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“The fetus within this time frame of gestation, 20 weeks and beyond, is fully capable of experiencing pain.”
-Dr. Robert White, Professor of Surgery, Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine; Director, Division of Neurosurgery and Brain Research Laboratories, Metro Health Medical Center; Testimony before U.S. House of Representatives sub-committee on the Constitution on June 15, 1995.
Knowledge of the miraculous and exponential growth in the womb has advanced remarkably in a few short years. In the 1970s, the then new field of ultrasonography entranced scientists with a window to the womb. Now scientists and physicians are able to make sophisticated judgments and diagnoses of the unborn child’s development, including brain activity, spinal cord alignment, physical formation, anticipated birth weight, and even the unborn child’s ability to feel pain through ultrasounds.
An unborn baby indeed feels pain.
Since the late 1990s, the medical community has confirmed that the unborn child has the capacity to feel pain at 20 weeks gestation, yet some specialists surmise that pain can be felt as early as 11 to 13 weeks. At 20 weeks, the fetal brain has the full complement of brain cells present in adulthood, able to process pain signals from the body. Electroencephalography (EEG) even records the electrical activity of the fetal brain experiencing pain. When an unborn baby undergoes a painful blood extraction as early as 18 weeks, stress hormones rise in the child in the same manner as when adults are in pain. At just 16 weeks gestation, an automatic protective response to pain occurs in the fetal brain.
A study reported in April 2006 in the Journal of Neuroscience reported that premature babies (25 to 45 weeks from conception) do feel “true” pain. There has long been evidence that premature babies (and babies in utero) respond to pain, but there has been debate as to whether they actually feel the pain or simply display a reflex reaction. Lead researcher Professor Maria Fitzgerald from University College of London clarifies, “Beforehand, although we could assume it, we did not know for sure that these babies could feel pain.”
This study measured blood levels and oxygenation in the brain before, during, and after nurses performed blood tests on these young babies using a heel lance. The measurements showed “surges of blood and oxygen in the somatosensory cortex, the part of the brain that processes sensations from the body’s surface and is linked to feelings of pain in adults.”
The federal Unborn Child Pain Awareness Act was signed into law in 2004. This bill requires that abortion providers give women seeking abortions after 20 weeks post-fertilization (or 22 weeks gestation) basic information on the substantial evidence that their unborn children may experience pain during the abortion. The women could then accept or decline anesthesia for the baby (or other methods to reduce or eliminate such pain).
On April 13, 2010, the Nebraska Legislature voted 44-5 to pass the landmark Pro-Life bill, the Pain Capable Unborn Child Protection Act, which prohibits abortion after 20 weeks gestation except when the mother “has a condition which so complicates her medical condition as to necessitate the abortion of her pregnancy to avert death or to avert serious risk of substantial or irreversible physical impairment of a major bodily function or…it is necessary to preserve the life of an unborn child.”
In a box, set aside: According to Dr. Paul Ranalli, a neurologist at the University of Toronto, there is no developmental difference between an unborn baby at 24 weeks and a premature baby born at the same age. “The only difference is that the newborn takes in air through his or her lungs rather than through an umbilical cord.”