Keep in mind that setting a blanket legislation undoubtedly contributed to the trigic death of Savita Halappanavar.

          That said…Uk statistics show that 90% of abortions are carried out before the first trimester (and I assume these statistics are pretty reliable since abortion is legal in this country so most those performed will be in an official medical establishment, where records will be kept). Guidelines state that an abortion should be carried out before 12 weeks, any wich are conducted between 12 and 24 are for important medical reasons. Thus the vast majority of abortions are conducted before there is any doubt that the fetus can hold any kind of awareness.

          Yes this is as far as science can go with this debate, it can simply provide the facts (which are important when considering legislation). However, it is up to society to decide on the morality of the issue

          I assume anyone who aligns themselves with the pro-life argument will never opt for an abortion, however if your leanings are pro-choice you do not wish to force your beliefs on other sentient human beings, you just wish for the opportunity to choose your own path. Current legislation allows for this, would it be better to allow a outspoken minority (according to statistics) to force their wishes on people they do not know, living through situations they probably have never experienced themselves? – but as I said my moral standpoint is irrelevant to the content of this post, since I have no wish to argue over this matter here, there are others who can do that much more successfully than myself!

          • cloonmore says:

            thebrainbank wrote: “Keep in mind that setting a blanket legislation undoubtedly contributed to the trigic death of Savita Halappanavar.”

            That’s an interesting statement to read on an ostensible science blog, penned by the would-be proponent of the “scientific view.” The only fact that seems indisputable in the Savita affair is that the widespread dissemination of precisely this unscientific view has directly led to the current hysteria. So please provide the evidentiary basis for your statement that “a blanket legislation undoubtedly contributed” to SH’s death.

          • thebrainbank says:

            Hi cloonmore

            Many thanks for your comment.

            Until the inquiry and post mortem are completed the medical facts surrounding this particular case cannot be verified. However, I wonder if the current ‘hysteria’ may not really be hysterical at all, rather a collection of rational minded people fighting an unjust blanket legislation, which values the ‘rights’ of an unborn foetus (even one who doctors say will not survive) over those of the woman carrying that foetus. The simple facts which we do know (assuming news reports are accurate) are: 1) the doctors assessment at the time of her being admitted to hospital were that she was suffering a miscarriage and that the foetus would not survive, 2) she was in poor health and this deteriorated over her stay in hospital. Although, the question still remains as to whether a termination may have saved her life, the fact that this wasn’t even an option seems illogical.

            I will be interested to learn what the inquiry into this incident reveals however, I still believe that whatever the circumstances turn out to be the case has raised a very valid point: that there are circumstances where such ‘blanket’ laws may need to be amended, certainly when a woman’s life is at risk.

          • Ken O'Kelley says:

            Pardon the pun but you guys are killing me with this sentient being rhetoric. This is just another attempt at making the killing of a human being acceptable. So that we’re all using the same definition:

            1: responsive to or conscious of sense impressions
            2: aware
            3: finely sensitive in perception or feeling

            Are all elderly persons sentient depending upon their health situations? Are those who are comatose sentient?

            Also, you have based your premise of personhood on that of sentience. I argue that sentience is not the definition of personhood. The definition of personhood is when a human being is created and a human being is created at conception.

            Science does not help you in this argument. It hasn’t helped you for at least 150 years.

      • THEMAYAN says:

        “However I’m quite certain that this is a work in progress, as is the beauty of scientific research we are constantly learning more and broadening our understanding.”

        Fair enough, but instead of playing fast an loose with things that are not empirically confirmed, isn’t it better to take the side of caution since a human fetus is incapable of using words like ‘no please stop, your hurting me!?

        On a philosophical note, maybe there is a reason why a baby recoils from prick of a sharp object, or shows facial expressions of pain when geting pulled apart limb from limb. Maybe this is natures way of trying to tell us something. I am a big fan of science. It is scientism that worries me.

  2. Samss says:

    TheMAYAN has said in the orginal article responding to stimuli does not equal feeling.
    So either you did not read the article or you are an idioit

    • THEMAYAN says:

      No, I read the article, and even quoted the poster who’s words were not as you say……
      “responding to stimuli does not equal feeling” what he actually said was “This means what we are seeing are just reflexes, (probably) controlled entirely by the developing brainstem” This is an assumption, and I put emphasis on the word “probably”

      I cited a verifiable citation that disputes this notion, which included data that was produced by someone who had credentials and experience in the field. The poster does not cite any credentials nor did he provide any source material, and secondly Samss, if your going to call someone an idiot, at least first be able to spell the word idiot correctly. There are not 3 letters of I in the word idiot as yo spelled it “idioit”

  3. Ken O'Kelley says:

    I have a question for you Sarah Fox. If you were relaxing in your home and a man walked in to your home to kill you would you desire someone to come and try and save you from your murderer? I am very serious with my questioning and I am not asking this willy nilly. I will ask it again: If you, Sarah Fox, were being attacked and threatened with death would you desire someone to come to your aid? I will ask the reader the same. Would you want someone to help you if you were being murdered?

    If you answer “yes” you would want someone to come to your aid then aren’t we obligated to assume that the child in the womb desires the same? Every pro abortion argument emphasis the mother who is already living.

    Nearly all abortions are done for some “other” reason other than the risk of the life of the mother so I ask again – who is the advocate for the child? Who is rescuing the child from the Doctor who would kill it? Who is attempting to rescue the baby?

    Regarding Science and when life begins allow me to quote Dr.Donna J. Harrison, M.D., and president of the American Association of Pro Life Obstetricians and Gynecologists:

    “Since the mechanism by which mammals reproduce has been known for at least the last 150 years, any biologist in the world can tell you that a mammal’s life begins when the sperm from the father unites with the egg from the mother. This process is called fertilization, and when the DNA from the father and mother have combined, the egg is called a fertilized egg, or zygote. When the zygote splits into two cells, it is called a two-celled embryo. When it splits into four cells, it is called a four-celled embryo, etc. The definition of “embryo” is “the youngest form of a being.”

    If this being is nourished and protected, it will proceed uninterrupted through the developmental stages of embryo, fetus, newborn, toddler, child, teen, adult and aged adult: one continuous existence. This being never develops into a pig, a frog or a tree, but only into a human. This being is therefore, by definition, a living human being.

    This fact is very inconvenient for those who want to treat embryonic and fetal human beings as property. The real argument in the abortion debate is whether or not this human being is a “person,” with all the legal rights and protections of “personhood.”

    Those who traffic in human tissue argue that he or she is not. This is the same argument used in the Dred Scott decision in which the Supreme Court of the United States declared that black Americans, though human, are not “persons” under the law.

    As long as “personhood” is denied to human beings in their embryonic and fetal stages, the holocaust of abortion will continue.”

    • thebrainbank says:

      Hi Ken

      Many thanks for taking time to comment!

      I hope you can appreciated that I have tried very hard not to comment on the philosophical and moral questions involved in this debate in this post (these issues are undoubtedly covered much more eloquently than I could manage by other, more qualified bloggers).

      Therefore the desire behind this article was simply to cover the development of the fetal brain. A topic I found very interesting to research, and I hope you also find interesting to read.

      Therefore I apologise, for not giving you a detailed reply here, however I hope you understand that my personal opinion on the morality of the debate, and the argument of (‘when life begins’) is largely irrelevant to this post.


      • Ken O'Kelley says:

        Hello Sarah and thanks for the kind reply. I’m glad to stay on point with the science and this is why I posted the Dr.’s words. What did you think of them?

        The science argument is not on the side of the one who would kill human life in the womb. Science has proven that the life of a human being begins at conception. The sperm is not Sarah. The egg is not Sarah. When the sperm of your father unites with the egg of your mother then we have the one and only Sarah. All of the DNA which makes Sarah the human Sarah that posted here is present at conception. Correct?

        So without day 1 then Sarah can’t get to day 2. Without day 2 then Sarah can’t get to day 2000….and onwardly you go. A person’s life can be measured in seconds, days, months, and years, and so day 1 of your unique existence began at conception. To kill you at day 1 is to kill you at day 20, 478 of your existence.

        The zygote is a human being. It is not in the form that it is in at 90 years of age but it is wholly human. The fetus is not as it is at 90 years of age but it is wholly human. The baby, the adolescent, the 20 something, the 30 something……and so on are not as they are at 90. We are continually changing from day one until death. Science proves this.

        • thebrainbank says:

          Hi Ken

          You make an interesting argument, however I disagree with a number of your points:

          Firstly I like to think ‘Science’ is and should remain neutral to the ethics of abortion (i.e. science does not put forward any ‘argument’ about whether it is right or wrong to terminate a pregnancy, it simply provides the facts, we then make up our own minds).

          Also I argue that the sperm and egg are very much Sarah, had a different sperm or egg been involved I may actually be Frank….So it’s amazing to note that a part of me was actually present in my mothers womb back in the 50’s (since women are born with their full compliment of egg cells).

          Also I think you must be more specific with your definition of life, as I stated the sperm and egg both have equal potential to become a fully developed human, and indeed sperm can move and make decisions based on simple biological signals (fun fact of the day, sperm are attracted the the chemical scent of ‘lilly of the valley’ and will actually move towards this)….they certainly seem ‘alive’, they move, make rudimentary decisions and will ultimately die.

          So although the embryo is the first point where both paternal and maternal DNA become one, without the precursors none of this would have been possible.

          Also a meeting of sperm and egg does not necessarily lead to the development of human life, the uterus is a harsh unforgiving environment, and technically the embryo and mother are in a constant battle for nutrients, so many pregnancies end in miscarriage (many more than we realise since this will often occur before a woman even realises she is pregnant).

          However as I mentioned earlier the ultimate judgement is a moral one, an embryo does have the potential to form a new human, but so does an individual sperm and egg….however few people would truly agree with the ‘Monty Python – every sperm is sacred’ idea.

          Science cannot answer these questions, that is up to society.

    • Alex Peter says:

      “If you answer ‘yes’ you would want someone to come to your aid then aren’t we obligated to assume that the child in the womb desires the same?”
      No we aren’t, because at least in the first 12 weeks, that organism growing inside the womb doesn’t have the mental capacity required for thoughts and desires.

      Your initial analogy with the intruder seeking to murder the person inside is wrong, because it refers to an aware and sentient being, while a fetus isn’t any of that. Any moral and ethical concerns (in order to be taken seriously) must refer to sentient beings. You don’t speak about the morality of cutting bread or crushing eggs or throwing rocks, do you? Why not? Because bread, eggs and rocks are not sentient.

      What anti-choice people like you try to do, is to obligate real sentient beings (pregnant women) to make sacrifices and take health risks against their will for the “benefit” of non-sentient organisms (fetuses). This is plainly immoral and unethical of you. And, ironically, people like you try to present themselves as occupying the moral high-ground.

      “The real argument in the abortion debate is whether or not this human being is a ‘person’, with all the legal rights and protections of ‘personhood’…This is the same argument used in the Dred Scott decision in which the Supreme Court of the United States declared that black Americans, though human, are not ‘persons’ under the law.”
      No, this isn’t the same argument. Black Americans are/were sentient beings, therefore they are/should have been considered persons under the law. Which, obviously, isn’t the same argument as what I previously presented above. And speaking of legal rights and personhood, why is it that a baby only receives an offical id at birth and not during the gestation period? Why do we have birth certificates but not conception certificates?

      • Ken O'Kelley says:

        Firstly, you avoided the question Peter. Secondly, if you answer, yes, you would want someone to rescue you then the only difference in day 10,386 of your existence vs. day 1 of your existence is that at day 10,386 you are able to speak and give a reply. So because you did not have a voice at day 1 I spoke up for you and fought for your life. You’re very welcomed because you were fearfully and wonderfully made.

        • Alex Peter says:

          To your particular question with the home intruder, the answer is yes. But, as I said before, your analogy is incorrect. To the implied question of whether I would have wanted somebody to obligate my mother not to abort me, the answer is NO. I’m grateful to her for giving me life, but if she wouldn’t have wanted me, then I understand and accept it, and I wouldn’t want to be born because the state or someone like you forced her. Does that answer your question?

          The difference between day 10,386 and day 1 of existence is huge, assuming you consider day 1 to be the day of conception. The difference is exactly that between a sentient being and a clump of cells. And this difference MATTERS.

          And I was “fearfully and wonderfully made”? I don’t understand what you mean here, but it sounds like religious nonsense to me.

          “So because you did not have a voice at day 1 I spoke up for you and fought for your life.”
          You think you’re helping, but you’re not. You’re just oppressing. So, you won’t get any thanks from me for your ‘services’.

    • corey scott says:

      I hate guys commenting on these issues because to be frank you don’t carry the baby. You don’t form the attachment until the baby is born. I hate seeing pro life guys out on the street being very wordy. It’s not right. If a woman is considering an abortion it’s already hard enough for her and to have a guy criticise her. Someone that’s never ever gonna experience the feeling of having to consider an abortion how annoying. I’m 11 weeks pregnant myself and I would never consider an abortion but for some people no matter how hard the choice an abortion is there only option. And who are we to say any different. And omg shut up you are so frustrating

  4. Judith Weis says:

    I am surprised that in your scientific analysis, you refer to a fetus as an “infant.” That’s not accurate and just feeds into the arguments of the antiabortion people.

    • thebrainbank says:

      Thank you,

      you are correct (simply a mistake) it has been rectified. – wish there was another word for fetus, I feel a bit repetitive


    • THEMAYAN says:

      If we are going to get technical, then it should called a human fetus.
      Would you rather I refer to you as a lady, or a prokaryote?

      I do agree with you about anti abortionist though. They seem to be the only people who do not believe in child sacrifice, oops I mean fetal sacrifice.

  5. Ronado says:

    When dealing with abortion issues we should always put the woman who is carrying the baby first. What she is going through should determine the decision that is taken, science withstanding.

  6. Skulander says:

    Medical authorities tell us that pain doesn’t set in before 24 weeks, long after most abortions are done. To pretend otherwise it intellectually dishonest. Futhermore, let’s remember that 90% of abortions are done during the 1st trimester: at this early stage the decision belongs to the pregnant woman, to no one else.

    I believe this private decision shouldn’t be made by a 3rd party, antichoice folks, the government, the church, etc. There are lots of reasons why an abortion might be necessary and no one is entitled to impose their beliefs on others.

    • Ken O'Kelley says:

      Then to be consistent, so long as someone kills someone outside of the womb and it does not cause them pain, then it is acceptable. It is abundantly clear by science that at conception a human being is formed. To kill it is to kill a human being. If you believe it is acceptable to kill a human being inside the womb so long as it does not experience pain then , again, it should acceptable to kill one outside of the womb for the same reason.

      • thebrainbank says:

        Is this consistent? There is certainly a difference between killing a sentient human being, with memories of their past, aspirations for the future and an understanding of the present and terminating the development of a ‘non-sentient’ collection of developing cells (albeit one with the potential to become a sentient human being). I would certainly argue that I would rather not be killed now, however I would not care if I had not been born, there is a vast difference between these two concepts.

        Also I don’t think ‘science’ actually does make the distinction between what is human and what is not, this is more a philosophical argument. – does a full complement of human genetic material meet the requirement for being human? Then any one of our cells could fulfil this requirement. Perhaps the necessary factor is the ability to develop into a fully functioning human? Then any one of our sex cells could fulfil this role. Or perhaps it’s a combination of both, but is this not still rather arbitrary?

        I worry comparing murder of a sentient adult with termination of a pregnancy is not the best way to view this issue?

        • Ken O'Kelley says:

          Hello Sarah. My reply post to this went up the page to some other post that you made. So I wanted to come back and try again. I had written that the idea of “sentient persons” is just another attempt at making the killing of a human being acceptable.

          So that we’re all using the same definition:

          1: responsive to or conscious of sense impressions
          2: aware
          3: finely sensitive in perception or feeling

          Are all elderly persons “sentient” depending upon their health situations? Are those who are comatose sentient?

          Also, you and Alex Peter have based your premise of personhood on that of sentience. I argue that sentience is not the definition of personhood. The definition of personhood is when a human being is created and a human being is created at conception.

          Science does not help you in this argument. It hasn’t helped you for at least 150 years.

          • thebrainbank says:

            Once again I must politely disagree with you here. However, I also want to note that it is clear we address this issue from quite different moral standpoints and since morality is a very personal concept I must say that I am in no way opposed to your opinion, I simply don’t share it.

            I believe that every aspect we define as constituting the ‘self’ emerges from the brain, therefore once the brain fails to function, or before it begins functioning the self does not exist and the individual cannot be thought of as sentient.

            There is of course a challenge associated with those who had sentience but lost it through either accident or disease (note that we must be sure that this is certainly the case, since amazingly some vegetative patients are indeed conscious but unable to communicate with the outside world: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-20268044).Once again in my opinion the life of people in this condition should be treated as they (when they were in sound mind), or their family would have wanted. I strongly believe that if I reach a point in my life where I cease to be myself, through mental illness or disease, that I should have the option of ending my life or if necessary having someone else do this for me. One of our other bloggers recently wrote a very heartfelt post on the ‘right to die’ which you may find interesting (http://thebrainbank.scienceblog.com/2012/09/10/right-to-die-is-it-ever-justified-a-scientists-perspective/)

            Finally as I have pointed out before, the argument of when person-hood begins, thus when human rights are given is a very old argument, tackled more in philosophical circles than scientific. All science can and does contribute is knowledge of how the system (in this case a developing embryo) works. We make the final decisions and laws, based on our own morality.

          • ov says:

            There is no argument that can be made to cause Ken to reflect on scientific evidence. He has chosen the premises on which he bases his arguments and is thus doomed to fallacious arguments based on these premises. You can’t win arguing with Ken anymore than you can teach a donkey to fly. There just are no tools for the job.

  7. Alice Fusco says:

    Thank you for the excellent piece, Sarah. Your science is strong and current. It saddens me to see how strongly the anti-choice folks resist learning any credible science. And how they don’t care about fully developed humans. Any time we have religious ideology dictating medical decisions or denying scientific truths, we tread a very dark path, indeed.

  8. Janelle says:

    Thank you for this refreshing view on abortion, Sarah. It is difficult to block out any moral and thus personal opinions when viewing the termination of a human fetus but I am fascinated by how little we truly know and understand about the concept of “life” and what exactly defines it based on conception and fetal development.

    I am especially intrigued by the topic of whether or not human fetuses “feel” and “react” to pain during the early stages of development. I read an article online “Stages of Prenatal Development” published by Kendra Cherry and accessible at in which she states that “The brain and central nervous system also become responsive during the second trimester.” this is to say that even though a fetus may resemble a fully developed “tiny human” – (for lack of a better description) with a heartbeat and most of its vital organs (sans distinct sex organs) during the second trimester – there is no proof that its actions and reactions are functional as the brain is not fully functioning at this stage. This means that even though cells might flinch when presented with a disturbance or “pain”, it could simply be due to their instinctive nature and not due to the fetus “feeling” discomfort.

    I do not wish to offend anyone or go against any opinions whether pro-life or pro-choice; I simply wish to thank you for your valuable blog entry and comment that it has really inspired me to due further research into this topic.

  9. Rose says:

    Consciousness does not just suddenly arise at 26 weeks, it is an ongoing process for the neuronic connections to be made in the cortex. It starts at 12 weeks when the neurons start penetrating the subcortical plate but the connections are not fully made till the 26th week . Does that mean at 19 weeks it is not conscious at all? We can not say for sure. Since it is slowly gaining consciousness how can we put a marker up and say it is ok to kill the fetus when it is a little conscious? It is not possible to really say when it is enough of a person to let it live. And the sedation of the womb has absolutely nothing to do with its personhood. That is like saying it is ok if I have an operation and someone deliberately kills me under anesthesia. There is no reason why we need to abort healthy fetuses after the first trimester. Pregnancy tests exist, an when we are sexually active we should use them monthly! Even if we use birth control. The earlier a woman aborts the more humane.

  10. Andy says:

    Wonderful article. So glad to have come across this. My partner and I recently lost one of our unborn twins before 5 months. I had been reduced to tears trying to imagine whether their was any pain involved, imagining breathing difficulties…it is reassuring to know that there is little chance the poor blighter could actually feel or assess anything at all. This article has eased my pain and sadness greatly. Not completely, but hugely. Thank you

  11. Autumn Harms says:

    So, yall should be glad that your mothers didn’t want an abortion. Meaning the prochoice people. Sorry, but just because some guy who has MD in front of his name ,or something else, says that babies aren’t alive or cant feel pain, does that make it true? somehow I cant help but think that ‘how the heck do we know if this baby can feel pain?’. Honestly, what if every fetus naturally responds differently than fully developed humans. it is wrong to abort unless there will be a death during pregnancy or delivery. If you cant handle the pregnancy, then you should have been more responsible. I completely agree with Ken on this one.

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