As the Senate considers a bill protecting unborn human life past 20 weeks of pregnancy, medical experts insist these children do feel pain and must be protected by law.

“We are obligated to protect the undefensible,” stated Dr. Colleen A. Malloy, who teaches in the Neonatology division at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine. Testifying before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday, Dr. Malloy said that advances in technology show the “viability” of human life at an earlier age than previously believed.

The Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act would prohibit abortions performed after 20 weeks of pregnancy except in cases of rape (the victim must seek counseling or medical treatment), incest, or when the life of the mother is at stake.

It passed the U.S. House of Representatives last May in a historic vote for the pro-life movement, but the bill failed to advance in the Senate, receiving a majority of votes but not the three-fifths required. The Obama administration had already announced its plans to veto the bill if it passed the Senate.

Similar measures are being considered in states around the country, and some states, most recently South Dakota, have already passed bans on abortions after 20 weeks. According to the pro-life group Susan B. Anthony List, five major polls show a majority of Americans favoring such laws.

The U.S. is one of only seven countries in the world that allows elective abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy, testified Angelina B. Nguyen, J.D. of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, the research arm of the Susan B. Anthony List. The list of countries includes China, North Korea, and Vietnam.

At issue is whether states have the authority to enact protections for unborn children given that scientific debate differs about when an unborn child is “viable.” There is indeed “new state interest” in this matter, Nguyen said Tuesday on a press conference call. The state’s interest is “fetal pain.”

A child definitely feels pain at 20 weeks, testified Dr. Malloy on Tuesday, and it is certainly “viable.” Because of technological advancements “we have pushed back the gestational age” of when an unborn child “can be resuscitated and resuscitated successfully,” she said.

These children “are moving, reacting, and developing right before our eyes in the neonatal intensive care unit,” she said.

A June 2009 study of over 300,000 babies by the American Medical Association found that, among children aged 20 to 24 weeks post-conception, they had a steadily higher chance of survival with each passing week, ranging from 10 percent at the beginning to 85 percent at the end.

“Given these survival numbers, the NICU commonly cares for infants born in this gestational age range. We can easily witness their humanity, as well as their experiences with pain,” she testified.

“The majority of scientific evidence that’s out there in reports show that children, by at least 20 weeks, do respond to pain,” Nguyen said. One report, by the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2005, claims otherwise, she said. But the majority of the evidence says yes, children at this age do feel pain.

“I would definitely agree with that,” Dr. Malloy said, noting that “anesthesiologists, and surgeons” will “use pain medication, because it’s supported by the literature completely.”

“The standard of care for NICUs requires attention to and treatment of neonatal pain,” she said. “There is no reason to believe that a born infant will feel pain any differently than that same infant if he or she were still in utero.”

“I could never imagine subjecting my tiny patients to a horrific procedure such as those that involve limb detachment or cardiac injection.”

Dr. Kathi Aultman, a retired gynecologist, said she had performed both first and second trimester abortions, had an abortion herself, and has a cousin who is an abortion survivor.

After performing second-trimester abortions, she recounted how she had to examine the remains of the unborn child and found “perfectly-formed organs.” While she worked in the neonatal intensive care unit by day and in an abortion clinic by night, her conscience began to be troubled by the fact that she was intent on saving babies in the NICU who were the same age as those being aborted in the clinic.

The callousness of mothers toward their unwanted children further tugged at her conscience, she recalled. Seeing women — including herself — struggle emotionally after their own abortions further affected her.

“I personally didn’t have any concern or remorse about having had an abortion until after I had my first child,” she said. “It was then that I mourned the child that would have been.”