Does a fetus feel pain? (And, if so, when?)


It seems like (sincere intentions of actual scientists aside) the question ‘do they feel pain, what kind, and when?’ is so hopelessly being used as a proxy for “Can we call them Precious Babies yet?” as to be rendered almost irrelevant.

If that were the real question, it’d just be a matter of ‘Well, OK, at what point do we need to use anesthetics (or a captive-bolt stunner), and at what point is that unnecessary?’ We, um, aren’t exactly strangers to doing potentially painful things to moral nonpersons in the interests of moral persons (or to moral persons in their own interests, or in the suitably weighty interests of others), and have comparatively loose restrictions(more so in agriculture, less so in the sciences) that mostly boil down to ‘you aren’t supposed to be cruel for the sake of it; but we don’t actually care enough to dedicate substantial resources to the problem’. It would be a fairly arcane matter for specialty anesthesiologists and people interested in developmental biology.

As it is, of course, it’s largely a proxy-war in the moral personhood fight, which is orthogonal to pain perception: Nobody says that people with ‘Congenital Insensitivity to Pain’ (despite that being what it says on the tin) are therefore not persons; and we similarly consider various organisms with significant pain responses to be non-persons, although they may enjoy limited protections in terms of what you need to do to avoid hurting them in the course of business.


The ruses that these Bible-toting fetus huggers come up with can be so exasperating. Especially when they make scientists and others scramble around in response.

I wish they’d be more honest about their motives: “It’s a baby from inception cuz only God can make babies!!!”

It’s an interesting question, partly because the definition of “pain” is subject to shades of meaning. (Is a spinal-reflex response to move away from an irritation pain, itch, pressure, or none of the above?).

But as @fuzzyfungus points out, no answer will change any minds in the societal arguments over the abortion issue… because the real issue is that the very concept hurts the brains of the folks who object to letting folks make their own decisions.

It MIGHT affect a few individual decisions. But I suspect that the percentage for whom that could be the deciding factor is fairly small… especially since there are technical solutions to make it moot.

Assuming that fetuses do feel pain, and believing that abortion is killing a baby, are not viewpoints that preclude being strongly pro-choice.


Without getting into a whole abortion argument here, I think it’s pretty obvious that “they feel pain” is not the crux of the anti-abortion movement. Yes, they claim that, and I doubt either scientists or religious folks are going to be able to conclusively argue their point on this, but it’s all irrelevant in terms of the moral question about ending a human life.

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That issue has (albeit without any terribly satisfying conclusions) been hashed around for ages with assorted non-human animals. Between the sheer variety, and the fact that most of them have their own stages of maturity, you can find almost any gradation of ‘meh, rudimentary stimulus response’ to ‘disconcertingly possible that it experiences anguish in the first-porpoise’

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And/or the moral question about how you define “a human life” and whether you accept gradations upon that definition. Which I think is where the disagreement really lies.

You really think the babies are the real issue? Wouldn’t they be promoting easy access to contraception and well-baby exams and Head Start and school lunches? Culture of life, you gotta admire it.


Well yeah, babies are not the issue – they’re a sort of wedge issue, for other issues.

I’ve always gone with 12 weeks - there’s some vids around showing response to stimuli.

Pain or not, the question is distress.

I’m pro-choice, irreligious. Can’t stand the thought of a live being in distress at the hands of another.

For me, a zygote is a human life. Not a fan of abortion, but wouldn’t argue against it so long as there’s no suffering.

I’m familiar with the A-Z.

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There seems to be a rush to short circuit the argument based on this idea that pro-lifers don’t care about life after birth. Apart from being demonstrably untrue (there are many examples of philanthropy among Christians and other religious people who oppose abortion), it’s not a good way to understand the other side’s point of view at all. Some of the earliest Christian leaders (Barnabas, Tertullian, Athenagoras etc.) strongly opposed abortion and infanticide, which were fairly common at that time in different forms, so it’s hardly new or based on modern politics. It’s not necessarily twinned with other policies like an opposition to public services either (logically or in practice); for that I would largely blame the fact that Republicans have gotten away with murder for years for being the ‘pro-life’ party. Anesthetizing fetuses beforehand or proving that they feel nothing in the first place would not change the opposition at all, and with good reason; your ability to feel pain has no bearing at all on whether you are human or have value. I don’t think the question of how human a fetus is will ever have a satisfactory scientific answer, but as long as some people believe that a fetus is fully human there will be strong opposition to abortion. I don’t support a lot of what these people do or believe (and I’m not religious, although I do come from a religious background), but saying “anti-abortionists aren’t pro-life; if they were they would support contraception, well-baby exams and other social programs” is like saying “atheists don’t care about people; if they did, they would support charities”. Some of them do support these things, some of them don’t for different reasons, some of them have different ideas about how to deal with these problems and some of them really don’t have compassion for other people or don’t know the issues. It’s not fair to presume that religious people are all in the last category.

Actually I didn’t say that, but you drew the obvious conclusion anyway. Then you proceeded to refute it, for some reason.

It is nice that Christians are philanthropic. I am one of them. But I don’t think our charity will get the job done. For every hungry child we feed, ten more go unnoticed. Every time we take up a collection to help a child with cancer, 100 more children don’t see a doctor, because they have no health insurance.

Oppose infanticide all you want, but if one is absolutely determined to prevent poor children from getting health care - for example - I would call their politics pro-death.

This is an argument that I often hear, including on BB. Apologies if this wasn’t the point that you were making, but you did at least seem to be alluding to it.

So would I, but there is a definite attempt by some to assume that the two are two sides of the same coin.

I think there can be a link between supporting charities and opposing social programs, in that people feel that their charity should be enough, and they should be able to choose where their money should go. Where this charity comes from a religious source, it can often be unevenly spread or come with strings attached. Still, the 1 success story out of 100 provides a good anecdote to show that something is being done.

I also strongly support universal healthcare and agree that this is a much more efficient way to improve the lives of poor children than charity work alone. My point is that I dislike seeing anti-abortionists caricatured and their view being dismissed by the fact that this issue is currently linked to more conservative views.

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