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Pain, Rhetoric, and the Fetus

Sarah Scullin

This paper demonstrates the rhetorical utility of fetal pain in the Hippocratic treatise Eight Months' Child. This treatise explains that a child born after eight months of gestation dies as a result of the twin stresses of birth and the "pains of the eighth month." In contrast, both the seventh months' child, being spared the pains of the eight month, and the ninth months' child, having recovered sufficiently, have a greater chance of survival.

Hanson (Hanson 1987) proposes that this explanation of fetal mortality normalized the death of the neonate and functioned to remove guilt from both mother and physician. More recently, Dasen (Dasen 2013) in her discussion of fetal ensoulment, argues that, while the Hippocratics refrain from discussing the fetal soul, the notion of fetal pain in Eight Months' Child indicates the fetus was thought to be capable of feeling.

The first two sections of this paper take up the notion of "feeling" adduced by Dasen: the fetus is said to undergo various stresses and pains, but does that mean that the Hippocratics therefore imagined the fetus to perceive these painful events? The Hippocratic notion of pain is wholly objective; that a subject could have pain, but not feel pain is not only possible, but even assumed in a few instances (e.g. Hippocrates, Breaths 14). The author of Eight Months' Child claims that both maternal and fetal pain combine to weaken the fetus. The second part of this paper explores the maternal-fetal connection and contextualizes this link within both Hippocratic pain theory and pain terminology.

The arguments thus far address how the Hippocratics may have imagined fetal pain to operate; the final part of this paper addresses why this author cites pain, and not any other symptom or circumstance, as the cause of neonatal death. Here, pain is shown to have rhetorical utility throughout the Hippocratic Corpus, as a result of both its prominent role in Hippocratic theory and the nature of pain itself.


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