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If you have a child—or are on Facebook—you know how stunning ultrasound images are. In the 1950s, Ian Donald, a professor of midwifery in Scotland, took the "echo-sounding" used in Glasgow shipyards for metal inspection and began applying it to OB/GYN settings. Because of the progress spurred by Donald, a Christian who opposed abortion, we now know with startling precision how babies develop in the womb.
At week 20, for example, an unborn baby is about the length of a banana. He has a face and sexual organs. He has eyebrows. He is about halfway through his journey into the world. And, if his life is tragically ended by abortion, he experiences intense pain.
This last claim is the lynchpin on which a host of new, successful state restrictions on abortion hinge. In 2010, Nebraska became the first to ban nonemergency abortions after 20 weeks, based on research indicating that's when fetuses start to feel pain. Since then, 12 other states have followed suit. In November, South Carolina Republican Lindsey Graham introduced the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act in the Senate, a companion to the bill that successfully passed in the House. "Not since Congress voted to ban the brutal partial-birth abortion method has a more important piece of pro-life legislation come before Congress," said Susan Muskett of the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC).
So far, fetal pain bills are promising incremental steps in a post–Roe v. Wade landscape. A spate of 2013 polls showed that a plurality of Americans, including pro-choice ones, support a 20-week abortion ban. Where the question, "When does human personhood begin?" gets mired in competing religious and philosophical claims, pain is straightforward: It is bad. If we have a bone of compassion, instinctively we want to stop it in others.
Unfortunately, the science surrounding fetal pain is murkier than the NRLC and other pro-life groups suggest. Kanwaljeet Anand, a ...