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Reconsidering fetal pain
  1. Stuart WG Derbyshire1,
  2. John C Bockmann2
  1. 1 Psychology and NUS Clinical Imaging Research Centre, National University of Singapore, Singapore
  2. 2 Conner Troop Medical Clinic, Fort Drum, New York, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Stuart WG Derbyshire, Psychology, National University of Singapore, Singapore; psydswg{at}


Fetal pain has long been a contentious issue, in large part because fetal pain is often cited as a reason to restrict access to termination of pregnancy or abortion. We have divergent views regarding the morality of abortion, but have come together to address the evidence for fetal pain. Most reports on the possibility of fetal pain have focused on developmental neuroscience. Reports often suggest that the cortex and intact thalamocortical tracts are necessary for pain experience. Given that the cortex only becomes functional and the tracts only develop after 24 weeks, many reports rule out fetal pain until the final trimester. Here, more recent evidence calling into question the necessity of the cortex for pain and demonstrating functional thalamic connectivity into the subplate is used to argue that the neuroscience cannot definitively rule out fetal pain before 24 weeks. We consider the possibility that the mere experience of pain, without the capacity for self reflection, is morally significant. We believe that fetal pain does not have to be equivalent to a mature adult human experience to matter morally, and so fetal pain might be considered as part of a humane approach to abortion.

  • Abortion
  • nociception
  • consciousness
  • pregnancy
  • reproductive ethics

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  • Twitter @painfulgains, @BockmannJohn

  • Contributors SWGD and JCB both conceived the content and discussed the material over several years. SWGD wrote the first draft and JCB provided edits and further input.

  • Funding The authors have not declared a specific grant for this research from any funding agency in the public, commercial or not-for-profit sectors.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Patient consent for publication Not required.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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