Fetal Pain Facts and Falsehoods

by James D. Agresti | May 24, 2016 12:02 am

The legislatures of Utah and South Carolina recently passed bills concerning abortions at 20 weeks after fertilization. This is the stage of development[1] shown in the photograph on the right.


Before performing abortions, the Utah bill[3] requires physicians to anesthetize or give a painkiller to the “unborn child” once he or she reaches 20 weeks. The South Carolina bill[4] bans abortions from this point forward. Utah’s governor has signed the bill into law, and South Carolina’s governor has stated she will sign it. Both of the bills contain exceptions for the life of the mother or if she has a “serious risk” of “irreversible” harm to “a major bodily function.”

According to the text of these bills, “substantial medical evidence” indicates that developing humans can feel pain by 20 weeks. This conclusion is supported by the following facts from medical journals and textbooks:

New England Journal of Medicine[5]

Encyclopedia of Human Biology[6]

Encyclopedia of Human Biology[6]

Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects[7]


Fetal Diagnosis and Therapy[9]

New England Journal of Medicine[5]


American Medical Association Complete Medical Encyclopedia[11]

These scientific facts collectively show that by 20 weeks, humans have pain receptors, consciousness, and physical responses to painful events.

Nevertheless, many media outlets have recently reported that humans cannot feel pain by 20 weeks. This includes but is not limited to the New York Times[12], the Los Angeles Times[13], CNN[14], Slate[15], and the Daily Beast[16]. To support this claim, all of these outlets cited a single paper published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 2005[17].

Neglecting the journalism standard[18] to “make it clear to the audience” when sources “are associated with a particular viewpoint,” none of the outlets mentioned that at least three of the JAMA paper’s five authors have been involved in the abortion industry, including:

These media outlets also violated journalism ethics[24], which require them to not omit “facts of major importance or significance.” They did this by failing to reveal that the JAMA paper’s central argument was refuted by medical journals less than two years after it was published. The authors of the paper declared that “fetal perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester” because:

Debunking the above, a 2006 article[26] in the journal Pain: Clinical Updates documented through “multiple lines of evidence” that the “key mechanisms” of consciousness and pain perception “are not dependent” on the cortex. Consistent with this fact, the authors determined that pain perception begins in the “second trimester” and “well before the third trimester of human gestation.”

Likewise, a 2007 paper[27] in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences showed that children born with little or no cortex (a condition called hydranencephaly):

Concluding, the author noted that these findings have “ramifying implications for issues in medical ethics,” including “pain management in children” who lack a cerebral cortex.

False arguments aside, the vast weight of scientific evidence indicates that preborn humans can feel pain by 20 weeks or earlier. While this does not rise to the level of 100% certainty, it rests upon factually solid ground.

Like many media outlets, some prominent “fact checkers” have also misled the public about this issue, including FactCheck.org[28] and the Washington Post’s Fact Checker[29].

James D. Agresti[30] is the president of Just Facts[31], a nonprofit institute dedicated to researching publishing verifiable facts about public policy.

Also see,

Are Today’s Newborns the Luckiest Generation in U.S. History?

  1. stage of development: http://www.justfacts.com/abortion.asp#Science
  2. [Image]: https://rightwingnews.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/03/agresti.jpg
  3. Utah bill: http://le.utah.gov/~2016/bills/static/SB0234.html
  4. South Carolina bill: http://www.scstatehouse.gov/query.php?search=DOC&searchtext=%22Pain%20Capable%20Unborn%20Child%20Protection%20Act%22&category=LEGISLATION&session=121&conid=8208088&result_pos=0&keyval=1213114&numrows=10
  5. New England Journal of Medicine: http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJM198711193172105
  6. Encyclopedia of Human Biology: http://store.elsevier.com/product.jsp?locale=en_AU&isbn=9780122269707
  7. Before We Are Born: Essentials of Embryology and Birth Defects: http://www.amazon.com/Before-Are-Born-Essentials-Embryology/dp/0721673775/ref=sr_1_1/177-1779272-8256045?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1463841936&sr=1-1&keywords=9780721673776
  8. PLoS ONE: http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0013199
  9. Fetal Diagnosis and Therapy: http://www.karger.com/Article/Pdf/338146
  10. Anesthesiology: http://anesthesiology.pubs.asahq.org/article.aspx?articleid=1944707
  11. American Medical Association Complete Medical Encyclopedia: http://www.worldcat.org/title/american-medical-association-complete-medical-encyclopedia/oclc/49619800
  12. New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/05/05/us/utah-abortion-law-fetal-anesthesia.html
  13. Los Angeles Times: http://www.latimes.com/nation/la-na-utah-abortion-20160510-20160509-snap-story.html
  14. CNN: http://www.cnn.com/2016/03/29/health/utah-abortion-law-fetal-pain/index.html
  15. Slate: http://www.slate.com/blogs/xx_factor/2016/05/18/south_carolina_passed_a_20_week_abortion_ban_and_is_considering_a_so_called.html
  16. Daily Beast: http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2016/05/19/how-south-carolina-is-turning-abortion-lies-into-law.html
  17. in 2005: http://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=201429
  18. journalism standard: http://www.bbc.co.uk/editorialguidelines/guidelines/impartiality/news-current-affairs-factual-output
  19. Susan J. Lee: http://usatoday30.usatoday.com/news/health/2005-08-24-fetal-pain-bias_x.htm
  20. Eleanor A. Drey: http://bixbycenter.ucsf.edu/fs/bios/drey-eleanor.html
  21. abortion clinic: http://www.ucsfhealth.org/clinics/womens_options_center/
  22. Mark Rosen: http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/10/magazine/10Fetal-t.html
  23. last author: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1769438/
  24. journalism ethics: http://asne.org/content.asp?pl=236&sl=19&contentid=335
  25. after fertilization: http://www.justfacts.com/abortion.asp#Science
  26. 2006 article: http://iasp.files.cms-plus.com/Content/ContentFolders/Publications2/PainClinicalUpdates/Archives/PCU_XIV-2_June2006_Rev_Mar2012_1390263724028_20.pdf
  27. 2007 paper: http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=1007572&fulltextType=RA&fileId=S0140525X07000891
  28. FactCheck.org: http://www.justfactsdaily.com/media-promotes-junk-science-on-fetal-pain/
  29. Washington Post’s Fact Checker: http://newsbusters.org/blogs/dustin-siggins/2015/06/06/ringside-seat-fact-checker-avoiding-reality-fetal-pain
  30. James D. Agresti: http://www.justfacts.com/james.d.agresti.asp
  31. Just Facts: http://www.justfacts.com/

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