Foetal Pain

This is an emotionally loaded issue, particularly when animals are protected by law from unnecessary suffering. ``There is controversy over whether or not women contemplating second trimester abortions should be informed of the pain the foetus will suffer.

  • The foetus can feel pain at 20 weeks. This is probably a conservatively late estimate, but it is scientifically solid.
  • A 20-30 week old fetus may feel more pain than an adult.
  • It is possible that the foetus is caused distress by interventions from as early as 15 - 16 weeks.
  • Anaesthesia is routinely given to wanted children, from 20 weeks onward, who undergo prenatal surgery.
  • Laws require pain-free and humane methods of slaughtering animals, but not a human foetus.
Medical evidence indicates that the human foetus feels pain during an abortion after twenty weeks. However, there is yet no consensus about when pain can be felt in the earlier stages of development.

This is an emotionally loaded issue, particularly when animals are protected by law from unnecessary suffering, but human life in the womb is freely taken.

There is controversy over whether or not women contemplating second trimester abortions should be informed of the pain the foetus will suffer.

Abortion advocates argue that it would place an unfair and unnecessary burden on a woman to be given such information when she is already in an emotionally-charged situation. While opponents claim that many women would welcome a reasonable excuse to not have an abortion.

The other area of contention is whether or not doctors should be required to administer anaesthetics to the foetus before the abortion.

Some abortion rights groups deny any such necessity. They see a danger in acknowledging any 'right,' to the foetus, as it may then be used as a precedent in establishing that a foetus may have other rights, including the 'right to live.'

"To the extent that the fetus between eight and 14 weeks of gestation feels pain, the suction curettage method of abortion ? the usual method of abortion used during that time, which tears the fetus from the womb, often part-by-part, is certainly capable of causing pain in a manner analogous to D&E abortion." 4

Pain, Fetal Development and Partial-birth abortion
The fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks. This is probably a conservatively late estimate, but it is scientifically solid. Elements of the pain-conveying system (spino-thalamic) begin to be assembled at seven weeks.

Enough development has occurred by 12-14 weeks that some pain perception is likely, and continues to build through the second trimester. By 20 weeks, the spino-thalamic system is fully established and connected.

A 20-30 week old fetus will feel more pain than an adult. The period between 20-30 weeks is a uniquely vulnerable time, since the pain system is fully established, yet the higher level pain-modifying system has barely begun to develop. 5

Giving testimony to the US Senate Judiciary Committee in 1998, Dr Jean A. Wright, MD., MBA., a practicing Pediatric Intensive Care physician who is board certified in Pediatrics, Anesthesia, and in both sub-boards 
of Critical Care Medicine, stated that contrary to previous teaching, current data indicate that preterm neonates have greater pain sensitivity than term neonates or older age groups. She said that several lines of scientific evidence support this concept. 6

Pain at 20 weeks and beyond
A working group to examine fetal pain was appointed by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in Britain. The group concluded that pain can only be felt when nerve connections have been established between the cortex and the thalamus, 26 weeks after conception.

To be on the safe side they recommended that measures be taken to stop the foetal heart in all terminations after 21 weeks.

To be on the safe side they recommended that measures be taken to stop the foetal heart in all terminations after 21 weeks.

By 1999 this had been updated in the British Journal of Obstetrics & Gynaecology with the following statement: "Given the anatomical evidence, it is possible that the foetus can feel pain from 20 weeks, and is caused distress by interventions from as early as 15 - 16 weeks."

The House of Lords conducted an enquiry into foetal pain and essentially arrived at the same conclusions as the RCOG. They concluded:

  • After 23 weeks of growth, higher areas of the brain are active and starting to form connections with nerves that will convey pain signals to the cortex
  • By 24 weeks after conception the brain is sufficiently developed to process signals received via the thalamus in the cortex
  • While the capacity for an experience of pain comparable to that in a newborn baby is certainly present by 24 weeks after conception, there are conflicting views about the sensations experienced in the earlier stages of development. The scientific understanding is that 6 weeks after conception the elements of the nervous system start to function. Most scientists agree that this marks the earliest possible point at which sensation might occur
Professor Vivette Glover of Queen Charlotte's and Chelsea Hospital in 2000, recommended that "between 17 and 26 weeks, it is increasingly possible that the foetus starts to feel something and that abortions in that period ought to use anaesthesia."

The US Unborn Child Awareness Act
In 2004 the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act was introduced in both the U. S. House and Senate. This would mandate that abortionists inform mothers planning to abort 'unborn children' 20 weeks and older that these 'unborn children' will likely feel pain, and would they like him or her to be anaesthetized while being dismembered?

The Act reminded congressmen that anaesthesia is routinely given to wanted children from 20 weeks on who undergo prenatal surgery.

The Act also reminded congressmen that federal laws require pain-free and humane methods of slaughtering cattle, calves, horses, sheep, and swine by either one sharp blow, gunshot, or electrical impulse, or by quickly severing neck arteries with a sharp knife.

References:
  1. Human Sentience Before Birth: The Commission of Inquiry into Fetal Sentience. 1996. CARE (Christian Action Research & Education) and The House of Lords. June 26, 2001
  2. Anand K.J.S, Hickey P.R. 'Pain and its Effects in the Human Neonate and Fetus,' NEJM, Volume 317, Number 21: Pages 1321-1329, 19 November 1987
  3. V. Collins, S. Zielinski and T. Marzen, Fetal Pain and Abortion: the Medical Evidence, Studies in Law and Medicine, No 18, 1984. V. Collins is Professor of Anaesthesiology at the University of Illinois 
  4. Ibid
  5. Taken from a presentation by Dr Paul Ranalli on "Pain, Fetal Development and Partial-birth abortion," - June 27, 1997. Dr Ranalli is a neurologist at the University of Toronto
  6. Testimony To The US Senate Judiciary Committee - Washington, DC: January 1998 by Jean A. Wright