OTTAWA, August 26, 2005 ( –– Canadian Physicians for Life president Dr. Will Johnston criticized a study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association in which researchers concluded that a fetus likely does not feel pain before the third trimester, ruling out the need to administer anaesthesia to the fetus during second trimester abortions.

“One serious flaw with this study is that the researchers failed to disclose conflicts of interest arising from their ties to the abortion industry,” Dr. Johnston said. The lead researcher of the study once worked for NARAL Pro-Choice America, Knight Ridder reported this week. And another researcher, Dr. Eleanor A. Drey, is Medical Director of Women’s Option Centre, San Francisco’s largest abortion clinic. She is also on the staff of the pro-abortion advocacy centre, the Centre for Reproductive Health Research and Policy of the University of California San Francisco. “Would you trust a tobacco company to conduct research into the health risks of smoking and to objectively report the results?” Dr. Johnston asked.

Dr. Drey testified at the Partial Birth Abortion (PBA) trial in San Francisco in March 2004, stating that her clinic performs 2000 abortions per year, primarily on poor women, approximately 600 of which are performed at 20 weeks or later via D&E (dilation and evacuation, in which a live baby is dismembered by using an instrument to grasp body parts and pulling the pieces through the cervix). She testified she offers training in these procedures and she herself performs abortions, including “partial birth abortions”—the legal term used to describe the type of procedure banned by the PBA Act, in which a live baby is partially delivered before being killed. “We end up taking care of all the poor women who need abortions at 20 weeks and above for all of northern California,” she testified. She said that if the ban on partial birth abortion were passed, it would have a large impact on the physicians at her clinic, due to fear of prosecution. “I think it would be very difficult for us to provide second trimester abortions,” she said.

The impetus to ban the partial birth abortion procedure was triggered in large part by growing scientific evidence that the unborn child feels pain. Dr. K. S. Anand, the world’s foremost authority on research into pain perception in fetal and neonatal children testified as an expert witness at another Partial Birth Abortion trial in New York, saying that the fetus feels pain by 20 weeks, possibly even earlier, and that the pain endured by the child during a partial birth abortion would be “prolonged and excruciating.”“Such evidence is very damaging to the abortion industry,” Dr. Johnston noted.

Referring to the study itself, Dr. Johnston pointed out that this study did not involve any new research to assess fetal pain; rather, this study was an interpretation of the results of previous studies. “And a number of those interpretations are just not scientifically grounded,” Dr. Johnston said. The researchers refer to one study of 102 premature newborns which used an electrical recording method (evoked potentials) to record the brain’s responses to stimuli. That study found that signals are present at 29 weeks. “The researchers of this study use that as evidence to support their claim that pain is not felt until 29 weeks—yet they failed to inform the reader that that study of newborns involved only two who were under 29 weeks, but even they evoked a response, although slightly delayed compared to the rest.”

Another weakness involves interpretation of studies which used electroencephalography (EEG) to measure brain activity. The researchers refer to a study which found normal EEG signals appear at 24 weeks which they dismiss in favour of another study which found that EEG signals representing wakefulness appear around 30 weeks and conclude from this that pain is not felt until 30 weeks. “They are assuming wakefulness is needed before pain can be felt,” Dr. Johnston said “Wakefulness is a red herring. Preemies sleep a lot, and their EEG—like ours—is markedly different in the waking or sleeping state. But if I hurt someone while they’re asleep, they will immediately wake with pain. The key is that normal EEG waves were recorded as early as 24 weeks and this finding is discounted by the researchers.”

“Measuring pain response in the fetus is not easy,” Dr. Johnston said. “They can’t self-report, just as babies can’t. But by every measure possible—facial grimace, withdrawal, release of stress hormones, change in pulse rate/breathing/blood pressure—they behave as we would. And as Dr. Anand has said, ‘in the absence of absolute proof we should give the fetus the benefit of the doubt if we are going to call ourselves compassionate and humane physicians.’”


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