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Can a embryo or fetus feel pain?

Statements by physicians and researchers

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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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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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2000: Statement by 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 people have. 8

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2001: Statement by a panel of experts in the UK:

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.'' 9

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." 8

They recommended that the administration of painkillers should be considered before an abortion for any fetus which is 24 or more weeks since conception. This would give a 2 week safety factor in case the date of conception is incorrectly calculated.

Recent statistics show that of the 177,225 abortions performed in Britain during a recent year, only 92 (0.05%) occurred after 24 weeks.

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2001: 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."

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2004: Testimony by Kanwaljeet S. Anand:

Congress passed a law which criminalizes most D&X abortions (a.k.a. Partial Birth Abortions). Three temporary injunctions were obtained by pro-choice groups to prevent the law from being applied. U.S. District Judge Richard Casey ruled on 2004-MAR-19 that the testimony of Kanwaljeet S. Anandwould would be allowed when the constitutionality of the law is examined in New York, NY. Simultaneous trials on the constitutionality of the law also started in San Francisco, CA, and Omaha, NE on MAR-22. Dr. Anandwould is a pediatrician who specializes in the care of newborns and children. He has conducted research over the past two decades to study whether a fetus can sense of pain by a fetus. He concludes that a fetus at 20 weeks of gestation may be able to feel pain.

The law states that a partial-birth abortion is a "brutal and inhumane procedure" and that "during the partial-birth abortion procedure, the child will fully experience the pain associated with piercing his or her skull and sucking out his or her brain." 10

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2005: AMA study:

During 2005-SEP, a meta-study -- a review of existing medical studies -- into fetal pain -- was conducted by six medical personnel and reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

Medical News Today reported:

"The review found that a fetus's neurological pathways in its brain that allow for the 'conscious perception of pain' do not function until after 28 weeks' gestation. The researchers concluded that women seeking abortions before the third trimester of pregnancy should not be subjected to the risks of administering anesthesia to the fetus -- which could cause bleeding, breathing problems and other complications, including death -- for the woman."  

A firestorm of criticism came from pro-life groups who claimed that the review of existing reports was biased. One of its six authors is the medical director of the abortion clinic at San Francisco General Hospital. The lead author, who is a medical student and lawyer, once did legal work for NARAL, an abortion-rights group, for eight months.

JAMA Editor-in-Chief, Catherine DeAngelis, is a Roman Catholic who opposes abortion. She said that she had received dozens of "horrible, vindictive" e-mails condemning her for publishing the review.

Alan Leff, a University of Chicago pulmonologist and editor of the Proceedings of the American Thoracic Society, said,

"The standard for disclosure in medical and scientific journals is not your politics ...There's no obligation to tell people what your mind-set is ... as long as the data is sound and gathered objectively." 11,12

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2005-DEC: Statement by Dr. Mark Rosen:

Dr. Mark Rosen is an obstetrical anesthesiologist at the University of California at San Francisco. In an interview on Discover magazine, he said that:

"the wiring at the point where you feel pain, such as the skin, doesn't reach the emotional part where you feel pain, in the brain.until at least 28 the week of gestation. However, fetuses do demonstrate reflex reactions that might make them seem to be in pain."

Discover magazine reports:

"Rosen says. 'If you see a fetus in utero react to needle stimulation, then the common conclusion is that it must feel.' But just as with paraplegics, 'that's a reflex that's mediated by the spinal cord; that's not a conscious reaction,' he says. It is possible that a temporary structure of neurons that appears in a fetus's brain during the second trimester allows it to sense pain. But Rosen and his colleagues believe a fetus's brain doesn't function coherently enough to be conscious."

"The use of fetal anesthesia is justified during other surgeries, Rosen says, to block the production of stress hormones. In the case of abortion, he says, it is not necessary and puts the mother at increased risk of adverse reactions, and even death." 13

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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:
  9. "The Republican" Web site contains an news report from an uncited British source at:
  10. Larry Neumeister, "Judge: MD can testify on fetus pain," Associated Press, 2004-MAR-23, at:
  11. Luke Shockman, "Abortion debate foes tap into technology to serve their beliefs. Advances like ultrasound used by both," Toledo Blade, 2005-OCT-03, at:
  12. "JAMA Editor Defends Publishing Fetal Pain Review Despite Criticism for Not Disclosing Authors' Abortion-Related Work," Medical News Today, 2005-AUG-29, at:
  13. Elise Kleeman, "When Does a Fetus Feel Pain?." Discover, 2005-DEC-01, at:

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Copyright © 1999 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-JUL-12
Author: B.A. Robinson

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