The unborn shall inherit the earth

The proposed Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act prioritizes fetuses over mothers.

Published August 9, 2006 7:15PM (EDT)

Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, did a bang-up job on AlterNet yesterday debunking the proposed Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act. The act, as Paltrow explains, "informs us that at 20 weeks after fertilization an unborn child has the capacity to experience pain and that the abortion methods most commonly used in the second trimester of pregnancy 'cause substantial pain' to an 'unborn child.'" (Paltrow also flags the fact that 1.5 percent of abortions occur after 20 weeks.)

But rather than merely dismissing the dubious legislation, she critically engages with it, asking pro-choicers not to let the other side set the terms of the debate. While the act "does not, on its face, pose a direct challenge to the right to choose abortion," she writes, "the anti-choice movement deserves credit for creatively proposing bills that put the pro-choice movement on the defensive."

Paltrow takes issue with the language of the legislation, particularly its fetishization of women as reproductive beings. By defining a woman as "a female human being who is capable of becoming pregnant," she observes, the legislation excludes many women from the definition of womanhood. "That will come as a surprise to post-menopausal and infertile female Americans thus rendered somehow less than real women," Paltrow notes. Indeed!

And the tricky contradictions don't stop there. The bill also warns that an "unborn child may experience substantial pain even if the woman herself has received local analgesic or general anesthesia." As Paltrow explains, "the idea that powerful anesthetics administered in labor might not also reach the fetus will astonish pregnant women who have been told for years that everything from cocaine to caffeine to a single glass of wine go immediately, directly and dangerously to the fetus."

Paltrow skewers the proposed legislation for treating maternal health as secondary to women's reproductive responsibilities. "In a departure from medical ethics and principles of informed consent," she writes, "the bill requires the health care provider first to inform the woman of the pain the fetus experiences; as an afterthought it says that doctors 'may' (are permitted to, but not required to) inform the woman of additional medical risks to her as a result of anesthetic administered directly to and solely for the benefit of the fetus."

Apparently it's unborn children first, then the rest of us.

By Sarah Goldstein

Sarah Goldstein is an editorial fellow at Salon.

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