Do Fetuses Feel Pain During An Abortion?
by Rich Deem


Fetal Pain and Abortion

 During trials on the "partial birth abortion" ban, a number of abortionists were asked if the fetus experienced pain during the abortion procedure.1 Virtually all of the respondents indicated that they did not know the answer to the question, nor were most interested in the answer, since they were only interested in "helping" the pregnant woman. However, one doctor did indicate that he had observed fetuses jump (viewed on ultrasound) when a needle was inserted into their chest (sometimes the fetus was killed through lethal injection of KCl or digoxin into the heart prior to being dismembered). A new study addresses the question directly.

Rich Deem

Most abortions occur during the first trimester of pregnancy. However, a significant number of abortions occur much later in pregnancy. Pro-life advocates have claimed that at least some of these fetuses are capable of feeling pain during the abortion procedure. Although the fetus develops rapidly (e.g., the heart begins to beat within three weeks of conception), brain development continues throughout pregnancy and after birth. Although some forms of brain waves occur by six weeks, cortical brain waves don't occur until later. However, late term abortions, including D&X (partial birth) abortion, can occur after 20 weeks gestation. The D&X abortion procedure itself is rather gruesome.2 The abortion practitioner instrumentally reaches into the uterus, grasps the fetus' feet, and pulls the feet down into the cervix. Often, especially in younger fetuses, limbs are ripped off bodies during the procedure. Once the fetus has been delivered except for the head, surgical scissors are forced into the base of the fetal skull and the its brains are sucked out. The baby is then delivered dead. The entire procedure is almost always performed on the fetus without the use of anesthesia. Does the fetus feel pain during this procedure?

Previous scientific studies

The question of fetal pain is difficult to determine, since a fetus cannot communicate what it is feeling. Most scientists believe that pain is experienced in the cortical areas of the brain, which do not develop until the second trimester. Painful experiences result in autonomic (they occur automatically during pain) physiologic changes that can be measured. For example, when we fell pain, our bodies produce endorphins and cortisol to help deal with the pain. One study was conducted on fetuses during blood draws. This study showed elevated fetal plasma cortisol and beta-endorphin response to intrauterine needling early in the second trimester.3

Measurement of cortical brain responses

A recent study examined the question of fetal pain through the direct measurement of cortical brain responses in premature infants.4 Using real-time near-infrared spectroscopy, blood flow in the contralateral somatosensory cortex of the brain was measured during routine blood draws. The results showed that cortical blood flow was significantly elevated in infants as young as 25 weeks gestational age during needle puncture to draw blood. It was also noted that cortical brain response was higher in awake infants than those who were asleep. These results showed that the fetal brain can detect pain at least at 25 weeks of age. Since no premature infants were younger than 25 weeks, it did not determine the earliest age at which the fetus would feel pain.

Another Study

Pro-Life Answers to Pro-Choice ArgumentsA more recent study examined cells from the cerebral cortices of 20- to 21-week-old fetuses, finding functional glutamate or GABA ionotropic receptors are expressed on human subplate (SP) neurons.5 Those cells exhibited bursts of electrical activity interspersed with periods of quiet, similar to that seen in adult cortical brain cells. Although the article seemed intent on answering the question of how brains go wrong during development, the results might have a much larger impact on the abortion question.

Conclusion Top of page

At this point, it is uncertain whether a fetus experiences pain during the first trimester of development, when most abortions occur. However, recent studies have shown that the fetus most certainly does feel pain by the end the second trimester, when late-term and partial birth abortions are performed. Since general anesthesia is not used in most of these procedures, the fetus most likely feels pain during the procedure as limbs may be pulled off and scissors are used to puncture the base of its skull.

References Top of page

  1. Partial-Birth Abortion Trial Transcripts from Priests for Life.
  2. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) statement of policy. Approved by the executive board January 12, 1997 and distributed to ACOG chairs.
    The procedure according to the ACOG review panel on intact D&X:
    1. the deliberate dilation of the cervix, usually over a sequence of days
    2. instrumental conversion of the fetus to a footling breech
    3. breech extraction of the body, excepting the head
    4. partial evacuation of the intercranial contents of a living fetus to effect vaginal delivery of a dead but otherwise intact fetus.
  3. Giannakoulopoulos X, Sepulveda W, Kourris P, Glover V, and Fisk NM. 1994. Fetal plasma cortisol and beta-endorphin response to intrauterine needling. Lancet 344:77-81.
  4. Slater, R, A. Cantarella, S. Gallella, A. Worley, S. Boyd, J. Meek, and M. Fitzgerald. 2006. Cortical Pain Responses in Human Infants. The Journal of Neuroscience 26: 3662-3666.
  5. A. R. Moore et al. 2011. Spontaneous electrical activity in the human fetal cortex in vitro. The Journal of Neuroscience 31: 2391.
Last updated February 16, 2011


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