Fetal pain

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Fetal pain is any discomfort or pain that a fetus may feel during gestation or if it were to be aborted. Fetal pain, although disputed among the scientific community, is often considered a key argument among anti-abortion advocates who insist that fetuses feel pain.[1][2] It is commonly used within the pro-life movement as an appeal to emotion. Pro-lifers claim that fetal pain is complementary to their argument that fetuses do possess sensory perception and must not be made to suffer, which few in the pro-choice movement disagree with.

US Legislators, at both the State and Federal level, have used the "fetal pain" argument as a way to bypass Roe v. Wade. Largely, this attempt is based on pseudoscience,[3] and each law so far written, that places fetal rights above a woman's in the first 24 weeks, have failed in courts until the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022 by the Supreme Court.

There are slightly conflicting professional opinions in the medical community as to when fetuses are generally capable of feeling pain. According to a June 25th, 2010 report by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists (UK), fetuses cannot process pain until 30 weeks or so. It is important to make the distinction between 'feeling' and 'processing', in any kind of argument that might be used to indicate awareness. The typical argument for why a fetus cannot process pain prior to 30 weeks has to do with the development of the neurological centers of the brain that respond to pain.[4] There are functioning nerves within the fetus body prior to 30 weeks of development, some studies suggest as early as 20 weeks. These are autolocative responses ("reflexes") which cause muscles to contract or "withdraw" from stimulus. However, any discussion of "pain" must be accompanied by a discussion of "awareness".[5]

Fetal pain has never been a matter of merit in any US court decision on abortion, including Roe v. Wade, although Nebraska currently uses (and is the only state to do so) fetal pain as a reason to limit abortions.[6] The current standard in abortion restrictions is viability, or when a fetus is able to survive outside the womb — generally at 22 to 24 weeks, but is different for each pregnancy.[7]


  1. S.2466: Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act of 2004 (Introduced in Senate) The Library of Congress (archived from October 14, 2008).
  2. State Abortion Counseling Policies and the Fundamental Principles of Informed Consent: Fetal Pain by Rachel Benson Gold and Elizabeth Nash (2007) Guttmacher Policy Review 10(4). Archived from February 2, 2012.
  3. Fetal pain is a lie: How phony science took over the abortion debate: New laws banning abortion after 20 weeks are based on pseudoscience — and real research proves it conclusively by Katie McDonough (August 7, 2013 11:45AM EDT) Salon.
  4. Fetal Pain: A Systematic Multidisciplinary Review of the Evidence by Susan J. Lee et al. (2005) JAMA 294(8):947-954 (archived from November 6, 2007).
  5. The importance of 'awareness' for understanding fetal pain by David J. Mellor (2005) Brain Res. Brain Res. Rev. 49(3):455-71. doi:10.1016/j.brainresrev.2005.01.006.
  6. Nebraska to limit abortions over fetal pain: Two landmark measures restricting abortion become law in Nebraska, including one that critics say changes the legal rationale for a ban on later-term abortions. (April 13, 2010, 9:46 AM PDT) Associated Press via NBC News.
  7. Fetal viability is at the center of Mississippi abortion case. Here’s why. Conservative justices questioned that legal and scientific framework in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, a case that could change abortion rights by Ariana Eunjung Cha & Rachel Roubein (December 1, 2021) The Washington Post.