Scientific Testimony against the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act

My name is Matthew Facciani and I am a PhD candidate in cognitive neuroscience. I oppose bill H3114 because its legislative intent rests upon a psychologically flawed interpretation of scientific data. 

I am testifying in my capacity as a neuroscientist, psychology instructor, and science educator. Recognizing good science from bad science is part of my job and I hope to explain the flawed scientific reasoning behind this bill. The main support for this bill stems from research that fetuses can react to stimuli at around 20 weeks of development. However, the scientific consensus is that such reactions to stimuli are reflexive, not a response to pain.

In other words, just because fetuses react with reflexes we associate with pain does not mean they feel pain. As Dr. Anand noted in his report in support of a similar bill, the International Association for the Study of Pain defines pain as "an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience..." The current scientific evidence supports the conclusion that fetuses can have unpleasant sensory experiences. It does not, however, support the psychological claim that these experiences are emotional. In other words, fetuses do not feel pain.

Dr. Mark Rosen, pain researcher and anesthesiologist, concludes that such reactions are analogous to the reflex from a leg when tapped by a doctor’s rubber mallet. Also, any release of stress hormones during a reflex would not necessarily indicate the experience of pain, since elevations of stress hormones also occur in the bodies of brain-dead patients during organ harvesting. These findings do not reflect feeling pain; they only reflect a sufficiently intact nervous system.

Dr. Rosen also states how the pain signal must be able to travel from receptors located all over the body, to the spinal cord, up through the brain’s thalamus and finally into the cerebral cortex to be felt. He then notes how fetuses do not have nerve fibers which extend from the thalamus and have penetrated the cortex until the third trimester which is supported in a 2010 review paper of fetal development. 

An extensive review paper on fetal pain was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by Dr. Lee and colleagues in 2005. It remains the best available systematic multidisciplinary review on the subject of fetal pain. These researchers concluded that "Evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester." They also note how pain is an emotional and psychological experience which requires conscious recognition of a noxious stimulus. So it is highly unlikely any pain can be felt by a fetus 24 weeks or earlier in pregnancy.

Furthermore, a study by Dr. Fabrizi and colleagues in 2011 revealed that the necessary neural circuits to differentiate pain from sensation are not developed in infants until 35 weeks of age. The younger infant's neural signal indicated general tactile sensation, while the older infant's neural signal indicated actual processing of pain from the sensation.

Even if fetuses could feel pain before 24 weeks, the placenta produces biochemicals which have a sedating and even an anesthetizing effect on the fetus according to a study by Dr. Mellor and colleagues in 2005. Thus, claims of fetuses feeling pain at or before 20 weeks represent the views of a minority of researchers with no psychological scientific training, and do not have widespread acceptance in the scientific community.

Finally, a 2013 study published in the Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health journal found that around one percent of abortions occur at 20 weeks or later. According to this same study, the women who had these rare abortions often had difficulty finding a provider and raising funds for the procedure and travel costs, were young and seeking work, or were dealing with an abusive partner. Thus, by banning abortions at 20 weeks, South Carolina would be harming some of its most vulnerable citizens.

In conclusion, bill H3114 is not defended by research widely supported by the scientific community as there is not substantial evidence that fetuses feel pain. The Fabrizi study provides evidence that sensation does not equal pain and the vast majority of the scientific community agrees that if a fetus could ever feel pain, it would only be possible at 24 weeks at the absolute earliest. Furthermore, the bill is foundationally flawed: It rests on the opinions of researchers who do not understand the psychological distinctions necessary to adequately address this topic. 

Thank you very much.

*This testimony was read by Matthew Facciani during the South Carolina House General Laws Subcommittee meeting on Thursday, January 22, 2015. 

 

Sorry Morgan Freeman, You're Wrong. We Do Use All of Our Brains.

It was painful to hear Morgan Freeman's awesome voice perpetuate a commonly held science myth in the trailer for the new movie "Lucy." The premise of this film is that a young woman uses "more than 10%" of her brain and obtains superpowers. A quick Google search reveals multiple articles dispelling the myth that we only use 10% of our brains as seen here, here, here, here, and many others. Yet, despite all these attempts to educate the general public that we do in fact use all our brains, a recent poll by The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research found 65 percent of Americans still believe that people only use 10 percent of their brains! 

Like I mentioned above, there are already many articles existing which dispel this myth, but I will quickly summarize some main points.  If we did only use a small fraction of our brains, most brain injuries would not be a big deal instead of being rather traumatic. I worked in a hospital for an internship where I assessed brain injury patients and the doctor I worked for never said  "well good thing this guy got hit in the part of the brain he doesn't use!"

Now as neuroscientist who does neuroimaging research I have scanned well over 100 brains and have spent countless hours analyzing brain data despite being young in my career. In fact, much of my previous research was looking at whole brain activity during neuroimaging scans. Unsurprisingly, whole brain analysis entails analyzing activity for the entire brain! Additionally, from an evolutionary point of view, it would make zero sense to have an organ (our brain) use such a great deal of resources, but only use a small fraction of its capabilities. 

I understand that science fiction movies should not be cited as scientific fact and we are usually asked to suspend some disbelief while watching them. I am fine with this; however, I find it rather obnoxious that a major film would totally ignore the wealth of neuroscience research that disproves its premise. I understand why they would use such a premise as it does sound sexy and the majority of Americans do believe in this myth as I noted above. What mostly bothers me is that such a premise CAN be sexy in 2014. I understand how believing that we only use 10% of our brains sounds nice because of all the potential that stems from such a claim. However, it is still patently false and I'd like to see the day where that is common knowledge. We may not know if an alien race would have superpowers on our planet like Superman, but we should at least know that we use all of our brains. 

How Men Can Prevent Sexual Violence Against Women

*This post originally appeared on Sexual Trauma Services of the Midland's blog

 

After giving a presentation on behalf of the Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands, a young woman walked up to me and thanked me for coming to speak to their group. She then went on to say that it was really nice to see a man speak about preventing sexual violence as it is often seen as a woman’s issue. I was taken aback by this because men are the majority of sexual violence perpetrators so they should definitely have an active role in stopping sexual violence. Additionally, because so many men are perpetrators of sexual violence, men can offer a unique role in standing up to their peers.

Men do not even have to volunteer at a lovely place like the Sexual Trauma Services of the Midlands to prevent sexual violence (though doing so is a great idea!). Men can help prevent sexual violence from following a few steps explained by Jackson Katz, an expert in sexual violence prevention. Katz stresses how society should put the burden on men to prevent rape and sexual violence if we really want to eliminate it. He argues that blaming victims that are women instead of the male perpetrators will keep perpetuating the problem and I totally agree. Katz created a list of ten ways that men can help prevent sexual violence and I will address the first three here as I feel they can help everyone, but especially men. The first suggestion Katz has for men is:

“Approach gender violence as a MEN'S issue involving men of all ages and socioeconomic, racial and ethnic backgrounds. View men not only as perpetrators or possible offenders, but as empowered bystanders who can confront abusive peers.”

Like I mentioned previously, it is helpful to first see how men can play an active role in preventing gender violence because they can confront their peers. A man who does not confront other men when they express abusive behavior to women in front of them perpetuates the problem. Another suggestion from Katz is:

“If a brother, friend, classmate, or teammate is abusing his female partner -- or is disrespectful or abusive to girls and women in general -- don't look the other way. If you feel comfortable doing so, try to talk to him about it. Urge him to seek help. Or if you don't know what to do, consult a friend, a parent, a professor, or a counselor. DON'T REMAIN SILENT.”

When men remain silent, they tacitly approve of abusive behavior. If the perpetrator is never met with any resistance from his peers, it makes total sense that he would continue the abusive behavior. This starts with disrespectful language towards women as it creates perpetuates the notion that women are just pleasure objects for men without their own thoughts and intentions. The last tip from Katz that I'll mention here is:

“Have the courage to look inward. Question your own attitudes. Don't be defensive when something you do or say ends up hurting someone else. Try hard to understand how your own attitudes and actions might inadvertently perpetuate sexism and violence, and work toward changing them.”

I feel like this one is difficult for many people to do, but perhaps the most important. It is tough to critically evaluate oneself. When someone accuses us of problematic behavior, we might be quick to be defensive and dismissive of their claims. However, this is counterproductive for meaningful discourse or progress of any nature. It is always important to constantly evaluate your beliefs and be willing to modify them based off of evidence. While men are not responsible for all sexual violence, they are the majority of perpetrators. Thus, men have can have a special role in preventing sexual violence by speaking up to their peers and also listening to the experiences of women.