About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Monday, August 29, 2005
Abortion: so much for science and rational discourse
I'm referring to the recent study showing that fetuses do not feel pain even as late as 29 weeks (i.e., well into the period covered by the so-called "late term abortions"). This is not because the fetus doens't have the brain apparatus, but simply because the proper neural connections aren't functional yet. This, incidentally, makes perfect sense in terms of evolution: why being capable of feeling pain if one lives in an environment (the womb) in which such information is useless? (Similarly, adult brains don't have pain receptors, presumably because natural selection found out long ago that if you get to the point of having your brain case open, feeling pain isn't going to improve your chances of survival -- remember, there were no brain surgeons in the Pleistocene!)
But the science isn't stopping the rhetoric, of course! According to an article in the New York Times by Denise Grady, the overwhelming evidence of lack of pain capability in the late fetus produced by a large study published recently in the prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association is being met by vague counter-remarks by abortion opponents. For example, Dr. K. S. Anand, a pediatrician at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said, "There is circumstantial evidence to suggest that pain occurs in the fetus." Pretty much as vague as it gets. What evidence? Published were? How does it square with the JAMA paper?
Anand adds: "I would argue that in the absence of absolute proof we should give the fetus the benefit of the doubt." In the absence of absolute proof? What does this guy think science is, a mathematical theorem? There is no such thing as "absolute proof" in the real world, and with that policy humanity would have been stuck in the stone age (or earlier)!
Politicians, of course, don't fare much better. According to the Times' article, Senator Sam Brownback, Republican of Kansas, in 2004 and again this year proposed the "Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act" (note the rhetorical framing of the issue). The good senator (who has no scientific training) included wording to the effect that "The Congress of the United States has determined that at this stage of development, an unborn child has the physical structures necessary to experience pain." Oh well, if the Congress of the US says that the earth is flat, who the hell are scientists to object, right?