What the Study in Current Biology Actually said about the Pain Capabilities of Unborn Children

By Dave Andrusko

I am not a doctor/surgeon/neurologist, but I can read. So let’s be clear what the study from British scientists that appeared in “Current Biology” Friday said and didn’t say.

Lorenzo Fabrizi from University College London and colleagues did not say that the unborn cannot experience pain until 35 weeks. That would fly in the face of a litany of studies that demonstrate that the unborn child can experience pain by 20 weeks post-fertilization.

Even most of those resolutely dedicated to denying fetal pain concede the child can experience pain by no later than the 29th week. So what was the study saying?

That it is not until the last two weeks before birth that the unborn can tell pain and touch apart.

They were able to come to this conclusion because some of the 46 babies were born prematurely – as early as 28 weeks – allowing for a comparison of the brain activity of babies in the final stages of development with those babies born at full term. EEG readings were taken as the babies were either either tapped gently or jabbed painfully with a lance on their heels.

Fabrizi told the Washington Post, “Babies can distinguish painful stimuli as different from general touch from around 35 to 37 weeks gestation — just before an infant would normally be born.”

Rob Stein of the Post then added, “The results could have implications for the care of premature infants, Fabrizi said. The findings suggest, for example, that exposing preemies to painful procedures in the hospital could make them hypersensitive to pain later in life.”

The Post asked Fabrizi how the finding of his study of the brain activity of these infants might apply to the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act.

“The study is focussed on postnatal infants, so we cannot make conclusions about what happens inside the womb and to fetuses,” Fabrizi wrote in an email.

There was one very important point that drew the attention of Mary Spaulding Balch, the director of National Right to Life’s Department of State Legislation, and chief architect of the Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act. “One noteworthy finding in the study is that it found no difference in perception or neural reaction to pain based on whether the infant was awake or asleep,” she said. “This calls into question one of the central claims of the Royal College of Obstetrics and Gynaecology’s Working Group–that unborn children are in a sleep-like state that, the Group argued, prevented them from feeling pain.”

(For a thorough rebuttal of the Working Group’s paper, see www.nrlc.org/news_and_views/July10/nv071510.html.)

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