British scientist claims US anti-abortion lawyers misused his work to attack Roe v Wade | Roe vs. Wade

A University College London scientist has accused lawyers in the US of abusing his groundbreaking brain work to justify the rollback of Roe v Wade, the landmark decision that legalized abortion nationwide national in America.

Giandomenico Iannetti said his research, which used imagery to understand the adult brain’s response to pain, had been misinterpreted as an anti-abortion argument.

Last week, an unprecedented leak of a draft legal opinion showed a majority of Supreme Court justices supporting overturning Roe v. Wade and ending federal protections for abortions, in a decision that could get 26 states banned. The court is considering a case, Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which challenges Mississippi’s abortion ban after 15 weeks’ gestation.

The anti-abortion lawyers in that case argued that scientific understanding had evolved since the 1973 court ruling that upheld the constitutional right to abortion, and that it was no longer accurate to say that fetuses cannot not feel pain for 24 weeks.

Their argument relied heavily on a controversial discussion paper on fetal pain published in the Journal of Medical Ethics in 2020 by Dr Stuart Derbyshire, British Associate Professor of Psychology at the National University of Singapore.

The article claims that some of Iannetti’s research findings suggest that we might not need a cerebral cortex – which remains underdeveloped in a fetus less than 24 weeks old – to feel pain.

Iannetti, an Italian professor of neuroscience who now runs a lab in Italy but has spent the past 16 years doing research at UCL and the University of Oxford, is adamant that it’s ” of an unjustified leap”.

“My results in no way imply that the cortex is not necessary to feel pain. I think they’ve been misinterpreted and used very cleverly to prove a point. It saddens me that my work has been misinterpreted and has become one of the main arguments they [the lawyers] done,” he said.

Professor Iannetti had no idea the document was being used to justify the dismantling of Roe v Wade until American colleagues contacted him to say they were “shocked” by the way his findings were presented. He has helped academics in the US write a response for lawyers, but says he thinks it’s out of his control and “there’s not much more I can do to stop people from claiming that my work says something that it does not say”.

Pro-choice demonstrators protesting outside the Supreme Court on May 6 Photography: Bryan Olin Dozier/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

Leading pain scientists and academic medical societies on both sides of the Atlantic strongly contest the anti-abortion legal argument, insisting on the international scientific consensus that it is impossible for fetuses to feel pain in the first weeks of existence remains firm and “irrefutable”.

John Wood, professor of molecular neurobiology at UCL, said: “I thought this opinion piece [by Derbyshire] was incorrect. Wood insisted that “all serious scientists” have agreed that a fetus cannot feel pain before 24 weeks, “and maybe not even then.”

He said the lawyers were right that the science had evolved since 1973, but not in the way they claimed. “For example, we know a lot more about pain in newborns,” he said. “Interestingly, surgeons who operate on fetuses say there is movement on surgery from week 36.”

Derbyshire told the Observer he is “firmly pro choice”. He insisted he didn’t overstep in his paper and claimed that while Iannetti’s work had nothing “directly” to do with fetal pain, it had “shaken the consensus that the cortex is necessary for pain.

He said: “I honestly don’t see how we can rule out the fetus having a raw experience akin to pain. It may be forever unknowable, and it won’t be the equivalent of what you or I are experiencing, but that doesn’t matter.

Professor Vania Apkarian, director of the Center for Translational Pain Research at the Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, who has spent two decades studying pain in humans and animals, said the evidence on fetal pain had no changed since 1973 and remained “irrefutable”.

“There is no rational basis for saying that a fetus can suffer before 24 weeks. The anatomy of the brain is not sufficiently formed for this to be possible,” he said. “The fetus is in an essentially sleep-like state in the womb.”

Apkarian wrote the science brief for the Jackson Women’s Health Organization case, on behalf of organizations including the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine in the US and the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in the UK. He spent months checking all the anti-abortion scientific credentials in case his side missed any serious evidence. “We didn’t,” he said.

Apkarian believes science has been drawn into a social and religious battle over abortion in order to play on people’s emotions. “The Mississippi case asserted that the fetus, when aborted, suffers. They said that because it’s such an emotionally charged statement. But that’s also totally untrue,” he said.

Dr Meera Shah, chief medical officer of Planned Parenthood Hudson Peconic, New York, said: “The bottom line is that a patient’s health, not unproven theories, should drive important medical decisions.”

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