Can a fetus feel pain?
Click Here to Visit our Sponsors.
The short answer is yes. At some stage during pregnancy, a fetus becomes capable of feeling pain. But, there appears to be no consensus among experts about the point in the pregnancy when this happens:
It would appear that some of the experts' opinions are so heavily biased by their pro-life/pro-choice stance that they are incapable of making objective observations.
Many women seriously consider this factor when they are deciding whether or not to have an abortion. They are reluctant to submit to an operation that would be painful to the fetus. Women deserve to have precise information on which to base their decision. Unfortunately, emotional factors seem to intrude in this, as in all other matters related to abortion. Information is very easy to find. But its accuracy is almost impossible to evaluate.
Pain in an adult, child, newborn or late-term fetus originates as an electrical signal in some of the body's pain receptors. This signal is sent via nerve pathways to the spinal column, then to the thalamus - an egg-shaped structure within the brain. Finally the signal is transferred to the cerebral cortex where it is sensed as pain. In a fetus, the pain receptors develop around 7 weeks after conception; the spino-thalamic system at about 13 weeks. Finally, the connections to the cortex are established about 26 weeks into pregnancy. Some pro-life advocates believe that pain can be felt by the fetus when these systems are only partly formed. Most pro-choice advocates believe that the complete system has to be "wired up" before the fetus can feel pain - i.e. at about 26 weeks into pregnancy.
Statement by a Panel of Experts:
The issue of fetal pain was addressed by a working group appointed by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in the United Kingdom. The panel consisted of experts in fetal development, law and bioethics. Dr. Anne McLaren headed the group. She commented: "Fetal awareness of pain is a very emotive topic, of particular concern to pregnant women, but we have tried to approach it without preconceptions, to examine the scientific evidence dispassionately, and to identify areas where further research is urgently needed.'' 1
The group determined that pain can only be felt by a fetus after nerve
connections became established between two parts of its brain: the cortex and
the thalamus. This happens about 26 weeks from conception. Professor Maria
Fitzgerald of University College London, author of the working group's report,
says that "little sensory input" reaches the brain of the developing
fetus before 26 weeks. "Therefore reactions to noxious stimuli cannot be
interpreted as feeling or perceiving pain." 10
Recent statistics show that of the 177,225 abortions performed in Britain during a recent year, 92 (0.05%) occurred after 24 weeks.
Statement by an "All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group"
A group of pro-life advocates from various political parties in England issued a statement on "Foetal Sentience" in 1996. They concluded:
Statement by Dr. Paul Ranalli
Dr. Ranalli is a neurologist at the University of Toronto, in Toronto Canada. He is acting president of the de Veber Institute for Bioethics and Social Research. He gave a presentation called "Pain, Fetal Development, and Partial-birth abortion" on 1997-JUN-27 to the House Judiciary Committee of the State of Ohio. 2,3 He has concluded that the "spino-thalamic" system is fully developed at about 12 to 14 weeks of gestation. This is the system that conveys pain signals from pain receptors throughout the body to the thalamus. He apparently believes that the thalamus can feel pain, even though a connection between it and the cortex is missing.
To support his belief that a fetus in the second trimester can feel pain, he cites three signs:
Commission of Inquiry into Fetal Sentience
The House of Lords in Britain conducted an inquiry into "fetal sentience." 5 One part of the study dealt with the ability of a fetus to feel pain. Conventional wisdom among researchers is that the brain's cortex is the only location where pain can be felt. However, they mention recent evidence that if an adult suffers from an injury or disease which causes the cortex to function poorly, that some sensation may be felt from an area lower in the brain. They speculate that a fetus may be able to sense some "form of pain sensation or suffering" before the cortex is linked to the lower levels of the brain. They note that babies who are born with a major brain defect can sometimes feel pain. This includes babies born with hydranencephaly in which "the cerebral hemispheres are substantially or entirely absent at birth" and anencephaly, in which "the cerebral hemispheres and the top of the skull may be absent."
Statement by the Medical Research Council at Edinburgh University, UK:
According to Fox News for 2001-AUG-31, the Council's study revealed that "a fetus was absolutely aware of pain by 24 weeks." This is earlier than the 26 weeks previously accepted by medical specialists.
Statement by Vivette Glover:
Professor Glover of Queen Chalotte's and Chelsea Hospital in London, UK, believes that there is a possibility that a fetus aged 18 weeks can feel pain. On 2000-AUG, she recommended that late pregnancy terminations be done under anesthetic. She suspects that the fetus would not respond to sensations in the same way as newborns. It is unlikely to produce the feelings of anxiety that people have. 10
Statement by Professor Robert White
Dr. White gave testimony before the House Constitution Subcommittee. He stated that the fetus at 20 weeks gestation "is fully capable of experiencing pain...Without question, all of this is a dreadfully painful experience for any infant subjected to such a surgical procedure."
1984 Statement by a Group of Physicians
In a speech by then President Ronald Reagan to National Religious Broadcasters
in 1984-JAN, he said "When the lives of the unborn are snuffed out, they
often feel pain, pain that is long and agonizing." 7
Use of anesthetic during late term pregnancy terminations:
A bill was introduced to the Health Committee of the California Assembly on 1998-MAY-5. It would have required that pain medication be used to anesthetize the fetus during any late-term pregnancy terminations. 9 The cutoff age the start of the third trimester; after this gestational age, anesthetics would be compulsory during any hysterotomy or D & X procedure. The intent of the legislation was to make certain that the fetus did not feel pain. The bill was rejected by the committee.
There was some indication that Planned Parenthood Federation of America is opposed in principle to such legislation. This is not true. A spokesperson for PPFA responded to our inquiry on 1999-MAY-4 with:
HitBOX includes this essay in its list of the top 1000 medical Internet sites.
Copyright © 1999 to 2001 inclusive by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance