It has long been disputed over whether or not the foetus can experience pain whilst in the womb, and even further disputed that if they do, when does the experience of pain begin. However, a new report has investigated some evidence that suggests it is possible for the foetus to experience pain as early as 7.5 weeks.
The report which can be found here highlights a range of evidence both for an against the argument that the unborn child experiences pain.
In order to investigate pain experiences in the womb, researchers will often focus their study on the development of the area of the brain that is associated with pain experience. One study found in this report suggests that this is developed by 24 weeks gestation. Another study discovered that babies born prematurely, as early as 22 weeks, do show signs of experiencing pain.
However, Dr Sheila Page has suggested that foetuses can experience pain as early as 7.5 weeks, as it is at this point in life that the foetus shows reflex responses, which could indicate a response to pain.
The report, issued by the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group (APPG) , notes the "recent publication in the Journal of Medical Ethics of an article “Reconsidering Fetal Pain.”
They say: It is hard to overstate the importance of this article because its lead author, Dr Stuart WG Derbyshire has in the past argued that the scientific evidence does not suggest a need take account of the potential of the foetus to feel pain. Indeed, in 2010 he was part of the RCOG working group which argued that it was not necessary to provide analgesia in the case of abortion during any stage of pregnancy. Dr Derbyshire’s latest article, however, co-written with John C Bockmann PA, argues that the latest developments in neuroscience suggest there is the potential for “an immediate and unreflective pain experience mediated by the developing function of the nervous system from as early as 12 weeks.” In this context he suggests a case by case approach in which the “clinical team and the pregnant woman can consider whether fetal analgesia makes sense based on the clinical requirements for the abortion, the age of the fetus and the conscience of the parties involved.” His co-author Bockmann, meanwhile, argues that “Fetal analgesia and anaesthesia should thus be standard for abortions in the second trimester, especially after 18 weeks...”
"This resonates very much with the conclusion of this review" the APPG notes.
The study of hormonal responses to pain, which is often associated with an increase in the stress hormone cortisol, is another method of foetal pain research. Studies has found that unborn babies exhibit an increase of cortisol when placed in an experience where pain could be felt, for example, inserting a needle. These hormonal responses have been detected as early as 16 weeks.
Research is suggestive of pain experiences in the womb, however, experts cannot agree on a time where the unborn child begins to experience pain. Yet despite evidence, discovered by using the same tools on how we understand pain experience in general, some experts still reject the notion of foetal pain, believing that not only is the evidence weak, but that the unborn child does not live in a state of consciousness whilst in the womb, and thus it is not possible for them to experience pain. This argument in itself appears flawed, given that it is well known that unborn babies in the womb function very similarly to that of a newborn.
It comes as no surprise that those experts who believe pain is not experienced by the unborn child, advocate for not providing pain relief during an abortion procedure, claiming it to increase the risk of the mother whilst providing “unknown foetal benefits”.
The reality is, if the unborn baby requires pain relief during the abortion procedure, then it can lead to those who would not otherwise question abortion, to question whether the abortion should be carried out in the first place.
What also does not comply with these expert opinions is the UK governments decision in 2019 to provide pain relief to a 20-24 week unborn child when undergoing an operation to correct spina bifida. This is highly suggestive that these infants do experience pain.
Whether or not the unborn child experiences pain in the womb, this does not automatically decrease their human dignity or devalue their lives. They are still a unique human being regardless. Yet, the argument for foetal pain could be a good way of showing how morally wrong abortion really is.
However, one point made very clear in this report, is that regardless of whether we know the unborn child experiences pain or not, the fact that some evidence suggests that they do, provides us with the moral obligation to treat the unborn child as if they are experiencing pain. If this means that it is as early as 7-8 weeks, then that's where doctors can begin.
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