Preborn child at 20 weeks gestation, or 22 weeks LMP - a new standard of viability, where the child can live outside the womb.

When do humans begin to feel pain?

Human fetus at 20 weeks.

The U.S. House Of Representatives recently passed a bill that would restrict abortions starting at 20 weeks after fertilization, or the stage of development shown in the picture on the right. Formally called the “Pain-Capable Unborn Child Protection Act,” the legislation has stirred debate over when humans begin to feel pain. The act passed with 97% of Republicans voting for it, and 97% of Democrats voting against it. President Obama has issued a veto threat.

The bill states “there is substantial medical evidence that an unborn child is capable of experiencing pain at least by 20 weeks after fertilization, if not earlier.” However, Dr. Stuart Derbyshire, the director of Pain Imaging at the U.K.’s University of Birmingham and a frequently cited authority on this issue,has affirmed that humans cannot truly feel pain until one year after birth. Contrastingly, Dr. Maureen Condic, an associate professor of neurobiology and anatomy at the University of California, Berkeley, recently testified before a congressional subcommittee that humans feel pain “in some capacity” starting “from as early as 8 weeks of development.”

In sorting out these conflicting assertions and others on the continuum between them, there are certain scientific facts about human development that provide a basic foundation for understanding this issue:

  • In the 6th and 7th weeks after fertilization, the brain’s “cerebral hemispheres and cerebellum are developing.” [Gray’s Anatomy: The Anatomical Basis of Medicine and Surgery]
  • By 7 weeks, pain “sensory receptors appear in the perioral [mouth] area.” [New England Journal of Medicine]
  • By 10 weeks, “All components of the brain and spinal cord are formed, and nerves link the stem of the brain and the spinal cord to all tissues and organs of the body.” [Encyclopedia of Human Biology]
  • By 12 weeks, “the fetus sucks its thumb, kicks, makes fists and faces, and has the beginnings of baby teeth.” [Human Genetics: Concepts and Applications]
  • By 14 weeks, “Limb movements, which occur at the end of the embryonic period (8 weeks), become coordinated….” [Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects]
  • By 16 weeks, “Eye movements begin.” [Embryology: Board Review Series]
  • By 18 weeks, pain sensory receptors spread to “all cutaneous [skin] and mucous surfaces….” [New England Journal of Medicine]
  • By 20 weeks, the fetus “now sleeps and wakes and hears sounds.” [American Medical Association Complete Medical Encyclopedia]

Additionally, evidence from the burgeoning field of fetal surgery has shown that preborn humans react to physical provocations (like being jabbed with a needle) in the same ways as children and adults, which includes releasing stress hormones, shunting blood to the brain, and pulling away from the source of the provocation. Per a 2012 paper in the journal Fetal Diagnosis and Therapy, “A physiological fetal reaction to painful stimuli occurs from between 16 and 24 weeks’ gestation on.” Likewise, a 2001 paper in the journal Anesthesiology explains that “the human fetus from 18-20 weeks elaborates pituitary-adrenal, sympatho-adrenal, and circulatory stress responses to physical insults.”

Taken together, the facts above would seem to imply that by 20 weeks or earlier, humans have the capacity to feel pain. However, some scientists have argued otherwise using two main lines of reasoning. Both of these have critical flaws.

The first argument centers upon the development of the cerebral cortex, which is the portion of the brain associated with functions such as reasoning, language, and memory. In the words of a panel convened by the U.K.’s Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists, the cortex is essential to “perception or awareness,” and therefore, a connection from the body’s pain receptors to the “cortex is necessary for pain perception.” Since these connections “are not intact before 24 weeks of gestation,” the “fetus cannot experience pain in any sense prior to this gestation.”

This issue gets complicated, but in short, there may well be communication between the body’s pain receptors and the cortex long before 24 weeks; it’s just that the connections and cortex are not fully developed. As explained in a 2012 paper in Fetal Diagnosis and Therapy, “From 16 weeks’ gestation pain transmission from a peripheral [pain] receptor to the cortex is possible and completely developed from 26 weeks’ gestation.” Per correspondence with an author of this paper, these developmental milestones (16 weeks and 26 weeks) are measured from the last menstrual period, which equates to 14 weeks and 24 weeks after fertilization.

Far more importantly, the claim that the cortex is essential to “perception or awareness” has been undercut by recent research, which has shown that children born with little or no functional cortical tissue (a condition called hydranencephaly) do, in fact, have perception and awareness. Although the cortex is commonly called the “organ of consciousness,” a 2006 paper in the journalBehavioral and Brain Sciences has shown that:

  • “An infant born with hydranencephaly may initially present no conspicuous symptoms,” and “occasionally the condition is not diagnosed until several months postnatally, when developmental milestones are missed.”
  • These children are not only awake and often alert, but show responsiveness to their surroundings in the form of emotional or orienting reactions to environmental events…. They express pleasure by smiling and laughter, and aversion by ‘fussing,’ arching of the back and crying (in many gradations), their faces being animated by these emotional states. … The children respond differentially to the voice and initiatives of familiars, and show preferences for certain situations and stimuli over others, such as a specific familiar toy, tune, or video program….”
  • “The evidence and functional arguments reviewed in this article are not easily reconciled with an exclusive identification of the cerebral cortex as the medium of conscious function. … The tacit consensus concerning the cerebral cortex as the ‘organ of consciousness’ would thus have been reached prematurely, and may in fact be seriously in error.”

In summarizing the above evidence along with other facts relevant to this issue, a 2006 article inPain: Clinical Updates states, “Multiple lines of evidence thus corroborate that the key mechanisms of consciousness or conscious sensory perception are not dependent on cortical activity. Consistent with this evidence, the responses to noxious stimulation of children with hydranencephaly are purposeful, coordinated, and similar to those of intact children.”

The second argument, as articulated by the Royal College of Obstetricians & Gynecologists (RCOG), is that “the fetus never experiences a state of true wakefulness in utero and is kept, by the presence of its chemical environment, in a continuous sleep-like unconsciousness or sedation.” Ten pages into RCOG’s study, it is disclosed that this conclusion is “derived largely from observations of fetal lambs.”

Opposing that line of evidence are studies of humans that have found conscious, deliberate behaviors from as early as 14 weeks gestation. Revealingly, in a 2010 study published in the journal PLoS ONE, a cross-disciplinary team of scientists used 4-D ultrasound to record and scrutinize the interactions of preborn twins. They found that:

  • “Starting from the 14th week of gestation twin fetuses plan and execute movements specifically aimed at the co-twin.”
  • These “early contacts do not occur accidentally, but reflect motor planning.”
  • “These findings force us to predate the emergence of social behavior….”

An article in the journal Science summarized the study as follows: “The findings suggest that twin fetuses are aware of their counterparts in the womb and prefer to interact with them.”

In summary, the scientific evidence converges upon the conclusion that preborn humans can feel pain from 20 weeks after fertilization or earlier. While this does not rise to the level of 100% certainty, it rests upon factually solid ground.

The article originally appeared at JustFacts and is reprinted with permission.

  • Andrew J. Corrales

    Okay, this may not be commenting on the subject intended, but did I just read that 3% of the Democrats voted for this ban and 3% of Republicans voted against it? And it passed, which means there are more Democrats that support such a ban (apparently) than there are Republicans that oppose it. Yay Democrat pro-lifers! :)

    • Ingrid Heimark

      Wish it was so, but the House is republican-controlled, the law will prob be thrown out in the senate

      • Jonathan

        I’m glad to hear it nonetheless. These 3%s really matter as bipartisanship is a rare thing in these years since the beginning of the Obama administration. The polarization in congress is evident when it comes down to a vote on a legislation regarding to social issues. All too often a congressman must stand in line with his colleagues. They vote no, he votes no; they vote yes; he votes yes, whether it’s the best for the people or not. Treason to his party could be equal to a political suicide.

      • Andrew J. Corrales

        That’s true…

  • Ingrid Heimark

    It is kinda interesting that this 20 week ban is coinciding with the point of viability, 22 weeks LMP. To pro-aborts: If a viable child is delivered at 22 weeks, and need an operation, would you advise the child not being given pain-killers after surgery?

    • PJ4

      I’m not sure it matters if a baby can feel pain
      Abortion takes an innocent life
      By the 7 week mark it’s barbarically removing them piece by piece

      Could we take a teenager apart piece by piece who happens to be under an anesthesia and could not feel a thing?
      No we couldn’t

      • Ingrid Heimark

        It’s like abortion is murder, abortion on pain-capavble children is torture and murder

    • DianaG2

      That is just so disgustingly, obscenely sick.

  • PJ4

    Plants get more respect from pro aborts than babies in the womb

    • RUkidding?

      Agreed. It drives me nuts when I see long, drawn out commercials about neglected animals knowing full well that the folks behind it wouldn’t care if it were an unborn child, but for an animal- EVERYONE ON ALERT!

      • PJ4

        Well I was really referring to this:
        But, yes….you are correct

        • MamaBear

          OK, read the Jane Goodall article and the article about Switzerland and plants. So, I guess today, Heidi would be in lots of trouble when she was picking wildflowers up in the meadow with Peter and the goats. What are we coming to?
          Next, will they be charging those of us who cannot keep houseplants alive with murder?
          But unborn human babies are granted no protections or even dignity!

          • PJ4

            Ya… It’s pretty ridiculous.

            What’s interesting thought…is that the article states of Ms. Goodall: Her work with chimpanzees wildly and intentionally–by her own admission–anthropomorphized the animals.

            And all this time I thought it was Bambi, Lady and the Tramp, Dumbo and the Rescuers Down Under.

            Oh… and The Lion King

          • MamaBear

            Bambi and Lion King are pretty innocent. Anthropomorphism is clearly fictional, meant to appeal to young children, obvious to older children and adults. Jane Goodall’s brand with her chimpanzees (and other “documentaries” that have followed her lead) was subtle, presented as factual, scientific, meant to be believed by teens and adults, therefore more dangerous; preparing people to accept nonsense like Singer’s “philosophy” that chimpanzees are persons.

          • DianaG2

            But human beings aren’t persons anymore.

      • DianaG2

        There is a pro-abort journalist around here who did an “experiment” of killing his own Thanksgiving turkey at a turkey farm.

        “Why?” one may ask, “when obviously the turkey farmer would have done a much better, less cruel, more efficient job of it.?”

        To show how cruel Thanksgiving is to turkeys,or something, or to prove the old liberal chestnut about not killing animals? I really don’t know, to tell you the truth. Someday I will have to look up the article again.

        Well, he didn’t do it well. Probably made the poor turkey suffer needlessly and longer.

        But, the upshot was that the journalist was actually quite traumatized himself, by this. He said he could actually feel the little guy’s heart beating. That made an impression on him. So did the blood, etc.

        I guess he wanted to beat himself over the head with the cruelty we Americans have wrought, by celebrating Thanksgiving, or something?

        You pro-lifers probably appreciate the inherent irony here?

        • MamaBear

          Yeah, my grandmother would have been horrified had she lived to see abortion legal, but for her a chicken dinner started with picking out which chicken out in the barnyard. Are things ever backwards today?

          • DianaG2

            Yes, and not in a good way.

            I do remember my great-grandpa raising chickens in a shed. We were kind of between city and country at that time.

            In fact, there used to a be (in Pittsburgh, anyway) a recipe for “city chicken” — where you would put ground beef and pork on a stick, and cook in the oven, and pretend it was a chicken “drumstick.”

            Apparently because only folks in the country had access to their own fresh chickens?

  • MamaBear

    We don’t fully understand the adult nervous system, much less infants and preborn. Ask any adult who has had significant nerve damage from disease, drugs, injuries (both accidents and surgical), and radiation. You ask your doctors questions and the most common answers are “we don’t know,” “sometimes,” and “we just have to wait.”
    Derbyshire, who thinks infants do not feel pain for a year, has clearly n

  • MamaBear

    My daughter and son-in-law played classical music for my grandson before he was born. They decided certain kicks were happy and others were “don’t like,” and they kept a record of his prenatal choices. After he was born he consistently showed pleasure or fussed at the same music. (And this is what happens when two music majors marry! LOL)

    • Faithkuz

      How fun! I loved hearing this : ) We were not musicians but both girls picked up music via the Suzuki method–wonderfully fun way to capitalize on this kind of thing that emerges so soon!

    • DianaG2

      Also, I believe research shows clearly that they hear the voices of their family members before birth. They seem to recognize them when newborn.

      Aren’t there some gizmos or something that moms can strap on the tummy, for the little ones to “learn?” (Which, I actually don;t really like. Childhood is short enough. But, there must be some credibility to it, if companies make these things?)

      • MamaBear

        I don’t try to keep track of all the new baby gizmos and stuff, but I would not be surprised if they have prenatal learning things to strap on.
        What a mixed up society we are! On the one hand we justify abortion by denying unborn children’s humanity, on the other, we want them to get a head start on learning before they are born.
        Experiments in Australia a few years ago showed that newborns recognized the voices of their fathers and other family members. They used something that would measure brain waves in the part of the brain devoted to memory, so there could not be any doubt.
        ead them poetry and happy stories, and be rotected from

        • DianaG2

          “What a mixed up society we are! On the one hand we justify abortion by denying unborn children’s humanity, on the other, we want them to get a head start on learning before they are born.”


          Yes, my thoughts exactly, Mama!

          BTW, your last sentence is truncated. I would like to know what you were going to say? Probably tech problems?

          • MamaBear

            Yes, I just saw that and took it off because so much was missing.
            I was going to say I ran into something years ago, I think it was ancient Chinese, about how to have a happy baby. The pregnant woman should listen to good music, read poetry and stories (aloud), and not be around angry shouting people.
            Wish I could remember the exact source.

          • DianaG2


            Yes, I love that.

            Actually, that’s even good for non-pregnant folks, both genders? LOL — But, of course, always much more for pregnant moms.

            You read Chinese? Wow!

          • MamaBear

            No. I love reading about archaeology and considered majoring in it. And I love reading about ancient cultures. But only translations.

          • DianaG2

            I also love both of those things. It shows us so much about ourselves, I think.

  • whydda

    Ingrid Heimark asked about surgery after birth at 22 weeks. Here in UK abortion is legal up to 24 weeks and also up to birth on mere suspicion of a disability. The UK Dept of Health guidelines, to avoid the inconvenience of an abortion survival ,recommend from 24 weeks on a straight potassium chloride injection in the heart. American executions are kinder than this barbarity.

  • oilcanp

    It dosen’t matter when they feel pain. They are alive from the start.