Bioethics Blogs

The Politics of Fetal Pain

Earlier this year, Utah passed a fetal
pain bill
that requires the use of general anesthesia on
women seeking abortions at 20 weeks gestation or later.  This bill, which relies on a controversial
claim that fetuses may feel pain as early as 20 weeks, has been heavily
criticized as an attempt to abrogate abortion rights rather than serving a
legitimate protective purpose. 

The issue of fetal pain has long been a source of
contention in the scientific community, and the dispute has led to
states restricting or prohibiting abortions
20 weeks or
later on the basis of potential fetal pain. 
While many argue that this law is just one of many across the country
aimed not at protecting health, but at restricting or eliminating abortion
rights, this law, in fact, seems to be justified in its goal of minimizing the
possible experience of suffering by the fetus. 

While studies have not proven that a fetus can feel
pain prior to the third trimester, reasonable doubt about the possibility of
fetal experience of pain exists.  As E.
Christian Brugger argues in his article entitled “
Problem of Fetal Pain and Abortion: Toward an Ethical Consensus for Appropriate
,” there is no moral certitude that fetuses do not
feel pain after 20 weeks, and “a preponderance of evidence supports the
conclusion that fetal-pain experience beginning in the second trimester of
pregnancy is a real possibility.” 
Brugger makes the argument, drawing from several researchers of fetal
neuroanatomy that all the neural structures for both pain perception and
consciousness are in place by 18-20 weeks.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.