Date Published: 14 April 2006

No fetal pain according to recent research

The idea that a fetus can feel pain is not supported by evidence according to a new clinical review published in the British Medical Journal.

In a research paper that assesses current psychological and biological research on fetal pain, Dr Stuart Derbyshire from Birmingham University's School of Psychology argues that although fetuses are capable of producing a biological response to a pain stimulus, this does not mean they feel pain.

The paper concludes that the basic physical mechanisms we need to feel pain develop in a fetus from about the 26th week of pregnancy. Peripheral free nerve endings, which act as sensors for pain, reach full maturity between 23 and 25 weeks, and form a complete link with the thalamus and cortex by about 26 weeks. Around the same stage the thalamus and cortex develop important features of maturity.

The article argues that this biological response to a noxious or potentially dangerous stimulus, which is produced by almost all animals, is not sufficient for the experience of pain.

Dr Derbyshire explains:

" Experiencing pain is more than simply producing a biological response to a stimulus. It is something that comes from our experiences and develops due to stimulation and human interaction. Pain involves concepts such as location, feelings of unpleasantness and having the sensation of pain. Pain becomes possible because of a psychological development that begins at birth when the baby is separated from the protected atmosphere of the womb and is stimulated into wakeful activity."

In the United States there have been a number of legal challenges to try to force all doctors to provide pain killing injections to a fetus before an abortion is carried out.

Dr Derbyshire continues:

" The issue of fetal pain has become central to the ongoing battles about abortion in the US. However, the absence of fetal pain does not resolve the morality of abortion, but it does provide a strong argument against legal efforts to provide pain killing injections for the fetus during the procedure."

The paper: "Can fetuses feel pain" ? is published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ Volume 332).

Source(s): Birmingham University, England (UK).

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