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Fetal Pain: Current Evidence

Fetal Pain: Current Evidence

Many research has been done to answer this question: do fetuses have the ability to feel pain? I will be exploring this question based on some research done in Canada.

In Canada, the controversy surrounding abortion rarely includes information on fetal pain. This is different from the U.S., where 12 states have outlawed abortions in the past 20 weeks based on the assertion that a fetus likely experiences pain, and thus abortion should not be allowed. While in Canada there is absolutely no law regarding abortion, there is clearly a need to understand the science behind the ability to experience pain and whether fetuses can feel pain during abortion procedures.

Before talking about the research, let’s talk about the meaning of pain. Pain is an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience associated with actual or potential tissue damage, or described in terms of such damage. It is important to note that there is both a physical, sensory aspect to pain, as well as a cognitive, emotional component to it as well.

The research as described here will be based on the Canadian Physicians for Life article, “Fetal Pain: The  Current Evidence”.  Research shows that fetuses already display physical behaviours in response to painful stimuli. By 6 weeks post-fertilization, the unborn child will exhibit reflex withdrawal from invasive surgical procedures, likely through the spinal reflex pathway. At 16 weeks post-fertilization, in response to painful stimuli, the unborn child will also increase cortisol and B-endorphin production and increase their respiratory rate, which is evidence for feeling pain. Thus, there are clear behavioral responses to stress very early in fetal development.

However, many scientists argue that such physical responses do not necessarily
indicate the ability to perceive pain, as pain is defined by many as a cognitive response, involving higher order functions. The cerebral cortex is understood by many academics as the center for higher level cognitive processes such as intelligence, memory, and emotion. Thus, it is pertinent that one understands the timing of the development of connections from the peripheral sensory receptors to the cortex.

From very early in development, fetuses already appear to have nociceptors throughout most of their body. Starting at 5 weeks postfertilization, nociceptors appear periodically, and by 12 weeks, are present throughout the body. By 18 weeks, afferent nerves connecting the spinal cord and the thalamus are complete, and by 24-28 weeks, connections from the thalamus to the cortex are complete. Thus, it is possible for information from noxious stimuli to travel from peripheral receptors to the cortex of the unborn child by 24 weeks and the child will feel pain.

This is just some of the research that suggests that fetuses can feel pain. If fetuses truly do feel pain this leads to another set of questions: is abortion considered inhumane? Does this information on fetal pain change your opinions on abortion? Do you think abortion is immoral after learning about the possibility of inducing pain?

This can also lead to further questions: If fetuses feel pain, doesn't this mean that they have emotions? Isn’t feeling pain one of the characteristic of being human? Are fetuses human then?

Regardless of whether we support abortion or not, we should all be aware of the fact that abortion may give pain to fetuses. Fetal pain is still not certain as there is opposing research and not enough evidence.

If you are interested in finding more about this topic, you can read:

https://www.physiciansforlife.ca/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Fetal-Pain.pdf

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