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Study: Fetuses Can't Feel Pain Before 24 Weeks

In what may be news to Nebraska senator Mike Flood, but not to many scientists and doctors, the BBC is reporting that once again, it has been found that fetuses are incapable of feeling pain before the 24th week of gestation.


The first of the college's reviews examined whether or not a foetus can experience pain.

It found that nerve connections in the cortex, the area which processes responses to pain in the brain, does not form properly before 24 weeks.

The report states: "It can be concluded that the foetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior to this gestation."

Even after 24 weeks, the college concluded a foetus is naturally sedated and unconscious in the womb.

This could mean that late abortions, which are permitted for serious abnormalities or risks to the mother's health, may not result in foetal suffering.

In addition, the report says anaesthetics, which can be risky, would not be required if a foetus requires surgery.

It was this erroneous claim that fetuses could feel pain much earlier that allowed Nebraska legislature to pass the Pain-Capable Unborn Protection Act earlier this year.  The bill is being legally challenged and is currently unenforced.

New Scientist writes that these new findings are a direct contradiction to everything that the Nebraska legislature and their experts claimed during hearings over the bill.

When Nebraska legislators debated the state's new abortion law, it was claimed that fetuses must feel pain because they have the same reflex reactions to pain as children and adults. Templeton dismisses this reasoning. "There are indeed reflex responses, but in our view, because the nerves are not wired up to the cortex, they are reflex actions without experience of pain," he says.

The report notes that the same reflexes are seen in seriously malformed fetuses that have no brain at all, and therefore can't possibly experience pain.

Templeton says the working party rejected the claims of Kanwaljeet Anand of Le Bonheur Children's Medical Center in Memphis, Tennessee, who contends that young fetuses can feel pain in a more primitive part of the brain called the subcortex, which receives pain signals before the cortex has been wired up.

"Our scientists say there's no evidence that the subcortex can provide for the pain experience," Templeton told New Scientist. Anand's evidence is widely cited by anti-abortion groups.

Templeton says that Anand's evidence comes mainly from observations of responses in babies born prematurely, and that it cannot be assumed that these are expressions of pain, rather than painless reflex responses.

"Anand's conclusions apply only to neonates," Templeton says. "He has written opinions about how that might apply also to fetuses, but it's not evidence, it's opinion."

The report argues that pain responses may begin to develop only after a baby is born, and no longer sedated in the womb, and that this may explain why neonates experience pain differently to fetuses. "It is only after birth, with the separation of the baby from the uterus and the umbilical cord, that wakefulness truly begins," it concludes.


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