is a Fetus Old
Enough to Need an Advocate?
A Catholic anesthesiologist and childrens advocate
finds himself on a surprising side of the debate over partial birth abortions.
An interview with Dr. Tim
Pediatric anesthesiologist Tim McDonald 79 doesnt
assist with partial birth abortions. His religious beliefs and convictions
as a child advocate wont allow it. But the University of Illinois
Hospital in Chicago where McDonald teaches and works does perform the
procedure when the life of the mother is endangered.
Following one such operation in late May, McDonald spoke
with the anesthesiologist who had assisted with the procedure. She shared
her concern and frustration at having to administer, at the mothers
insistence, a general anestheticrisky for women in the late stages
Well, think of it this way, McDonald told his colleague. At
least you had anesthesia on board so that the fetus went to sleep before
its own dismemberment.
McDonald says the doctor was stunned.
She looked at me, her eyes got as big as saucers, and she said,
Oh my God, I never even considered that.
But Tim McDonald has. The doctor and Loyola Law School grads writings
on the subject have appeared in law journals and medical textbooks. He
believes that, as a pediatric anesthesiologist dedicated to the relief
of pain, he is ideally situated to teach obstetricians, and sometimes
legislatures, about the existence of fetal and newborn pain and the simple
methods available to alleviate it.
That conviction drove him to surprising conclusion in 1999 as he pondered
the issue of partial birth abortion and wrote an essay for the Childrens
Legal Rights Journal entitled When is a Fetus Old Enough to
Need an Advocate? The Catholic pro-life supporter suddenly found
himself opposing the ban being championed by his usual allies. He talked
with Wabash Magazine about how he arrived at his unexpected position
on this difficult and controversial issue.
What stirred you to write this essay and drew you into the debate over
As a pediatric anesthesiologist and a lawyer, Ive
tried to prepare myself to be the best pediatric advocate I can be. I
followed the congressional hearingsa friend of mine testified thereand
they brought out the demagoguery that I believe occurs on both the extreme
conservative side and the extreme liberal side of this issue. So I decided
to write this law review article. It looks at the legal and medical issues
and tries to undermine the demagoguery on both sides and to focus on what
I believe is a more important ethical issuefetal pain.
I made two assumptions in the article. First, that, constitutionally,
a woman is always going to have a right to an abortion. Second, that there
will always be situations in which that abortion will take be performed
beyond the point at which the fetus has the capacity to feel pain.
And that point is when?
Most articles in the literature suggest that at 18 weeks, everything is
in place for the fetus to experience pain. Unquestionably at 22 weeks,
but probably at 18 weeks. Recent studies show that the 18-week fetus responds
to painful stimuli by withdrawing and has the increase in blood hormone
concentrations associated with a painful experience in a human. So there
appears to be behavioral as well as physiological evidence that they have
the capacity to experience pain. And thats a period of time when
a lot of peopleeven in the institution Im inwill do
Do most doctors accept this pain as fact?
Thats the troubling parteven during the congressional hearings,
obstetricians who testified were unwilling to concede the capacity of
the fetus to feel pain. That belief has gone on for years within the obstetrical
community, at least until the last decade. In fact, until recently, all
newborn circumcisions were done with nothing being given to the little
boys for pain. The argument in the literature was that the baby doesnt
have the capacity to experience pain. The research clearly shows thats
So now weve got two issues: the health of the mom, and pain control
for the fetus. You can put the mom to sleep long enough for general anesthesia
affects the fetusthe fetus goes to sleep, and then you do the termination.
But putting a mom to sleep at 18 to 22 weeks brings substantial risk of
death to the mom. And if you give the mom a spinal or epidural, the anesthetic
doesnt reach the fetus.
So how do you get pain control to the fetus? If you ban the partial birth
abortion, then you have to do something else to evacuate the fetus. And
all the other things you can offer are pretty brutalinjecting chemicals
into the amniotic fluid that causes the skin to slough off the fetus,
essentially causing the fetus to be burned.
So if the conservatives had succeeded in banning the partial birth procedure,
they would have been condemning the mom to a riskier anesthetic and they
still wouldnt have dealt with the pain experienced by the fetus.
Im assuming the partial birth abortion does?
During a partial birth abortion, the doctor dilates the cervix just enough
to get in and bring out a portion of the fetus and dismember it.
Yes. Some obstetricians Ive talked to will cut the umbilical cord
and allow the fetus to bleed to death before dismemberment. Its
a very gruesome thing.
But as I was writing this article about abortion and fetal pain, I realized
that of all the procedures, this was the one that gives us the best access
to the fetus so that we can provide anesthetic. If the obstetrician has
access to the umbilical cord, you could inject a potent narcotic into
the cord to deaden any sense of feeling that the fetus would have. Or
you could inject a high dose into the thigh or arm.
As it turns out, of all the termination procedures available, the one
that has been singled out as the one to ban is probably the one that affords
the obstetrician with the greatest chance to provide pain relief.
Are these partial birth abortions done only in situations where the
mothers life is threatened?
Actually, thats the even more disgusting part. The doctors who testified
before Congress said they would do it for any congenital anomaly the child
has. The way Roe vs. Wade was settled, any time that the life or
health of the mother is threatened, they can terminate the pregnancy.
And obstetricians have said, Look, if the mom cant handle
a child with an anomaly, then were going to terminate for the health
of the mother. One of the obstetricians who testified said hed
even done it for cleft lip, cleft palate, which is fixable.
This is all very troubling. But my goal as a physician/attorney/child
advocate was to help all medical people recognize that the fetus has the
capacity to feel pain and that something has to be done about that if
youre going to do painful surgery.
I would think anybody hearing this would say, Im
not doing this. Was that part of the point of your article?
I think theres this denial about what going on, and thats
the demagoguery on the left. You sure as heck dont want the public
thinking about this, and you dont want to think about this yourself.
This could have a real chilling effect on moms wanting to have this procedure
done. If they knew that the little being inside them could feel pain,
maybe they wouldnt terminate after all.
Or they might say, as long as we can make the procedure pain-free,
lets go ahead and do it.
Thats right. But theres still pretty strong resistance to
the notion that these little beings feel pain. Its denial. People
dont want to think about it.
One of the issues that deeply concerns me regarding termination at will
is this dehumanization of the fetus. You dont want to think about
it as a human, you dont want to think about it feeling pain, so
you de-humanize it.
As a child advocate, one of my fears is that you sometimes see that dehumanization
extended into the newborn period, where you see adults treat children
like chattel. Youve heard all the horror stories: the baby born
to the lady who no one knew was pregnant, and she wraps up the baby and
throw it in a dumpster. Why? Because it wasnt a being to her. It
was a thing. A tumor. You get rid of it.
The more we fail to address the humanness of the fetus as it develops,
the more I fear that this indifference can occur. And its something
that, unfortunately, is in my backyard.
You said that you were surprised with the conclusion you arrived at
in your essay.
When I heard the description of the procedure I figured Id support
the ban. When I showed my wife the conclusion I reached, she said, I
cant believe you concluded that. She was troubled by the logic
of my argument. Its hard to refute as long as you accept the premise,
which is that women will have the constitutional right to terminate a
pregnancy. And you cant just continue to say, No, they should
never be allowed to do that, and never get to the next step of at
least trying to prevent pain to the fetus.
In this country right now, you could not do a late term abortion on a
dogand therefore the puppieswithout a general anesthesia.
You would not be allowed to do that to the dog. But there are no such
laws to govern the behavior of physicians terminating pregnancies.
So what needs to be done?
We need to minimize any risk to the mother. And, where we have documented
scientific evidence that shows the stage at which the fetus has the capacity
to feel pain, physicians must do everything possible to provide pain relief
to any fetus past that stage, regardless of what is going to happen to
it. I feel pretty strongly about that.
are your thoughts?
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