No, Fetuses Do Not “Feel Pain” At 8 Weeks (And Won’t “Feel” Anything If You Get an Abortion)

Sample Original Comment: Expert: Unborn Babies Can Feel Pain Starting at 8Weeks.[sic]

Source: @StevenErtelt, twitter feed of LifeNews.com founder.

Some Context As To Why On Earth Someone Might Actually Believe This: The sample tweet I chose was accompanied by a 100% verified, entirely credible, no-bias link to an article at LifeNews.com (no link included to limit their web traffic!) that discusses how a medical expert testified to our rabidly anti-choice Congress in May of 2013 that fetuses first feel pain at 8 weeks. The article quotes this expert, Maureen Condic, Associate Professor of Neurobiology and Adjunct Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Utah Medical School, who said the following:

“The neural circuitry responsible for the most primitive response to pain, the spinal reflex, is in place by 8 weeks of development. This is the earliest point at which the fetus feels pain in any capacity.”

And later…

“To experience pain, a noxious stimulus must be detected. The neural structures necessary to detect noxious stimuli are in place by 8-10 weeks of human development. There is universal agreement that pain is detected by the fetus in the first trimester…”

Yikes! Well, that sounds like pretty damning and definite evidence. I guess all those pro-choice feminists at NOW and Planned Parenthood better just give up and go home after that testimony. Except…

The Rebuttal: …this interpretation of the facts is about as scientifically sound and factually accurate as the E-Meters used by Dianetics-adhering Scientologists.

I use that analogy for a reason. Many pro-lifers will also argue neural energy indicates brain activity, which indicates life. However, much of that activity is “white noise” of brain cells (which currently aren’t part of a developed brain) and don’t indicate any kind of actual brain activity or thoughts. Not to be condescending, but it’s hard for a fetus to have brain activity when it doesn’t have a brain…

Before I go on, I want to be clear that I understand there are many reasons for a person to identify as pro-choice or pro-life. I am pro-choice. This rebuttal is not meant to convince anyone to change their entire worldview on abortion and become pro-choice (although, seriously, maybe consider it one of these days…). This rebuttal is taking a look at the so-called medical “evidence” hardcore pro-life advocates espouse to create the illusion of a scientific argument. These strategies are not entirely different from the strategies of climate change deniers.

But back to our present topic…

First of all, it’s worth pointing out Professor Condic chose her words carefully. She was under oathe, after all, and she did not want to be accused of perjury. Note that instead of saying “feel” pain, she says “experience” and “detected” pain. The one time she does drop the f-bomb, she amends it with “in any capacity.” Although these details may sound unimportant, they make all the difference between a seemingly-compelling condemnation against first-trimester abortion rights and a federal indictment of perjury.

The rebuttal here is pretty simple. For any organism to “feel” any pain, they must not only have a nervous system and nerves. They must also possess the means for interpreting and making sense of that pain. The extent to which the brain must be developed is up for debate, but none of these structures are in place at 8 weeks, 12 weeks, or even 16 weeks.

In other words, while the “noxious stimuli” may be detected, that stimuli must also be interpreted for a fetus to feel anything.

Be warned: there are many websites with a pro-life agenda that include misinformation about fetal brain development. Just to set a few facts straight—the Mayo Clinic does not even describe the developing baby as a “fetus” until the 11th week of pregnancy. Although the beginnings of a brain exists as early as 5 weeks, it continues growing and developing after birth and well into childhood.

So when can a fetus actually “feel pain”? There is no medical consensus. Some medical experts say early on, while others say as late as 24 weeks (the expert in the video further down acknowledges this). Another question worth asking here is if being able to “feel” pain should determine the legality of abortion; that’s a whole other debate.

Interestingly enough, a medical expert also testified before Congress saying she believed pain can begin being felt and interpreted by a fetus at 18 weeks, when the thalamus develops in the brain. She offered an example of a little girl born without most of her brain and showed her brain scans to help illustrate her point. She said:

“The blue star indicates the position of the thalamus, which is the region of the brain that is in fact is responsible for pain perception in this patient … and as I’ve noted, the pain perception circuitry of this region is in place by 18 weeks.”

Who was that expert?

Professor Maureen Condic.

If you are interested, feel free to watch her full, not-so-blatantly cherry-picked testimony in the video below.

The Bottom Line: The question of when a fetus can “feel” pain is very much up for debate, and there is no scientific consensus. However, the brain structures necessary for interpreting stimuli (and, thus, actually feeling pain) do not develop until the second trimester at least, if not later. If any woman seeks an abortion in the first trimester, she can rest assured with definite medical certainty that the embryo (or fetus, if after Week 11) will not “feel” or “think” anything.

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