Report: fetus cannot feel pain before 24 weeks

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A new report from the U.K.’s Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (RCOG) concludes that, before 24 weeks, nerve endings in the brains of fetuses aren’t sufficiently developed to experience pain. The findings, based on a review of recent studies examining fetal development and capacity for pain, undermine the argument for a Nebraska law passed in April prohibiting most abortions after 20 weeks’ gestation.

According to the New Scientist:

“The report concludes that fetuses under 24 weeks must be pain-free, because at that age the wiring doesn’t exist to send pain signals from nerves around the body to the cortex, the area of the brain where pain is experienced. At which later point such connections form is unknown, so analgesia should still be considered after 24 weeks, the RCOG says.”

On April 13, Nebraska Governor Dave Heineman signed a law banning abortions later than 20 weeks, based on arguments that a fetus can feel pain after this point. Yet in large part, the New York Times reported, the new law was a final step in a chain of events set in motion by the murder of abortion provider Dr. George R. Tiller in May 2009.

After Dr. Tiller, who routinely performed late-term abortions at a clinic in Wichita, Kansas, was killed by an anti-abortion activist, his colleague Dr. LeRoy H. Carhart, said that he would continue the work and provide late-term abortions for women at his clinic in Bellevue, Nebraska, according to the Times. Yet Nebraska residents were none too keen to become the “later-term abortion capital of the Midwest,” and in April, a bill banning most abortions after 20 weeks was passed 44 to 5 by the state legislature.

The reasoning behind the ban was that studies had shown fetuses as young as 20 weeks exhibited reflexive responses to pain — the same way that fully developed children and adults do. Yet Allan Templeton, chairman of the group that produced the RCOG report, says the reflexive responses don’t signify actual experience of pain. From the New Scientist:

“Templeton dismisses this reasoning. ‘There are indeed reflex responses, but in our view, because the nerves are not wired up to the cortex, they are reflex actions without experience of pain,’ he says… The report notes that the same reflexes are seen in seriously malformed fetuses that have no brain at all, and therefore can’t possibly experience pain.”

Watch a Telegraph video report explaining the findings here.

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