Can an unborn child feel pain?

April 21, 2011

Eye on Faith and Science

During an in-womb procedure to correct spina bifida on a 21-week-old fetus, the baby's hand grips the finger of Dr. Joseph Bruner in an operating room at Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tenn., Aug. 19, 1999. (CNS photo by Michael Clancy)

Minnesota legislators are considering a proposal that would prohibit most abortions after 20 weeks gestation because of scientific evidence that an unborn child feels pain by this age. The proposal follows from a state law passed in 2005 requiring abortion providers and referring physicians to inform a woman that pain-reducing medication is available for her unborn baby prior to an abortion.

In addition to their legal applications, these laws also serve an educational purpose. They help people to understand that children in the womb — even only halfway through a pregnancy — are real human beings. They are growing rapidly, and they perceive pain. Subjecting them to abortion makes a procedure that is already inhumane seem all the more horrific.

Not everyone, however, agrees with the science the laws are based on. A quick review of the scientific literature on the topic reveals a lack of consensus among doctors and researchers about the age at which a fetus begins to feel pain. A 2005 article, for example, in the Journal of the American Medical Association concluded that “evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester.”

One of the arguments is that the nervous system of a fetus isn’t developed enough to feel pain the way you and I do — that at 20 weeks, pain signals don’t reach the cerebral cortex where pain is perceived.

But more has been studied and written since that article was published. I remember a long story from 2008 in The New York Times Magazine that cited the views of a number of doctors and researchers who disputed the idea that unborn children don’t feel pain.

Dr. Kanwaljeet Anand, a fetal pain researcher now working at the University of Tennessee, noted in the article that a structure called the fetal subplate zone of the brain is functioning by 17 weeks and is capable of processing pain signals.

The article also cited research conducted by Nicholas Fisk, a fetal medicine specialist and director of the University of Queensland Center for Clinical Research in Australia.

He had conducted research that, he said, shows fetuses as young as 18 weeks respond to invasive procedures with an increase in stress hormones and by forcing more blood to the brain to protect it from a perceived threat.

The magazine article explains:

“Fisk says he believes that his findings provide suggestive evidence of fetal pain — perhaps the best evidence we’ll get. Pain, he notes, is a subjective phenomenon; in adults and older children, doctors measure it by asking patients to describe what they feel. (‘On a scale of 0 to 10, how would you rate your current level of pain?’) To be certain that his fetal patients feel pain, Fisk says, ‘I would need one of them to come up to me at the age of 6 or 7 and say, “Excuse me, Doctor, that bloody hurt, what you did to me!” ‘ In the absence of such first-person testimony, he concludes, it’s ‘better to err on the safe side’ and assume that the fetus can feel pain starting around 20 to 24 weeks.”

Father Tadeusz Pacholczyk, director of education at the National Catholic Bioethics Center in Philadelphia, wrote about several problematic elements of the JAMA article when it was published six years ago.

He also pointed out something very important that today’s doctors and scientists should remember: “If there is uncertainty about when the infant in utero can begin to feel pain, should we not err on the side of caution and presume that she is entitled to pain medication when being subjected to typically painful or noxious stimuli?”

Father Pacholczyk, who holds a doctorate in neuroscience from Yale University, added:

“Yet a deeper concern remains. By offering pain control during an abortion, we still would not succeed in redeeming or sanitizing the act itself. Pain-free killing is still killing. But at least by encouraging abortion doctors and their pregnant patients to consider the pain the infant may experience, they may be prompted to consider a deeper dimension of what they are doing. By challenging their highly suspect presumptions about fetal pain, they may ultimately be pushed to look not only at the discomfort implicit in the procedure, but to revisit the more basic question about the practice itself which brings the life of an innocent human being to an untimely and unjust end.”

Some Minnesota legislators are now revisiting “the more basic question” and calling for a ban on abortions after 20 weeks as another step in ending a procedure that is immoral at any time — and that science persuasively shows is the painful taking of a human life.

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About Joe Towalski

Editor of The Catholic Spirit, husband, dad, baseball fan(atic), astronomy buff. Follow me on Twitter @towalskij

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  • Adam

    Just saw it and we thought it was outstanding! I think they still have tickets.

  • Satan

    I hope they feel pain