Do fetuses feel pain?

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.314.7076.302a (Published 25 January 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:302

Can fetal suffering be excluded beyond reasonable doubt?

  1. Peter McCullagh, Senior fellow, developmental physiologya
  1. a John Curtin School of Medical Research, Australian National University, Canberra, ACT 0200, Australia
  2. b Christian Medical Fellowship, London SE1 8XN

    Editor–The BMJ's initiation of a debate on fetal pain is commendable, because the subject is often dismissed as being off limits because of its associations with abortion: women seek assurances that fetal pain will not occur.1 As the author of a paper on behalf of the pro-life parliamentarians mentioned,2 I wish to respond.

    One comment in the articles in the debate encapsulates the dilemma–namely, Vivette Glover and Nicholas Fisk's that “currently we have no direct way of assessing pain in fetuses.” Omit “currently” and there's the rub. Pain cannot be directly assessed in non-communicating subjects; ignore this and we drive into an epistemological layby.

    The dismissal of fetal withdrawal from noxious stimuli as “only reflex” is a secondary inference that is naive unless one can confidently exclude suffering. Independent verification of that exclusion requires comprehensive understanding of the structure of pain pathways in the …

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