ROME, MAY 13, 2004 (Zenit.org) - The verifiable suffering of the human fetus poses serious reflections for doctors and researchers, and proves it is unscientific to treat "prenatal life as second-class," says a noted Italian neonatologist.
Dr. Carlo Bellieni, in his book "Dawn of the I: Pain, Memory, Desire, Dream of the Fetus," published by SEF, addresses questions such as: What does a fetus experience? What are its rights? Is artificial insemination really harmless?
Bellieni has spent years studying the suffering of the fetus and the newborn, as part of his work in the Department of Neonatal Intensive Therapy of the Le Scotte University Polyclinic of Siena. He spoke about his work with ZENIT.
Q: Does the fetus feel pain?
Bellieni: Indeed. Modern neonatologists have the privilege of caring precisely for fetuses. We have them in our hands. Sometimes they have the weight of an apple; some are slightly longer than a hand.
They have been born prematurely and they will have to stay for months in sophisticated incubators, cared for and controlled 24 hours a day with high-technology instruments.
And no one who is caring for them doubts that they are our patients, that they are persons. Sometimes they are so small, that our efforts are useless. They die. And only we can, together with the parents, baptize them.
And all show an unexpected vitality because of their age and dimensions. Today, we know that the fetus inside the maternal womb perceives scents and tastes, hears sounds, and remembers them after birth.
Of course, we know that the fetus, at 30 weeks of gestation, is able to dream. All these characteristics allow us to appreciate the human dimensions. In recent years, this patient has been the object of research to guarantee its health from the maternal uterus.
Q: Can you give us some examples to illustrate your saying that the fetus is a person?
Bellieni: As soon as it is born, the child shows in a scientifically demonstrable way that it recognizes its mother's voice and distinguishes it from that of a stranger. Where has he learned that voice other than in the maternal womb?
There are also direct proofs. For example, we register how the movements and cardiac frequency of the fetus vary if we transmit unexpected sounds through the uterine wall. And we see that at first the fetus is startled, then it gets used to it, just like we do when we hear something that does not interest us.
In fact, the scientific evidence is immense. We cannot understand how it can be thought that it becomes a person at a certain point, perhaps when coming out of the uterus.
From the physical point of view, at the birth very little really changes: Air enters the lungs, the arrival of blood from the placenta is interrupted, the type of circulation of blood in the heart changes, and not much more.
As I often say, only blind faith in magic arts or some strange divinity can lead one to think that there is a "human" quality leap at a given moment -- certainly not science.
Q: Therefore, the affirmation that human life begins at birth is less scientific than that which holds that it is linked to the moment of conception.
Bellieni: Undoubtedly! When the genetic heritage of the ovule is joined with the spermatozoid, a process begins which is unique and unrepeatable precisely because no one in the world has a DNA that is the same as that of that little fertilized cell. Not even the parents.
Therefore, it is absurd to say that the fetus is the property of the mother or the father.
A few days ago I was talking to high school girls and I said to them: "If you return home today and your father tells you to do something because you are 'his,' because you are 'one of his rights,' what do you think? That your father is not feeling well. Well, at present, they are teaching you this: that the child is a right of the parents, a 'choice' of the parents."
Q: Is it not so?
Bellieni: Precisely by studying the premature child, the fetus, one sees that human dignity is not acquired with age, or with birth, or weight; otherwise, only the handsome, rich, and powerful would be human.
Respect for these very frail little children is immediate and teaches us that their value -- our value -- does not depend on contingent things. It depends only on being, and forming part of that level of nature called humanity.
It is easy, to be able to act on somebody, to take away his status as person, but we mustn't allow it.
Q: But with artificial insemination many families seem to become peaceful by having such a child.
Bellieni: We can wish for these parents all possible satisfactions. In any case, we must not forget that in vitro fertilization makes the survival of many embryos debatable.
Nor must we forget that the risks are not that few. In vitro fertilization can cause problems for the mother. A beautiful book came out in 2001 of a French woman journalist of "France 2" entitled, "A Child, But Not at All Costs," in which she explains the psychiatric risks of these practices.
But suffice it to read the scientific literature. It is surprising how much it is ignored.
In vitro fertilization entails the risk of multiple births and of prematureness. And these are risks for the health of the unborn child. Other works also, published in 2002, show that these risks exist even if only one embryo is implanted.
Q: What can be said, by way of conclusion?
Bellieni: That there are paradoxes. So much so that abroad things are going another way. In France there is a "Defender of Children, elected by Parliament," Claire Brisset, a famous journalist.
In the interest of children conceived this way, she has called for a moratorium on the fertilization technique called "ICSI," which introduces all the spermatozoid in the ovule with a minuscule needle.
Q: Can you explain what paradox you are referring to?
Bellieni: In the first place, the fact that we all remember: the prohibition to eat bovine meat out of fear of spongiform encephalitis [mad cow disease]. And how many cases there have been of culpable people. However, the health authorities have adopted precautionary criteria with reason.
In regard to these fertilization practices, we know what the risks are for the health of the one conceived and of the woman. Is it right to take those risks? Is it right to make one's children take those risks? Or is a prudent attitude more correct?
Moreover, I think one should say "enough" to that anti-scientific attitude that regards prenatal life as a second-class life. And the paradox is that instead the Church is accused of retarding progress. In reality, the Church has an attitude of protection of health.
I would like to remind that in vitro fertilization was invented by a priest, Abbot Lazzaro Spallanzani, 300 years ago. He united in vitro the semen and ovule of a frog and obtained tadpoles. He used dog sperm to artificially fertilize a female dog. He was a precursor. He was a scientist. He knew what could be done to an animal, and what can be done, on the other hand, to man.