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Summary: 20 Week Old Fetuses Feel Pain

Fetuses as young as 20 weeks gestational age (and possibly even earlier) have all the necessary central nervous equipment to experience pain. Studies have shown that fetuses have a hormonal response to invasive procedures and pain; in fact, their hormone levels rise more dramatically than in newborn infants at term.

  • Article from Women and Children’s Welfare Fund discusses the need for analgesia for fetuses during invasive procedures. Fetuses as young as 20 weeks gestational age (and possibly even earlier) have all the necessary central nervous equipment to experience pain. Studies have shown that fetuses have a hormonal response to invasive procedures such as intrauterine needles, in fact, their hormone levels rise more dramatically than in newborn infants born at term. Other studies have shown that analgesia given during cardiac surgery diminished infant stress responses. However, if analgesia is given to the infant in utero, there must be certainty that it is safe for both the mother and the baby. Anaesthetic given in large doses to the mother in order to anaesthetise the baby could put her in danger. Much controversy has surrounded the topic of pain and abortion. Some groups argue that a fetus cannot feel the pain of abortion. However, there is evidence to show that some newborn babies have traumatic birth memories, and can describe them many years later. Crying has been heard from inside the womb, almost always associated with obstetric procedures, and aborted fetuses have been heard to cry from 21 weeks gestational age. In 1997, the RCOG Working Party recommended that, for termination of pregnancy performed at or after 24 weeks’ gestation, either a technique should be used that stops the fetal heart rapidly, or a premedication should be given to the mother, which must be given time to cross the placental barrier and sedate the fetus.1

1Pain and the Fetus: The Case for Analgesia During Invasive Procedures, Women and Children’s Welfare Fund, November 1999, pp. 1-6.

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