HealthLawProf Blog

Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Concordia University School of Law

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Fetus and Pain Sensation

Just in time for the return of Congress and its interest in a federal law concerning information that women must be told about the fetus and feeling pain (not to mention the Supreme Court's Fall term, which includes two abortion cases) scientists have released a study showing that the fetus before 29 weeks cannot feel pain. The New York Times reports on the study, which has been released in the Journal of the American Medical Assocation.  The Times reports,

Taking on one of the most highly charged questions in the abortion debate, a team of doctors has concluded that fetuses probably cannot feel pain in the first six months of gestation and therefore do not need anesthesia during abortions.

Their report, being published today in The Journal of the American Medical Association, is based on a review of several hundred scientific papers, and it says that nerve connections in the brain are unlikely to have developed enough for the fetus to feel pain before 29 weeks.

The finding poses a direct challenge to proposed federal and state laws that would compel doctors to tell women having abortions at 20 weeks or later that their fetuses can feel pain and to offer them anesthesia specifically for the fetus.

About 1.3 million abortions a year are performed in the United States, 1.4 percent of them at 21 weeks or later.

Bills requiring that women be warned about fetal pain have been introduced in the House and Senate and in 19 states, and recently passed in Georgia, Arkansas and Minnesota. The bills are supported by many anti-abortion groups. But advocates for abortion rights say the real purpose of the measures is to discourage women from seeking abortions. It is too soon to tell what effect the new laws are having in abortion clinics.

The finding was considered persuasive by many scientists but is unlikely to settle the controversy. Most scientists agree that fetuses probably do not feel pain in the first trimester, but there remains wide disagreement over when, in later pregnancy, the fetal brain is sufficiently developed for pain to register. Some think that, with the current state of knowledge, it is impossible to know for sure. In Britain, the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has said that fetuses probably do not feel pain before 26 weeks, which is into the third trimester.


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