Fetal Pain Science


Editor’s Note: As testimony took place on June 2, 2015 in Madison on the Pain Capable Child Protection Act, two Green Bay stations aired sound bites related to issues of fetal pain. WLUK FOX 11 and WGBA NBC 26 touched on the topic of fetal pain, which is the basis for the proposed legislation. All of the Green Bay news stations covered the hearing to some extent in each of its main newscasts (5, 6, 9, and 10 p.m.)

None of the Green Bay news stations reported on the fetal pain science which is at the foundation of the 20 week abortion ban. In its coverage on June 1, 2015 of the pending legislation, WLUK FOX 11 gave an anti-abortion-ban spokesperson the opportunity to espouse the liberal narrative that a 20week old fetus does not feel pain; FOX 11 however failed to fact check this claim or to provide a medical source who can rebuke that claim. A report by The Blaze suggests that reporters are pushing this liberal narrative.

The Blaze – 1 June 2015
“…The question of whether fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks is controversial. Abortion foes cite studies that show fetuses have stress responses and recoil from negative stimuli early in the womb, though most medical experts say the fetuses’ brains have not developed enough to register pain as it is typically understood.” – Sandhya Somashekhar, social change reporter for the Washington Post

“The bill … claims that ‘an unborn child is capable of experiencing pain at least by 20 weeks after fertilization,’ though medical evidence does not support this.” – New York Times editorial board

“We reviewed the literature and spoke with several experts, and we conclude … that definitive claims regarding pain perception at 20 weeks are unfounded.” – Dave Levitan of FactCheck.org

Just Facts has previously detailed facts from numerous medical journals and textbooks indicating that preborn humans can feel pain from 20 weeks after fertilization or before. While this conclusion does not rise to the level of 100% certainty, it rests upon factually solid ground. To summarize the evidence:

  • 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 14 weeks, preborn humans exhibit conscious “motor planning” and “social behavior.” – PLoS ONE
  • By 14 weeks, “pain transmission from a peripheral [pain] receptor to the cortex is possible and completely developed” by 24 weeks. – Fetal Diagnosis and Therapy
  • Development of the brain cortex is not necessary for “consciousness,” awareness,” or the “perception” of noxious stimuli (i.e., pain). – Pain: Clinical Updates and Behavioral and Brain Sciences
  • By 14 to 22 weeks, “a physiological fetal reaction to painful stimuli” occurs. – Fetal Diagnosis and Therapy
  • By 18 weeks, pain sensory receptors spread to “all cutaneous [skin] and mucous surfaces.” – New England Journal of Medicine
  • By 18 to 20 weeks, the human fetus “elaborates pituitary-adrenal, sympatho-adrenal, and circulatory stress responses to physical insults.” – Anesthesiology
  • By 20 weeks, the fetus “now sleeps and wakes and hears sounds.” – American Medical Association Complete Medical Encyclopedia

In sum, by about 20 weeks, preborn humans are conscious, and all the organs needed to feel pain are functional. Also, excepting the ability to talk or cry, they exhibit the physical signs of pain common to humans after birth and throughout their lives.

Given these facts, how could media outlets report as they did? The answers to this question are instructive.

In her article, Somashekhar failed to provide any evidence or hyperlinks to support her claim that “most medical experts say” fetuses at 20 weeks can’t “register pain as it is typically understood.” On May 13, Just Facts emailed Somashekhar to ask for proof of this assertion, and she replied, “Sure, but can you tell me how you plan to use my response?” Just Facts answered that it would be used for “a fact check article on this issue,” and Somashekhar failed to reply.

Somashekhar’s article and her non-response violate the Post’s standards and ethics, which require reporters to “disclose the source of all information when at all possible.” Even if she had provided some source to allegedly prove what “most experts” say, the Post’s ethical standards state that “reporters and editors of The Post are committed to fairness,” and “no story is fair if it omits facts of major importance or significance. Fairness includes completeness.” By failing to adhere to this principle, Somashekhar and her editors are flouting the Post’s self-declared standards.

Likewise, the New York Times editorial board neglected to provide any evidence to support its claim. Just Facts has written to the Times on multiple occasions about factually misleading statements in its reporting, editorials, and columns, but the Times has never supplied a substantive response. Thus, Just Facts skipped the exercise of writing to them again.

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