Can a Fetus Feel Pain?

Apr 14, 2006 5:11pm

Call it science, call it advocacy, but do not accuse Stuart Derbyshire of the University of Birmingham in England of being afraid to wade into the debate over abortion rights.  There have been bills in Washington and in several states that would require a doctor to inform a woman, before an abortion, that her unborn fetus might feel pain if she goes through with it.

The newest such bill passed the Arizona state Senate on April 5, though Gov. Janet Napolitano, who’s described herself as an abortion-rights supporter, has vetoed several other bills supported by opponents of abortion. 

In tomorrow’s edition of the British Medical Journal, Derbyshire objects.  "The neural circuitry for pain in fetuses is immature," he writes.  "More importantly, the developmental processes necessary for the mindful experience of pain are not yet developed.  An absence of pain in the fetus does not resolve the question of whether abortion is morally acceptable or should be legal.  Nevertheless, proposals to inform women seeking abortions of the potential for pain in fetuses are not supported by evidence."

Derbyshire, a psychologist, did not do clinical research for his paper; instead, as sometimes is done in papers for scientific journals, he did a review of existing literature.  His paper is labeled "analysis and comment."

It’s the second paper in a year to do roughly the same thing.  There was a paper in the Journal of the American Medical Association back in August, which said the evidence is limited but it appears unlikely that a fetus can feel pain before the third trimester.  The abstract is HERE.

Our medical unit asked doctors for reaction. 

This from Dr. Nancy Stanwood of the University of Rochester Medical Center in New York: "We do not need laws that force a physician to psychologically torture his or her patient with an ideologically driven script, such as in the federal bill in committee now. We need to make better contraceptive care in our country a priority by spending more money and public education time on it."

A different view from Dr. K.S. Anand of the University of Arkansas: "…the authors need to prove that the fetus is not a conscious creature.  Fetuses during the late second trimester respond to light, sounds, and even the feelings and moods of the mother.  How can they suggest that the fetus is not conscious?"  Dr. Anand added, though, "it is too premature to consider legislation of any sort at this time, because the evidence for or against fetal pain is not incontrovertible." 

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