In the eight years since the Supreme Court nationalized the abortion controversy, one facet of that subject has been neglected: pain. Abortion is painful for the aborted.

The neglect is explainable. To opponents of abortion, death, not pain, is the paramount issue. And proponents of abortion need (emotionally or logically, or both) to deny the possibility of fetal pain.

In its 1973 decision legislating abortion on demand, the Supreme Court announced that fetal life is not alive. At least that is what the court seems to have meant (if it can be said to have meant anything) when it described the fetus as "potential life." Those who support the 1973 decision are committed to the idea that a fetus, being only "potential" life, cannot feel pain, pain being an attribute of actual life.

Thus does a legal absurdity breed a biological falsehood. This intellectual train wreck is the subject of an essay in The Human Life Review by Prof. John Noonan of the University of California (Berkeley) Law School. There are, he notes, four principal means of abortion.

Sharp curettage involves a knife killing the fetus (if the amateur embryologists on the court will allow us to speak of "killing" life that is merely "potential"). In suction curettage, a vacuum pump sucks out the fetus in bits (and a knife cleans out any remnants). In second trimester and later abortions, a saline solution is injected into the amniotic fluid. The salt seems to act as a poison; the skin of the fetus, when delivered, resembles skin soaked in acid. If by accident the solution leaks into the body of the mother, she experiences pain that is described as "severe." The fetus can be in this solution for two hours before its heart (a stubborn bit of "potential" life) stops beating. Alternatively, the mother can be given a dosage of a chemical sufficient to impair the circulation and cardiac functioning of the fetus, which will be delivered dead or dying.

A fetus, like an infant or an animal, has no language in which to express pain. But we infer, and empathize with, the pain of creatures, such as baby seals, which lack language to express pain.

There are uncertainties about the precise points in fetal development at which particular kinds of sensations are experienced. But observations of development and behavior indicate that by the 56th day, a fetus can move. Discomfort may occasion the movement. Tactile stimulation of the mouth produces reflex action about day 59 or 60. By day 77 the fetus develops sensitivity to touch on hands, feet, genital and anal areas, and begins to swallow. Noonan believes that the physiological literature teaches that "beginning with the presence of sense receptors and spinal responses, there is as much reason to believe that the unborn are capable of pain as that they are capable of sensation."

Americans are proud of their humane feelings and are moved by empathy. Thus, we regulate the ways animals can be killed. Certain kinds of traps are banned. Cattle cannot be slaughtered in ways deemed careless about pain. Stray dogs and cats must be killed in certain humane ways.

But no laws regulate the suffering of the aborted. Indeed, Planned Parenthood, the most extreme pro-abortion lobby, won a Supreme Court ruling that it is unconstitutional to ban the saline abortion technique. That's right: the court discovered that the "privacy" right to abortion, which right the framers of the Constitution neglected to mention, even confers a right to particular abortion techniques.

Most pro-abortion persons have a deeply felt and understandable need to keep the discussion of abortion as abstract as possible. They become bitter when opponents use photographs to document early fetal development. The sight of something that looks so much like a child complicates the task of trying to believe that there is nothing there but "potential" life. And if fetal pain is acknowledged, America has a problem: its easy conscience about 1.6 million abortions a year depends on the supposition that such pain is impossible.

Magda Denes, in her book, "In Necessity and Sorrow: Life and Death in an Abortion Hospital," brought to her subject not anti-abortion convictions but a reporter's eye for concrete detail. Examining the body of an aborted child, she described the face as showing "the agonized tautness of one forced to die too soon." That is a description to bear in mind this day, as many thousands of abortions occur. acknowledged, America has a problem: its easy conscience about 1.6 million abortions a year depends on the supposition that such pain is impossible.

Magda Denes, in her book, "In Necessity and Sorrow: Life and Death in an Abortion Hospital," brought to her subject not anti-abortion convictions but a reporter's eye for concrete detail. Examining the body of an aborted child, she described the face as showing "the agonized tautness of one forced to die too soon." That is a description to bear in mind this day, as many thousands of abortions occur.