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Do Babies Really Feel Pain Before They Are Self-Aware?

Michael Egnor discusses the fact that the thalamus, deep in the brain, creates pain. The cortex moderates it. Thus, juveniles may suffer more

In last week’s podcast, “Jonathan Wells on Why a Baby Should Live,” neurosurgeon Michael Egnor interviewed molecular and cell biologist Jonathan Wells on that topic, which he discussed in articles at Evolution News and Science Today: (here and here). It’s becoming a hot topic now that a bill to protect babies born alive from abortions from being killed or left to die was recently defeated in the Senate.

At the heart of the issue is the conflict between those who believe that all human beings have a right to life and those who believe that children do not have a right to live before they are self-aware. In this segment, Egnor and Wells ask another question: whether a child can feel pain prior to self-awareness.

A partial transcript follows. This portion begins at about 11:44. Show notes and links follow.

Michael Egnor: When do you believe a fetus is capable of perceiving pain?

Newborn baby

Jonathan Wells: Well, as you know, perhaps better than I, as a pediatric neurosurgeon, there is good evidence that fetuses feel pain quite early on. But what I know, from direct experience, is that a fetus 20 weeks old, that is about halfway through pregnancy, can definitely feel pain. Because sometimes fetuses around that age are delivered and a few of them are viable.

I spent several decades as a laboratory technologist. One of my duties was to do pinpricks on the heels of these babies to get a drop of blood, to test them for something that could lead to mental deficiency if left untreated. And these babies scream their heads off, and they’re only halfway through a normal pregnancy. So at that point, I’d say the evidence is absolutely indisputable that a fetus feels pain.

Michael Egnor: Absolutely. The argument commonly used by abortion advocates, and by physicians and scientists, who argue that fetuses do not experience pain, is that the central nervous system is too immature to process pain at that age. But I think that that’s clearly a misunderstanding of the neurobiology.

Pain, as far as we know, is the only sensory modality that does not require cortical representation to be experienced. That is, it seems that we probably feel pain at deeper levels of the brain, probably at the level of the thalamus. And what the cortex does, is it actually suppresses our experience of pain and helps us interpret it. So decorticate animals seem to experience pain much, much more intensely. The thalamus in fetal life develops around the sixth or eighth week of fetal development. And the thalamic tracks that connect the thalamus to the periphery, that would allow the fetus to feel pain, are present at that stage.

Note: A recent article in a medical journal acknowledged that there is “clear scientific evidence to support the view that unborn children feel pain as early as 13 weeks of gestation.”

Michael Egnor: So it would seem that the fetus is capable of feeling pain because pain is experienced at the thalamus. And even more so that the fetus may feel pain more intensely than an adult would because he doesn’t have a developed cortex that modulates the experience of pain. And that goes along, as you had mentioned, with your experience with premature babies. I’ve had the same experience. If you prick an adult’s heel, we might say, “Ouch,” we don’t scream and convulse. But a newborn baby, especially a premature baby, will go absolutely crazy if you do that. So I think fetuses not only experience pain, at least after the sixth or eighth week of gestation, but they feel it more intensely than adults do.

Note: Jonathan Wells referenced a video from Canada, “The Silent Scream.” It is an ultrasound of a fetus of about 12 weeks gestation, undergoing abortion by the usual method of live dismemberment, attempting to escape the abortionist’s instruments. Not for the faint-hearted and parents are strongly cautioned.

Michael Egnor: I think actually that the improvements in ultrasound, over the past couple of decades, have helped to reduce the abortion rate that we would have otherwise. Because parents are able to see their babies now much more clearly in the womb before they’re born. And you realize that they suck their thumb, they move, they have facial expressions, they’re human beings. So ultrasound has played a major role, I think, in our understanding the real nature of abortion.

Note: The abortion rate in the United States has been declining since 1980. That tracks the growth in the use of ultrasound in prenatal care, which began to be widely used in the United States in the mid-1970s.

Previous segments:

Do infants really have a right to live? Some argue that children who are not yet self-aware do not have a right to live. Some countries now practice child euthanasia and there is pressure in Canada to ease restrictions on euthanasia, to include children.

When does “human-ness” really begin? Jonathan Wells notes that issues around “personhood” are now purely semantic, especially when the case is being made that many animals are persons too. Michael Egnor: It seems odd to say that a zygote isn’t fully human when, as human beings, we have all been zygotes.

Is there bias in terms of which babies are aborted? Abortion is made easy for Black American women, with abortion clinics strategically located within easy walking distance. Very high abortion rates will reduce the significance of Black voices over time. It’s called “demographic sunset.”

Show Notes

  • 00:26 | Introducing Jonathan Wells
  • 01:13 | The reasoning behind after-birth abortion defenses
  • 03:00 | Peter Singer and human sentience
  • 04:36 | At what point does human life begin?
  • 07:28 | Do all human beings have personhood?
  • 09:29 | Abortion statistics in the U.S.
  • 09:55 | Racial disparities in abortion
  • 11:44 | Can the fetus feel pain?
  • 14:57 | The Silent Scream
  • 18:44 | The legal future of abortion
  • 21:20 | Arguments for Roe v. Wade from evolutionary biology

Additional Resources

Podcast Transcript Download

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Do Babies Really Feel Pain Before They Are Self-Aware?