Abortion Extremists Think Fetal Development Doesn’t Matter. They’re Wrong.

Science, technology, and life.
Dec. 1 2011 9:10 AM

Abortion Forever?

Pro-choice and pro-life absolutists say fetal development doesn’t matter. They’re wrong.

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A 28-week fetus in the "Body Worlds" exhibit

Photograph by David McNew/Getty Images.

A month ago, I debated late-term abortion with Ann Furedi, the chief executive of BPAS (the British Pregnancy Advisory Service), at the Battle of Ideas in London. This week, Spiked published a transcript of Furedi’s remarks, prompting outcries from pro-lifers. I’ve been asked what I said in the debate and what I think of Furedi’s view. Furedi opposes any legal time limit on abortion because she thinks the moral significance of fetal development is subjective throughout pregnancy. She’s wrong.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

In her published remarks, Furedi says there’s no “reason to think that doctors [or] women are abusing the current situation,” since “the number of women who request late abortions is very small,” and “there is no evidence that the number of women requesting late abortions is increasing.” On this, we agree. Late-term abortion isn’t a broad or growing social problem. It isn’t where I’d prefer to focus my energy on reproductive matters. I’d rather talk about contraception. But the debate organizers wanted this topic. And even if the percentage of abortions performed at late stages is low (5 percent occur after 16 weeks, 1.3 percent occur after 21 weeks), that’s still thousands of cases (32,000 after 16 weeks, 8,000 after 21 weeks). We can do better.

Furedi refers to a handout I distributed before the debate. It’s a time line of fetal development. I compiled it from four sources: the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the U.K. Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, the Mayo Clinic, and a 2009 Pediatric Research article by Hugo Lagercrantz and Jeanne-Pierre Changeux: “The Emergence of Human Consciousness: From Fetal to Neonatal Life.” Here’s the time line by week of gestation:

3. Brain, spinal cord, and heart begin to develop.
4-5. Brain develops into five areas. Cranial nerves visible. Eye and ear structures begin to form.
6. Nerve terminals and fibers are present deep in skin.
7. All essential organs have begun to form.
8. Nerve fibers grow into spinal cord. Signals from tissue stimulation reach spinal cord.
9-12. Fetus can make a fist. Face is well-formed. Liver produces red blood cells.
12. Connections from thalamus to cortex develop.
13. Internal organs develop nerve terminals that can detect surgical tissue damage.
13-16. Fetus begins to make active movements and sucking motions.
14. Eyes begin to face forward and slowly move. Ultrasound detects coordinated movements.
16. Brain responses to low-frequency noise can be recorded.
18. Fetus withdraws from a needle. It launches a midbrain-generated stress response to needle punctures. This confirms that signals about tissue damage are reaching the midbrain.
19. Withdrawal reflexes and other nociceptive reactions can be recorded.
20. Increase in cortisol, beta-endorphin, noradrenaline when a needle invades the abdomen.
21. Rapid eye movements begin.
22-23. Fetus shows habituation to stimuli, reacts to first occurrence but not multiple repetitions.
23. Startle reflex develops. Some fetuses respond to familiar sounds, such as mother’s voice, with movement.
24. Cortex begins to process sensory input, including tissue damage. Air sacs form in lungs.
25-28. Accelerated brain construction. Respiratory development makes gas exchange possible.
26. Auditory cortex begins to respond to sound. Coordinated behavioral responses include facial expressions. Some motions look like scratching, smiling, crying, sucking.
28. Visually evoked responses and spontaneous brain activity of cortical origin are recorded.
29. Clear behavioral responses to smell can be recorded in infants born at this age.
29-30. Pathways mediating pain perception become functional.
30. Fetus practices breathing.
33. fMRI shows cortical activation in response to sound.
34. Accelerated brain development. EEG rhythm of the two hemispheres is synchronized.
35. Organs are ready to function on their own.
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