Does a Fetus Feel Pain?

Though many do not even inquire, perhaps this is a question that deserves an answer. Many voices in our culture believe women’s rights prevail in choosing to carry a pregnancy to its conclusion, or abort its development. A parallel mindset is the importance of protecting animals from pain. I agree that we should provide humane treatment for all of God’s creation. However, I have to ask why human life shouldn’t at least hold the same value as the animals.

Let’s turn to the research to see if there is any evidence of fetal pain and when it is observed. Since pain is subjective, even for fully formed adult humans, it would be helpful for to look at how doctors determine pain in infants. Young babies cannot communicate verbally or even point to a pain scale to tell how badly something hurts. However, babies are wired to let people know things are not “A-OK.” They grimace, cry, writhe, and withdraw from any perceived painful object.

Prenatal surgeries have been helpful in providing information about fetal sensitivity to pain. Scientists use several clues to rate the ability of a developing fetus to feel pain. Similar to more mature human life, the fetus shows signs of pain through facial grimaces as well as the reflexive response to pull away from objects they sense threaten them.

To determine the degree of pain felt in utero, neuroscientists have measured the activity of pain receptors and stress hormones. The receptors are found throughout the body and quickly respond to potentially damaging events like high heat, extreme cold, injury, and inflammation. Pain receptors and stress hormones can be monitored and measured long before a fetus or infant can rate his pain sensation.

Some proponents of abortion say that the brain must have complex connections between the thalamus and cortex to feel pain, which occurs around twenty-four weeks after conception. However, recent studies have shown that adults without a cortex can feel pain, invalidating this argument.

As early as six weeks after conception, the tiny fetus, measuring only 1.5 inches long, will spontaneously move away from anything that touches its mouth where pain receptor cells first develop. By eighteen weeks after conception, the entire body is covered by pain receptor cells.

By measuring stress hormones in the bloodstream, scientists have noted a stress response to a painful procedure as early as eighteen weeks after conception. For this reason, since the 1980s, doctors have advised using anesthesia and pain management for fetal surgeries. Why would doctors use anesthesia if there was no evidence that a fetus feels pain? Doctors have observed that pain management promotes faster recovery post surgery. And, then there is the ethical reason.

I must ask everyone who reads this, regardless of your views on abortion, to consider the ethics involved in suctioning or dismembering a fetus without any anesthesia. Since we have powerful campaigns to apply ethics to protecting animals, which have much less complex nervous systems and brain capacity than a human life, should we not at least protect these young ones from such a destructive end without any intervention? Even if you staunchly stand for a woman’s right to “choose,” should not a young one in utero be given the respect animals are?

For those of us who believe human life is made in the image of a Creator God, we need to be informed and able to provide scientific answers to those who believe a fetus is a mere glob of cells. The Bible tells us human beings are privileged with a spirit life, unlike the animals in our creation. We may not persuade others of this understanding without an opening of their spiritual “eyes.” However, we can at least argue for humane treatment in the same way pro-choice advocates stand for the ethics of animal treatment.

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