October 8, 2009

How About Memory; Does That Bestow Personhood?

Justin Katz

Turning, again, to Joseph Bottum, we find this bit of information... just so's you know:

Researchers have learned that unborn babies at thirty-weeks gestation are forming short-term memories. By the time unborn children reach thirty-four weeks in development, they are "able to store information and retrieve it four weeks later."...

The "unless" to that finding would be unspeakable if a handful of judges hadn't written it into the law.


In response to the stimuli of comment section chastisements, I found more-detailed information on the study referenced in the above paragraph. I should have done so, before, but being busy, and mainly intending to enter into the discussion on a philosophical level, I convinced myself that the additional step wasn't necessary.

Consider that the core distinction in the comments was between "memory" and "habituation." Drawing the line down the rough center of the abortion debate and throwing those words into the mix, you'll likely find that one side takes "habituation" to mean that the fetus reacted to a repeated stimulation, while the other takes it to mean that the fetus remembered its reaction to the repeated stimulus and the subsequent outcomes.

In a debate about whether a fetus — right up to the moment of total extrication from the whom — is a human being, or even just a distinct living being worthy of a basic presumption of a right not to be killed, the semantic difference between "memory" and "habituation" is not likely to spur revelations. The skeptics would, as an a priori matter, require evidence of a sort known to be impossible (at least for the present). We cannot, for example, ask an in utero child to point to a picture that matches a card displayed ten minutes earlier.

Putting aside the fact that the title of the study appears to be "Aspects of Fetal Learning and Memory," I'll concede a change to my initial statement to read that "by the time unborn children reach thirty-four weeks in development, they are" able to recall a learned response to stimuli, unless they have been cut into pieces or had their brains sucked out of their skulls in accord with their mothers' "choice."

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It would have been more helpful to post a link to an actual story discussing this in detail. Its misleading to say "memory" when "habituation" would be more accurate. I understand you want to give evidence that supports your views to the public at large, but why use one paragraph without showing the broader discussion or the actual dutch study itself? Why rush to judgment when the actual scientists involved have yet to fully make clear the studies findings? Is this no better than the loons on the left rushing out to show vague evidence defending gays and abortion? A little evidence and description goes a long way

Posted by: steadman at October 8, 2009 6:13 PM

That post is doctored journalism. The republican specialty....

Posted by: kc at October 8, 2009 6:22 PM

An addendum to the abortion "question". I noted that Sandra O'Connor, in a recent interview, mentioned that Roe v. Wade would probably not have come out as it did were it not for the mania surrounding "over population" and "ZPG" in the 70's. We might learn from that as regards the current "globnal warming" mania. Of course, in the 70's, another mania was the "coming ice age".

Posted by: Warrington Faust at October 8, 2009 11:10 PM

Abortions at 33 weeks are not legal in RI (or most other states) except when there is a danger to the mother's life. In RI, this is defined as a physical danger, not mental well-being.

Justin, it might help your argument to focus on earlier development. I have noticed that a lot of pro-life advocates misconstrue abortion as occurring for choice reasons on a regular basis right up until the time of birth. This does not reflect the true situation.

A 33-week-old unborn baby is actually considered full-term. (A full-term baby is 32-weeks or older.) Preemies have survived as early as 21 weeks. (See the story of Amilia Taylor at http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Health/Story?id=2888874&page=1).

Post-viability abortions are actually not even protected by Roe v Wade:

"In the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision, the Supreme Court ruled that women, in consultation with their physician, have a constitutionally protected right to have an abortion in the early stages of pregnancy—that is, before viability—free from government interference." (http://www.guttmacher.org/pubs/fb_induced_abortion.html) and abortions performed at 21 weeks or more represent only 1.1% of all abortions (ibid). As previously stated, such late-term abortions are only allowed in most states to protect the mother's life. (In some places, "or health" may be used, which is more up to interpretation as possibly mental health.") RI only allows a late-term abortion for physical danger.

You might argue better with studies done at earlier stages of gestation since that is when abortion for choice purposes is occurring. For example, you could make a stronger argument with studies on early development of fetal DNA that is clearly different from the mother's and separate working organs (e.g., beating heart).

The late-stage abortions that most pro-lifers focus on are simply a negligible portion of abortions and are nearly always performed for saving the mother's life.

Just my 2 cents.

Posted by: Tabetha at October 9, 2009 3:47 PM


I believe you're incorrect about Rhode Island law. Even partial-birth abortions are legal in Rhode Island, thanks to a court decision declaring a ban unconstitutional.

Be that as it may, it's a mistake to take this particular post as encompassing my views about abortion. Life starts at conception. Period.

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 9, 2009 8:34 PM

I stand corrected. I did not account for the RI Medical Society v Whitehouse decision:

KIE: The United States District Court for the District of Rhode Island, on 30 August 1999, enjoined enforcement of Rhode Island's partial-birth abortion ban act. The act defined partial-birth abortion as "an abortion in which the person performing the abortion vaginally delivers a living human fetus before killing the infant and completing the delivery." The act also provided that a physician could perform an aborton on a viable fetus if necessary to save the mother's life only if "no other medical procedure would suffice for that purpose." The United States District Court found Rhode Island's statute to be constitutionally flawed in four respects. First, the court ruled that the definition of partial-birth abortion was unconstitutionally vague within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution since it implicitly banned the legally protected D & E procedure along with the impermissible D & X procedure. Secondly, following the United States Supreme Court precedent, the court invalidated the statute because it lacked a provision that would permit a partial-birth abortion to preserve the mother's health. Thirdly, the court concluded that the section of the statute permitting a partial-birth abortion to save the mother's life was inadequate. Finally, the court found that the statute placed an undue burden on a woman's right to an abortion within the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment. Its provision for a civil action against an abortion provider by the father of a fetus or by a minor's parents could involve third parties in the abortion decision against a woman's will.

Posted by: Tabetha at October 10, 2009 10:33 AM
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