Fetuses may develop consciousness much earlier than thought. Does this change things?

Does this news change any of the the moral or ethical issues surrounding abortion?

Foetuses may be conscious long before abortion limit’

It doesn’t change anything in my view.

IMO, the only important factor is whether the fetus depends on a specific person’s body for survival. The mother has the right to stop supporting it with her body at any time; if it can’t survive anywhere else, that means abortion.

What kind of evidence are we talking here?

Consciousness doesn’t mean sentience. Chickens have consciousness. Fruitflies have consciousness. Consciousness is cheap.

I think this is what they are talking about.

Report of the MRC Expert Group on Fetal Pain 28 August 20011

link refuses to show properly

google “Report of the MRC Expert Group on Fetal Pain” and click on the “View as html” option.

By your logic Mr2001 that means a mother, when the baby is 3 months old and still depending on her…which would be her body for support, she can just quit taking care of it and let it die? Ridiculous.

Absolutely not. The baby doesn’t have to get its sustenance from that particular woman’s body; it can be breast fed by someone else, or it can drink formula. The same cannot be said of a fetus.

24 weeks is about six months, that’s almost third-trimester. And while in the article she says she has evidence that consciousness develops before then, there is no mention of what it is. I am withholding judgment until I know what this evidence is, and I personally draw the line for at-will abortions at the 5th month so I don’t have a great stake in defending 24 week abortions . Britain already does not allow 24th week abortions except for unusual circumstances, such as the mother’s life being threatened, so I doubt this will change much even if substansiated. She draws a paralllel between a mollusc’s consciousness and a fetus’…well, if eating oysters still is legal, she hasn’t provided much support to the pro-life position.

If that is the case, then I think the evidence is tenuous at best. I’ve never been able to understand the idea that only “conscious” or “sentient” organisms can feel pain. All that is required is the correct type of nerve ending - which, it should not be at all surprising that such would develop at some point in a fetus! Nociceptors are considered key to being able to feel pain; here is a summary of which animals have the proper sensory apparati. Now, which groups would (or should) be considered conscious or sentient?

That doesn’t change anything. Swines and cows feel pain too, that doesn’t stop us from killing them.


Like Diogenes, the test for me is more about sentience than simple consciousness.

The ability to detect and respond to pain isn’t in an of itself a sign of consciousness, but it’s possible it could be an indicator of human consciousness.

As for viability outside the womb, I’m very uneasy with using that standard as the determining factor. As medicine advances, it becomes possible for fetuses to survive earlier and earlier (with what quality of life, I don’t know). It’s possible that one day, we’d have artificial wombs that could incubate a fetus for all nine months. Then where do we say it’s ok to have an abortion. Since we’re not there yet, I’m ok with it for now, but we’re going to have to reevaluate viability as the dividing line eventually.

Is it possible to detect brain activity in a fetus? That’s our current standard for determining if it’s ok to pull the plug on somebody. If we could detect fetal brain waves, maybe that would be a good way to set the criteria of when it’s ok to have an abortion.

Erp. Substitute sentience for consciousness in my previous post.

On the other hand. There’s evidence that even newborn children aren’t ‘conscious’ if one uses the conventional meaning of the term: “awareness of self”

Awareness of self seems to kick in for children as part of their acquisition of language, and one of the reason that the 'terrible two’s are so terrible, is that at that time, Children begin for the first time to become aware of themselves as distinct entities capable of acting on their own initiative.

Color me skeptical that a partially formed brain can be self aware and yet a typical 1 year old still isn’t acting like a self aware being.

BWAHAHAHA ! I know this is a serious topic and all that, but Gaudere, that really tickled my funny bone :smiley:

As for the OP, I agree 100% with Mr2001. YMMV

Yes, they can and have measured brainwave activity in fetuses. Activity indicative of thought (in adults) appears in about the 24th to 28th week or so. If you’re looking for any EEG reading at all, that occurs somewhere around the 8th to the 14th week, but it is not generally considered indicative of consciousness since the higher brain is not hooked up yet. For example, an anencephalitic baby will have some EEG readings, but since they are born without a developed “higher” brain they can do little besides breathe on their own, and possibly nurse.

As a future lawyer I could argue that in the absence of clear evidence then all preacautions should be taken. If we don’t know for sure a fetus is sentient then we should consider it to be so untill clear proofs on the contrary are found. What if in 50 years scientist realize that a fetus is sentient since the conception?

We’d have to pretty much overturn the known laws of phsyics if a single cell can be capable of sentient thought. It seems kind of like saying “what if we discover that bacteria is sentient 50 years from now? We better stop using antibiotics!”

Two cells. And the synaptic activity between them is staggering!

sperm: weeeeeeee!

I agree that this doesn’t change all that much. The baby still cannot survive outside the mother. If, and when, it becomes possible to incubate for 9 months outside the womb (ala Brave New World) then I would oppose abortion only if there was a couple who was willing to both pay the cost of incubation and adopt the child once he or she is ready. Short of that, no.

After roughly 24 weeks, it stands a chance of being able to do so; ask evilbeth, whose daughter Emma was born, IIRC, 14 weeks early.

So if being able to survive outside the mother is the criterion, then the English standard, which is to more or less ban abortions after 24 weeks, should be universally applied.

I personally have trouble with the “it’s dependent on me, therefore I own it and what I do with it is my business” ethic. Even if the fundies hadn’t used this justification in their attempts to tie the hands of government child-welfare agencies investigating abuse cases, it is still effectively a might-makes-right argument, and moving away from might-makes-right has been one of the defining aspects of being increasingly civilized.