Pain Experience of a Fetus Might Be Even Worse Than Adult Pain
By Elaine Zettel
The politics of abortion have distorted the science of fetal pain. The distortion is so drastic that it may come into conflict with modern pediatric medicine. On October 1st Dr. Paul Ranalli, neurologist and University of Toronto Lecturer, explained these findings to a gathering of 100 people at the deVeber Institute’s annual public lecture at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto.It was only 25 years ago that pediatric medicine failed to recognize the pain of newborn babies, and procedures were performed on these babies without any anaesthesia. Since that time, our understanding of babies’ pain has drastically increased, and as a result babies in the neonatal intensive care unit now receive much better care including pain relief. Furthermore, Dr Ranalli showed that research has found that the ability to feel pain begins long before birth.“An unborn child is likely capable of feeling pain from the middle point of pregnancy,” Dr. Ranalli said. New understandings and evidence accumulated over the past two decades show that by the 20th week of gestation, the fetus possesses everything necessary to feel pain. However, the systems that help adults inhibit pain are not developed until well after this time period. Therefore it is possible that the fetus may be experiencing extreme pain during an abortion without the internal coping mechanisms that we take for granted.Evidence of fetal pain exists in three main areas: anatomical, physiological, and behavioural. Anatomically, the brain, nerves and pain receptors develop throughout the early part of pregnancy. The parts of the nervous system are connected and operational by the 20th week. Physiologically, there is evidence of a hormonal stress response to pain beginning at 18 weeks gestation. Behaviourally, the fetus has been observed to make movements in response to touch and to respond to sound by 20 weeks gestation or earlier. Each of these pieces of evidence combined to make a very strong case for fetal pain.Moreover, Dr. Ranalli pointed out that research reviews and guidelines from abortion providers in the United Kingdom and France have called for separate anaesthesia to be given to the fetus to protect it from pain during second trimester abortions. Some abortionists there have recognized the very valid evidence of fetal pain.In North America, however, there is much denial of the subject, according to Dr. Ranalli. A review published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2005 purported to claim that a fetus could not feel pain until 29 weeks. The report was criticized for potential bias when two of its authors were found to have links to abortion practice, including the lead author, a former advocate for the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL). Distortion of the science was obvious to Dr. Ranalli, who pointed out that the article’s conclusions relied on a study that had not even tested the potential of fetuses to feel pain before 26 weeks. By ignoring a large body of evidence on fetal pain, this article came to a false conclusion.The report’s conclusion would imply that premature babies born from the time of viability, currently 23 weeks, would be unable to feel pain for the first 6 weeks of their lives, a concept that was abandoned as barbaric over 20 years ago. Nevertheless, the article continues to be cited by many as authoritative, a practice Dr. Ranalli believes is intended to provide moral cover for abortion providers. Dr. Ranalli described the article’s conclusions as “so ghastly, the effect would be to set back the humane modern practice of child-centered pediatric medicine 20 years.”To summarize, Dr. Ranalli demonstrated with ample evidence that the fetus can feel pain by 20 weeks gestation, and possibly earlier. This has been recognized by pain experts in North America and Europe, and even by some abortion providers. However, some continue to deny the evidence of fetal pain, despite obvious inconsistencies with modern medical practice. Elaine Zetel is the Executive Director of The deVeber Institute, an independent Toronto-based research Institute, which carries out interdisciplinary research in bioethical issues. Dr. Ranalli is an Advisory Council member of the Institute.