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Can a embryo or fetus feel pain?

Federal and state laws concerning fetal pain

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Laws regarding the use of fetal anesthetic during pregnancy terminations:

bullet 1998: California: A bill was introduced to the Health Committee of the California Assembly on 1998-MAY-5. It would have required that pain medication be used to anesthetize the fetus during any late-term pregnancy terminations. 1 The cutoff age specified was the start of the third trimester.  After this gestational age, anesthetics would be compulsory during any hysterotomy or D & X procedure. The intent of the legislation was to make certain that the fetus did not feel pain. The bill was rejected by the committee.

There was some indication that Planned Parenthood Federation of America was opposed in principle to such legislation. This is not true. A spokesperson for PPFA responded to our inquiry on 1999-MAY-4 with: 

"Planned Parenthood does not currently have an official statement specifically regarding fetal anesthetic use."

bullet 2003: Texas: State Representative Leo Berman, (R-Tyler) introduced a bill "HB 569, The Fetal Pain Protection Act, which would require that women choosing to have an pregnancy termination first be told that fetuses can feel pain. They would also be given the option to have anesthetic administered to the fetus before the procedure. This would apply to fetus which are 20 weeks or older. Berman presented his bill to the House State Affairs Committee on 2003-APR-7. He noted that anesthesia is given prior to many dental procedures, and to inmates before being executed. He feels that fetuses should receive the same option. 2
bullet 2004: US Federal law: Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) and Representative Chris Smith (R-NJ) introduced a bill to the Senate and House during 2004-MAY called the "Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act." It would required abortion providers to inform women who are about to receive a late-term abortion that her fetus can feel pain. It would also give the woman the opportunity to have pain control medication administered to the fetus before the abortion. This would affect fewer than 1% of all abortions -- those performed at 20 weeks or later gestation. The bill is supported by a number of pro-life conservative Christian groups: the Southern Baptist Convention, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, the National Right to Life Committee and the Family Research Council.
bullet Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, a fundamentalist Christian advocacy group said:
"We cannot deny the medical evidence now before us. From testimony taken during the recent partial-birth abortion hearings and advancements in the field of in utero technology, science is telling us unborn children as young as 20 weeks old can feel pain. The evidence we have is clear, and we should not keep that evidence from women."
bullet A Zogby poll conducted in 2004-APR found that 77% of American adults were in favor of "laws requiring that women who are 20 weeks or more along in their pregnancy be given information about fetal pain before having an abortion." Sixteen percent were opposed. 3 The percentage of American adults who have any knowledge of when fetuses can feel pain is unknown.
bullet Concerned Women for America, a Fundamentalist Christian group bringing "...Biblical principles into all levels of public policy" states:
"The medical community’s consensus is that unborn babies are 'very likely' to be 'extremely sensitive to pain during the gestation of 20 to 30 weeks,' according to testimony of Dr. Kanwaljeet Anand in Nebraska for Carhart v. Ashcroft. Anand said, 'This is based on multiple lines of evidence. Not just the lack of descending inhibitory fibers, but also the number of receptors in the skin, the level of expression of various chemicals, neurotransmitters, receptors, and things like that'."

The court case mentioned above refers to the constitutionality of the law banning D&X abortions, popularly known as partial birth abortion. 4

The cutoff date of 20 weeks gestation is significantly earlier in pregnancy than the 26 weeks that most medical researchers feel that fetuses can feel pain. However, it is far later than the seven weeks that some pro-life groups had been promoting as the fetal age when pain can be felt.

No action was taken in the House and Senate during 2004. A similar bill was rejected by the House of Representatives during early 2006-DEC. 5

bullet Status in early-2006: Arkansas, Minnesota, and Georgia have laws requiring physicians to tell women that 20-week-old fetuses can feel pain during abortions unless they are anesthetized. The legislature in Wisconsin passed a fetal pin bill, but Governor Jim Doyle (D) vetoed the bill in 2006-JAN because the bill failed "to reflect a consensus of medical opinion [and] ...intrudes on the doctor-patient relationship in a heavy-handed manner."

Laws in Utah and Indiana have passed the state Houses. During early 2006, similar legislation was introduced in Arizona, Iowa, Missouri and Oklahoma. 6
bullet 2007-JAN-22: USA: Senator Brownback and co-sponsors introduced S. 356, the "Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act of 2007" to the U.S. Senate. It was referred to the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions.  If passed into law, a woman seeking an abortion at 20 weeks or more gestation would have to be told:

"You are considering having an abortion of an unborn child who will have developed, at the time of the abortion, approximately XX weeks after fertilization. The Congress of the United States has determined that at this stage of development, an unborn child has the physical structures necessary to experience pain. There is substantial evidence that by this point, unborn children draw away from surgical instruments in a manner which in an infant or an adult would be interpreted as a response to pain. Congress finds that there is substantial evidence that the process of being killed in an abortion will cause the unborn child pain, even though you receive a pain-reducing drug or drugs. Under the Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act of 2007, you have the option of choosing to have anesthesia or other pain-reducing drug or drugs administered directly to the pain-capable unborn child if you so desire. The purpose of administering such drug or drugs would be to reduce or eliminate the capacity of the unborn child to experience pain during the abortion procedure. In some cases, there may be some additional risk to you associated with administering such a drug." 7

Little care seems to have been taken in the preparation of this bill. It defines a "Woman" as: "a female human being who is capable of becoming pregnant, whether or not she has reached the age of majority." Infertile woman, and women past menopause are apparently not considered women by the U.S. Senate.

bullet 2007-FEB: Virginia: A bill passed the House which would have required pregnant women seeking an abortion be given literature on the ability of the fetus to feel pain. Anesthesis would also be offered for the fetus. A Senate committee defeated a similar bill. 8
bullet 2007-MAR: Kentucky: A fetal pain law was introduced that would have required abortion counseling literature to say that a 20 week fetus has "physical structures necessary to experience pain." It also would say that fetuses after 20 weeks’ gestation avoid stimuli in a manner that is similar to the avoidance of pain by a person or infant. The bill did not pass the House before adjournment. 8

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References:

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

  1. "Abortion causes feotal pain," BBC News, 2000-AUG-29 http://news.bbc.co.uk/
  2. Larry Neumeister, "Judge: MD can testify on fetus pain," Associated Press, 2004-MAR-23, at: http://www.philly.com/
  3. Steven Ertelt, "New Bill Informs Women About Pain Babies Feel During Abortions," LifeNews.com, 2004-MAY-20, at: http://www.lifenews.com/
  4. "CWA Applauds Sen. Brownback’s Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act," Concerned Women for America, 2004-MAY-20, at: http://www.cwfa.org/
  5. "Dead fetal pain act causing pain in movement," ProLifeBlogs, 2006-DEC-13, at: http://www.prolifeblogs.com/
  6. Terry Vanderheyden, "Fetal Pain Bills Advanced in 23 US States," Life Site News.com, 2006-FEB-09, at: http://www.lifesite.net/
  7. Text of S. 356, 'Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act of 2007'," The Orator, at: http://www.theorator.com/
  8. "Monthly State Update: Major developments in 2007," Guttmacher Institute, 2007-MAY-01, at: http://www.guttmacher.org/

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Copyright © 1999 to 2007 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2007-JUL-14
Author: B.A. Robinson

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