Intended for healthcare professionals

Rapid response to:

Analysis And Comment Controversy

Can fetuses feel pain?

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 13 April 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:909

Rapid Response:

Fetal pain: a partial perspective?

Editor – The article entitled “Can fetuses feel pain?”(1) presented
an overview of the in utero neuro-anatomical development along with a
perspective from the author regarding whether noxious stimuli experienced
by fetuses can be described as pain. Whilst the question of their pain
experience does not decide the morality of terminating those fetuses, it
is clearly an emotive feature of the debate surrounding abortion, and
might have been better dealt with by a less compromised reviewer.

The author had stated his position clearly in a previous article in
the British Medical Journal (BMJ), writing that “‘Fetal pain’ is… a
misnomer at any stage of fetal development”;(2) and in another issue of
the BMJ he described consideration of the “possible feelings or awareness”
of the fetus as a “moral blunder” in discussion of abortion.(3)

Although the competing interests of the author were declared, it
would seem more prudent to commission articles on controversial subjects
of this sort from authors who do not have such a definite moral agenda.
The need to appoint a less partisan jury when pronouncing on the rights of
those who are unable to stand in their own defence deserves greater

1. Derbyshire SWG. Can fetuses feel pain? BMJ 2006;332(7546):909-12.

2. Derbyshire SWG, Furedi A. Do fetuses feel pain? "Fetal pain" is a
misnomer. BMJ 1996;313(7060):795.

3. Derbyshire SWG. Ante-Natal Screening and Abortion for Fetal
Abnormality. Book review. BMJ 1997;315(7116):1169

Competing interests:
None declared

Competing interests: No competing interests

13 May 2006
John C Buchan
Specialist Registrar, Ophthalmology
Leeds General Infirmary, Leeds, LS1 3EX