Abortion Rights Blog

The national pro-choice campaign

Can fetuses feel pain?

In the United Kingdom provocative images of the fetus generated by four dimensional ultrasonography have fuelled a reassessment of fetal capabilities along with suggestions that the fetus can respond both emotionally and cognitively. Subsequent political and media discussion in the United Kingdom has debated changing abortion laws and procedures to mitigate against fetal pain.

This paper ‘Can fetuses feel pain?’ by Dr Stuart Derbyshire of Birmingham University published in the British Medical Journal in 2006 discusses whether there is sufficient evidence to support a concept of fetal pain through an examination of fetal neurobiology and the relation to experience.

The paper concludes that important neurobiological developments occur at 7, 18, and 26 weeks’ gestation and are the proposed periods for when a fetus can feel pain. Although the developmental changes during these periods are remarkable they do not tell us whether the fetus can experience pain. The subjective experience of pain cannot be inferred from anatomical developments because these developments do not account for subjectivity and the conscious contents of pain.

A pdf document of the paper can be downloaded here.