Babies - both human and animal - react to touch, sound, and other external stimuli in the womb, but do not consciously experience them, says a group researching animal welfare.
Professor David Mellor, of Massey University, said yesterday that the embryo and foetus are apparently never conscious, and actually spend much of their time anae[s]thetised.
"Consciousness first appears only after birth, associated with first exposure to air, gravity, hard surfaces, unlimited space and, usually, to cold ambient conditions," he said...
[Mellor] argue[s] that the embryo and foetus cannot suffer before or during birth, and that suffering can only occur in the newborn when the onset of breathing sufficiently oxygenates its tissues...
When a baby [is] born, breathing oxygen cause[s] a critical chemical messenger, adenosine, to be cleared from the bloodstream in seconds, allowing it to start experiencing consciousness.
This indicate[s] that stillborn babies that did not breath [also] did not suffer pain or distress - they simply went from being asleep in the womb to profound unconsciousness and death....
Touch, sound and other stimuli affected the foetus, and could cause it to move in the womb.
"But the evidence, accumulated over the last 25-35 years, is that this does not occur at the conscious level," he said. Babies born with no cerebral cortex - the part of the brain essential for consciousness - could also respond with movements and hormone release and heart rate changes."
If these results are further substantiated, then they strike me as doubly significant to my own political commitments. First, they clearly provide yet more scientific support for the position that the "standing" of a fetus or embryo must always and absolutely be subordinated to that of the woman whose body undergoes the biological process of pregnancy in the first place. But this also helps me answer those critics who have sometimes claimed that my position on abortion rights is somehow incompatible with my commitments as an ethical vegetarian and advocate of an animal rights position.
Clearly, it is perfectly consistent to insist that nonhuman animals (and especially, for example, dolphins, Great Apes, and the like) make ethical claims on us, while denying that fetuses or embryos do -- or at any rate that the claims of a woman to dispose of her own body as she chooses supercede any claims one might ascribe to a fetus or embryo in her body.
While complex questions remain about where one draws lines to determine the standing of various beings with whom we share the world and the kinds of claims on our care and effort these beings variously mobilize, there is little reason to think that there is some inconsistency in caring altogether less about the unborn (whether they are human or not) than about the actually living (whether they are human or not).