Fetal Pain Facts and Falsehoods

Agresti, J. D. (2016, May 25). Fetal Pain Facts and Falsehoods. Retrieved from https://www.justfactsdaily.com/fetal-pain-facts-and-falsehoods
Agresti, James D. “Fetal Pain Facts and Falsehoods.” Just Facts. 25 May 2016. Web. 16 July 2024.<https://www.justfactsdaily.com/fetal-pain-facts-and-falsehoods>.
Chicago (for footnotes)
James D. Agresti, “Fetal Pain Facts and Falsehoods.” Just Facts. May 25, 2016. https://www.justfactsdaily.com/fetal-pain-facts-and-falsehoods.
Chicago (for bibliographies)
Agresti, James D. “Fetal Pain Facts and Falsehoods.” Just Facts. May 25, 2016. https://www.justfactsdaily.com/fetal-pain-facts-and-falsehoods.

By James D. Agresti
May 23, 2016
Updated 5/25/16

20weeksThe states of Utah and South Carolina recently passed laws concerning abortions at 20 weeks after fertilization. This is the stage of development shown in the photograph on the right.

Before performing abortions, the Utah law requires physicians to anesthetize or give a painkiller to the “unborn child” once he or she reaches 20 weeks. The South Carolina law bans abortions from this point forward. Both of the laws contain exceptions for the life of the mother or if she has a “serious risk” of “irreversible” harm to “a major bodily function.”

According to the text of both laws, “substantial medical evidence” indicates that developing humans can feel pain by 20 weeks. This conclusion is supported by the following facts from medical journals and textbooks:

  • By 10 weeks, “All components of the brain and spinal cord are formed, and nerves link the stem of the brain and the spinal cord to all tissues and organs of the body.”
    Encyclopedia of Human Biology
  • By 12 weeks, “Electrical activity of the nervous system is discernible” and “attempts to suckle” are observed “in utero and in aborted fetuses.”
    Encyclopedia of Human Biology
  • By 14 weeks, preborn humans exhibit conscious “motor planning” and “social behavior.”
    PLoS ONE
  • By 18 weeks, pain sensory receptors spread to “all cutaneous [skin] and mucous surfaces,” and the cerebral cortex (the portion of the brain responsible for higher functions like reasoning and language) has the same number of nerve cells as a full-grown adult.
    New England Journal of Medicine
  • By 18 to 20 weeks, the human fetus “elaborates pituitary-adrenal, sympatho-adrenal, and circulatory stress responses to physical insults.”

These scientific facts collectively show that by 20 weeks, humans have pain receptors, consciousness, and physical responses to painful events.

Nevertheless, many media outlets have recently reported that humans cannot feel pain by 20 weeks. This includes but is not limited to the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, CNN, Slate, and the Daily Beast. To support this claim, all of these outlets cited a single paper published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2005.

Neglecting the journalism standard to “make it clear to the audience” when sources “are associated with a particular viewpoint,” none of the outlets mentioned that at least three of the JAMA paper’s five authors have been involved in the abortion industry, including:

  • Susan J. Lee, the lead author of the paper, who worked as a lawyer for the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League, which is now known as NARAL Pro-Choice America.
  • Eleanor A. Drey, the medical director of an abortion clinic.
  • Mark Rosen, the last author of the paper, who worked in an abortion clinic. (In biomedical research, the last author “is assumed to be the driving force, both intellectually and financially, behind the research.”)

These media outlets also violated journalism ethics, which require them to not omit “facts of major importance or significance.” They did this by failing to reveal that the JAMA paper’s central argument was refuted by medical journals less than two years after it was published. The authors of the paper declared that “fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester” because:

  • “pain is a psychological construct” that requires “conscious perception.”
  • there can be no “conscious recognition or awareness” until there are functional connections from pain receptors to the brain’s cortex.
  • these connections don’t “begin appearing” until “23 to 30 weeks’ gestational age.” (This equates to 21 weeks to 28 weeks after fertilization.)

Debunking the above, a 2006 article in the journal Pain: Clinical Updates documented through “multiple lines of evidence” that the “key mechanisms” of consciousness and pain perception “are not dependent” on the cortex. Consistent with this fact, the authors determined that pain perception begins in the “second trimester” and “well before the third trimester of human gestation.”

Likewise, a 2007 paper in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences showed that children born with little or no cortex (a condition called hydranencephaly):

  • “are conscious,” “awake,” “often alert,” and “show responsiveness to their surroundings in the form of emotional or orienting reactions to environmental events.”
  • “express pleasure by smiling and laughter, and aversion by ‘fussing,’ arching of the back and crying.”
  • behave so normally that they “may initially present no conspicuous symptoms,” and “occasionally the condition is not diagnosed until several months postnatally, when developmental milestones are missed.”

Concluding, the author noted that these findings have “ramifying implications for issues in medical ethics,” including “pain management in children” who lack a cerebral cortex.

False arguments aside, the vast weight of scientific evidence indicates that preborn humans can feel pain by 20 weeks or earlier. While this does not rise to the level of 100% certainty, it rests upon factually solid ground.

Like many media outlets, some prominent “fact checkers” have also misled the public about this issue, including FactCheck.org and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker.

  • May 23, 2016 at 6:11 PM

    The human soul is immortal/indestructible. The decision whether to abort or not to abort an unborn infant belongs to the mother. She can decide to abort or not to abort the infant and her decision will be judged by God. I myself must refrain from judging, justifying, or accusing any of the parties involved, namely, the mother, the doctor/s, his assistants, the hospital, the clinic, the government agencies, as well as the law that allowed it. A sinner cannot throw the first nor the last stone.

    • May 25, 2016 at 1:16 AM

      Such logic could be used to justify passiveness in the face of any atrocity or injustice. Also, your comment distorts the Bible. Jesus used the phrase “cast the first stone” literally, not figuratively as you did. A crowd was about to stone a woman to death for committing adultery, and Jesus stopped them by saying, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” He then said to the woman, “Go and sin no more.” He did not tell her, “Go right ahead and keep doing what you were doing.”

    • May 27, 2016 at 5:35 PM

      May I remind you of the verse where it says to save those from slaughter? When we speak the truth, we are not judging. We are informing and warning. If we were to replace a couple words in your reponse to this article, Icould easily”justify” robbery, rape, molestation, serial killing, lying, lust, bullying, cheating, drunk driving, child abuse, or any other sin out there. If we say nothing, we are basically commiting the sin ourselves. Remind your self that Jesus repeated this phrase over and over: “Go and sin no more”. He wants us to repent from our sins, and that includes keeping silent in the face of evil.

    • June 17, 2016 at 12:48 PM

      And yet we judge murder , assault, fraud, crimes against property, in criminal court, and perforce respond to deceit, infidelity,malicious behaviour, mental illness, moral turpitude and so on with self protective behaviour looking a lot like judgement–for everything but abortion,it seems.
      But the issue is over conflicting research results, not moral judgementalism. Should research be retracted when its results are contradicted by later research? I think not. But journalists, to be fair, should at least look for and report conflicting research on such contentious issues.

  • May 3, 2020 at 11:11 AM

    Two medical researchers, including a ‘pro-choice’ British pain expert who used to think there was no chance unborn babies could feel pain before 24-weeks, say recent studies strongly suggest the assumption is incorrect. In an article, published in the influential Journal of Medical Ethics, the researchers say there is now “good evidence” that the brain and nervous system, which start developing at 12 weeks’ gestation, are sufficient enough for the baby to feel pain. They argue that women considering an abortion at this stage of pregnancy should be told about the pain their unborn baby could experience while being terminated. Reconsidering fetal pain https://jme.bmj.com/content/46/1/3


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