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When can a embryo or fetus feel pain?

Part 2:
Statements by various
experts, physicians,
researchers, and politicians

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This topic is continued here from the previous essay.

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There is a lack of concensus among researchers about exactly when during pregnancy an embryo and/or fetus can feel pain from a surgical aborton. This is of major concern to women who are considering having a late abortion. Fortunately, the possibility of pain is small because late abortions are usually performed by inducing labor, rather than by surgery.

Statistics show that:

  • in the U.S. about 66% of abortions are performed before 9 weeks gestation, and over 90% occur before the 16th week.
  • In the UK, during a recent year, 99.95% of all abortions occurred on or before 24 weeks gestation.

This is when the majority of researchers believe that the embryo cannot feel pain. Most researchers believe that a fetus can feel pain during the third trimester.

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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.'' 1

The group determined that pain can only be felt by a fetus after nerve connections became established between two parts of her or his 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." 2

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 be about 26 weeks from the woman's last menstrual period, and give a 2 week safety factor in case the date of conception is incorrectly calculated.

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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 court 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." 3

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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." 4,5

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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 the 28th 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." 6

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2010-JUN: Report by the UK Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG):

The report concluded that fetuses by age 24 weeks fetuses have operational pain sensors throughout their bodies, and "wiring" in place to transmit pain towards the brain. However. they concluded that the "wiring" does not exist to connect pain signals to the cortex. That is the area of the brain where pain is experienced.

Allan Templeton, the chairperson of the Working Group, said that a fetus before 24 weeks does have:

"... reflex responses, but in our view, because the nerves are not wired up to the cortex, they are reflex actions without experience of pain.

He noted that the same reflexes are observed in seriously malfomed fetuses that are completely lacking a brain and thus cannot possibly feel pain. 10

Unfortuinately, the working party report does not seem to be available online now.

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2015-JAN: Bill in U.S. Congress to make abortions unavailable after 20 weeks gestation fails in Senate:

Rep. Trent Franks (R-AZ) introduced H.R. 36, the "Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act" on 2015-JAN-06. 7 It passed the house on 2015-MAY-13, but stalled in the Senate on 2015-SEP-22. The bill claimed that:

"... there is substantial medical evidence that an unborn child is capable of experiencing pain at least by 20 weeks after fertilization, if not earlier. "

"... It is the purpose of the Congress to assert a compelling governmental interest in protecting the lives of unborn children from the stage at which substantial medical evidence indicates that they are capable of feeling pain.

"... [an] abortion shall not be performed or attempted, if the probable post-fertilization age, as determined under paragraph (1), of the unborn child is 20 weeks or greater."

An exception clause in the bill allows an abortion if it is necessary to save the life of the woman:

"... whose life is endangered by a physical disorder, physical illness, or physical injury, including a life-endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself, but not including psychological or emotional conditions; "

or in some cases where:

"... the pregnancy is the result of rape against an adult woman .. or ... is a result of rape ... or incest against a minor" 7

20 weeks after fertilization is equivalent to about 22 weeks gestational age, which is the measure that is generally used to indicate the stage in pregnancy.

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2015-MAY: concludes it is impossible to tell definitevely when a fetus can feel pain:

They noted that:

""A number of Republican House members say scientific research proves a 20-week-old fetus can feel pain. This is a complicated and controversial topic in science, but the ability to feel pain at that specific point in gestation is unproven. ..."

"These statements ... are problematic because of their definitive nature. Scientific research on pain in the fetus is extremely complicated, primarily because pain is a subjective experience and a fetus cannot indicate if something hurts.

"Research on the topic has centered around the stages of brain and nervous system development, and what is known regarding the processing of pain in the brain. We reviewed the literature and spoke with several experts, and we conclude that a firm starting point for pain in the developing fetus is essentially impossible to pin down, and that definitive claims regarding pain perception at 20 weeks are unfounded. ..."

A common argument ... has to do with a fetus’ response to stimuli. A heel prick from a needle used for amniocentesis, for example, can result in the fetus recoiling, much as an adult would to a painful pinprick. Studies have shown, however, that the recoil is more of a reflex controlled by the 'lower brain' (which is involved with more base functions like breathing than with consciousness) or by the spinal cord and does not necessarily reflect an experience of pain. ...As the JAMA review explains: '[F]lexion withdrawal from tactile stimuli is a noncortical spinal reflex exhibited by infants with anencephaly and by individuals in a persistent vegetative state who lack cortical function'." 8

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2015-AUG: "Pain-capable unborn child protection" acts have been passed by 12 states:

According to the National right to Life (NRLC), Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Acts have been passed at the state level in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Idaho, Kansas, Lousiana, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Texas, West Virginia and Wisconsin.

Nebraska's law was the first in 2010. Idaho's kaw was declared unconstitutional in 2015 by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. That court is generally acknowledged to be the most liberal Circuit Court in the U.S. Its rulings are often overturned by appeals to the U.S. Supreme Court. 9

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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. "The Republican" Web site contains an news report from an uncited British source at:
  2. Kelley O. Beaucar, "Fetal study adds fuel to late-term abortion debate," Fox News, 2001-AUG-31, at:
  3. Larry Neumeister, "Judge: MD can testify on fetus pain," Associated Press, 2004-MAR-23, at:
  4. Luke Shockman, "Abortion debate foes tap into technology to serve their beliefs. Advances like ultrasound used by both," Toledo Blade, 2005-OCT-03, at:
  5. "JAMA Editor Defends Publishing Fetal Pain Review Despite Criticism for Not Disclosing Authors' Abortion-Related Work," Medical News Today, 2005-AUG-29, at:
  6. Elise Kleeman, "When Does a Fetus Feel Pain?." Discover, 2005-DEC-01, at:
  7. "H.R.36 - Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act," U.S. Congress, 2015-MAY-13, at:
  8. Dave Levitan, "Does a Fetus Feel Pain at 20 Weeks? " Fact Check, 2015-MAY-18, at:
  9. "Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act," NRLC, 2015-AUG-05, at:
  10. Andy Coghlan, "24-week fetuses cannot feel pain," New Scientist, 2910-JUN-25, at:
  11. "Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report," Centers for Disease Control and Preventon, 2015-NOV-27, at:

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Copyright © 1999 to 2019 by Ontario Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2019-APR-05
Author: B.A. Robinson

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