Humanizing Pain: Advocacy, Policy and Law on Abortion, Execution and Juvenile Life Without Parole

By Robert Kinscherff

I recently attended a presentation on Fetal Pain: An Update on the Science and Legal Implications, jointly sponsored by the Center for Law, Brain and Behavior (Massachusetts General Hospital) and the Petrie-Flom Center (Harvard Law School).  Presenters were Amanda Pustilnik, JD (University of Maryland School of Law) and Maureen Strafford, MD (Tufts University School of Medicine). Video of the event is available on the website, and I encourage everyone to watch the full discussion for themselves.

Doctor Strafford delivered a masterful overview of the trajectory of scientific perspective and research about children and pain.  Over the course of her career, the medical perspective has transformed from “children do not feel pain” to “children do not remember pain” to inquiry into “when and how children feel pain.” Strafford described the medical complexities of understanding the physical and subjective aspects of pain as well as the impossibility of confidently “pinpointing” the exact point in fetal development when a neonate experiences pain.

Professor Pustilnik gave an equally compelling review of law and legal language regarding abortion, particularly law that specifically references fetal pain as a reason for limiting abortion.   This served to frame a conversation about pain and suffering in the law and the ways in which law reflects normative considerations and provides rhetoric (viewed respectively by partisans as “compelling” or “inflammatory”) to political discourse. In this case, discourse about fetal pain both attracts attention and is intended to facilitate empathy for the neonate. Continue reading

Juvenile crime is down and high school graduation is up: Good news or distraction?

By Robert Kinscherff

At first glance it seems like unequivocal good news: Juvenile crime rates are at approximately the same levels as the early 1970’s and high school graduation rates have risen from 65 percent four years ago to 82 percent in 2013-2014.  But, a closer look suggests a different picture under the surface of this aggregate national data.

Overall rates of juvenile crime have diminished considerably since the high-water mark in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s but “hot spots” of violent crime by juveniles and young adults—especially gun violence—persistently burn in neighborhoods of large cities like Detroit, Chicago, Oakland, Cleveland, and Baltimore as well as in smaller cities like Flint (MI), New Haven (CT), Rockford (IL), Odessa (TX), and Springfield (MA), and in many rural areas with intractable high poverty rates and which have seen gang infiltration in recent years. Continue reading