Can a embryo or fetus feel pain?
Part 1: Statements by various experts
researchers, and politicians
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.
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.' "
1996: 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:
"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
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.
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."
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
A fetus will "withdraw from painful stimulation"
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:
Nicholas Fisk of London, England who observed this reaction as early as 19 weeks 5,
J Partch of Kiel, Germany who observed it at 16 weeks.
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
"the cerebral hemispheres and the top of the skull may be absent."
"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 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
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
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Ohio Right to Life has a copy of a letter to President Reagan at: http://www.ohiolife.org/arterly, XLV11 no 2, 1996-NOV,
Page 6. Reprinted at: http://homepage.interaccess.com/
- George Runner, (R-Lancaster) California Assembly bill AB 1758, introduced on 1998-MAY-5.
- Carolyn C. Gargaro's home page has an essay: "Does the Fetus
Feel Pain?" at: http://www.gargaro.com/
- Paul Ranalli, "Abortion and the Unborn Baby: The Painful Truth,"
is available on the California Pro-Life Council home page at: http://www.californiaprolife.org/
- N.M. Fisk et al, "Fetal plasma cortisol and beta-endorphin
response to intrauterine needling." The Lancet 344, 77-81 (1994)
- "The Problem of Pain: A Report by the Commission of Inquiry into Fetal
Sentience" at: http://www.care.org.uk/
- "The Timing And Development Of Mechanisms For Pain Reception: A Report by the
Commission of Inquiry into Fetal Sentience" at: http://www.care.org.uk/
- Kelley O. Beaucar, "Fetal study adds fuel to late-term abortion debate,"
Fox News, 2001-AUG-31, at: http://foxnews.com/
Copyright © 1999 to 2015 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2015-OCT-18
Author: B.A. Robinson