What People Get Right — And Wrong — About When Fetuses Feel Pain

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pregnant woman in doctor's office

The much-disputed notion that fetuses can feel pain during abortions rears its head over and over during debates on reproductive rights and the right to choose.

It has been the basis of proposed laws that would ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy and in attempts to overturn Roe v. Wade’s established 24-week cut-off.

Fetal pain perception, or misperception, is often peddled out by anti-choice campaigners as a means of deterring people from abortion.

But scientific conclusions about when a fetus can feel pain may be different from the information you receive from legislators and activists.

And given how often the facts surrounding abortion are quashed in favor of feelings, this biological fact and its place in debates on reproductive rights is not something we should be getting wrong.

When do fetuses feel pain?

In 2016, a law was passed in Utah requiring people seeking abortions after 20 weeks to be placed under anesthesia. Gov. Gary Herbert expressed that the intention for the law was to minimize the pain felt not by the pregnant person undergoing the procedure, but by their fetuses.

The notion that fetuses feel pain at 20 weeks is an often-cited, yet scientifically dubious, claim.

Science appears to show that fetuses are incapable of feeling pain until at least the third trimester, which begins after 27 weeks of pregnancy.

RELATED: What It Really Feels Like To Have An Abortion

There are some caveats to this research.

Ultimately, pain is subjective and typically relies on self-reporting, even in medical practice. There is no definitive way to measure pain, and of course, a fetus cannot report.

However, we do know that the nervous system, which is responsible for how we feel and process pain, is not developed until the third trimester — making it unlikely that a fetus can feel pain before this point.

Still it should be noted that, as the nervous system is still in development prior to the 27-week mark, some research does suggest fetuses might feel pain at 24 weeks.

Why do people get the facts about fetal pain perception wrong?

The 20-week myth comes largely from research by Dr. Kanwaljeet “Sunny” Anand which is a go-to source for anti-abortion groups.

A 2005 paper reviewed a range of medical papers and largely debunked Anand’s research, concluding that there is little evidence to support the 20-week conclusion.

The study found that fetuses start developing the biological pathways related to pain sensation at this stage of gestation, but there is not enough evidence to suggest that they can actually experience pain in the way we understand it.

RELATED: 12 Thoughts I Had While I Was Getting An Abortion

Why do so many people believe that fetuses feel pain by 20-weeks?

One 2021 survey concluded that anti-choice participants were much more likely to believe this misinformation than pro-choice participants.

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Also, nearly 80% of female participants believe that a fetus can perceive pain prior to the third trimester, compared to just 56% of males.

This disparity is possibly due to anti-choice disinformation campaigns which target women and seek to exaggerate the impacts of medical abortion.

Anti-choice charities and organizations have been known to create targeted campaigns to peddle misinformation to women searching for abortion information online. These campaigns seek to offer inaccuracies that dissuade women from choosing abortion.

Advertising agencies have even admitted using location surveillance to spread anti-choice propaganda to women’s phones while they’re sitting in the waiting rooms of abortion clinics.

The importance of fact is often lost in the moral and ethical arguments around abortion, aided by these kinds of campaigns.

Fetal pain perception may or may not alter a person’s perspective on abortion and their choice to terminate their pregnancy, but we at least owe women access to the available facts when we attempt to infringe on their right to choose.

RELATED: I'm Pro-Life And Don't Deserve To Be Shamed For My Beliefs

Alice Kelly is a writer living in Brooklyn, New York. Catch her covering all things social justice, news, and entertainment. Keep up with her Twitter for more.