The recent vote on the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act is a bioethical issue masquerading as a political one. It is time we as Catholics understood that. Politics we can disagree on. The dignity of the human person we cannot.

Catholic bioethics starts with accepting and honoring the dignity of the human being. Thus, passage of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act ought to be a no-brainer. Leaving aside for the moment the fact that it fails to affect abortion prior to twenty weeks, which Catholics find equally wrong, this proposal begins to admit and respect the humanity of the person in the womb.

Abortion advocates understand that very well. Admitting the personhood of the baby in the womb is the beginning of the end for abortion on demand.

Common sense tells us that dismemberment of those who can feel pain is excruciating and therefore wrong. So what is the problem with passing legislation to prevent dismemberment of babies based on their ability to feel pain?

One answer is that there are segments of the governing class that have simply adopted the position that abortion cannot be limited under any circumstance. For Catholics, and for a good deal more of the American population, that is a troubling position to take, very much out of sync with the electorate. 

The justification given for not limiting even the most egregious abortions was this: we can’t be sure that babies with limited brain matter—anencephalic babies and those with hydrocephalus—feel pain like other babies do. Therefore it would be unjust to limit the ability of the mother to end that pregnancy, and therefore, limiting abortion at 20 weeks is an infringement on medical care of mothers in extremely difficult pregnancies. 

Pain, these folks argue, is difficult to quantify because it is subjective, though presumably these same folks admit it exists and find it personally unpleasant when it is their own subjective experience. Often cited is an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association that concludes “Evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.” Hence, those opposing the Act argue, the basis for the proposed legislation is not valid and would be an unreasonable restriction on the right of the mother to end a pregnancy.

Here’s where Catholic bioethics comes in, that little word in the JAMA article: unlikely.  The article does not contend that a 20-week-old infant definitely cannot feel pain, merely that they probably don’t. The way that we treat that uncertainty says a great deal about how we view each other. At present in American life are two completely different views of the human person, and the kind of society we have will very much depend on which view prevails.

Assuming for a moment that there is uncertainty about the ability of a 20-week-old baby to feel pain (and leaving aside the fact that abortion itself is an unthinkable assault on the dignity of the child at any stage), in whose favor do we resolve that uncertainty? That is the essential question at play, not when and how we restrict abortion.

Catholic teaching about the dignity of human life makes that clear: we resolve it in favor of the child, the one affected by the uncertainty and the one most vulnerable if we are wrong in our assumptions. 

That means if there is any possibility that a child of that age feels pain, we behave as though he does. For that matter, it means that if there is any doubt that the fertilized egg is a person, we act as though it is. Why? Because that accords the full dignity of humanity to the least among us. As Catholics, we are called to that standard. It seems that a good many of those who voted Jan. 29 do not share that philosophy. That is a serious problem, much greater even than the great issue of abortion. Once we accept exceptions to the dignity of human life, no life is safe.

Years ago, a family from deep in the piney woods of Florida brought in their month-old baby to the emergency room, concerned because she wasn’t eating well. The child died a few minutes after arrival and I was called in to do the autopsy.

I walked into the morgue to find a month-old baby, dressed in a frilly pink dress and matching socks, clean and well cared for, and missing her brain—an anencephalic child, just like those the dissenting senators used as an excuse for refusing to prevent the intentional dismemberment in the womb of other babies because “we aren’t sure they really feel pain.”

This child had been born at home, and survived a month, quite a long time considering her disability. She was fed and cuddled and dressed and cared for because her parents understood that this was not only a child, she was their child. There was no doubt about her dignity in their minds and no doubt about their grief at her death. I saw it. They understood something 189 congressmen and 46 senators do not.

Scripture tells us: I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse; therefore choose life, that you and your descendants may live.

It’s true in politics as well as in the rest of life. Choose life. And call to task those who do not. Either we are willing to stand for the dignity of the least among us, or we have chosen death.

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Barbara Golder had a 40-year career in medicine and law, including health care ethics. She is now the award-winning author of the ‘Lady Doc’ mystery series and serves as Director of Adult Faith Formation and Evangelization at the Basilica of Sts. Peter and Paul in Chattanooga, Tennessee. She blogs at