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

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