April 8, 2011 — As at least 16 states have proposed bans on abortion later in pregnancy based on the theory that a fetus can feel pain after 20 weeks gestation, and the debate has "ignited powerful emotions" on both sides of the issue, Reuters reports.
Medical opinion about when a fetus can feel pain differs. The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says that there is "no legitimate scientific information that supports the statement that a fetus experiences pain," according to Reuters. The group notes that certain brain and neurological developments, such as neurotransmitted hormones, must be in place to perceive pain. Animal studies have shown that these hormones develop in the third trimester.
Many antiabortion-rights activists point to research by Kanwaljeet Anand -- a professor of pediatrics, anesthesiology, anatomy and neurobiology at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center -- that suggests fetuses can feel pain at different stages of development. Anand said that "the consensus opinion seems to be in favor of the fact that fetuses do perceive pain" because prenatal surgeries routinely are done with anesthetic. According to Anand, pain perception in fetuses is more of a "dimmer switch" -- rather than an on/off switch -- with the perception of pain developing gradually. He said that 20 weeks is "a safe bet" for when fetal pain perception begins.
However, Anand said he is "very uncomfortable" that his research is being used to restrict access to abortion services because "every situation is unique" and fetal pain can be prevented through anesthetic or by clamping the umbilical cord during an abortion.
The bills, which are being promoted by the National Right to Life Committee, stand a good chance of becoming law in several states because of the influx of Republicans in state governments. According to the Guttmacher Institute, 1.5% of all abortions are performed after 21 weeks gestation (Wisniewski, Reuters, 4/6).