Pain Capable Abortion Bans vs. Anesthesia

By Sherry Colb

In my Verdict column for this week, I discuss the emergence of legislation banning abortion at 20-weeks-post-fertilization in various state legislatures and now as a bill in Congress.  My column addresses the difference between the viability line that now defines the constitutional distinction between permissible and impermissible abortion bans, and the 20-week line that emphasizes the fetus's alleged ability to feel pain at this stage.

In this post, I want to examine an alternative approach to the issue of post-sentience abortions:  a requirement that the woman be offered anesthesia for the fetus prior to the procedure.  Various proposed state statutes have contained a provision of this sort.  It is distinct from a ban because it represents a regulation rather than an outright prohibition.  How might it affect people's thinking about abortion?

At least one primary goal of the pro-life folks who have promoted a requirement that anesthesia be offered for the fetus has been to highlight and emphasize (for women seeking an abortion and for the public more generally) the fact (or controversial contention) that there is a sentient being getting killed through abortion after 20 weeks post-fertilization.  In being told, "now we can administer the anesthesia so that your fetus does not suffer," a woman is likely to become conscious of the potential moral implications of the choice she is making, without the provider's necessarily having to say anything explicit abour morality.  Like being shown an ultrasound picture, hearing about fetal sentience (through medical measures premised on that sentience) alerts the listener to the presence of a concrete being at the other end of the abortion decision.

One risk of this kind of law, from the pro-life perspective, may be that women and the public could come to believe that killing a sentient fetus is fine, so long as pain is minimized with the use of anesthesia.  This is the liability that many people within the animal rights community (including yours truly) associate with the promotion of laws and policies that allegedly reduce the amount of suffering that people may inflict on the animals whose flesh and secretions they consume, through regulation of the size of cages or through demands that chickens be gassed to death rather than electrocuted.

In the case of abortion, however, it seems unlikely that people otherwise inclined to oppose abortions of sentient fetuses would come -- as a result of offers of anesthesia -- to see such abortions as acceptable, so long as a pain-killer is administered.  This is because becoming aware of the fetus as a suffering being goes hand in hand with thinking that we are killing an actual baby.  Thinking about a suffering baby, in other words, triggers opposition to killing babies --  a generally shared norm -- rather than triggering the intuition that we ought to kill babies painlessly instead.

People already believe that killing a baby is wrong, and thinking of a sentient baby being aborted, with or without anesthesia, thus leads one to think abortion (of sentient fetuses) is wrong, period.

Animal advocates who press for modifications in animal farming have argued that such modifications will do the same thing for people's consciousness about animals.  Advocates suggest that once people imagine a pig suffering during slaughter, they will want to stop killing pigs and other animlas altogether (by refraining from eating them and other animal products) rather than conclude that it is fine to kill pigs, so long as their suffering is reduced (if only marginally).  The problem in this hope is that unlike in the case of human babies, most of us do not learn to think of killing pigs (or chickens or fishes or cows) as wrong.

We are instead repeatedly taught the polar opposite of this and arguably brainwashed from childhood into accepting the following proposition:  animals exist on farms so that we can eat them and use their output, and that consumption is accordingly necessary and just.  Our obligation to the beings we call "farm animals" is only to protect them from suffering "unnecessarily."  In Temple Grandin's words, "[w]e've got to give those animals a decent life and we've got to give them a painless death. We owe the animal respect."

In the face of this acculturation, an initiative aimed at reducing animal suffering (however ineffectual in its actual impact on animals) is likely to make consumers feel better about consuming animal products, not worse (as it would in the case of fetal anesthesia).  This may explain the proliferation of (meaningless) labels like "humanely raised" and "compassionate certified" on animal products at the supermarket.  When your starting point is to believe that killing sentient farmed animals is acceptable (and even inevitable), so long as pain is minimized, a pain minimization law or custom cannot do the work that it could do if -- as with human babies -- people already had a strongly-held commitment to believing that alert, aware, conscious beings need not and should not be killed at all.

This may be why mandatorily offering anesthesia for pain-capable fetuses could be almost as effective at deterring late abortions as prohibiting such abortions outright, whereas the same cannot readily be said of initiatives that offer slightly larger cages or distinct methods of slaughter for the immiserated animal victims of our seemingly bottomless appetite for products of the slaughterhouse.