Marie Tasy, executive director of New Jersey Right to Life, stood before a podium holding a small, plastic baby doll representing what an infant in the womb looks like at 20 weeks gestation.
“At 20 weeks post fertilization, a baby in the womb is 11 inches long and almost one pound and looks like a small newborn,” Tasy said. “The baby has fully formed fingerprints and tiny little toenails. … She is able to do somersaults and suck her thumb — and she can feel pain.”
In response, Sen. Steven Oroho, standing in a corner of the conference room, declared loudly, “That’s a baby.”
Tasy and Oroho were among dozens of pro-life advocates, state legislators and physicians who gathered Dec. 5 in the State House Annex, Trenton, for a news conference urging lawmakers to pass the NJ Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, A3452/S2026. The act would ban abortions performed after 20 weeks post-fertilization and require that babies born alive during abortions be given the same medical care as infants born prematurely. Mounting evidence by prominent physicians and scientific journals concludes that babies at the 20-week stage can feel pain.
The law — modeled after similar federal legislation that passed the U.S. House of Representatives in May 2015 — would permit exceptions for situations of rape, incest or if the life of the mother is at stake. It was introduced in the spring and is currently in the Assembly Health and Senior Services Committee with its companion bill in the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee.
“This is a fight we can never stop pushing for. We have to be there to defend them,” said Oroho, R-24, a primary sponsor of the bill in the state Senate.
He was joined at the news conference by primary sponsor Sen. Joseph Pennachio (R-26), co-sponsor Sen. Michael Doherty (R-23) and Assemblyman Ronald Dancer (R-12), a primary sponsor of the bill in the Assembly.
Addressing those in attendance, Sen. Pennachio drew a parallel between the rights of the unborn and those extended to prisoners on death row, saying that in in 2006, the state of California decided one of its convicted murderers could not be executed because there was no guarantee he would not feel pain during the process. As such, the judge in the case ordered two anesthesiologists be present to monitor the prisoner’s pain levels.
“What does it say about a society and governing bodies that think more about the protection of murderers and the pain they may feel than protecting innocent human life and turning a blind eye and heart to their pain?” he asked.
Assemblyman Dancer cited evidence within the medical community that babies not only feel pain 20 weeks post-fertilization but that the rate of survival outside the womb has increased.
“It’s unconscionable that they be put through pain,” he said. “Now that we have more scientific evidence, I think it’s time for the medical community to come forward.”
Those at the news conference cited many studies in support of the legislation, including a 2015 New England Journal of Medicine study that showed fetal surgeons administering pain medication to babies in the womb at the 20-week post fertilization mark and a 2007 article in the Journal of Behavioral and Brain Science that found consciousness can exist without a cerebral cortex.
Dr. Randolph Knob, a retired general surgeon who has practiced in facilities including Overlook Hospital, Summit, and remains a fellow of the American College of Surgeons, spoke to the science proving that babies in the womb feel pain.
“The unborn child at 20 weeks gestation has developed pain receptors and necessary nerve connections to respond to painful stimuli and therefore, feels pain,” he said. “Whether this is suffering would seem to be a spurious debate.”
He explained that spinal cord connections and the thalamus, which relays sensory information, are functional by 20 weeks, adding that an established cerebral cortex, which develops toward the end of the second trimester, does not appear to be necessary for a baby in the womb to feel pain.
“Animals have no cortex yet experience pain,” he said.
In addition, Dr. Knob referenced the New England Journal of Medicine study that showed doctors beginning to consider infants in the womb at 20 weeks as patients. As such, he said, “the evolving field of fetal surgery has led anesthesia research teams to realize that pain medication is needed for the 20-week fetus.”
Dr. John Calabro, a retired anesthesiologist from Overlook Hospital, acknowledged that a majority of the debate as to whether abortions performed after 20 weeks should be legal revolves around how well-developed a baby’s brain is at that gestation stage.
Abortion proponents, he said, argue that the physiological signs of pain in the womb — increased blood flow and heart rate, for example — are nothing more than a reflex. He says, however, that the perception of pain isn’t clear-cut.
For example, research shows patients who haven’t been given enough anesthesia to put them into full unconsciousness experience pain, he said, which though known by the patient in some form of conscious thought might not be evident to the outside world. The same applies to the unborn.
“We need to consider the humanity of these babies,” he said. “We make a lot of effort to relieve pain in people born already. We should extend that same concern to the unborn.”
Father Michael Fragoso, pastor at Saint James the Less Church, Jamesburg, who was a pediatric doctor for 25 years before becoming a priest, said medical advances can now keep 20-week-old babies alive outside the womb thanks to artificial breathing apparatuses.
In addition, he recounted the experiences of him and his nursing staff, where babies as early as 26 weeks would flinch when touched not only because of their thin skin but because their thalamus, acting as a center for pain perception, is still developing.
“We worry about seals in the Arctic that are being clubbed. Shouldn’t we care for members of our own species who happen to be in a different stage of development?” he said.
Catherine DeGenova of Saint Rose Parish, Belmar, attended the news conference as a concerned Catholic and mother of five children. She encourages everyone to learn more about the bill and the perception of pain when it comes to the unborn.
“Read more. Educate yourself,” said DeGenova, a member of the Respect Life Ministry as her parish. “With education comes proof.”
“Once you know the truth about pain, how could you abort?”
Jennifer Mauro is associate editor of the Monitor, newspaper of the Diocese of Trenton.