Scientific research on fetal pain

November 2020

UK MPs made aware of the importance of reviewing scientific research on foetal pain

In November 2020, a large number of UK MPs attended a Parliamentary webinar hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, aimed to raise awareness of reviewing scientific research on fetal pain. MPs heard from John C Bockmann PA, a U.S, Army physician assistant and member of the Conner Troop Medical Clinic at Fort Drum, New York, and Dr Stuart WG Derbyshire, an Associate Professor in Psychology at the National University of Singapore.

Dr Derbyshire had previously served on the 2010 Royal College of Gynaecologists working group, which concluded that it was unnecessary to administer pain relief to unborn babies at any stage of gestation. However, at the webinar, Dr Derbyshire discusses with Bockmann about their recently collaborated Journal of Medical Ethics article “Reconsidering Fetal Pain” which looks at recent scientific and medical research on fetal pain, where they have concluded that there is “good evidence” that the unborn child can feel pain as early as 12 weeks.

In their article, they argue that pregnant women considering an abortion from this stage of pregnancy should be made aware of the pain the unborn child could be subject to during the abortion procedure.

Link to video of Parliamentary webinar on Youtube

Pain Clinical Update 2006

The International Association for the Study of Pain published a clinical update on Fetal Pain in June 2006.  Their conclusion was that : The available scientific evidence makes it possible, even probable, that fetal pain perception occurs well before late gestation. Those attempting to deny or delay its occurrence must offer conclusive evidence for the absence of fetal pain at given levels of maturity.

Download the report here...

Fetal Homologue of Infant Crying 2005

A study which findings were published in the journal, Archives of Disease in Childhood - Fetal and Neonatal Edtion, revealed that unborn babies cry within the womb. Ultrasound videos taken of infants within the womb revealed 28-week-old babies crying in response to a noise stimulus. 

View more on the report  here...

View video here of foetus crying...

View the report here...

UK Parliamentary Pro-Life Group 2000

A report from the Parliamentary Pro-Life Group in the UK published in 2000 found that the unborn foetus is capable of feeling pain from the tenth week of pregnancy. The report of findings by 15 scientists from Britain, Ireland and Australia said that foetuses can experience pain earlier than previously thought. Of the 165,000 abortions carried out in England and Wales each year, about 100,000 are performed at nine weeks or later.

The report, runs counter to evidence presented in an official review by Maria Fitzgerald, Professor of Neurodevelopmental Biology at University College Hospital, London, which was commissioned by the Health Department. Her review, Foetal Pain - An Update of Current Scientific Knowledge, published in May 1995, concluded that there was no evidence that the foetus could feel pain earlier than 26 weeks because its brain and neurological system were not sufficiently developed.

Some scientists, not linked with the Parliamentary Pro-Life Group, questioned Professor Fitzgerald's conclusion.

As reported in The Times February 2000, Nicholas Fisk and Vivette Glover, two of Britain's foremost researchers on foetal pain, say the issue demands examination. Professor Fisk, Queen Charlotte's Maternity Hospital, Chiswick, London measured levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, in foetuses from which blood samples were taken in the womb.

He found that the level rose sharply as the needle was inserted. "This is the first evidence that the human foetus mounts a definable stress response to a potentially painful stimulus," he said.

Advances in surgery mean that many foetuses undergo operations inside the womb without analgesia even though pain relief is routinely given to premature babies of the same gestational age undergoing the procedure after birth.

UK Rawlinson Commission 1996

In 1996 the Rawlinson Commission of Inquiry into Foetal Sentience, UK, discovered that a large, and growing, body of evidence suggested that a baby can feel pain and sensation from 11 weeks of gestation.

Human Sentience Before Birth A Report by the Commission of Inquiry into Foetal Sentience...

Lancet 1994, British Medical Journal 1980

Data in the British Medical Journal, Lancet, gave solid confirmation of such pain. It is known that the foetal umbilical cord has no pain receptors such as the rest of the fetal body. Accordingly, they tested fetal hormone stress response comparing puncturing of the abdomen and of the cord.

They observed "the fetus reacts to intrahepatic (liver) needling with vigorous body and breathing movements, but not to cord needling. The levels of these hormones did not vary with fetal age."M. Fisk, et al., Fetal Plasma Cortisol and B-endorphin Response to Intrauterine Needling, Lancet, Vol. 344, July 9, 1994, Pg. 77

Another excellent British study commented on this:

It cannot be comfortable for the fetus to have a scalp electrode implanted on his skin, to have blood taken from the scalp or to suffer the skull compression that may occur even with spontaneous delivery. It is hardly surprising that infants delivered by difficult forceps extraction act as if they have a severe headache.

Valman & Pearson, "What the Fetus Feels," British Med. Jour., Jan. 26, 1980

Pain and It's effects on the Human Neonate and Fetus 1987

On 19 November 1987, the New England Journal of Medicine (Volume 317, Number 21: Pages 1321-1329) printed an special article and concluded :

Numerous lines of evidence suggest that even in the human fetus, pain pathways as well as cortical and subcortical centers necessary for pain perception are well developed late in gestation, and the neurochemical systems now known to be associated with pain transmission and modulation are intact and functional. Physiologic responses to painful stimuli have been well documented in neonates of various gestational ages and are reflected in hormonal, metabolic, and cardiorespiratory changes similar to but greater than those observed in adult subjects. Other responses in newborn infants are suggestive of integrated emotional and behavioral responses to pain and are retained in memory long enough to modify subsequent behavior patterns.

Read the article in the New England Journal of Medicine here...

American Medical Association 1984

The American Medical News reprint reports, "Physicians know that foetuses feel pain ... because [among other things]: "Nerves connecting the spinal cord to peripheral structures have developed between six to eight weeks. Adverse reactions to stimuli are observed between eight and 10 weeks....

You can tell by the contours on their faces that aborted foetuses feel pain," added obstetrician Matthew Bulfin, M.D., of Lauderdale by the Sea, Florida." "He described the case of a 25-year old woman administered a prostaglandin abortion, who expelled her foetus in the middle of the night. Before hospital nurses arrived, she witnessed "the thrashing around and gruesome trauma on his face, and knew that the foetus had suffered."MD Group Claims that Foetuses Suffer Pain," in American Medical News. (pub. by The American Medical Association), Feb. 24 1984, p. 18

Reaction of the Foetus in the film, The Silent Scream 1983

A Realtime ultrasound video tape and movie of a 12- week suction abortion is commercially available as, The Silent Scream, narrated by Dr. B. Nathanson, a former abortionist. It dramatically, but factually, shows the pre-born baby dodging the suction instrument time after time, while its heartbeat doubles in rate. When finally caught, its body being dismembered, the baby's mouth clearly opens wide - hence, the title. Proabortionists have attempted to discredit this film. A well documented paper refuting their charges is available from National Right to Life, 419 7th St. NW, Washington, DC 20004, $2.00 p.p.

A short, 10-minute video showing the testimony of the doctor who did the abortion in Silent Scream definitely debunks any criticism of Silent Scream's accuracy. The Answer, Bernadel, Inc., P.O. Box 1897, Old Chelsea Station, New York, NY, 10011.

List of over 200 Physicians 1971

In response to experiments performed on 12 to 16 week foetuses, movements of the head, body and limbs have been observed. These movements were vigorous, and consisted of ventro - or dorsoflexion of the trunk, flexion of the limbs, and turning of the head, indicating the presence of acute foetal pain. It is agreed that a foetus must be heavily sedated before intrauterine manipulation, such as transfusions, because such painful stimuli cause the foetus to move, making the procedure difficult.

In the sixth to seventh weeks, nerves and muscles work together for the first time. If the area of the lips, the first to become sensitive to touch, is gently stroked, the child responds by bending the upper body to one side and making a quick backward motion with his arms. In the ninth and tenth weeks, the child's activity leaps ahead. Now if the forehead is touched, he may turn his head away and pucker up his brow and frown. In the same week, the entire body becomes sensitive to touch.

AMICUS CURIAE 1971 Motion and Brief Amicus Curiae of Certain Physicians, Professors and Fellows of the American College of Obstetrics and Gynecology in Support of appellees, submitted to the Supreme Court of the United States, October Term, 1971, No. 70-18, Roe v. Wade, and No. 70-40, Doe v. Bolton. Prepared by Dennis J. Horan, (The List of Amici contains the names of over 200 physicians.)

The unborn child feels pain

"The sensory nerve of the face, the Trigeminal nerve, is already present in all of its three branches in a four week old human embryo. At seven weeks they twitch or turn their head away from a stimulus in the same defensive manoeuvre seen at all stages of life."E. Blechschmidt & S. Wintrap, National Right To Life News, Washington DC, May 20, 1987

"Cutaneous sensory receptors appear in the perioral area in the seventh week of gestation."Anand et al., "Pain and Its Effects on the Human Fetus N. Eng. J. Med, vol. 317, no. 21, p. 1322, Nov. 19, 1987

"When doctors first began invading the sanctuary of the womb, they did not know that the unborn baby would react to pain in the same fashion as a child would. But they soon learned that he would."Dr. A. Liley, Prof. of Foetology, University of Aukland, New Zealand

"Pain isn't just psychological. There is also organic, or physiological pain which elicits a neurological response to pain."P. Lubeskind, "Psychology & Physiology of Pain," Amer. Review Psychology, vol. 28, 1977, p. 42

"One of the most uncomfortable ledges that the unborn can encounter is his mother's backbone. If he happens to be lying so that his own backbone is across hers [when the mother lies on her back], the unborn will wiggle around until he can get away from this highly disagreeable position."M. Liley & B. Day, Modern Motherhood, Random House, 1969, p. 42

"Changes in heart rate and foetal movement also suggest that intrauterine manipulations are painful to the foetus."Volman & Pearson, "What the Foetus Feels," British Med. Jour., 26 Jan 1980, pp. 233-234. 

The changes in heart rate and increase in movement suggest that stimuli are painful for the foetus. Certainly it cannot be comfortable for the foetus to have a scalp electrode implanted on his skin, to have blood taken from the scalp or to suffer the skull compression that may occur even with spontaneous delivery. It is hardly surprising that infants delivered by difficult forcepts extraction act as if they have a severe headache.

Volman & Pearson, "What the Foetus Feels," British Medical Journal, 26 Jan 1980