Socialist Worker

Why a foetus can’t feel pain

by Stuart Derbyshire, senior lecturer in psychology, University of Birmingham
Issue No. 2101

The efforts to reduce the upper limit for an abortion from 24 to 20 weeks have focused, in part, on the possibility of the foetus feeling pain after 20 weeks.

We can reject this argument because the foetus cannot feel pain before 24 weeks and because it is irrelevant. For somebody to experience pain there must be a link from the skin to the higher centres of the brain.

This does not occur before 24 weeks. Opponents of this view argue that less sophisticated, lower brain structures can support pain before 24 weeks.

By this view, brain structures that control the basic functions of life – heart rate, blood flow, breathing – are promoted to supporting conscious experience.

At the same time, brain areas that are necessary to support a subjective, conscious life experience are rejected as unimportant to the experience of pain.

Alternatively it is argued that temporary structures that appear in the foetal brain before 24 weeks can support an experience of pain.


But a structure that appears, provides for pain experience and then disappears, in an environment where pain could be harmful to survival, is a strange proposal.

Before and after 24 weeks the womb remains a good place to sleep and to grow but much more than that is unnecessary and unhelpful.

A true psychological life begins at birth. Entrance into the world places emphasis onto wakefulness and interaction with others.

After birth, the baby comes to control her own actions and experience those actions as being from her. It is in this way that we come to have subjective experiences.

There is a real danger of science being used to dress up anti-choice arguments and to avoid the issues of the debate. Foetal pain cannot resolve the question of bodily sovereignty, rights and the sanctity of life.

Playing on the assumption that science should decide the upper limit for abortion is, at best, opportunistic and, at worst, cowardly.

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