When Does a Fetus Feel Pain?

Medical experts agree that fetal pain begins at 12 weeks gestation and may even be felt as early as eight weeks. But perhaps the best source for firsthand experience with fetal pain is an abortionist.

As early as 1976, those performing abortions realized that the procedure is painful for the dying fetus. Abortionist John Szenes describes a preborn baby fighting for his life during a saline injection, saying: “All of a sudden one noticed that at the time of the saline infusion there was a lot of activity in the uterus. That’s not fluid currents. That’s obviously the fetus being distressed by swallowing the concentrated salt solution and kicking violently and that’s, to all intents and purposes, the death trauma.”1

The saline solution used in this type of abortion causes intense pain when injected under the skin. This solution is injected into the fetus’ sac, burning her from the outside and poisoning her from the inside. During this slow death, which takes about two hours, she thrashes around inside the womb. In spite of the fact that her heart is not physically touched by the solution, her heart rate more than doubles as a response to it.

 

Today’s Abortions Are Just as Violent

Saline abortions fell out of use in the 1990s because of the risk to mothers and the frequency of babies being born alive. At the time of Roe v. Wade, saline abortion was the most commonly used form of abortion after 16 weeks. But although the methods have changed, they are no less violent.

Former abortionist Dr. Anthony Levatino confirms this as he describes 1st trimester dilation and curettage abortions and 2nd trimester dilation and evacuation abortions—two common abortion procedures that tear babies limb from limb, finally crushing the skull so that it will fit through the cervix. According to Levatino: “You know you did it [the abortion] right if you crush down on the instrument and white material runs out of the cervix. That was the baby’s brains.”

Dr. Noreen Johnson describes babies being deprived of nutrients inside the womb by abortion pills and being poisoned with a digoxin injection piercing the baby’s head or chest. This causes the baby’s death by cardiac arrest.

In Stenberg v. Carhart, the Supreme Court provides a gruesome description of a D&E abortion: “The fetus, in many cases, dies just as a human adult or child would: it bleeds to death as it is torn apart limb by limb.”

The ugliness of abortion is not a foreign concept to anyone involved in it.

These inhumane death procedures would not be acceptable for any animal, yet they are used regularly to kill the most innocent and fragile human beings.

This is a 6-month-old, who feels pain, moves, is formed...what gives anyone the right to abort this child?

A fetus at 6 months

The pro-abortion movement denies that the fetus feels pain, but anyone who performs an abortion knows this is not true. The uncaring attitude of many abortionists is summed up in the words of Anne Marie Keary, the head of Britain’s National Abortion Campaign back in 1996: “Pain is a factor in life; could an element of pain be a justification for no more abortions? I don’t think so.”2

Even Judge Anthony Kennedy, though he voted for a ban of partial-birth abortions, argued against the ban of very similar D&E abortions, saying that such a ban would “construct a substantial obstacle to the abortion right.”

To the pro-abortion movement, the right to abortion trumps every argument, even that of fetal pain.

 

When Does a Fetus Feel Pain?

An article from the Charlotte Lozier Institute reviews a 2019 study entitled “Reconsidering Fetal Pain” published in the Journal of Medical Ethics. According to the organization:

A new study “Reconsidering Fetal Pain” confirms that babies in the womb can feel pain as early as 12 weeks old. Writing in the Journal of Medical Ethics, Stuart W.G. Derbyshire and John C. Bockmann state: “Overall, the evidence, and a balanced reading of the evidence, points towards an immediate and unreflective pain experience mediated by the developing function of the nervous system as early as 12 weeks.”

Dr. David Prentice, research director and vice president of the Charlotte Lozier Institute, responded to the study, saying:

Unborn babies feel pain. The science has clearly shown for years that unborn children can perceive pain in the womb, but this is a significant admission by doctors on both sides of the abortion debate, recognizing that even early in human development, the unborn can feel pain. And as the authors note, “the mere experience of pain … is morally significant.” Science again points to the humanity of the unborn.

3D ultrasound of a baby at about 21 weeks

3D ultrasound of a baby at about 21 weeks

Kanwaljeet Anand, professor of pediatrics, anesthesiology, and neurobiology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, wrote an expert report on the subject of fetal pain in 2004 to assist the Supreme Court in its assessment of the Partial-Birth Abortion Ban Act. Dr. Anand’s report summarizes fetal pain receptor development:

  • 4 – 6 weeks: The fetus’ cerebral cortex is formed, and she develops reflexes.
  • 6 – 8 weeks: Brain waves can be recorded, and the nervous system starts to develop. The fetus’ lips become sensitive to the touch around seven weeks. By eight weeks, she is moving around the uterus to make herself more comfortable. She begins to react to harmful stimuli.
  • 10 weeks: Her whole body is sensitive to the touch. She can now swallow, squint, frown, pucker her brow, and make a fist if her palm is touched. The most common forms of abortion at this age are suction and dilation and curettage. Imagine what an uncomfortable, if not painful, death this is on her sensitive little body.
  • 11 weeks: The fetus will start to swallow more amniotic fluid if it is artificially sweetened and less if it is bitter. Saline injection is used after 16 weeks; yet at 11 weeks the fetus can already respond to taste.
  • 12 weeks: The fetus’ neurotransmitters can send pain signals to the brain. Her cerebral cortex is only about 30 to 40 percent developed, but her response to pain is at least proportional to that amount, as confirmed by A. William Liley, the “Father of Modern Fetology” and Mortimer Rosen, an American researcher.
  • 13 – 17 weeks: The fetus’ “general sense organs” begin to differentiate into “free nerve terminations” responding to pain, temperature and chemicals, “lamellated corpuscles” responding to pointed pressure, “tactile corpuscles,” “neuromuscular spindles,” and “neurotendinous end organs” responding to light and pointed pressure. Her vocal cords and auditory sense are now present, and she may cry if air bubbles get in the uterus.
  • After 14 weeks: The fetus will cry, wiggle her body, or throw out her arms if her mother moves too suddenly or if she hears a loud noise. She must be sedated during surgery, just like any other patient. If she is irritated, her heartbeat will increase and she will move around, showing this sensation to be unpleasant.

At this point in her development, the fetus weighs only about two ounces and is about five inches long. She is small enough to fit in the palm of her mother’s hand, yet she can react to outside stimuli just like a grown person can. And even with a developed response system, she can legally be killed by chemical burns, dismemberment, suffocation, starvation, and worse while her mother is convinced by her killers that there is no fetal pain.

If this kind of treatment is illegal for children, adults, and animals, it should be illegal for the preborn as well.

Many pro-abortion activists claim that fetal pain earlier in pregnancy is not “evidence based” by blurring facts about fetal development. They point out that the cortex and thalamus, the latter of which is responsible for relaying sensory information to the cortex, do not develop fully until after 24 weeks. Because of this, they claim, unborn children cannot feel pain before 24 weeks. Even some big names in science, such as the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) claim that the “science conclusively establishes” that unborn babies do not feel pain before 24 weeks.

But science has shown that the neural pathways necessary for perception of pain through the cortical subplate are developed as early as 12 weeks and via the thalamus as early as 7 or 8 weeks. While adults experience pain through the thalamus and cortex, this does not mean that unborn children cannot experience pain through other means, although they are less developed.

A review of the science shows that unborn babies have the basic organization of the nervous system by 6 weeks, pain receptors begin forming at 7 weeks, and nerve synapses for spinal reflex are present by 10 weeks.

Science has shown that the cortex is not necessary for something or someone to feel pain. Indeed, animals lack higher cortical structures but clearly still experience pain. Even the human cortex does not fully form around 25 years of age, and yet children, teens, and young adults experience pain.

Unborn children also respond to painful stimuli through avoidance as early as 8 weeks, and their stress levels rise. There is even evidence that being exposed to pain in utero may have neurodevelopmental effects later in life. The unborn baby’s response to painful stimuli is often shot down by pro-abortionists, who claim this is simply a “hormonal response” – a broad term that could encompass all reactions in adults and children alike. Just because something is a “hormonal response,” does not mean that it is not painful.

Hormones are responsible for the sensation of pain. And when one experiences pain, the body releases a variety of hormones, including endorphins and hormones from the thyroid and adrenals.

Thus, to dismiss the concern that an unborn child is experiencing pain by saying their reaction to painful stimuli is simply a “hormonal response” (when it is a “hormonal response” in all of us) is misleading, dishonest, and dangerous.

Given the possibility of an unborn child feeling pain, it is highly unethical and morally problematic for us to assume they cannot feel pain – or cannot feel it to a large degree – the justify whatever we wish.

Baby inside belly - AI generated image

It was not long ago – just in the 1980’s – that doctors believed that infants could not perceive pain, and so they did surgeries on infants without anesthesia. However, as science advanced, this understanding changed. The standard of care today requires that unborn babies at least as young as 15 weeks receive anesthesia and direct fetal analgesia during fetal surgeries, citing the fact that the baby is “extremely sensitive to painful stimuli.”

Given the ethical implications and the evidence that unborn children may feel pain earlier than 15 weeks, children at every age should receive as much pain management as they can at their developmental stage. But even with immense pain, abortion is never merciful.

 

What About Abortion for Suffering Children?

There are, tragically, medical conditions that can make unborn children suffer before birth. Receiving such a diagnosis is traumatic and heartbreaking for the parents. Suddenly, they have to reimagine their child’s life and let go of the expectations they had. They may even wonder whether such a life is worth the pain.

Some observe the unborn child’s pain and assert that abortion, in this case, is merciful and compassionate. It is understandable and commendable that people wish to relieve an unborn child of their pain. But killing someone because of their suffering is euthanasia, which is never acceptable. Euthanasia is not merciful. Instead, it violates human dignity and the right to life. We should not kill a suffering, unborn child, just as we should not kill an adult who is suffering.

However, if the unborn child is able to receive pain relief, helping him manage pain is a commendable and merciful act.

What if the child has a condition that will not allow him to live long after birth, perhaps even just for a few hours? The principle is the same: just as we would not kill a toddler who has a fatal illness, so we should not dismember an unborn child. Instead, showing the child that he or she is dearly loved during the short time he or she is alive is the most loving and compassionate response.

In all cases, but especially in difficult pregnancies, parents should receive support and care during the pregnancy and after birth. Thankfully, pregnancy resource centers often offer free resources like car seats, diapers, and clothes, and some offer parenting, birth, and breastfeeding classes. Some even have a free counselor available. You can find your nearest center with the resources you need here.

 

Final Thoughts

Unborn children appear to be able to experience pain sooner than we had previously thought. In light of this evidence, it is ethically problematic to assume an unborn child cannot feel pain and thus justify whatever procedure we desire. Even if an unborn child were unable to experience pain, abortion is never acceptable as it kills a human being. But aborting a child who can feel pain makes the abortion that much more inhumane and reprehensible.

Those children who have incurable conditions, including those that cause the child pain, should be shown mercy through pain management and love from their parents.

 

This article was originally published in October 2021 by HLI Staff and was most recently updated in June 2024 by Marisa Cantu.

 

+ Endnotes

[1] Magda Denes, “Performing Abortions,” October 1976, pages 33 to 37.

[2] Sue Brattle, “Can a Fetus Feel Pain?” London Daily Express, August 6, 1996, pages 25 and 26.

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HLI staff writers bring you stories from the mission field and the latest information on life and family issues. All HLI articles are true to Catholic teaching.

Marisa Cantu has an MS in political science and international affairs and a BA in political science. She has also studied international studies and French. She has a strong background in nonprofit work, research, writing, and policy proposal and analysis.

In her free time, Marisa enjoys painting, writing, cooking, and spending time with her husband.

19 Comments

  1. Jcinta Wilder on December 16, 2023 at 11:46 PM

    I am very sad to know that unborn babies suffer very much during abortions. an abortion should be justified If the babyis already dead by natural causes

  2. Kathy on August 1, 2022 at 7:05 AM

    Anyone that denies a baby feels pain while being aborted doesn’t live in reality.

    A baby’s precious little body is being taken apart with an instrument.
    Then the precious little baby is disposed of like garbage.

    I’m crying , how can someone do this to a precious helpless baby!

  3. Poot on July 30, 2022 at 11:55 AM

    Great job working to help all those poor, poor mother’s and children! What exactly have you done to help other than preach? Have you fostered or adopted?

    • HLI Staff on August 3, 2022 at 5:17 PM

      Poot, There is more to being pro-life than advocating against abortion. HLI meets the needs of women and families at difficult points in their life journeys and funds pregnancy care centers in 25 countries. Many offer housing for women in need and help them access proper medical care. We also train mentors for crisis intervention, marriage and family counseling, and even assist with adoptions. Yours is a common anti-life argument, that is, pro-lifers don’t care about babies after they’re born. The fact is, pro-lifers, especially religious ones, volunteer, foster, adopt, and financially support women and families at a much higher levels than those whose solution to an unplanned pregnancy is simply to kill the child. I humbly share this video that shares additional information and refutes this common argument: https://youtu.be/F5SCKlNOTq8.

  4. Meredith DuHamel on May 11, 2022 at 8:11 PM

    As someone who has worked with unwanted children, I am for abortion in order to protect children’s rights. I truly believe that it’s better to kill a cluster of cells than to force a woman to give birth to an unwanted child. Anti-abortionists seem to think that all these kids will
    miraculously end up being adopted by loving families. The reality is that most of them end up in one foster home after another, living unstable lives of abuse and neglect. A huge percentage of them end up addicted to drugs and spend the majority of their adult lives in and out of prison. To me, this cycle is horrifically cruel but totally preventable. Do I think abortions end lives? Yes, but it is the lesser of two evils. A quick death over a lifetime of misery. To me, that is a very easy decision.

    • HLI Staff on May 13, 2022 at 3:11 PM

      Meredith, we respectfully disagree. How does killing an innocent child ensure her rights? Without life, no rights are possible. Abortion has been legal since 1973. If the premise that access to abortion prevents “unwanted” children, how is it that the conditions you’ve described continue? Killing the child is a cop out. It is far more compassionate to work to assist mothers and families with the support they need. Rather than summarize here, I humble share this video that answers the question whether every baby should be wanted: https://youtu.be/-J9rgMVHVOw. Ask any person who is in or has risen above difficult circumstances whether they would have preferred to have been aborted. The answer will likely be no. The will in us to live is strong.

  5. Rod Halver on May 7, 2022 at 11:18 PM

    Talk about the Adolf Hitler and the holocaust 50 million children since Rie vs Wade tortured to death and deprived of life.

    • Meredith DuHamel on May 11, 2022 at 8:17 PM

      I feel that you are making a very unfair comparison. Hitler did what he did out of hatred. His victims were viciously tortured for years.

      I have never had an abortion but I do believe that it is better to abort an unwanted child than to force it into a life if abuse and neglect. Who do you think is going to care for all the unwanted babies that are going to be born as a result of this legislation? Are you?!

  6. Ben on February 22, 2022 at 3:45 PM

    Yes, Abortion is murder and should be treated as such. It is time we outlaw it in our country.

  7. Kathleen Schings on January 21, 2022 at 10:53 PM

    What you have just told us is that if a fetus has damaged development somewhere in its neurological system, it can feel excruciating, unrelenting, and unbearable pain from somewhere around the 13th week on. And, furthermore, it will continue to suffer this horrible pain, that one would not wish on their worst enemy, for the rest of their development and possibly their birth, until they expire from the result of the damage to their little bodies. Or do you advocate for a neurologist to give them injections of cortico-steroids through their mother’s uterus in order to attempt to mitigate their pain? Or, if that doesn’t work, to try a guestimate on an injection amount of Gabbapentin, or Lyrica, or Duoloxetine or various other medications in order to alleviate their terrible pain. Or some other medication, tailored to fit their tiny damaged bodies? How about if they have various other serious deformities that are uncorrectable? How do you plan on fixing that in the uterus? Will this depend on whether or not they are expected to live after birth? I think your hypocrisy is showing.

    • HLI Staff on January 24, 2022 at 2:25 PM

      Thank you for your comment, Kathleen. This article highlights fetal pain as a way to show the humanity of a preborn child. Abortion isn’t just removing a blob of tissue. The child is a unique human being. They experience the abortion and it hurts.

      It is sadly true that in rare cases a preborn child can feel pain due to certain medical conditions. To perform an abortion for that reason would be an act of euthanasia. It is wrong to euthanize humans at any stage of life because human life is a higher good than avoiding suffering. However, to ease pain without depriving the patient of life is a noble and worthy pursuit of medicine.

      For a more complete explanation, please see our articles on Catholic Church Teaching on Euthanasia (hli.org) and The Ethics of Pain Management: Catholic Teaching (hli.org)

      In short,
      Abortion is wrong because it kills a human being
      Euthanasia is wrong because it kills a human being
      We should do our best to ease suffering without depriving anyone of the gift of life.

    • Amber on May 31, 2022 at 2:38 AM

      Thank you for bringing compassion and logic to this propaganda site. Perhaps it may just save a woman, and a would-be child, from a life of misery, disease and pain, crippling poverty, abuse, neglect, and so on and on (I.e. just a sampling of what women facing this heart-wrenching choice are hoping to avoid for themselves, the would-be baby, and their existing children, when they consider abortion). There are medical sites that explain all this with much better clarity and much, much more honesty. I pray woman find those sites, and not this one. I could say much more, but what jumped out at me here is that abortion is illegal after 12 weeks anyway (someone botched their data when designing this misleading article, or else they wouldn’t have chosen to focus on a point at which a child cannot be legally aborted, anyway, it seems), and that even a glance at some other still biased sites, but which are attempting, at least, to share what at least some doctors would actually with, place the “feeling pain” point at 20 weeks (even this is disputed, but at least feasible)—well after any legal abortion can take place!
      As to forcing a zygote or fetus to grow into a viable baby and live a “human life” *knowing* said not-yet-baby would live a life of nothing but constant pain and misery—as is argued for as an actual virtue by the other replier to this comment: disgusting! Virtue-signaling w/o consideration for the actual value of a human life at its most blatant and worst! I worked in nursing homes for years taking care of total-care patients, some of whom had always been that way: trapped in twisted bodies, unable to move or speak, but *only to cry*—not exaggerating, unfortunately. I’d be snarky and say “I wish the self righteous ppl commenting and mods of this site had to experience the suffering THEY are trying to bring upon others,” as one commentator said of abortion doctors—but I wouldn’t wish what I’ve seen and have described *on anyone.* Most developed nations have assisted suicide, and oh how I pray a loved one would get me to such a place before ever letting MY body become my prison worse than any other imaginable.
      If you’d like to reduce abortions, actually, like most of us, the ONLY ways that have been proven to to do this are helping and loving your neighbors and society, making life better via education and compassionate, intuitive social programs. What’s being spewed here is hate dressed in the guise of morality. Stop misinforming scared women and yourselves—think more deeply about these issues and lay off your own koolaid. You know there are ways to help women and children—so many! This isn’t it.

    • Diane on October 13, 2022 at 10:53 PM

      Kathleen, you are making a utilitarian argument that suffering justifies murder…it does not. I gave birth to a Trisomy 18 daughter after I found out her diagnosis at 15 1/2 weeks. I researched the methods of abortion at that stage and all were unbearably and hideously painful to the fetus. I chose to sacrifice the next 5 months so that she would not suffer that horror and so that she would not die by my hand. She died peacefully and painlessly in my arms 12 hours after birth. What became so obvious to us after she was born was her humanity. Even with all her defects, she was a human being. We do not kill our born children when they have defects nor do we kill our elderly or sick. We are all human beings and, as such, must share respect for each other at all stages of life.

      • HLI Staff on October 14, 2022 at 4:21 PM

        Dear Diane,
        I am so sorry to hear of the precious little life that you lost! I hope you baptized her while you had her in your arms! God bless you.

  8. Claire on October 11, 2021 at 4:46 PM

    I just found this site and am hungrily reading your aticles. They are so helpful. Thank you for all you do.

  9. Cecilia Cain on May 29, 2021 at 2:17 AM

    I pray for end of Abortion. This hurts me me . God Created all of us. I wonder if they ever wonder what if it had happened to them. So sad. And a Sin.

    • Davide Leone on March 25, 2022 at 10:22 PM

      But even Christians resort to abortions. And then they justify it by saying that God forgives them.

      • HLI Staff on March 28, 2022 at 11:24 AM

        Davide, Thanks for the opportunity to explain the Catholic Christian position. Receiving forgiveness for doing something wrong doesn’t make the action good or moral. Everyone, including Christians, fall into sin, and yes, some even commit the sin of abortion. God is so Good, however, that when we’re truly sorry for our sins and promise to turn away from sin and make reparation for our sins to the extent that is possible, he forgives us for our wrongdoing.

  10. Godwin idoko samson on August 11, 2016 at 10:00 PM

    It’s wonderful to defend life; to advocate for the unborn.

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