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Thursday, October 13, 2005

Does a fetus feel pain?

My answer is, simply, "I don't know." I don't think anyone else does, either.

A recent article in the Journal of the American Medican Association (abstract here -- entire article not freely available) concludes the following:

Evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited but indicates that fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester. Little or no evidence addresses the effectiveness of direct fetal anesthetic or analgesic techniques. Similarly, limited or no data exist on the safety of such techniques for pregnant women in the context of abortion. Anesthetic techniques currently used during fetal surgery are not directly applicable to abortion procedures.

The above is hardly a firm denial of fetal capacity to feel pain (nor, of course, does it show that fetuses do feel pain). However, the climate being what it is, considerable controversy has ensued. It seems that some of the investigators may have a vested interest in abortions. See Christianity Today for a report on the matter.

Pain, itself, is notoriously difficult to define. It is also difficult or impossible to understand how we personally experience anything, let alone how another being, human or animal, (see here for interesting article on thought in dogs) does. However, however pain is defined, I can't believe that zygotes or very early embryos can experience it, inasmuch as they presumably lack the ability to experience anything. Likewise, it certainly seems as if newborns can experience pain. Somewhere between fertilization and birth, I would guess that most fetuses develop the capacity to experience pain. At what point, I don't know.

The best on-line reference I have found, attempting to present several points of view, is here. It doesn't seem to be a response to the JAMA article. The question goes back before the 21st century!

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