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The Psychology of Pain

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Stuart Derbyshire, a senior psychologist at Britain’s University of Birmingham says that pain is subjective. “Pain is something that comes from our experiences and develops due to stimulation and human interaction. It involves concepts such as location, feelings of unpleasantness and having the sensation of pain. Pain becomes possible because of a psychological development that begins at birth when the baby is separated from the protected atmosphere of the womb and is stimulated into wakeful activity.” Though the neural circuitry necessary to feel pain has been fully developed by the twenty-sixth week of gestation, he says, fetuses cannot feel pain because pain is a product of the mind as much as the body. The mind, he argues, develops only outside of the womb. A fetus has an undeveloped mind and hence feels no pain.

This is an interesting definition of pain. As I began to research and cross-reference this definition, I was surprised to find that others affirm the subjectivity of pain. The International Association for the Study of Pain, an organization that one would assume to carry some weight in this area, defines pain as follows: “An unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage.” They provide a short series of notes which add supplementary information. “The inability to communicate verbally does not negate the possibility that an individual is experiencing pain and is in need of appropriate pain-relieving treatment.” In discussing the subjectvity of pain, they say the following: “Pain is always subjective. Each individual learns the application of the word through experiences related to injury in early life. Biologists recognize that those stimuli which cause pain are liable to damage tissue. Accordingly, pain is that experience we associate with actual or potential tissue damage. It is unquestionably a sensation in a part or parts of the body, but it is also always unpleasant and therefore also an emotional experience. Experiences which resemble pain but are not unpleasant, e.g., pricking, should not be called pain.”

Doctors for Pain defines pain primarily in physical terms. “Sensation of discomfort, distress, or agony, resulting from the stimulation of specialized nerve endings. It serves as a protective mechanism (induces the sufferer to remove or withdraw).” Most definitions I encountered in my research were similar to this one.

There is a problem with pain. How do we measure pain? If someone were to jab a needle in my arm and ask me how much it hurts, I might be able to express myself to some degree. I may be able to describe certain symptoms and tell the person where I feel the pain. But in all likelihood, I will say something like “5 out of 10.” This is exactly what the midwife has done in the past when talking to my wife during labor. This is an effective means of establishing how much something hurts, but it depends on prior experience. After all, when Aileen establishes that her labor pains register as a 7 on a scale of 1 to 10, that is premised on a prior knowledge of pain and on the ability to logically order previous experiences and discern which have been worse than others.

The problem with discussing pain in children is that they do not posess either the same quantity of experience of pain, nor the ability to express how this pain compares with other pain. Derbyshire is correct in his assessment that a child’s mind is not as fully developed as that of an adult. But this does not indicate that the child does not feel pain, nor that he does not feel terrible, agonizing pain. It seems clear that, even among well-intentioned doctors and researchers, those who are not motivated by either extreme in the abortion agenda, there is a great deal of disagreement on exactly when a fetus begins to experience pain. Yet the majority of doctors affirm that they do feel pain. We see this in the fact that when doctors perform fetal surgery, they provide anesthesia to both mother and child.

One ongoing problem with pain is that it is extremely difficult to study it. After all, how are we to gather data on this subject? Should we cause pain to children and attempt to measure it? Surely not. That would be immoral and tantamount to torture. Medical science lacks a “pain-o-meter” which can precisely diagnose the cause and intensity of pain. So all expression of pain is, at least to some degree, subjective in nature.

The psychology of pain is important, but only if it acknowledges that there is a subjective aspect to pain. It is true that there are some people who feel pain less acutely than others. It is true that there are some people who perceive pain to be pleasurable. Yet it is universally true, except for those with physical or neurological disorders, that people respond consistently to painful stimuli. We do not need to commission a study to know that children, when pricked with a pin for a blood test in the hours after birth, react by pulling the foot away from the instrument of pain. Most react by crying, letting their protest be widely known. Baby boys receive anesthesia when they are circumcised only days after being born. Do they not feel pain? To insist that all pain in all people is conditional and based upon psychology and human interaction is, quite frankly, ridiculous. To go even further than this and suggest that the psychological development required in order to feel pain does not begun until birth is nothing less than outrageous. Dr. Derbyshire seems to indicate that a person who cannot adequately express pain cannot feel pain. Lacking from this diagnosis is any type of convincing proof!

As you may know, the United States government is considering passing legislation that would require abortion doctors (a seemingly contradictory pairing of words) to disclose to women that their child may feel pain when being aborted. Women may then choose to anesthetize the fetus before it is aborted. Naturally, this is inconceivable to abortionists who have invested great effort in ensuring that women do not conceive of the fetus as human or as having the ability to feel anything. A blob of tissue cannot feel pain. But a child can.

Dr. Derbyshire, despite the timing of this study, suggests that the conclusion that fetuses feel no pain should have no impact on the abortion debate. After all, whether or not a fetus feels pain really has no bearing on the morality of abortion. The issue of abortion depends far more on the definition of personhood and the perceived rights of a woman to do what she wishes with her own body. In a sense he is right. Yet the fact that an unborn child feels intense pain as his body is torn apart is entirely relevant to the discussion. Our medical establishment, and in many ways our society, is premised upon the right of people to escape pain. We hate pain. We hide from it, flee from it, all with good reason. To know that a child suffers greatly as he is aborted is surely relevant to a discussion of the morality of abortion. There is something shocking, nauseating, heartbreaking about considering that a fetus feels the sensation of pain as his body is pulled apart within the womb that is meant to be his haven.

How many women are likely to request anesthesia for a child they are going to abort? I would suggest that very few would do this. After all, most women who believe that a fetus is a human being will not abort the child. This is the goal for many pro-life counsellors. Once they have convinced a woman of the fact that her fetus is a human life, the battle to save that life has nearly been won. The necessity of anesthesia is an admission that the fetus is human. Thus women who are sure of the humanness of their child will have no need for anesthesia (or an abortion) while those who regard it as merely a blob of tissue will have no need for anesthesia, for a blob of tissue feels no pain.

In the case of Dr, Derbyshire’s study, labelling pain as a psychological phenomenon is a handy cover for avoiding the undeniable truth that children feel pain, even if we do not know exactly how or to what extent. Pain is surely both physical and psychological, but there is no reason to entirely psychologize pain and insist that pain cannot be felt until the mind has fully developed. It is an absurd conclusion and one that serves only to further a deadly, immoral agenda.

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