I teach embryology to wonderful first year medical, nurse anesthetist and PA students. Last week, one of my students asked me, humbly and thoughtfully, if (and when) a fetus feels pain. Because of recent publicity concerning late term abortions, I knew this was a question about more than fetal physiology.
Let’s talk embryology.
I am very, very confident that the blastocyst doesn’t feel pain. I am equally confident that babies at the time of birth do feel pain. So, there must be a moment during development when nerves to sense the pain, nerves to transmit the pain, and a brain to perceive the pain come together to make it possible to perceive noxious stimuli. I’m not a developmental neurologist, so I can’t claim to be an expert, but based on published research, those three things are present somewhere around 22-24 weeks gestation. For those that are concerned about abortions that happen after 22-24 weeks, It’s important to realize that only 1.3% of abortions occur after 21 weeks gestation and 80% of these for serious birth defects.
Let’s talk suffering.
As healers, we seek to relieve suffering. Let’s be clear – that’s not the same thing as the “pain” I mentioned above. Let me give you a couple of (real life) examples.
A developmentally delayed 15 year old is raped by her cousin who threatens her if she tells anyone. Over the next two months, the girl becomes progressively withdrawn, depressed and even suicidal. Her mother takes her to her pediatrician who is able to convince the girl to tell her what happened. She sends the appropriate labs, including a pregnancy test, which is positive. Her pediatrician recommends termination of the pregnancy, and refers her to a gynecologist and a pediatric psychiatrist. Because of her depression and suicidality, both of these physicians also recommend termination of the now 14 week pregnancy.
A young couple comes to their gynecologist for a routine screening ultrasound. Something isn’t quite right, so they are sent to the maternal-fetal medicine clinic for a more detailed ultrasound. They are at 18 weeks gestation, which means 22 more weeks until term. They receive horrible news. The fetus they are carrying has a fatal disorder and will not survive after birth. After a few weeks, they return to their doctor in tears. The emotional burden of carrying the pregnancy to term is causing them immense suffering.
Let’s talk ethics.
We teach our medical students to take complex situations like deciding to terminate a pregnancy and use an “ethics workup” to help guide decision making. The ethics workup starts with defining everyone who might be affected by the decision. For example, in the first case I mentioned above, that would be the 15 year old patient, the fetus, the patient’s mother, and the doctors. Then, based on the possible outcomes (to terminate or not to terminate the pregnancy), we consider the outcomes with appeals to consequences, professional obligations, ethical rights and virtues. What this process does is allow us to understand the complexity of the situation and the choices being made, rather than just going with our “gut reaction”.
Let’s talk about listening.
When I was Dean of Student Affairs, the “Pro-Life” group on campus invited a speaker that the “Pro-Choice” group felt strongly should not be allowed to speak. I asked the leaders of both groups to meet with me. They were pre-clinical students who had not yet experienced dealing with patients and families facing complex and heartbreaking decisions. I recognized that their conflict was a great learning opportunity, a chance to learn to work through a situation where colleagues disagreed. I asked them to develop a plan together on how speakers should be invited, a plan that I insisted reflect the culture of tolerance at our medical school. They did not disappoint. Their plan was amazing and included attending each other’s meetings and reviewing speakers for each other before invitations were issued. They also wrote a beautiful statement to be read at the beginning of each meeting explaining that they were there to learn from each other and to listen. They went even further and added that disrespectful comments or intolerance would result in being asked to leave the meeting. What a great example for us all – to listen to learn, and to do so with kindness and tolerance.
As physicians we are absolutely allowed – even encouraged – to include our personal views when making a thoughtful, ethical decision about caring for a specific patient. Although it’s not a common event, physicians are allowed to choose not to care for a specific patient as long as they refer them to a different doctor. What physicians are not allowed to do is to impose our views on our patients, or our colleagues.