Fetal pain: do we know enough to do the right thing?

Derbyshire SW

Reproductive Health Matters
May 2008


Raising the possibility of fetal pain continues as a tactic to undermine support for abortion in the US and the UK. This paper examines anatomical and psychological developments in the fetus to assess the possibility of fetal pain. Neurobiological features that develop at 7, 18 and 26 weeks gestation suggest an experience of pain in utero. Pain, however, cannot be inferred from these features because they are not informative about the state of consciousness of the fetus and cannot account for the content of any presumed pain experience. We may be confident the fetus does not experience pain because unique in utero neuroinhibitors and a lack of psychological development maintain unconsciousness and prevent conscious pain experience. Before an infant can experience sensations and emotions, the elements of experience must have their own independent existence in the infant's mind. This is achieved after birth through discoveries made in action and in patterns of adjustment and interaction with a caregiver. Recommendations about anaesthetic practice with the fetus and the newborn or young infant should not focus on pain but on outcomes with obvious, and measurable, importance. In the case of an unwanted pregnancy, the health of the woman should guide anaesthetic practice. In the case of a wanted pregnancy, the survival and long-term health of both the woman and fetus should guide anaesthetic practice. In any case, current evidence does not support efforts to inform women of the potential for fetal pain. Any policy to mitigate fetal pain could expose women to inappropriate intervention, risk and distress.