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J Med Ethics. 2020 Jan;46(1):3-6. doi: 10.1136/medethics-2019-105701.

Reconsidering fetal pain.

Author information

1
Psychology and NUS Clinical Imaging Research Centre, National University of Singapore, Singapore psydswg@nus.edu.sg.
2
Conner Troop Medical Clinic, Fort Drum, New York, USA.

Abstract

Fetal pain has long been a contentious issue, in large part because fetal pain is often cited as a reason to restrict access to termination of pregnancy or abortion. We have divergent views regarding the morality of abortion, but have come together to address the evidence for fetal pain. Most reports on the possibility of fetal pain have focused on developmental neuroscience. Reports often suggest that the cortex and intact thalamocortical tracts are necessary for pain experience. Given that the cortex only becomes functional and the tracts only develop after 24 weeks, many reports rule out fetal pain until the final trimester. Here, more recent evidence calling into question the necessity of the cortex for pain and demonstrating functional thalamic connectivity into the subplate is used to argue that the neuroscience cannot definitively rule out fetal pain before 24 weeks. We consider the possibility that the mere experience of pain, without the capacity for self reflection, is morally significant. We believe that fetal pain does not have to be equivalent to a mature adult human experience to matter morally, and so fetal pain might be considered as part of a humane approach to abortion.

KEYWORDS:

Abortion; consciousness; nociception; pregnancy; reproductive ethics

Conflict of interest statement

Competing interests: None declared.

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