Study Finds Unborn Babies May Feel Pain as Early as 12 Weeks

Photo by Fotopress/Getty Images
Photo by Fotopress/Getty Images

A new study in BMJ has concluded unborn babies can feel pain before 24 weeks and possibly as early as 12 weeks’ gestation.

Two medical researchers, including one who claims to be a “pro-choice” pain expert, assert recent investigations strongly suggest unborn babies who are aborted prior to the 24-week legal limit that exists in Britain could be experiencing pain as they are being terminated.

“Overall, the evidence, and a balanced reading of that evidence, points towards an immediate and unreflective pain experience mediated by the developing function of the nervous system from as early as 12 weeks,” the authors conclude.

British professor Stuart Derbyshire, who has served as a consultant to the Pro-Choice Forum in the UK and Planned Parenthood, joined American John Bockmann in concluding there is “good evidence” that an unborn baby’s brain and nervous system are sufficiently developed by 18 weeks for him or her to feel pain during the termination.

The researchers state in BMJ’s Journal of Medical Ethics the new evidence “flirts with moral recklessness,” and suggest women seeking abortions that approach the 24-week limit should be informed the unborn baby could experience pain during the abortion that would warrant an anesthetic or analgesic to be administered to the child.

They write:

[T]here never was a consensus that fetal pain is not possible before 24 weeks. Many papers discussing fetal pain have speculated a lower limit for fetal pain under 20 weeks’ gestation. We note in passing that vote counting and consensus is perhaps not the best way to decide scientific disputes. Regardless of whether there ever was a consensus, however, it is now clear that the consensus is no longer tenable.

The authors explain how recent research casts doubt on previous reports suggesting the unborn baby feels no pain during abortion until after 24 weeks since a functioning cortex – necessary for the experience of pain – does not develop until after that time.

They assert:

Here, more recent evidence calling into question the necessity of the cortex for pain and demonstrating functional thalamic connectivity into the subplate is used to argue that the neuroscience cannot definitively rule out fetal pain before 24 weeks. We consider the possibility that the mere experience of pain, without the capacity for self reflection, is morally significant. We believe that fetal pain does not have to be equivalent to a mature adult human experience to matter morally, and so fetal pain might be considered as part of a humane approach to abortion.

As the Daily Mail observed, pro-choice Derbyshire wrote in 2006 in BMJ that abortionists should not speak to women seeking the procedure about the pain of the unborn baby. At the time, he said avoiding such a discussion was “sound policy based on good evidence that fetuses cannot experience pain.”

According to the authors, however, Bockmann “believes that abortion violates the ethical principle of non-maleficence and ought to be restricted and discouraged.”

Nevertheless, both researchers agree “that if fetal pain is likely then that has ethical and clinical significance independent of any views on the morality of abortion per se.”

Derbyshire and Bockmann note that, currently, they are not aware “of any procedures where invasive fetal intervention proceeds without anaesthesia or analgesia, except for abortion.”

While surgeons who operate on babies in the womb already consider the issue of fetal pain, the researchers say “abortion is different for at least two reasons”:

First, abortion may prevent future suffering that results from being born in a state of painful physical disability, but an abortion is not designed to preserve or enhance ongoing fetal life. In the cases where little or no disability is expected, there is little or no future benefit to the fetus from the pain they might experience. Second, while all the evidence suggests that surgeons performing therapeutic fetal interventions routinely consider pain relief for the fetus, surgeons performing abortions have their focus on the pregnant woman as their patient. Consequently they more rarely consider fetal pain relief during the preparation and execution of abortion. Whether or not the fetus feels pain, therefore, is relevant to current medical practice surrounding abortion and could motivate changes in practice.

“Fetal analgesia and anaesthesia should thus be standard for abortions in the second trimester, especially after 18 weeks when there is good evidence for a functional connection from the periphery and into the brain,” the authors conclude.

The Daily Mail’s report on the study observed:

Their conclusions raise grave questions for the UK’s abortion industry, which carried out 218,281 terminations in 2018 – almost a quarter (23 per cent) of all pregnancies. About 6,000 abortions are carried out annually at 18 weeks or later.

Dr. David Prentice, vice president and research director of the pro-life Charlotte Lozier Institute said the study represents “a significant admission by doctors on both sides of the abortion debate, recognizing that even early in human development, the unborn can feel pain.”

“And as the authors note, ‘the mere experience of pain…is morally significant,’” Prentice added. “Science again points to the humanity of the unborn.”

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