Does a fetus feel pain?

Pro-life rhetoric often focuses on fetal pain as a one of the foundational reasons why abortion is immoral. Yet the fact is that scientists aren’t in agreement about when—or if—fetuses experience pain.

Politicians shouldn’t be able to use fetal pain as an excuse to pass legislation that takes away a woman’s bodily autonomy, simply because it hasn’t been proved that fetuses feel pain at all. Here’s a brief rundown of what we know.

According to Mother Jones, “The majority of the scientific literature on the subject finds that the brain connections required to feel pain are not formed until at least 24 weeks.”

Of course, the scientific community isn’t unanimous. Certain doctors have stated that fetuses can experience “severe and excruciating pain” after 20 weeks. These testimonials have led to at least 9 states passing legislation that bans abortions after 5 months.

A Dr. Kanwaljeet “Sunny” Anand has been particularly vocal on this issue. Yet Anand’s statements aren’t based on hard facts. He reasons that because fetuses can respond to stress at 20 weeks, it makes sense that they can also feel pain. It’s a logic that is not based on research specifically investigating fetal pain.

Even more, Anand’s statements about fetal pain diverge from the official stance taken by the American Medical Association (AMA), a nonpartisan group that’s been around for more than a century. According to the AMA, “evidence regarding the capacity for fetal pain is limited.”

A report published by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists in the UK found that “even after 24 weeks, the fetus likely exists in a state of ‘continuous sleep-like unconsciousness or sedation,’ due to the presence of chemicals such as adenosine in the surrounding amniotic fluid.”

The fetal pain argument hasn’t just resulted in bans on abortions after 20 weeks. In Utah, for instance, women seeking an abortion after 20 weeks must be given painkillers—for the fetus, not the woman. Legislation like this has angered medical professionals, many of whom say that it puts women’s health at risk by forcing doctors to give them “unspecified painkillers.”

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