A clinical review suggests that fetuses will not feel the effects of an abortion up to 26 weeks.

A clinical review, published in the April 15th issue of the British Medical Journal, claims that unborn fetuses don’t have the synaptic receptors to feel any pain that would be induced during an abortion.

Stuart Derbyshire, a senior psychologist at the University of Birmingham in the UK, argues that unborn fetuses up to 26 weeks old cannot feel pain, and that, even after 26 weeks, when their cortex is fully developed, fetuses do not have a mind sophisticated enough to process the experience of pain.

Derbyshires’s took a two-pronged approach to his assessment: He married the latest reports in psychological research to several physiological studies describing fetal development to arrive at his conclusion. The announcement of his results comes on the heels of pending US legislation that would require women to be informed of any possible pain their abortion could inflict on their unborn child.

The bill, S.51, introduced by Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), would require all women to read a brochure before they are able to get an abortion. The bill’s introduction states that the purpose of the pamphlet is to “ensure that women seeking an abortion are fully informed regarding the pain experienced by their unborn child.” S.51 is currently in committee in the Senate.

But, if Derbyshire’s findings are true, the brochure required by S.51 may not actually impart any substantive information.

“It’s pointless because there is no pain to be experienced, and it’s pointless because there is no life to be continued afterwards,” Derbyshire said in regards to S.51.

According to S.51, many women who undergo an abortion choose to have anesthetic injected into their fetus to minimize any pain they believe it may feel. The administration of the anesthetic requires a needle to pass through the mother into the womb, and its use can prolong the abortion procedure. But if fetuses don’t feel pain, Derbyshire says the belabored process is moot.

“While [the anesthesia is] not particularly risky, nothing is risk-free, so why do it?” said Derbyshire.

Derbyshire admits that scientists are unsure when the cortex, the part of the brain required to sense pain, becomes fully developed, and though his study points to 26 weeks, he concedes that with further studies, the estimate could move forward several weeks.

The S.51 bill is written under the assumption that pain is experienced by fetuses at 20 weeks, based on reactions they display from specific stimuli. Even if unborn children experience pain after 20 weeks, as the legislation states, Derbyshire argues that the subjective experience of pain requires knowledge of the world.

“Without some sort of input from the outside, it’s not possible to have any kind of discrimination between experiences,” said Derbyshire. “And without any discrimination, it’s not possible to have any kind of specific experience.”

Derbyshire is quick to point out that his determination that fetuses cannot feel pain is not a solution to the abortion debate. Unborn children may not have the neural capacity or the mind development to feel pain, but many would argue, as S.51 does, that fetuses are sentient beings that should be protected.

“Pain is a very small aspect of this, and it’s not a moral arbitral for the whole procedure,” said Derbyshire.

Originally published April 18, 2006


Share this Stumbleupon Reddit Email + More


  • Ideas

    I Tried Almost Everything Else

    John Rinn, snowboarder, skateboarder, and “genomic origamist,” on why we should dumpster-dive in our genomes and the inspiration of a middle-distance runner.

  • Ideas

    Going, Going, Gone

    The second most common element in the universe is increasingly rare on Earth—except, for now, in America.

  • Ideas

    Earth-like Planets Aren’t Rare

    Renowned planetary scientist James Kasting on the odds of finding another Earth-like planet and the power of science fiction.

The Seed Salon

Video: conversations with leading scientists and thinkers on fundamental issues and ideas at the edge of science and culture.

Are We Beyond the Two Cultures?

Video: Seed revisits the questions C.P. Snow raised about science and the humanities 50 years by asking six great thinkers, Where are we now?

Saved by Science

Audio slideshow: Justine Cooper's large-format photographs of the collections behind the walls of the American Museum of Natural History.

The Universe in 2009

In 2009, we are celebrating curiosity and creativity with a dynamic look at the very best ideas that give us reason for optimism.

Revolutionary Minds
The Interpreters

In this installment of Revolutionary Minds, five people who use the new tools of science to educate, illuminate, and engage.

The Seed Design Series

Leading scientists, designers, and architects on ideas like the personal genome, brain visualization, generative architecture, and collective design.

The Seed State of Science

Seed examines the radical changes within science itself by assessing the evolving role of scientists and the shifting dimensions of scientific practice.

A Place for Science

On the trail of the haunts, homes, and posts of knowledge, from the laboratory to the field.


Witness the science. Stunning photographic portfolios from the pages of Seed magazine.

SEEDMAGAZINE.COM by Seed Media Group. ©2005-2015 Seed Media Group LLC. All Rights Reserved.

Sites by Seed Media Group: Seed Media Group | ScienceBlogs | Research Blogging | SEEDMAGAZINE.COM