I am a biologist. To be specific, I am a molecular biologist who studied aspects of reproductive and developmental biology for decades. I concluded my research career as a Senior Scientist at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole with a joint appointment at Brown University as a Professor of Biochemistry & Molecular Biology. Along the way I did research and taught thousands of medical and college students at LSU Medical Center, Harvard Medical School, Tulane, Brown, and Duke Universities, and a smattering of practicing physicians at various hospitals. I am writing today about biology, the science of Life.
There is an expression my neuroscientist friends liked to use — you’ve probably heard it before in a different context: “Use it or lose it”. In developmental neuroscience, it refers to how neurons (nerve cells) find and form connections with each other and their respective target tissues during embryogenesis. Developing neurons send out tiny projections from their cell bodies, like fingers on a hand, in search of their proper neural connections. When these projections contact other cells, a “decision” is made at the molecular level. If the connection is wrong, no nervous impulses are transmitted and the connection fails. Hence the maxim, “use it or lose it”.
If the connection is right, impulses are sent, the connection stabilizes, and that part of the nervous pathway is functional. If it’s a motor pathway connected to muscle, the developing organism can do things such as moving an arm or a leg. If it’s a sensory pathway, it means the embryo can sense environmental stimulation such as heat, pressure, and pain.
In humans, pain pathways come from the system periphery (e.g. fingers, skin and other organs) and send impulses to the central nervous system (spinal cord and brain). In the central nervous system, impulses are processed in a structure called the hypothalamus and relayed to the brain cortex where pain is recognized. Neural connections between the periphery, hypothalamus, and cortex are formed late in the second trimester in developing humans. Fetal surgeons are aware of this fact and others — it’s the reason they administer pain medication before performing an operation. Without pain care, these pre-borns demonstrate the classic responses to pain: they grimace and recoil at the touch of a sharp instrument, stress hormone levels shoot upwards, and blood is shunted to the body core.
What all of this means is that a late second-trimester human baby can feel and recognize the pain of its limbs being torn from its body, the pain of its organs being stretched and crushed by suction, the pain of being ripped from the womb. It seems one thing a 24 week developing human baby cannot do is scream in agony. If it could, there would be even less opposition to banning late-term abortion. Even then, I suspect some would turn a blind eye to this terrible reality. The naysayers would undoubtedly include those who otherwise chide us to “follow the science”. I do. I have. I always will follow the science. And I am grateful to be part of a New Hampshire Legislature that ended the cruel slaughter of late-term abortion.