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Can a embryo or fetus feel pain?

Part 1: Statements by various experts
physicians, researchers, and politicians

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Terms used:

There are two medical terms used to indicate the age of a pre-embryo, embryo or fetus:

  • Fertilizational Age is the age measured from the date of fertilization of an ovum by one very lucky spermatozoon. It is sometimes called "conceptional age" or "developmental age."

  • Gestational Age is the age measured from the first day of the woman's last menstrual period. This is approximately 2 weeks before conception or fertilization.

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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." 1
This belief was denied by many experts. However a group of "professors, including pain specialists and two past presidents of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology" wrote a letter to President Reagan supporting his statement. They wrote the following remarkable statement a generation ago:

"We state categorically that no finding of modern fetology invalidates the remarkable conclusion drawn after a lifetime of research by the late Professor Arnold Gesell of Yale  University. In The Embryology of Behavior: The Beginnings of the Human Mind (1945, Harper Bros.), Dr. Gesell wrote, 'and so by the close of the first trimester the fetus is a sentient, moving being. We need not speculate as to the nature of his psychic attributes, but we may assert that the organization of his psychosomatic self is well under way.' "

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1996: Statement by an "All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group" in England:

A group of pro-life advocates from various political parties in England issued a statement on "Foetal Sentience" in 1996.  They concluded:

"Since no direct objective method of assessing fetal pain exists, the crucial question with regard to fetal sentience is:  At what stage of human prenatal development are those anatomical structures subserving the appreciation of pain present and functional?

The balance of evidence at the present time indicates that these structures are present and functional before the tenth week of intrauterine life." 2

There is a general consensus that pain sensors are present in a embryo. However, this statement seems to imply that the embryonic brain is capable of "appreciating" pain. That is also a remarkable statement to make.

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1997: Statement by Professor Robert White:

Dr. Robert White, director of the Division of Neurosurgery and Brain Research Laboratory at Case Western Reserve School of Medicine, gave testimony before the House Constitution Subcommittee of Congress. 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."

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1997: 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. 3,4 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 if 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:

bullet A fetus will "withdraw from painful stimulation"
bullet Two types of stress hormones which are detected in adults who are feeling pain are also found in a fetus from when a blood sample is withdrawn. He quotes:
bullet Nicholas Fisk of London, England who observed this reaction as early as 19 weeks 5, and
bullet J Partch of Kiel, Germany who observed it at 16 weeks.

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Year 2000: Commission of Inquiry into Fetal Sentience:

The House of Lords in Britain conducted an inquiry into "fetal sentience." 6 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."

They concluded:

bullet "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."
bullet "By 24 weeks after conception the brain is sufficiently developed to process signals received via the thalamus in the cortex."
bullet "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 current scientific understanding is that 6 weeks after conception the elements of the nervous system start to function. Most scientists currently agree that this marks the earliest possible point at which sensation might occur."7

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Year 2000: A statement by Dr. Vivette Glover:

Professor Glover of Queen Charlotte and Chelsea hospitals 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 adults experience. 8

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This topic is continued in the next essay.

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References used:

The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.

  1. Ohio Right to Life has a copy of a letter to President Reagan at:, XLV11 no 2, 1996-NOV, Page 6. Reprinted at:
  2. George Runner, (R-Lancaster) California Assembly bill AB 1758, introduced on 1998-MAY-5.
  3. Carolyn C. Gargaro's home page has an essay: "Does the Fetus Feel Pain?" at:
  4. Paul Ranalli, "Abortion and the Unborn Baby: The Painful Truth," is available on the California Pro-Life Council home page at:
  5. N.M. Fisk et al, "Fetal plasma cortisol and beta-endorphin response to intrauterine needling." The Lancet 344, 77-81 (1994)
  6. "The Problem of Pain: A Report by the Commission of Inquiry into Fetal Sentience" at:
  7. "The Timing And Development Of Mechanisms For Pain Reception: A Report by the Commission of Inquiry into Fetal Sentience" at:
  8. Kelley O. Beaucar, "Fetal study adds fuel to late-term abortion debate," Fox News, 2001-AUG-31, at:

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Copyright © 1999 to 2015 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2015-OCT-18
Author: B.A. Robinson

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