Foetal pain?

Derbyshire SW

Best Practice & Research Clinical Obstetrics & Gynaecology
Oct 2010


The majority of commentary on foetal pain has looked at the maturation of neural pathways to decide a lower age limit for foetal pain. This approach is sensible because there must be a minimal necessary neural development that makes pain possible. Very broadly, it is generally agreed that the minimal necessary neural pathways for pain are in place by 24 weeks gestation. Arguments remain, however, as to the possibility of foetal pain before or after 24 weeks. Some argue that the foetus can feel pain earlier than 24 weeks because pain can be supported by subcortical structures. Others argue that the foetus cannot feel pain at any stage because it is maintained in a state of sedation in the womb and lacks further neural and conceptual development necessary for pain. Much of this argument rests on the definition of terms such as 'wakefulness' and 'pain'. If a behavioural and neural reaction to a noxious stimulus is considered sufficient for pain, then pain is possible from 24 weeks and probably much earlier. If a conceptual subjectivity is considered necessary for pain, however, then pain is not possible at any gestational age. Regardless of how pain is defined, it is clear that pain for conceptual beings is qualitatively different than pain for non-conceptual beings. It is therefore a mistake to draw an equivalence between foetal pain and pain in the older infant or adult.